In the grandly entitled “The Author Speaks: On Understanding Historical Figures” Aidan Phelan writes about the so called “Ned Kelly – hero or villain?” argument and returns to two pet themes of his, the first of which is that all human beings, Ned Kelly included, are ‘nuanced complex and multi-facetted’. There is absolutely nothing new in that idea, its self-evident and universally accepted and despite what Phelan seems to think, no Kelly writer of any sort has ever tried to suggest otherwise.
His second pet theme is that anyone engaging in the Hero or Villain argument and who tries to label Kelly in some way, and particularly as a villain, is doing it in bad faith. He says that when people argue that Ned Kelly was a villain their argument is motivated by preconceived ‘values’ and “has little to do with understanding history or human nature”. What an insulting and disrespectful claim to make about Kelly authors , that their motivation is nothing to do with wanting to understand history or human nature. Oh really? How the hell would he know?
But first some thoughts about labels.
The word ‘villain’ is indeed a label, but labels exist for a reason: they are tools which assist discussion, analysis and communication about something. Labelling someone generous, or elderly, or unfit for example, immediately tells us quite a lot about that person but nobody would ever say that now everything we could possibly know about this person is known. Likewise calling Kelly a villain has never been intended to imply that’s all he is, that villain encapsulates every aspect of his character and personality and all he ever was. But try having a discussion without using labels and see how far you get: communication is almost impossible. I defy Aidan Phelan to conduct a conversation about Ned Kelly, or anyone else, or any THING else for that matter without using labels. Calling Ned Kelly Australian, or of Irish descent or handsome… these are all labels. Is Phelan going to object to them as well? Phelans argument about labels is absurd.
Admonishing anyone who would try to label Kelly and put him in a pigeonhole labelled “Hero” or “Villain”, Phelan complains that “For myself, I find it frustratingly simplistic to consider a person as wholly one thing or another, as if they were a comic book character” Well, it may be a problem for Phelan, but nobody actually does this with Ned Kelly. Where is the commentary that claims Ned Kelly was a unidimensional cartoon character? I certainly have never claimed it, or seen it.
Phelans entire argument is thus seen as completely wrong footed: nobody ever said Kelly was not a nuanced complex multifaceted human being like every other human being on the planet, and nobody has ever contended that the label ‘Villain” when applied to Kelly was supposed to suggest that’s all Kelly ever was. Phelans ‘argument’ is actually a perfect example of a ‘straw man’ argument, where an argument is advanced against a proposition thats entirely fake, and set up in such a way, like a straw man, that its a piece of cake to knock it over. Kelly sympathisers, notorious for their inability to think critically when it comes to anything to do with their idol, Ned Kelly, are impressed by it, but its a match designed to make someone look good, and the straw man was always going to be a pushover.
So why is there a ‘Hero or villain’ question in the first place?
The important point to be made about that question is that its not a question that’s ever been asked by non-sympathisers. Non-sympathisers have no need to ask that question because the issue of Ned Kellys character is settled. The only people who ask that question are Sympathisers, and they ask it because they don’t want to accept the bleeding obvious that Ned Kelly was a crook. They are in denial about Kellys character, and in desperation to find a way to justify their denial , have devised this cute hero or villain conundrum as if it’s a sensible question. To uninformed Australians, the purpose of the question is to have them thinking its possible Kelly might have been a hero. Asking it carries the implication that Kelly could be a hero after all but to anyone familiar with the facts – and thats not most Australians – it’s as sensible a question as ‘Planet earth: round or flat?’ or “The moon landings : real or faked?”
However, its very clear when they ask that question, the only answer they want to hear is “Hero”. Try to advance the alternative and you’re quickly going to be vilified and attacked by rabid Kelly mobsters, and kicked out of any Forum or Facebook page they control. This response exposes sympathisers as not genuinely interested in debate, and their question “Hero or Villain?” as no more than a cynical debating tactic. The point of their question is not to begin a discussion and have a genuine debate and come to a conclusion but to give an impression that the question itself has validity, that a genuine debate can be had and that ‘Hero’ is as likely to be the answer as ‘Villain’. The strategy is to elevate the unlikely status of Kelly being a hero onto the same footing as the much more likely status of his being a villain. But this is a false equivalence. Hero and villain are not in the least equally likely valid results of an investigation into the man.
So let’s be honest about this: all that Phelan and the sympathiser mob really object to is Kelly being labelled a villain, and this hero or Villain thing is one of the ways they try to stop that label being applied to him. Has Phelan or anyone else in the Kelly camp ever raised even the slightest objection to Kelly being put in a pigeon hole labelled hero, or icon? Has he or anyone else in the Kelly camp ever raised even the slightest objection to Kelly being labelled magnificent or courageous or admirable, or even handsome? No of course not – yet all these adjectives are ‘pigeon holes’ no more nor less a ‘box’ than ‘villain’. If Phelan and Perry and the rest of the sympathiser mob do truly believe nobody should be labelled, and everything is ‘shades of grey’ why have they not objected to the labelling of Fitzpatrick as a “womaniser” or Standish or other police as corrupt, as worse than criminals? Why have they never objected to the vilification of Judge Redmond Barry? Where are the declarations and sympathetic expressions of the fact that all these other players are also nuanced complex and multifaceted human beings? And why, if that’s what he truly believes has Phelan himself publically labelled Bill Denheld a criminal and a vandal? Phelans argument is thus proved bogus – he doesn’t really mind what pigeon hole or box you put people in, he does it himself and has never objected to anyone else being placed in one: his only objection is to anyone putting Kelly in one labelled “Villain” and he pretends in this essay that his objection arises out of an ethical principle about labelling people.
Phelan also writes, in furtherance of this “Though he was found guilty of murder in 1880, Ned Kelly has been on trial in the court of public opinion continuously since 1870. The jury is still out.” But this is also, in the same way, a mischaracterisation of what’s been happening. The jury is NOT out – they made their decision in October 1880, and the entire colony supported it. What’s been happening is that a few people have simply refused to accept the jurys decision on the case, and they are trying to create a false belief in people that the debate is ongoing – well, no its not : Kelly was tried and found guilty of murder and hanged. That should have been the end of that particular chapter of colonial violence and criminality.
But no, the agendas and self-interest of family, of writers and story-tellers like Jones, of hero worshippers, newspaper sellers and other rent-seekers and in particular the sellers of tourist merchandise have collectively promoted an entirely fake version of the outbreak, and stand it next to the historical reality and claim these are two equally valid possible explanations of the Outbreak. Its the same tactic used by creationsists when they pose their Evolution vs Creation question : asking a question in the hope that people will think theres a rational basis to asking it. Their tactic of claiming there is still an ongoing debate between science and creationism is entirely false, as is the idea that there is an ongoing debate about whether or not Kelly was a Hero. There isn’t. Its settled.
Phelan finally asks “……surely we can come up with an understanding of the man that goes beyond childish ideas of “goodies and baddies”? “
Well, actually Aidan we have – the problem is your mob don’t like it, and your tactic of pretending its about “childish ideas of goodies and baddies” is wrong and part of your denial.
There is no debate: Kelly was a complex individual like all of us, and yes Aidan he probably had a favourite colour. But of all the many facets that coalesced into Kellys personality, by the time of the Outbreak the elephant in the room was his criminality, his hatred of police, his willingness to lie and deny, and of course his gradual decent into extreme remorseless violence.
Calling someone like that a villain has never been intended to explain everything about him or deny that he wasn’t also a nuanced complex multifaceted human: but its simply the most succinct way to describe what he became.