Reflections on conversations in Perth: part 2

By Rewi Lyall

The other big conversation point in my visit to Perth last Christmas concerned variations about nationalism in Australia.

One of my friends was decrying the lack of a national identity in Australia, or at least an identity with which he could identify. Comparing it to many, if not all, of the nations from which migrant families come to Australia, he considered the cultural identity of Australians to be impoverished. With no really identifiable national dress, or music, or even community cohesion, he considered Australia to be in a state of quiet yet sustained anxiety.

This, he thought, might explain why there is an increasingly yobbish aspect to nationalism in Australia: insecurity. (As an aside, a couple of my friends were speculating this week as to how it is that ‘Aussie larrikin’ has become ‘Aussie yobbo’. No firm answers have yet been forthcoming).

However, other friends think that, to the extent that nationalism was promoted and advanced over the previous decade, increasingly Australians are suspicious of and repulsed by overt nationalism. Compare this with the observations of another friend, who recalled Australia Day last year, at which a group of young men stood-over passers by and required them to kiss their copy of the Australian flag.

I confess to being slightly puzzled by the notion of ‘national pride’. I’m not sure how or if a ‘nation’ ever achieves anything. Certainly, people residing within the borders of a nation achieve things, either individually or collectively, but what does a nation coherently and collectively achieve?

In addition, it strikes me that nationalism is as much about exclusion as it is about coherence, perhaps even more so. The idea of a ‘nation’ isn’t so different from any other form of exclusivity, it’s just a matter of scale and the nature of the exclusion/inclusion that occurs. Arguably, ‘patriotism’, a word used by some to distinguish their national pride from the more pejorative ‘nationalism’, sustains this exclusivity: ‘patriotism’ is still to a nation, which must still be exclusive.

Is it nationalism or patriotism that leads people to get tattoos of the Southern Cross on various parts of their bodies? What do these tattoos represent to the people who get them? There is no question that there is an increasing prevalence of such tattoos across Australia.

I, for one, am not particularly concerned if (and I think this is a matter of some dispute in any case) there is a paucity of national identity in Australia. I’m not convinced that nationalism is something worth advancing, and surely ‘national identity’ and ‘nationalism’ must go hand in hand.

Even if the only options are a choice between aggressive nationalism and cultural anxiety, I’ll take the latter. Surely, though, there are other options. I know plenty of people who are quite content in Australia without missing any specific national cultural identifiers. Indeed, many openly reject those identifiers that have been given increased attention over the past ten years. They feel no inferiority for a lack of these symbols, nor are they intimidated by the strength of the cultural reference points of Australia’s migrant communities. Indeed, they celebrate this diversity.

If Australia were to remain or become less than a cohesive hybrid community and more a peacefully coexisting collection of communities, would this really detract from our status as a ‘nation’?

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