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Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Australia Day, Race, And Arguments From Non-Existence

It's Australia Day tomorrow, and the usual arguments about nationalism, the plight of the First Nations, racism, multiculturalism, and so on, are starting to warm up. I think we're all too familiar with the arguments on all sides of this often toxic and rarely productive area of discourse. Don't get me wrong - I'm not one of the Barnaby/Abbott brigade. I think it's not only appropriate but desirable, on a day meant to celebrate nationhood, to think about and discuss exactly what it means to be Australian. And I think that no such conversation can possibly be complete without considering both the miraculous prosperity of our weird little colonial project in the middle of nowhere, the horrific cost to some at which this prosperity was purchased, and everything in between.

But it's in the area of 'Australian-hood' where I think some better and clearer thinking can and should be applied. I believe that one of the reasons so many of these discussions are either distasteful or uncontrollably acrimonious is because they start from the hazy starting point of a purely instinctive and unipolar idea of nationhood. While the exact constituent elements of the concept of nationhood are debatable, it's probably not too controversial to say that the most common understanding of the term includes elements of culture, political/legal constructs, geography, and identity. Where discussions of Australian nationhood tend to spin out of control is in the areas of culture and identity.

I would argue that the vast majority of people tend to conflate individual with national or cultural identity. This is both natural and (usually) benign, but where nationalism comes into play the effects can be decidedly toxic. When we fail to distinguish the broad national ethno-cultural picture from our own culture and ethnicity, then change, dominance/growth/attrition of one sub-group or another, or any questioning or assertion of the broader national culture is perceived as a personal, existential threat to identity. A prime example of this confused and confusing kind of thinking is Pauline Hanson's inability to understand changes in Australian demographics as a phenomenon distinct from the survival of her own individual identity. What this generally creates is a furious argument over the protection or destruction of a weird national/personal hybrid territory which does not actually exist in any meaningful way.

Added to this is the vexed question of cultural memory. Australia is still very much in its formative stages, and is therefore replete with aggressively propagated myths of origin and character. I personally find that the school of thought which suggests that inherited cultural values and memory are compelling because of the fact of their being inherited is one which resonates with my own individual experience. For both native and immigrant Australians, the embrace of shared cultural memories definitive of national identity is practically universal, and these memories end up forming a major pillar of both our private and corporate identities, and one which we will all fiercely and instinctively defend. Where many problems arise is when these inherited cultural memories are not shared by all. The cultural memories of many Indigenous Australians and, to a significantly lesser extent, recent immigrants, are still very much alien to the predominant pillars of Australian cultural memory. Invasion, The Stolen Generation, White Australia, and other less than edifying episodes in our past are often aggressively excluded by defenders of conservative views of our nation from celebrations or commemorations of our nationhood.

This isn't just a matter of national conscience, to be dismissed as self flagellating black armband thinking - it speaks to the actual fabric of the nation. I agree with Bernard Yak's assessment of nationalism, where he proposes that a major part of being a nation is the "territorialisation of memory". Mnemo-narratives like Gallipoli or The Gold Rush are cut off from their global context and annexed as the sovereign culturo-historical property of Australia. The result of this is that a particular set of inherited or shared cultural memories can then be taken to define who is and isn't Australian. Where serious problems arise is when any attempt is made to exclude valid cultural memories from this sovereign mnemo-territory - such an act is, in effect, an attempt to culturally deport those who hold and value those memories. A good but extreme example of this is Germany's decades long endeavour to excise fascism from the current identity matrix of what it is to be German.

For us, it seems that there is a tendency to attempt a similar act of deportation around issues of race and Colonialism. And upon examining the (usually conservative) arguments for doing so, it becomes apparent that there is no better justification for this than a desire to put a stop to the uncomfortable feelings this raises amongst those who, like Pauline Hanson, are either unable or unwilling to disambiguate the nexus of national culture and personal identity. I'd argue that in order to sustain and build on the unusually successful pluralism we have already built, we all need to establish more firmly in our minds what it means to be an Australian. Nuanced, non-binary, and most importantly, inclusive models for building shared and inherited memories and values need to be built at an individual as well as an institutional level.

Change the date, or don't - the issue isn't, in absolute terms, all that important. But as a young nation, still consciously in control of building our national identity, we have absolutely no excuse for weaving intellectually muddled, mendacious, and cowardly lies of omission into our DNA merely in order to spare some of our feelings.

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