Does Australia need a national identity?
There are many Australians who say that Australia has no national identity and it would be racist if it got one. Ironically, to dismiss the value of a national identity is a uniquely Australian thing to say. Certainly the French don't dismiss the values, behavioural models and culture associated with their national identity, nor the history that anchors it. Likewise, the Chinese, Japanese and Singaporeans are proud of certain myths of behaviour, such as a Confucian value on education, that encourage certain ways of living. Even genuine multicultural nations like South Africa have tried to use a national identity as a way of reconciling differences of history, values and race. Admittedly, much of northern Europe devalues a national identity out of a belief national identities are a threat to the European Union; however, such devaluings are a function of an attempt to assert one geo-political based identity over another rather than dismissing the value of region-based identities outright.
In some ways, Australia benefits from the lack of a strong identity. Specifically, it frees individuals to map out their own futures and be chiefly concerned with themselves. In many respects, this kind of individualism is consistent with the promoted vision of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said,
Despite the absence of a national identity being somewhat liberating for individuals, it can’t be disputed that the desire for social identities is an intrinsic part of human psychology. In short, they provide a sense of belonging, inspire people to put others before themselves, and form the basis of what may be affectionately referred to as a community. It is this feeling of shared belonging that makes people willing to pay taxes to support compatriots with health care, sports programs, education or scientific endeavours. Furthermore, the shared belonging encourages individuals to see the success of their compatriots as their own success. Such psychology was seen in the words of Albert Einstein when he said:
In short, while economic rationalists may argue that community is a myth and individualism should reign supreme, people are wired quite differently. For this reason, Australia has in fact created social identities that are a function of Australian history and circumstances. These identities tend to be strongest amongst white atheists who don't have accessible religious or ethnic identities to identify with as an alternative to national identities. Furthermore, the identities tend to be defined in opposition to alternative white atheist groups. This has resulted in various groups being labelled left-wing or right-wing depending upon the group's attitude to Australian history, symbolism and myths of a national character.
From the right comes groups such as The True-Blue Crew. The group heavily aligns itself with the Australian Flag and has a positive view on history. It also aligns itself as being in opposition to the left-wing. Specifically, its Facebook page states,
If the right can be defined as aligning itself with a positive view of Australia, the left can be defined as aligning itself with a negative view of Australia. Instead, it aligns itself with a modern myth of Marxism that is inclusive of ethnic and religious identities. (This is in conflict with the reality of Marxism that in theory and practice was hostile to ethnic and religious identities due to a belief that they would undermine the Marxist identity.) Via Marxism, the identity sees itself as trans-national so that people in different countries are seen as members of an “in-group” provided they have the correct political identity. Of course, if they have the “incorrect” identity, they are dehumanised and seen as components of a fascist machine that must be eradicated without mercy.
ANTIFA is one such example. According to the Facebook page of the Australian Chapter, ANTIFA aims to
The general population of Australia can probably be defined as skewed to the right in that polls show the majority have a pride in Australia and feel a sense of attachment to it. For example, the 2011-12 the World Values Survey indicated that 70% of Australians were ‘very proud’ of their nationality, compared with 56% of Americans, 40% of Swedes, 29% of Russians, 24% of Germans, and 21% of Dutch. (1) Likewise, the 2015 Scanlon Foundation survey found that 93% of respondents have a ‘sense of belonging in Australia’ either to a ‘great extent’ or ‘some extent. (1) Most of the dissenting views come from the institutions of power which are arguably more left as there are more negative voices than positive voices. This has led to the very ironic situation of institutions being very hostile to the nation that they lead.
This schism is particularly salient on Australia Day, which really should be a left-wing’s dream. Specifically, because the left controls most of Australia's institutions and the National Australia Day Council in particular, it has the opportunity to use Australia Day to set an agenda that the right will wave flags in support. The only condition for the right’s support is that the agenda is framed in a way that can enhance national pride. The awarding of the Australian of the Year is the most obvious method of doing this. For example, in 1998, Indigenous athlete Cathy Freeman was awarded Australian of the Year after winning the 400 meters at the World Championships the previous year. Freeman waved both the Aboriginal and Australian Flag and therefore, her success was a shared success that enhanced the cause of reconciliation.
Despite Australia Day’s potential to set an agenda that is subsequently given approval through flag waving, Australia Day has evolved so that it could legitimately be defined as grievance day in which there is a great deal of division. In the name of setting an agenda, many of Australian of the Year recipients have expressed hostile views to their country. This naturally appeals to the left that is hostile to the notion of an Australian identity, but alienates the cause from the right. In that regard, the cause is less important than the affirmation of a positive identity for those fighting over it. Ironically, the grievances have got to such an extreme that left-wing campaigns have been created to eliminate Australia Day all together. Although the elimination of Australia Day would deny the right a flag waving opportunity, it would also deny the left the opportunity to set their agendas and recognise their heroes.
There are numerous explanations for why the left in Australia is hostile to a national identity despite a national identity being useful to promote the causes they champion. One is Australia’s renowned “Tall-poppy syndrome” in which people in power are belittled by the wider population. The belittlement might elicit hostility in return from individuals with power in Australian institutions. Another explanation is that national identities are problematic for individuals seeking to use identity politics as a way of eliminating rivals to power. In short, strong national identities act like social glues that make it hard for individuals who are part of the national identity to seamlessly be eliminated. For this reason, national identities tend to be devalued in times of civil unrest when individuals are jostling for power. This was seen in Nazi Germany where Adolph Hitler positioned a blonde-haired blue-eyed ideal of a master race German as an ideal above what most Germans looked like. Furthermore, he encouraged adherents to march under a Nazi flag rather than a German flag. In this way, German communists, German Jews and rivals to power who lacked blonde hair and blue eyes could be eliminated without ordinary Germans feeling dissonance at Germans killing Germans.
A national identity was also devalued during China’s civil war from 1927 to 1950 and in the subsequent cultural revolution. Instead of a Chinese identity, the followers of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong positioned a transnational Communist identity as the aspirational model for his Chinese followers. During the civil war, this identity allowed Chinese communists to kill other Chinese without any dissonance. In the post-war wars, it also allowed subjective smearing with the label of “bourgeoisie” so that any Chinese could be labelled as an enemy of the revolution. As told in the book Mao and China,
In 1964, public intellectual Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in which he said Australians were devoid of an identity that bred curiosity, ideas and leadership. Horne went on to say,
Since that time, Australia has largely divorced itself from Britain and its irrelevant problems as the British identity as crumbled. In its place, the visible Australian identities that have been created amount to little more than flag waving as well as a dislike of foreigners on the right and adopting American campaigns from the left. While adherents to identities on both spectrums no doubt believe in them, arguably neither are the type of identities that produce leaders in the vein of Nelson Mandela, Robert Kennedy or Deng Xiaoping.
It is somewhere between those two spectrums that an Australian identity has emerged that may not be completely defined and understood, but lends itself to belonging while not lending itself to exploitation. While it is an identity that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the fellowship of those in the institutions or the creation of presidential material, it does seem to lend itself to a felling of belonging and the creation of a society.
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 Australian 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,
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
2) Karnow, Stanley Mao and China Penguin Books 1972