Does Australia need a national identity?
In the trenches of World War 1, much of the western world lost its faith in national identities. The war was started for farcical nationalistic reasons while blind nationalism saw soldiers sent over the top without bullets as their commanding officers cared more for ammunition than for lives. The loss of faith in their identities became part of culture of popular, first with the Dada art group mocking cultural icons and established traditions then later with expressionists painters elevating the individual self above all others. (In the Cold War era, the CIA even covertly funded and promoted abstract expressionism due to the individualistic values that it symbolised.) The western "brand" thus became the brand of the individual.
Scene from 1981 movie Gallipoli. History used in popular culture to weave a vision of an Anzac identity.
Ironically, World War 1 saw somewhat of a liberation of a fledging Australian identity as the needless loss of life eroded faith the British Empire identity which had seen an Australian identity as a threat to a continued union between England and Australia.
With faith in Britain eroding, the new Anzac identity that emerged on the battlefields of Gallipoli drew upon many of the identity strands that had helped bind the union movement in the lead up to Federation in 1901 and fused them with characteristics needed to survive the horrors of war. Specifically, it was an identity that encouraged Australians to give themselves to others, to stand by each other, to stand up to authority, to live up to an ideal of believing in something greater than themselves and to be somewhat bigoted towards English people.
Despite an Australian identity being partially liberated in World War 1, the horrors of Nazi Germany in World War 2 again shook the western world’s faith in national identities - Australia included. Of particular concern was the way that Germany had fused race with national identity, which in turn caused many Australians to reflect on the way race had been fused with national identity within Australia since Federation in 1901. At the political level, the consequence was a dismantling of the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy) and an undefined policy of 'multiculturalism.'
On one hand, multiculturalism was liberating because the absence of a prescribed identity allowed different groups and individuals some freedom to create their own identity, hold on to a minority identity or chose to have no social identity at all. On the other hand, many Australians of English descent were confused about their identity because they didn’t want to be English while an Australian identity was interpreted to be inconsistent with multiculturalism. Furthermore, it was not easy to reconcile a belief in something with support for a mosaic of migrant cultures where there was almost no consistency of taboos or permissions. In a nutshell, whatever belief was asserted would be inconsistent with some beliefs of migrant cultures.
Perhaps to resolve their confusion, many Australians of Engish descent interpreted multiculturalism to mean an identity that opposes racism. This soon morphed into what is best termed an Australiaphobe. Australians with an Australiaphobe identity feared that those with an Australian identity were morally inferior bogans (low socio-economic class) that would oppress non-white races. Anglo social commentator Catherine Deveny was one such Australian. In 2010 she stated:
Deveny's actions showed that one of the flaws of identity is that there are lazy but easy ways to achieve a positive self image of the groups one identifies with but that the positive self image is often inconsistent with the ideals the identity actually espouses. In short, words are more highly valued that outcomes or substance. Deveny obviously identified as a non-racist and the easiest way for her to affirm her non-racist identity was by adopting the Australiaphobic identity. In that regard, she showed the same psychology of a man that bashed homosexuals to prove his heterosexuality but didn't necessarily have any love for women. In the same way, whites such as Deveny have never showed any respect for non-whites despite who berating fellow whites for their racism.
The development of an Australiaphobe identity didn't just result in derogatory caricaturing of the Australian identity, it also led to coercion of migrants to hold onto their ancestral cultures and associated identities. For example, the architect of the policy of multculturalism, Whitlam Minister Al Grassy, declared that something as simple as identifying one's ancestors as Australian on a census form was comparable to killing six million Jews. According to Grassy:
More recently, in 2016, Anglo Australian writer Clementine Ford used the cultural background of Iranian immigrant Rita Panahi to invalid her opinions when she said:
For Ford, Panahi had morally transgressed because she had given up the religious identity prescribed by the Iranian government in favour of a more libertarian identity found in Australia. Not only was Panihi's alignment with an Australian identity a threat to Ford's Australiaphobe identity, it aso threatened her feminist identity that defined how all women should act.
The Australiaphobic identity even had an influence on popular culture where soaps, movies, novels etc made use of stereotypes and identities to create fictional characters that resonated with target audiences. One of the influences was seen in the use of negative stereotypes of Australians in Australian movies made from the 1990s onwards. Amongst the public bureaucracy that funded the creation, distribution and promotion of Australian movies, an Australiaphobic identity had taken hold and that identity wanted to see Australians portrayed in a negative way. In 2008, this was acknowledged by Antony Ginnane, then president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, who said that most recent Australian films were,
Within popular culture, the influence of the Australiaphobic identity was not only seen in the creation of negative stereotypes of an Australian identity, it was also seen in the almost complete exclusion of non-white faces from pop culture. Specifically, because the Australiaphobic cultural creatives didn’t want to be racist, they didn’t want to show non-whites being members of a culture that they were showing in a derogatory way. To do so would risk a negative social image being applied upon a race different to themselves. Even when the cultural creatives weren’t specifically referencing a derogatory stereotype and were instead portraying generic Australian suburbia (as is the case in most soap operas and dramas), the inclusion of a non-white face could offend some of the Australiaphobic’s sensibilities. On one hand, if the character was not “ethnically defined”, then the character seemed to have assimilated to an Australian way of life. For the Australiaphobic, this was a very negative outcome. For example, when Aboriginal actor Deborah Mailman was cast in the drama The Secret Life of Us, film producer Jeff Puser criticised the role because:
Of course, if Mailman had been cast in a role which was defined by the statistics of disadvantage typically applied to Aborigines by academics, then the visualisation of those statistics would have had the producers being accused of racism. Furthermore, if Mailman had been cast as a sex symbol like Lara Bingle or Elle McPherson, some critics would have complained that producers were pandering for a fetish for black flesh.
The consequence of some white Australians being uncomfortable with non-whites acting "Australian" and other whites being uncomfortable with non-whites being different from "Australians" was that casting non-whites became too problematic when a mainstream audience was being targeted. Today, Australian media is almost exclusive white even though the majority of white people working in the arts probably have an identity of a "non-racist."
In the absence of a widely accepted national identity and the Australiaphobic identity being unappealing to many of the "bogan" class, a mosaic of alternative identities has emerged to satisfy the need that many individuals have for social belonging and ancestral purpose. Some of these identities are based on religion, some on political affiliation, some on sporting teams, some on gender, some on sexual orientation and some on geographic locations within Australia. Each of these identities is prone to the same blind loyalty but also individual sacrifice that was the strength and weakness of the west's national identities prior to World War 1. Specifically, the identities encourage individual members to give themselves to others, to take pride in the achievements of others, to support each other and to act in a way that can be defined as a community. The identities also lead to a blind loyalty where flaws are concealed so as not to damage the status of the identity, individuals are exploited by leaders, individuals are pressured to conform even when their heart seeks alternatives, facades of status mean more than reality and bigotry is used to elevate the status of the identity relative to a rival identity.
As well as having strengths and weaknesses, each of the identities finds itself in harmony or conflict with a national identity depending upon the views of others in the mosaic of identities. In short, some propose the mosaic of identities can easily co-exist under the umbrella of a larger Australian identity much like an Australian identity existed in an umbrella of a British trans-national identity. Others believe that the mosaic is a threat to passion for the Australian identity or the Australian identity is a threat to the mosaic. Such viewpoints were evident in the 2000 Olympics when Aboriginal woman Cathy Freeman carried the Aboriginal flag and Australian flag on her victory lap. By carrying the flag, Freeman was repeating an act that she had performed at the Commonwealth Games and which had provoked Australian Commonwealth Games boss Arthur Tunstall to threaten to expel her from the team. On the opposite side, Aboriginal boxer Antony Mundine criticised Aboriginal football players for not boycotting the national anthem on Grand Final today. According to Mundine on fellow Aborigine Lance Franklin,
The history of humanity is one of identities emerging, evolving, conflicting and eventually dying. Perhaps Australia is fortunate that the national identity is weak or perhaps Australia is unfortunate. Viewpoints on the question will generally be defined by an individual's relative position in a variety of alternative identities and even their individual personality that sees some people wanting to define themselves by the achievements and/or suffering of others and others wanting to define themselves by the achievements of their own hands or the victimisation they have personally endured.
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.
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