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 comformity 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. Admittedly, minority or subcultural identities provide a subsitute for a national identity, but these identities are not always accessible to every individual.
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:
Ironically, one of the biggest problems of western countries lacking a national identity is that their social policy is usually written on the basis that an identity exists. Specifically, almost all social policy in the western world is written on the basis that there is a majority culture in which there are minorities that need to be accommodated. Although the writers of the policy rarely define the values, racial makeup, traditions, and customs of the majority culture, the majority culture is still referred to and policy made on the basis that it is influential.
Unfortunately, the policy documents become useless in areas of the country where a national identity is almost completely absent from the identity of the people of the region. For example, in many areas of Sydney and Melbourne, there are almost no individuals who identify as Australian. In these areas, a Korean kid may sit in a class surrounded by Vietnamese, Sudanese, Italian, Afghani or Lebonese kids. The Korean kid may be in fear that a gang of these kids will beat him up on the way home. The kid’s only real hope of protection is to join a Korean gang. When the kid is mixed race, or no gang is available, he or she is particularly vulnerable.
Teachers are ill equipped to deal with the conflicts because their training is on how to protect minorities from the racist majority. As a result, they may get the kids to make posters denouncing Adolph Hitler in order to teach the kids that it is wrong for majorities to repress minorities. While it is a nice message, it fails to deal with the racial conflict that is most relevant to the kid’s daily world.
Like teachers, police are also ill equipped to deal with the conflict between minorities. A kid may be beaten to a bloodied pulp by a racial gang but if the kid’s parents ask the police for help, the police are wary about any minority groups being over-represented in crime statistics, which would make it seem that the police are racist. As a result, they prefer to turn a blind eye or suggest a course of action that doesn't involve the police.
Because social policy is ill-equipped to deal with conflict between minorities, many areas of the western world are almost like scenes out of Mad Max. Individuals join gangs for protection, there is little affinity between people, and there is an almost complete absence of social policy designed to deal with the conflicts.
Governments of the western world are increasingly realising that their policies are not able to deal with the racial conflicts in their countries that do not involve the "majority" culture. Either the governments need to be more assertive in defining an identity or accept that no national identity exists in many areas of their country and write policy accordingly. The later option probably would never occur because it would necessitate that politicians give up some of their reverent power with voters and devalue the significance of their office.
Different countries have reacted to the erosion of national identities 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. Some non-whites see themselves as outsiders while some whites see themselves as the true French.
Unlike the French, the British have taken the 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. 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, believe in god, and 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.
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 has evolved into two distinct forms; neither of which have been conciously designed. One form is typically referred to as boganism. It is often expressed by putting Australian flags on the car, sporting bumper stickers like "real Australians drive utes" or getting a South Cross tattoo. The identity tends to also have elements of defiance because the inhabitants of the identity feel they are breaking taboos by identifying themselves as Australian. This was evident after the 2003 Cronulla Riots that involved bogan and Lebonese gangs coming to blows on Sydney’s southern beaches. The bogans involved saw themselves as “fighting back” and asserting the pride that others wanted to deny from them.
Much of the bogans' identity flowed from a perception that they were fair game for commentators to belittle. It also flowed from a perception that the police were not protecting their rights against infringement from other social groups. If allowed to fester, it would eventually create a very large pool of individuals with great hostility to the justice system and lacking all faith in the legitimacy of government.
The other form of the Australian identity tends to be formed in opposition to the bogans. It is basically any Australian of Anglo-Celtic heritage that has no identification with that heritage, but derives status from insulting those Anglo Australians (bogans) that do.
It is Australians with an anti-bogan identity that chiefly write and comment on Australian social policy. On the basis of their commentary, they clearly believe that Australia has a majority identity which the majority of Australians identify with. However, exactly what that identity is and how they personally fit into it is somewhat ambiguous. Their behaviour seems to indicate that they see themselves as prison wardens who need to protect minorities from the bogans, (who are deemed to be the dominant social group in Australia.) As prison wardens, they don't really see themselves as part of the prison landscape or the prison community; they are just the managers of it. Examples of the identity at work include Anglo commentator Catherine Deveny, who said
It also includes the authors of the book, Things Bogans Like, politicians like Paul Keating, historians like Henry Reynolds and journalists like Kerry O'Brien.
Unlike the bogans, the anti-bogans have significant cultural and legal power. To retain this power, it is in the anti-bogans' interests to convey the message that the majority culture is fundamentally flawed, has "popularism" as its vice and is not worth identifying with. As long as there is widespread belief that the majority culture is flawed, the anti-bogans have legitimacy to protect minorities from it.
It would be fair to say that the bogans and anti-bogans who comprise the social grouping referred to in policy documents as “dominant Australian culture” really don’t have much of an affinity for one another. In that regard, the concept of a dominant Australian culture is somewhat obsolete and detached from reality.
Benefits of a weak national identity
Australia as a whole suffers from a lack of an Australian identity; however, there are some benefits for individuals who appreciate freedom from conformity pressures. Arguably, Australians are the most free people on earth. While the rest of the world wallows in fear of cultural loss as a result of globalisation, Australians are assimilating foreign ideas and becoming stronger in the process. Such behaviour makes it easy to be optimistic about Australia's future. As Charles Darwin once noted:
Aside from being free to able to adapt to new ideas, Australians are free to criticise their government without being accused of shitting on the flag. Likewise, they are free to wave the flag however they want. Not only does this mean they can let the flag's corners touch the ground, the entire flag may even be used as a blanket to sit on at the cricket. Australians can relax. "No worries" is Australia's mantra because on the whole, Australia's lack of assertive culture, and the conformity pressures associated with culture, frees it of the worries of other nations.
Even though a lack of a defined culture gives individuals greater freedom, individualism has some downsides. For example, even though individuals may want to be defined by their own individual actions, they tend to be defined by the actions of those who conform to group identities. Internationally, Australians tend to be defined by boganism because bogans are among the few people who want to define themselves as Australian. Just as a molehill is a king on a flat landscape, in the absence of alternative Australian identities, the bogans have a monopoly on what it means to be an Australian. In short, social policy has been written on the basis that the Australian identity exists and bogans simply filled the empty void. They might only comprise 10% of the population, but they perhaps comprise 90% of the imagery used to describe the Australian stereotype.
There are definitely some positive attributes in the bogan identity, but there are also some limitations. These limitations affect how other Australians are viewed when they try to engage with the international community. They also affect the motivations of migrants to engage with their new homeland. The challenge for Australia is to create a national identity that is adaptable to change, inclusive of new migrants, not based on race and encourages individuals to identify with it by choice. Most importantly, it needs to be defined and be accorded some legal protection. At present, it seems to consist in two distinct forms. Firstly, there are the bogans who see it as a celebration of driving utes or drinking beer. Secondly, there are the anti-bogans who don’t identify as Australian or ethnic, but see their social role as one that involves acting as a prison warden protecting ethnics against bogans. The later identity is arguably the most problematic because it is ill-equipped to deal with the reality of Australia. It is a nothing identity that inspires little community spirit and has virtually no conception of the areas of Australia in which people like themselves or bogans do not exist and even if they did, would be obstacles in the way of solving very severe social problems.
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.
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