Does Australia need a national identity?
National identities are fundamental to the wellbeing of individuals and societies as a whole. For individuals, they provide a sense of belonging and esteem when the individual's personal life may be self-described as a failure. According to John Ralston Saul,
For society as a whole, national identities provide the motivation for individuals to care for each other, support each other and think of people other than themselves. 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 for elite athletes. Furthermore, they pay money to enter stadiums where they can cheer encouragement. The motivation to support government welfare, education or any other government program aimed at social wellbeing is anchored in similar psychology. In short, a national identity is the social glue that motivates individuals to feel a sense of an extended family and share in the challenges and achievements of people other than themselves.
Despite national identity being essential for the wellbeing of individuals and nations, Australian governments, like other western governments, have found a national identity difficult to define and assert. One reason for this is that identities are strongest when there is a rival identity that can be caricatured as inferior by comparison. Prior to World War 2, the government of Germany successfully did this by negatively caricaturing Jews and non-Germans. Seeing the horror of where this culminated, the victorious west adopted somewhat of a secular approach to identity so that as well as not having an official religion, they did not have official values or myths of a national character. It was believed that the secular approach (that is sometimes erroneously defined as multiculturalism) would be the best method to achieve positive relations with the diverse peoples of their own countries and with other countries in a globalised world.
While history has shown that religious secularism has been quite successful in preventing secular conflict, arguably, geographic-based identities are a different issue because it is possible for an individual to have multiple identities geographic-based identities in a way that is not possible with religious based identities. Specifically, it is possible for a football fan to cheer for the team representing his or her city, but later cheer for the team representing his or her state and later for the team representing his or her country. Likewise, it is possible for an individual to have pride in their ancestral origin while still seeing their country of birth as home. The same multiplicity of identities doesn’t exist for religion where one mode of thought is prescribed for the individual to adopt for themselves and others.
In practice, a policy of identity secularism has done little to foster a society without conflict or bigotry. In the absence of a prescribed national identity, western democracies have embraced political identities in which the derogatory caricaturing of voters of other political parties has become a socially acceptable form of prejudice. Furthermore, in the absence of identities based on geography, race has become increasingly influential in defining identity boundaries - even for people who have advocated post-racial "colour blind" societies. For example, a singular white person filmed being racist on public transport has often been deemed as a newsworthy event as it has allowed white people to denounce racism and thus demonstrate they are not racist. Meanwhile, violent brawls between Korean, African, Lebonese, and Islander gangs have been ignored out of fear that denouncing a member of a different race will be judged as racist.
Ironically, perhaps some of the motivation of non-whites to join race-based gangs was their alienation from the dynamic of the white-on-white prejudice. In short, they could not gain the social status by saying "we" are racist as could the whites. Instead, they gained their racial unity by promoting stories of being victimised by the ruling whites, being superior to the numerically dominant whites or being superior to rival race-based gangs.
In comparison to other western countries, Australia probably found it easier to forsake a national identity and embrace the white-on-white prejudice because it never really had a government-sanctioned identity to begin with. Specifically, it wasn’t until 1948 that Australian citizenship even existed. Prior to that, the Australian born were defined as British citizens and expected to express their patriotism by championing British myths and singing God Save the Queen.
For a number of years after citizenship was created, Australian governments sailed around like an rudderless ship as they wondered whether there was anything unique or different about Australians worth celebrating. The aimlessness was recognised by author Donald Horne in 1964, who wrote:
Less than a decade later, the federal government introduced multiculturalism as official policy. Ironically, multiculturalism by a different name had been a policy of the British Empire that Australia was trying to divorce. In other words, no sooner had a platform been created where an Australian identity might be seen as acceptable, a policy was created in which it was deemed to be redundant in favour of a return to the old British ways.
Admittedly, Australia has always had unsanctioned national identities but the identities have never been able to build enough status to extend beyond fringe minority status. Specifically, for much of the 19th century, an Australian identity was formed by fusing Convict history, events like the Eureka Rebellion and Aboriginal culture to create a kind of bush identity that was different from the British identity and in opposition to it. For example, the song Waltzing Matilda built its patriotic credentials by using Aboriginal words like coolibah, jumbuck and billabong as it described a story of a man who stole a sheep but killed himself rather than be caught. Likewise, on January 21 1888, the Bulletin wrote:
Naturally, those Australian institutions that were formally and informally governed by a British identity were hostile to the Australian identity. Generally, the threat was dealt with by failing to give any official approval to Australian culture and/or funding it in any way. Informally, this gave rise to the "cultural cringe" which led to a cultural rejection of anything with an Australian label. Formally, there was also some rejection of the Australian identity with the NSW government banning bushranging films in 1906 and the state-run ABC banning Australian accents until the 1970s (newsreaders had to be imported from England.)
When the British identity was officially replaced with a policy of multiculturalism, white Australians continued with their derogatory caricatures of a white Australian identity, but in a way that also inferred that they were not personally tainted by the same derogatory traits. For example, in 2010 white columnist Catherine Deveny said,
Likewise, on Anzac Day 2015, white sports reporter Scott McIntyre took to Twitter to caricature Australian soldiers as rapists, terrorists and war criminals. Furthermore, he caricatured anyone who paid respect on Anzac Day as gamblers, drunks, uneducated and white (like himself). In his own words,
Generally speaking, the derogatory caricatures have been anchored in accusations of racism and sexism. Ironically, because the inferred targets have found the insults to be offensive and/or denied the validity of them, an opposition to racism and sexism represents a shared set of values between both the white Australians that create the derogatory caricatures and the white Australians that are the targets of them. Admittedly, the highly salient way that race is being used in the construction of identity and the application of prejudice may in fact be defined as racist. Furthermore, just as a man who beats up a gay man to prove his heterosexuality doesn’t necessarily love women, a white person who berates a white person for racism doesn’t necessarily have any respect for non-white races.
The push to create a new national flag and make Australia a republic represent the rare occasions where some Australian politicians and the institutional class have superficially given support to the idea of an Australian identity. That said, the promotion of the flag and a republic have created identities anchored in derogatory viewpoints of Australians rather than derogatory viewpoints of the British. Specifically, they have proposed that there has been something wrong with Australians who want to hold onto the Union Jack on the flag and the Queen as the Head of State; not that there is anything actually wrong with the Union Jack or the Queen and the British people they represent. In other words, it is a divisive communication strategy anchored in a long tradition of white-on-white domestic conflict in Australia. As a result, the initiatives for change have yet to gather enough support to actually realise change.
Although politicians and public institutions have been reluctant to promote an Australian identity, at times, the commercial sector has created Australian identities that have resonated widely. One such identity was seen in the 1985 movie Crocodile Dundee. The film created a modern version of the traditional larrikin bush identity with status created via an association with Aborigines, intelligent commentary and funny jokes. See http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/crocodile-dundee/clip2/ It remains one of the few Australian movies that has positioned an Australian as a hero and portrayed Australia in a positive way.
The success of Crocodile Dundee illustrated many of the advantages that are achieved via a national identity. Worldwide, it generated immense good will for Australia which in turn generated a dramatic rise in tourism - particularly from the United States. Tourists probably didn’t come to Australia expecting to find Australian men fighting crocodiles, but they did expect to find Australians with a love of landscapes, a sense of humour, a traditional Aboriginal influence and adaptability. Domestically, Crocodile Dundee initially created a wave good will that was another shot in the arm to the Australian movie industry. A series of quirky comedies were subsequently released that rode on the back of the growing sense of national pride and a desire of Australians to support the creative endeavours of their compatriots.
Ironically, because Crocodile Dundee was able to create a positive identity without vilification of any other groups, it threatened the identity of many white Australians whose identity was based on seeing Australians as racist and socially regressive. Many white filmmakers, funded by government, subsequently created movies that “corrected” the Crocodile Dundee myth by showing Australians to be racist, homophobic and sexist.
One such movie was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. According to Paul Byrnes, Sydney Morning Herald film critic:
Another movie was Wolf Creek. According to its director Greg McClean, the psychopathic character that tortured and murdered tourists, was actually a conflation of various Australian cultural traits. In his own words,
As a result of the movies, the tourist industry suffered, the Australian film industry was destroyed and a positive identity that could have acted as a model to aspire to be like was deconstructed.
The identity conflicts seen in Australia have some unique elements, but along with other western countries, it is primarily anchored white-on-white conflict and has been created in response to the horrors of 20th century fascism.
In Europe, there is a reluctance to define a national character; however, there is a willingness to pass value-based laws that reflect the morality of an undefined character. This has resulted in European countries having slightly different appoaches to dealing with identity while not acknowledging their differences in character.
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 or undermine Germany's leadership of the European Union. 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,
Englishman John Aston talks of reconciling a British identity with a European identity
Whereas Europe looks upon national identities as somewhat of a threat to the European Union and social cohesion within it, America has looked upon a national identity as a method of mass persuasion and a method to foster social cohension in a fractured society. For example, civil rights activists like Martin Luther King evoked the identity of the founding fathers who proposed all men are created equal when trying to persuade his fellow Americans to let go of their prejudices. Likewise, musician Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner on the electric guitar in a way that associated American patriotism with America's progressive movements.
Martin Luther King - I had a dream (1968)
Jimi Hendrix - The Star Spangled Banner [ American Anthem ] ( Live at Woodstock 1969 )
American politicians also approach identity in a very different way to their European counterparts; particularly in presidential elections where there is a tendency to create a vision of America that is consistent with the candidate's policy agenda. For example, in the reign of Abraham Lincoln, America was about going to war against the south to ensure the doctrine of equality included black Americans. In the reign of Ronald Regan, America was about the giving the individual freedom to make his or her own choices (unlike was the case in Communism). In the reign of George Bush Jr, America was about going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan to liberate the oppressed in Islamic countries while demonstrating American power. In the reign of Barrack Obama, America was about all races having equality of opportunity.
Finally, an assortment of businesses promote a vision of America that is conducive to the consumption of their products. For example, Harley Davidson motorcycles create the image of the freedrider on American highways, movie studios create American heroes to build a connection with their audience and sporting organisations like the NFL position their sports as an all American pastime.
Ironically, the number of vested American interests actively trying to shape, redefine and champion an American identity has made it difficult to exactly define the American identity. While there is an almost universal American belief in the value of the American identity, there is not universal agreement about what it is. Even if there were, vested interests would be trying to change it.
Because America has a mosaic of national identities that are always been challenged, individual Americans don't suffer the same kind of oppression that exists in non-western nations that have more singular national identities that expect individual conformity. Specifically, if an individual America doesn't identity with a promoted national identity, there are alternatives that they can identify with to gain a sense of belonging and informal rules to live by.
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