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Australian Identity

Does Australia Need a National Identity?

Why is the Australian Identity so Weak?

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Why is the Australian Identity so Weak?

It is probably fair to say that the Australian national anthem in Australia is sung with far less enthusiasm than national anthems around the world and in particular, the anthems of Australia’s northern neighbours. It is often said that this is because the anthem has awful lyrics and sounds like a funeral dirge. Although that may be true, there are some significant weaknesses in the Australian identity that prevent Australians from boisterously celebrating it in song.

One of the significant impediments to a national identity is the 80 years of Convict transportation that resides at the foundations of Australia’s urban existence. Positive myths of history are vital to inspire a sense of national belonging. Unfortunately for Australia, there just isn't any moral resonance in pulling out grandpa's ball and chain for a street march that preserves the spirit of the founding fathers who were used as slave labour. Likewise, laying in a sexual pose in tribute to the founding mothers that were forced into prostitution is also short on emotional resonance. As a result, Convict history is virtually erased from Australia. For example, at a 1938 re-enactment of the first fleet’s arrival, there were Aborigines and British soldiers but no Convicts – despite the desire to make a prison being the motivation for making a colony in Australia. That selective erasing continues into the present where many white Australians, particularly around Australia Day, are more prone to identify with the British soldiers than the Convicts in chains as they lobby that Australia Day should be renamed Invasion Day. In short, many Australians find more emotional resonance in being an invader that commits genocide than someone forced to Australia against their will. Both social groups are equally accessible to contemporary Australians that want to use “we” in reference to the past, but it is only the social group that is portrayed as powerful that is that is used in conjunction with the language of identification. Admittedly, when the contemporary Australians use "we" in reference to the soldiers, they don’t really see themselves as direct cultural descendants. Furthermore, the status they feel from using "we" stems from taking responsibility for something they know they didn’t do. This allows them to feel superior to those who don’t use "we" in regards to taking responsibility. Nevertheless, a selective raising awareness of the past is occurring and it is an raising of awareness that erases Convicts from history. Ironically, that eraser frees the contemporary Australian of the Convict taint. In other words, part of the motivation for defending contemporary Aborigines against the injustice of colonialism is an excuse for white Australians to sever the umbilical chord and divorce the Convict parent.

The Founding of Australia [1937] by Algernon Talmadge. Convicts and Aborigines were not represented. Over the subsequent decades, a selective narrative has been promoted, not to include what was not included, but to erase the scene entirely.


Aside from Convict history, a national identity is problematic for Australia because of a strong identification the west, which is fundamentally anti-nationalism. One reason for the west’s anti-nationalism stance is that European history is defined by rulers using nationalism to consolidate their own power rather than expand intellectual enlightenment or help the people.  In World War 1, this culminated in a farcical nationalistic war in which citizens were sent to die on suicide missions. The dark side of nationalism was again on show in World War 2 where Germany used it to justify genocide on an industrial scale.  In contrast, Asian nations embraced nationalism as it validated the anti-colonial struggle in the histories of most Asian nations. Furthermore, many Asian countries had leaders who ruled for the people. This naturally elicited greater respect towards leaders and country.

Attitudes to authority figures are shaped by the authority figures in a culture's history. Perhaps western cultures have less respectable authority figures in their history. Alternatively, perhaps they choose to focus more on the less respectable authority figures. Either way, it would be fair to say westerners are less trusting of authority.

A second reason for the west’s anti-national stance is that western governments operate transnationally in order to achieve domestic and individual objectives. Specifically, religious organisations like the Catholic Church spread their power across national borders. In the 1840s, a reaction to some of that power came with the intellectual theories of Karl Marx, the founder of Communist theory. Marx believed national identities were a barrier to the communist revolution being achieved. For Marx, the only identity that mattered was working class and if the workers of the world united, a transnational Communist utopia would come to fruition. Ironically, Eastern Europe, under the military might of Russia, did in fact become Communist, but it also became nationalistic as Communist leaders used patriotism to encourage individuals to subordinate themselves to their vision of the greater good. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the intellectual class fretted about how to prevent a recurrence of World War 1 and 2 as well as how to prevent the nationalism that was suppressing individual thought in Communist countries. Economic union and a devaluing of national identities became the proposed solution. In their logic, if World War 1, 2 and Communism were caused by individuals only thinking in terms of the national interest, the obvious solution was the creation of trans-national institutions and transnational identities without nation-based loyalties. Both Communist leaning working class as well as the studious intellectual class were thus unified in their thinking that national identities were a negative thing.

"To Arms!
Captalists, Parsons, Politicians,
Landlords, Newspaper Editors, and
Other Stay-at-Home Patriots
your country needs
YOU
in the trenches
WORKERS
Follow your Masters"

Text from Australian anti-conscription advertisements in 1916/17. Communist ideology was very influential in collective action.


Today, the thinking has resulted in many European orientated institutions seeing national identities as a threat to the European Union, a barrier to the inclusion of migrant populations and impediment to social justice. On the flip side, it has also resulted in many nationalists seeing the European Union as a threat to their national identities. European identities thus operate between the two poles with one group asserting a national identity and the other asserting a transnational identity, with both poles defined in opposition to the other.

The UK independence party based its Brexit campaign on being against open borders. It was a success.

Like Europe, American governments operate trans-nationally in order to achieve domestic outcomes. This may be to organise a “coalition of the willing” in support of American military action or gain the perception of global support for a United Nations resolution. Unlike Europe, the international action is not based on a belief that nationalism is bad, rather, it is more to portray America as the leader of the “free” world as it pursues American interests. In other words, international action is to help build American patriotism rather than undermine it.

Although Australia is not part of a national economic bloc like Europe or seeking to project military power like the USA, it is subject to the conformity pressures that are exerted by both Europe and the USA. These include being part of American coalitions of the willing and Europe’s devaluing of nationalism. In other words, Australia is a follower rather than a leader and acts in the interests of the leaders.

A third reason for anti-nationalism stance is the operation of western transnational companies that position their marketing in generic campaigns for western countries rather than anchore them in the national identities of specific countries. This sets the agenda in western countries about what things matter. One such example is Coca-Cola raising awareness of the threat of climate change and the danger it poses to polar bears. For Australians, the campaigns inspire more sympathy for the plight of polar bears than an Australian animal like the hairy nose wombats, the later only warranting action if their plight can somehow be related to the fight against climate change. Even then, the lack of international awareness of the hairy nose wombat means it is largely forgotten and ignored with polar bears becoming the face of things that matter. With the multinational companies devaluing local issues in favour of the generic, it becomes very difficult for a sense of place and culture to develop.

Activism for social issues is significantly driven by multinational companies. Identities then become interwined with the values asserted by the multinational companies.

The forces working against a national identity in Australia originate outside of Australia and work against a national identity (and cultural identity) on all people on earth. Some nations and cultures have been able to resist due to historical narratives that inspire pride and a reason to resist. For many Australians; however, their history just isn’t worth holding on to. Australians thus get on board the trans-national campaigns like no other country on earth. Whereas Europeans and Americans may use globalisation to pursue local interests, for some Australians, they are a reason to escape Australia's past.

 
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