Does Australia need a national identity?
For various reasons, a national identity has become a problematic subject for most western countries. One reason is that an influx of migrants has caused citizens to question the appropriateness of asserting a national character that migrants are not in conformity with. A second reason is that the internet has facilitated the flow of ideas so that likeminded subcultures based on music, religions, TV shows, cooking, and politics now operate in various countries around the world. These subcultures provide a more meaningful sense of belonging than that provided by vague concepts of a national character. Furthermore, many citizens realise they often share more in common with some people from different countries than they do with their own.
For the west, the erosion of national identities has not come without cost. Specifically, a national identity influences the motivation of individuals to support the ambitions of their compatriots. For example, most sports-loving Australians have a strong desire to see their compatriots achieve. Consequently, they support their tax dollars being spent to fund training programs. Furthermore, they pay money to enter stadiums where they can cheer encouragement. If individuals lacked affinity with other people from their country, then they would not have any desire to support anyone except themselves.
Aside from decreasing the motivation to help each other, the lack of an identity potentially contributes to alienation and poor psychological health. According to John Ralston Saul,
If individuals can not conceive of a community identity, then they cannot conceive of a role to play in a community. The outcome may be depression or suicide.
Finally, a strong national identity can facilitate fast social evolution in order to adapt to social problems that may arise. This was recognised by author Donald Horne in 1964, who wrote:
While Australia has a relatively weak national identity, it has a relatively strong transnational identity that champions values that are in relative conformity with dominant values of Europe and America. These values were outlined in the 2014 study guide for the Australian citizenship test. Among other things, the study guide stated that, under Australian law, the power of the government comes from the Australian people, that social change should come about via non-violent means and that people are free to act however they want provided they do not break Australian laws. The guide also stated that Australian laws protect freedom of expression (provided that the expression does not harm others), freedom of association, and secularism so that the rules of law prevail over the rules of religion. Finally, the guide stated that Australian laws ensure that people are not treated differently on the basis of race, age or gender.
Although laws do not always reflect community values, there is no political party with a seat in parliament that would publicly state their lack of support for the laws. By inference, it could be concluded that the majority of Australians have an identity in support of the values that underpin the laws. As similar laws exist in Europe and North America, it could be inferred that most Europeans and North Americans also have an identity in support.
Ironically, even though the values are enshrined in law and completely dominate the social life western countries, many people holding the values are troubled by the application of the values to people that they don’t feel are part of their culture. As a result, they have developed a kind of post-modern identity based on racial heritage that shapes when the values are applied. For example, if a person were to say, “As a Muslim, I don’t believe in gender equality, secularism or democracy”, then most western post-modernists would accept the opinion in the name of tolerance. However, if a person without a stated or implied social identification (Eg, a white westerner) were to say, “ I don’t believe in gender equality, secularism or democracy”, then the individual would likely be denounced without even being given the opportunity to justify their reasons for being different.
In Australia, the bias towards the group over the individual is in turn reflected in law. In almost all Australian states and territories, it is illegal to vilify someone on the basis of the groups they chose to identify with or which they can't escape. Consequently, legal protection exists for any opinion that can be preceded with the words, “As a (insert group)…” However, no protection exists for the individual who wants to think for him or herself and states their opinion without claiming to speak for a group. At best, there is only an implied right to free speech in order to cast a vote in the democratic process.
Although reserving criticism only for "westerners" and individuals has been done in the aim of being non racist, one of the unfortunate side effects is that it has created a post-modern identity closely aligned with race, and in particular, Caucasians of European descent. By making exceptions for non-Christians and non-whites, the post-modernists are basically saying non-Christians and non-whites are not of the culture. Not only is this leading to a fracturing in western societies along racial lines, but it is also abandoning the individuals from non-western backgrounds who don't want to be bound by ethnic cultural membership. Furthermore, it is eroding support for the transnational western identity in a way that makes it difficult for people to think the west has anything worth respecting.
Different countries have reacted to the erosion of national identities and the western identity in different ways. France has taken an assimilationist position towards migrants. For example, Muslim veils have been banned in schools and the burqa (complete face covering) has been banned outright. Furthermore, to prevent any linking between race and culture, the French census does not ask citizens to declare their race - the implication being that all citizens are French. Despite its noble intentions, France has suffered significant ethnic riots as well as race-based nationalistic movements wanting to rid France of its ethnics. In other words, despite the public declarations that everyone is French and equal, different groups see their role in French society in very different ways. Furthermore, treating all groups with equality has also proved problematic when not all groups behave equally. For example, in 2015 the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was the subject of a terrorist attack because it subjected Muslims to the same ridicule that it subjected other groups.
Unlike the French, the British have taken the more extreme post-modernist approach to a national identity. In short, they promote the idea that all cultures are different but equal. While nice in spirit, in practice, the theory advocates apathy in the face of offensive conduct and an inconsistent application of social liberalism. For British literary theorist Terry Eagleton, post-modernist theory is defective because it basically proposes that intolerant cultures must be tolerated. Similar ideas have been argued by Gunther Kress, a professor at the University of London. In Reimagining English: Curriculum, Identity and Productive Futures, Kress wrote:
Both men have rejected post-modernism because it has denied them the right to speak while defending the right of those they oppose to speak. Religious minorities in Britain have linked the rise in extremism to a lack of a national identity to hold onto, or to bind different cultures together. For example, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, wrote:
Sweden, often seen as a model of democractic consensus culture, has also found some difficulties in reconciling the need for a national identity with the identities of subcultures that do not think the same way. This has seen the rise of the term "unSwedish", which is used to represent social conduct that is not deemed to be Swedish and therefore not belonging in Sweden. While some Swedes use the term as an insult, others have embraced the insult as a term of endearment and a mark of their cosmopolitan personality. According to Daniel Lampien, a Swedish blogger:
The German government has tried to integrate migrants by working hard to ensure that the German people do not have supremacist attitudes towards the migrants. Mindful of what happened in World War 2, the German government has refrained from supporting displays of nationalism that could cause history to repeat. According to Oliver Marc Hartwich, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies,
Ironically, the lack of national pride might be replicating the conditions in Germany after World War 1, where low national esteem fuelled movements in favour of Hitler. Additionally, migrants have found little reason to embrace anything but the welfare system of their new homeland because there have been few positive stories being told about Germany. According to Hartwich,
The American approach to identity seems to have been born in the revolution against British rule. It revolves around an ambiguously defined notion of freedom that all Americans must ironically conform to by saluting the flag and singing the National Anthem.
Although there seems to have been an attempt to specifically define the identity via a Bill of Rights and symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, on the whole, there isn’t total agreement about what America is actually about. This lack of agreement can be partly attributed to the American Presidential system that compels each candidate to create a vision of America based on their personal story. For example, in the rein of Abraham Lincoln, America was about going to war against the south to ensure the doctrine of equality included black Americans. In the rein of George Bush Jr, America was about going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan to liberate the oppressed in Islamic countries. In the rein of Barrack Obama, America was about all races having equality of opportunity.
Ironically, America’s democratic system doesn’t really allow diverse conceptions of the American to go unchallenged. To gain power, presidential candidates must keep promoting their own conception of America, and undermining alternatives. Admittedly, each presidential candidate needs to kept anchoring his or her personal story in the stories of the founding fathers, which ensures all presidential candidates need to champion some kind of battle, overcoming individual hardships, a belief in god. Furthermore, they need to demonstrate their hopes for the future prosperity of America. In that regard, aspects of a unified American identity based on history are re-imagined by each generation.
Aside from the presidential system necessitating that the American identity keep being re-imagined, Americans have struggled with identity because the core values of the past are not so easy to uphold across time when circumstances are vastly different. For example, America is in the habit of leading interventions into foreign wars that doesn’t necessarily leave the foreign people better off. Likewise, ideals about lifting a lamp to the homeless and tempest-tossed were much easier to celebrate when the country still wanted migrants and wasn’t suffering a huge strain on its resources. Finally, the right to bear firearms often infringes on the rights of innocent people not to be killed by those firearms.
An additional problem for Americans is that their government’s foreign policy since World War 2 has often compromised American values and eroded the status of them after failing to realise its objectives. Specifically, the Korean War is America's only military intervention since World War 2 that has resulted in a society basically aligned with western social liberalism. On the other hand, military interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya resulted in societies completely alien to the type of values that Americans celebrate. Not only have the military failures undermined the American identity, perhaps they have also eroded the status associated with western social liberalism across the globe.
Although Australia's identity struggle shares some commonalities with those Europe and America, it has some significant differences. Specifically, European countries have defined identities. Their chief dilemma is whether they should assert them. For example, it is possible to define the character of a refined Brit, refined German, refined Italian or refined Frenchman. It is basically a person from the country who exhibits the "typical" traits in a manner that commands the respect of others. Unlike in the European countries, in Australia, the identity is not defined and it certainly isn’t possible to speak of a refined Australian. A "stereotypical" Australian is possible, but not an Australian that could be defined as aspirational for the majority of the population. Each year, the government tries to create the aspirational model with the Australian-of-the-Year award, but their winners usually have far more critics than supporters.
Australia is also different from America because Australia lacks a presidential system in which a conception of a national identity can be promoted. Even if there were presidential elections, Australia doesn’t have the glorious founding event, such as a rebellion against the British or protest tea party, to anchor the personal story around.
In the absence of any historical or presidential-led role models, the Australian identity had largely been filled by a minorty subculture. Just as a termite mound is a king on a flat landscape, identities that have been defined as 'bushman', 'yobbo', 'larrikin' and 'bogan' have tended to have a monopoly on what it means to be an Australian. They might only comprise 10% of the population, but they perhaps comprise 90% of the imagery used to describe the Australian stereotype because they simply have little competition.
These identities have often been in conflict with the post-modern western identity, which dominates within Australian institutions and is probably the most numerical of all Australian identities. The post-modern western identity tends to be filled by people of European descent that don't identify with a particular culture or wave any national flag with pride. In many ways, their identity can be likened to a prison warden in that they see themselves as those who are in control but they are not part of the prison population. Examples of the identity at work include Anglo commentator Catherine Deveny, who said:
Likewise, white cartoonist Andrew Weldon created a "funny" comic strip proposing that Australian traditions involve generalising, deindividualising, stereotyping, distrusting, being prejudiced, and making assumptions in the name of humour. Ironically, his humour was based on prejudice, generalising, de-individualisation and stereotyping so in a way, his work demonstrated his possession of the Australian characteristics he sought to distance himself from by negatively caricaturing others. Furthermore, since all his Australians were white, he was demonstrating a belief that the Australian is white.
It would be fair to say that those who identify as Australian and those who can be defined as post-modern westerners really don’t have much of an affinity for one another. In that regard, the concept of a celebrated Australian identity is somewhat obsolete and detached from reality.
Benefits of a weak national identity
Although a national identity has its benefits, so does a lack of a national identity. Firstly, the absence of a defined identity to conform to allows opportuities for individuals to discover themselves rather than be told who they are. Furthermore, while nations with strong national identitieswallows in fear of cultural loss as a result of globalisation, countries with weak national identities can assimilate foreign ideas and become stronger in the process. As Charles Darwin once noted:
Unfortunately, while the post-modern western identity is rarely defined or even acknowledged, it is the dominant Australian identity and it exerts significant conformity pressure upon individual Australians. The question is whether it is an identity worth holding on to. Considering that it amounts to little more than white people creating negative caricatures of white Australians and subsequently applying it onto non-conformist individuals, then perhaps the answer is no.
Does Australia need a national identity?
Consider how perceptions of an Australian identity may be influential in the following circumstances
What is the dominant culture?
Anglo social commentator Catherine Deveny stated:
Timeline of the Australian identity
Aboriginal tribal identities were based around an animal or plant totem. Each Aboriginal person believed they had three forms which gave them a continuous life form. The totem was the form after human and then to spirit. As the cycle continued, so did the Aboriginal cultures.
There was no concept of an Aboriginal identity or Australia as one land. Each tribe was very much its own unit and reserved hostility to other tribes. This hostility to an outgroup helped maintain a strong ingroup identity.
Because Aboriginal identities were not defined along racial lines, there was more hostility between different Aboriginal tribes that there was towards the colonists that arrived in 1788. Furthermore, the prestige of the tribe was not defined according to land ownership, but according to the number of people in a tribe. For this reason, the tribe was both open to new inductees, but also intent on destroying all rivals.
-Paintings, customs, songs, myths, stories
After gaining their ticket of leave, Convicts started referring to themselves as Legitimates. Their thinking was that since they had been "chosen" by the finest judges in England, they were of the few Europeans with a legitimate reason to be in Australia. Later they referred to themselves as Emancipists because it implied they had attained liberty and strove for the liberty of others. The Legitimate/Emancipist identity was maintained with hostility to the Exclusives.
Expression - Songs, flash language, tattoos, convict women mooning wowsers or 'exposing her person.'
Note - Identity not defined along racial lines. As a consequence, hostility to Exclusives was far greater than any hostility to Aboriginal tribes.
The Exclusives were free British settlers, or military officers who had left the service. The Exclusives advocated confining all offices and civic honours to Emigrants with the total exclusion of Emancipists and their offspring.
The Exclusives were extremely pro-British and maintained their identity with a strong hostility to the Legitimates/Emancipists.
Expression - English flag, English clothes, formal English speech
Note - The Exclusives saw the Aborigines as 'noble savages.' Their thinking was that Aborigines were without sin as they have never learnt it. For this reason, they wanted to prevent Aborigines mixing with Convicts.
1800 – 1850 – Convicts have children
The Native Born - Currency lads and lasses
The first native born in Australia were taunted as the 'wretched' and the lowest class because their parents had been Convicts. This discrimination was institutionalised when it came to the distribution of land grants. Whereas free immigrants were frequently given grants running in thousands of acres, the native born of Convict stock were only allowed sixty acres.
The bush pioneer became the icon for the native born. Out in the bush, no laws ran and people were free to sing folk songs or live in equality. There was no room for elitism because people on the land needed to rely upon one another in the tough conditions. The identity was maintained with hostility to English immigrants and authority figures.
Expression - Bushranger songs, bush poetry
Ballad of Ben Hall
As the colony expanded out from Sydney, the Europeans came into conflict with Aborigines over land. Although tribal identities remained, the Europeans started to take the place of rival tribes as the principle enemy.
Although there was hostility, there was also friendship. Some Aborigines left their tribes and formed good relations with the native born. They worked as droving hands and sang songs with the other drovers. Aside from being admired for their lyrical ability, they were admired for their bush skills. In a sense, their knowledge of the land had them admired as the protypical bushman. Reflecting the admiration for the Aborigines is the use of Aboriginal place names for rural Australia.
1850 - 1900 The gold rush years
The Digger (Miner)
In 1853, the discovery of gold sparked massive waves of immigration. Miners from all over the world descended upon Australia and brought with them ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Although they valued self-reliance, independence and resourcefulness, they were also fiercely loyal to their mates.
Egalitarian sentiments were solidified with a dislike of the ruling colonial authorities that were deemed to be corrupt and elitist. This gave rise to a union movement. As the authorities tried to break unions via the importation of Chinese labour, the Chinese became another enemy to solidify the Digger's identity.
Expression - Eureka Stockade Flag. No songs were written to glorify the Eureka Stockade.
At the height of the gold rush, there were up to 100,000 Chinese people in Australia. Chinese newspapers of the time depicted the Chinese as hardworking and the other miners as lazy. Although such stories may have indeed been a reflection upon how the Chinese saw themselves, they may have also been a form of propaganda designed to persuade the Chinese not to complain about being exploited by mining companies.
When the Chinese weren't working for a company, they worked together in teams. It was said that they were very efficient at extracting gold and often went to the mine sites deserted by other Diggers, and found gold that had been missed. This was said to have infuriated the other miners.
Although most of the Chinese returned to China, some stayed and established businesses. Unlike most expat Chinese populations around the world, these Chinese seem to have integrated into the other emerging Australian identities.
Expression - Newspaper articles calling other miners lazy.
The Wowser (activist)
By the turn of the century, the anti-transportation activists of the 1850s had evolved into anti-Chinese activists. The wowsers were very loyal to the English empire and saw themselves as British rather than Australians.
Expression - Protest marches and posters likening the 'yellow peril' with Convicts.
Capitalist and outcasts
Words of racial superiority probably did not wash with any Australian of mixed blood or those descedended from Convicts. To the contrary, the stigmisation of the Chinese probably fostered a sense of empathy. The Kelly Gang seemed to be one such group that had time for the Chinese. They were rumoured to have been helped by Chinese (although this might have been propaganda to win the public relations war against the gang.) One member of the gang, Joe Byrne, definately was on good terms because he could speak fluent Cantonese.
Some sections of the business community could also see the positive side of the Chinese. Perhaps due to the language barrier, they were less likely to join the union movement, and so allowed businesses to pay low wages.
Federated nation – 1900- 1950
The pioneer continued on the bush tradition laid by the previous generations.
Expression - Paintings by the likes of Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Poetry by Banjo Pattern and Henry Lawson.
The Digger had his baptism of fire in the Gallipoli campaign. Rather than hate the enemy, the Diggers seemed to hate the English. The Poms were seen as filthy cowards whose incompetence had resulted in the loss of life of countless Australians.
Perhaps the dislike of Poms made the Diggers better soldiers. It seems as if they felt that they had to prove their superiority over the English on the battlefield.
Expression - War poetry, Anzac Day, courage on the battlefield
The Wowser (Englishman)
Once the threat of Convicts and Chinese had ended, the Wowsers found themselves somewhat aimless. Some directed their attention to campaigning against frivolous pastimes like gambling and drinking. Others found it immoral for people to jump into the ocean wearing small bathing suits.
With a dislike of these great Australian pastimes, the Wowsers remained obsessive in their support for English values, and moral empowerment.
1950 - 2000- The larrikins, post-modernists
The Aboriginal Victim
By the end of World War II, Aboriginal tribal identities had eroded to the extent that white people stopped seeing differences between Aboriginal tribes and instead began viewing them as a homogenous out-group. Names for individual tribes faded away and instead Aborigines, the generic word for an indigenous population, came into use by default.
Aborigines also stopped thinking in cultural terms and instead began to think of themselves in racial terms. Blacks were part of their in-group while all whites were the out-group invaders. Asians were in an undefined category.
Many Aborigines developed a strong identification with black power movements from America. They assimilated rap music, and the baggy style of clothes. Oddly, many Aborigines became Rastarian; except they dropped the green from the colour coding. (Rastafarism is a pseudo-Christian based religion developed by the descendents of slaves wanting to show pride in their African heritage. Its name comes from Prince Rastafari of Ethiopia. It is not possible to be Rastarian without African heritage.)
Perhaps assessments of Aborigines also went downhill in mainstream society. When the bush was held up as the "true Australia", the Aborigines were celebrated as the prototypical bushmen. As the bush lost its iconic status, so too did the Aborigines that lived in it.
Expression - Aboriginal flag, protest marches, music, Aboriginal tent embassy, defiance of white authority
Although Larrikins have always been popular in Australia, it wasn't until after World War II that larrikins also became national heroes. The likes of Dawn Fraser and John Newcombe commanded respect across the classes, which made their rule indiscretions difficult to criticise. The result was a change in the meaning of the world larrikin. Instead of conjuring images of street criminals, it conjured images of good-hearted risk takers.
The larrikin identity was maintained by mocking the wowser and subsequently taking delight in their displeasure.
Expression: Praise for icons such as Dawn Fraser, Ned Kelly, John Newcombe. The music of AC/DC and Skyhooks.
After the English identity collapsed, many Wowsers were left without a social conception of themselves. Not wanting to identify with Australia, they instead became post-modern multiculturalists. This identity maintained a dislike of everything and anything Australian. It justified its identity on the grounds that identifying with Australia was an act of racism. Colonisation symbolised racism towards Aborigines. The Eureka rebellion and Ned Kelly symbolised racism towards Chinese. Federation symbolised racism to all non-whites. Gallipoli symbolised sexism and racism on the grounds most of the soldiers were white men and therefore excluded minority groups. Whitlam Minister Al Grassby even said that people who identified themselves as Australians, rather than ethnic, were worse than Hitler's Third Reich.
According to the multiculturalists, Australia only became an open-minded country after World War II when it became multicultural for the "first" time.
Ironically, multiculturalists ideas have tended to originate from left-wing university departments. These departments are the last bastion of the White Australia Policy. No institution in Australia has a higher concentration of white people. Furthermore, no other institution has such little contact with the outside world. The focus on racial history, combined with their own whiteness, seems to indicate that identifying with the white race is still an integral part of the multiculturalist's identity. In short, a race-based identity, even if it is a self-flagellating one, still excludes others.
Expression - Support for an apology, on behalf of the white race, for injustices inflicted upon Aborigines. Support for a republic on the grounds British heritage is irrelevant to non-white migrants. Support for refugees on the grounds that Australians are racist for supporting mandatory detention of illegal immigrants.
Expatriate/ global swagman
While the multiculturalists tended to avoid new experiences, the expatriate went searching for them. Some went as backpackers to pull beers in a London pub. Others went as actors to America to make their fortune. Some went to Japan to establish television shows.
The global swagman's desire for new experiences gave rise to the expression that "there is nothing more Australian than spending time in someone elses' country."
Expression - Songs such as Downunder, movies like Crocadile Dundee and iconic expatriates like Nicole Kidman, Russel Crowe, Kylie Minogue, taking a jar of vegemite overseas, Qantas theme: "I Still Call Australia Home."
2000 onwards - Bogans and anti-bogans
The word 'bogan' originated in the 1980s in reference to teenagers that listened to heavy metal. Over the following three decades, the category was expanded. The book, "Things Bogans Like" suggests that bogan and Australalian are interchangeable terms.
Traditionally, bogan was a term that was negatively applied to people rather than a term people chose to embrace.
Expression - Southern Cross Tattoos, bumper stickers, articles that denounce tossers
Anti-bogans are by far the largest social group in Australia and hold most of the power. They do not have a clear idea about what they are, but they know they don't like bogans and are not bogans.
Area-7 - Nobody Likes a Bogan
Expression - Songs like "Nobody Likes a Bogan", books such as "Things Bogans Like", the "comedy" of the Chaser and Catherine Deveny