Friday, April 14, 2006

# Posted 10:46 AM by Patrick Porter  

THE SEARCH FOR SLOGANS: Some thoughts on nationalism and things. A little jet-lagged so pardon the meandering form this post will probably take.

British Chancellor Gordon Brown recently tried to start a national conversation about the search for 'British values.' These values, he claimed, include fair play, tolerance, and civic duty. Governments from both sides of politics in Australia have also embarked on similar rhetorical projects. Depending on their different political inflections, Australia was identified with traditions of tolerance and the discovery of pluralism, or 'mateship' in adversity and especially in wartime, or the longing for justice, laconically expressed as a 'fair go.'

There are clearly problems with the more facile gestures to unique national values. Firstly, they often aren't unique. Lots and lots of cultures from all parts of the globe have affirmed the need for 'fairness.' The French Revolutionaries had something to say about it. The justice system in New Zealand upholds principles of the presumption of innocence and habeas corpus. Australians are supposed to be a people who love sport, according to a Qantas airline advertisement. This doesn't distinguish us that much from Brazilians or Japanese. And our excellence at sport doesn't spring exclusively from our native instincts. A lot of public money is invested into it, in professional institutes etc.

As for our mythology about a people struggling in the bush, this is easy to exaggerate. The fact remains that for the bulk of our history after British settlement, the vast majority of Australians have lived in cities. Its historically an urban and very coastal people, just look at a map. And its also easy to overstate the distinctiveness of Aborigines. Most live in cities, and a higher percentage (70%) profess to be Christians than do non-Aborigines in the national census. By contrast, a mere 2% profess 'traditional' spirituality. Our tradition of military commemoration, the ANZAC legend, is a powerful and moving one, but it draws upon ideas and motifs that are hardly unique. The baptism of a nation in war, the view of sacrifice as sacred, the creation of a memorial culture to transmit the memory, these are things that grew out of a combination of populist politics, romantic nationalism and memorial practices of the nineteenth century (as George Mosse's book Fallen Soldiers shows). It is a striking inflection of traditions invented in Europe in the previous century, not an Australian invention.

This is not an attack on building a national memory, but a questioning of the need to reduce it to slogans artificially. What renders the pursuit of justice, or the 'fair go', distinctive in any culture is the more entangled and complex story of how that culture defined 'justice', how it pursued it, how it was contested. Justice and other public values like freedom in post-apartheid South Africa, for example, were pursued through the Truth and Reconciliation process. Whereas British cultural memory traces the pursuit of justice and liberty to several longer-term struggles, such as the incremental challenge to royal power, wars for religious freedom against Spanish, Napoleonic and Hitlerian aggressors, or the civil war and conflict between parliament and the monarchy in the 17th century. Just saying that Britons cherish 'fairness' is to amputate what is truly distinctive from something which is generic to most civilisations.

But that, of course, leads to the second problem: the reflex to encode a whole distinctive culture in a sound byte. Because this rhetoric reduces a sense of values to snappy bite-size chunks that are ill thought-out and superficial, they cheapen the whole value of the project in the first place.

In the case of Australia, the essence of our national culture, if there is one, is precisely the resistance against easy rhetorical summations of it. The most profound expressions of it can be found, for example, in a sense of unease and uncertainty with the landscape, found in art and film. Histories devoted to defining the distinctive features of Australia history are far richer and more laboured than the recent phrases of politicians.

Manning Clark's multi-volume history defined Australian nationhood as the site on which the European value-systems clashed, a three-cornered struggle between Protestantism, Catholicism and the Enlightenment. Geoffrey Blainey's more materialist account identified distance and geography as the defining feature. In one of his finer books, 'The Tyranny of Distance', it is the vastness of the continent which lures and confounds miners, captains of industry and adventurers to conquer it. Though it is a more commercial view of the essence of Australia's birth, it finds a grandeur in the wierd landscape.But its hard to boil these visions down into three second grabs for the tv news.

Of course, some countries have successfully produced rhetoric tributes to their own culture: America's Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's vision of America's mission at Gettysburg, the Preamble to its Constituion, or Revolutionary France with the Rights of Man, the cry of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity', the strident 'La Marseillaise.'

But these things were spawned by national emergencies. Revolutionary, liberal or democratic phrases were hammered out under the stimulus of crisis, when those values were under threat and when they were decidedly not the international norm. America was founded and fought over in protest and defined in the vocabulary of the moralism of the early republic.

By contrast, Australia was founded as a penal colony and a strategic outpost in global conflict with France. There was frontier violence and destruction, and the settlement attracted the religious zeal of British evangelists. But this experience was rarely famously summarised in rhetorical codes. Aborigines were fragmented into thousands of tribes and languages, so literally did not define their struggle in a shared vocabulary at the time. In terms of internal conflict amongst the white settlers, it became a nation and federated relatively peacefully, with a vote rather than a civil war. This relatively peaceful history among white settlers helps to explain the slow and partial emergence of a separately 'Australian' identity, and why it was only half a century ago that many Australians stopped referring to England as 'home.' Even Australia's entry into World War Two began with a colonial genuflection which many at the time would have welcomed: Britain is at war, announced Prime Minister Menzies, therefore 'Australia is also at war.'

There is much in the way of distinctive achievement to be proud of in that history. A continent designed to be a giant prison which evolved into one of the most law-abiding nations on earth. A nation which gave women the vote very early (South Australia in 1894 and federally in the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901, though this excluded Aboriginal women and New Zealand was the very first to enact women's suffrage). The contribution towards defeating Imperial Japan in World War Two, which had carried out an Asian holocaust. A vital member of the team that invented penicillin. But these things are not easily reducible to a formula in the age of spin. The greatest rhetorical expressions of a national identity are spawned by history and not by spindoctors with a brief from on high.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that the search for distinctive national experiences is invalid. I would part ways with some of the more 'tribalist' arguments, that see all attempts to define national identity as wrong-headed and dangerous.

The defining of a culture, with its memories, myths and self-perception that transcend different segments of the nation in a holistic and unitary sense of self, is not something that all commentators welcome. Some see it as a sinister and threatening form of nationalist chauvinism. We're all mammals, we shouldn't get hung up on distinguishing ourselves, nationalism is an evil thing and has killed lots of people, and anyway, aren't we supposed to be celebrating diversity within our nations rather than seeking some kind of unitary national identity? This is a common line of criticism.

I can't follow them in their wholesale dismissal of nationalism. Its easy to sneer down at attempts to define British or Australian identity, but would we be so quick to dismiss a Chechnyan's desire to define their distinctive identity, with its historical roots and accentuated by a crisis in the present? Or indeed, a Polish, East Timorese or West Papuan identity?

Its easy to write off nationalism for the big fat evil west, but the defining of a community can take many forms and need not be overtly hostile. One of the tensions in some commentary seems to be the need to question the search for national identity alongside the need to affirm the search for identity by ethnic minorities or by the underdog.

If the imposition of an identity on others can be oppressive and artificial, the denial of any coherent shared history that transcends divisions between peoples in a country can lead to a corrosive tribalism. It might be artificial to pretend that everyone's history in one nation is homogenous. But it is also ahistorical to pretend that the histories of minorites, tribes or classes is hermetically sealed and isolated, forged without interaction with other groups.

As Marc Mulholland argued in a wonderful post years ago, the modern cosmopolitan elite tends towards an internationalist lifestyle. As such, it can forget the power of local roots and the legitimate need to define a wider community:

For the chattering classes, like the pre-modern aristocracies, cosmopolitanism is perhaps natural. They flit from place to place on jets, they speak with other members of the elite in a lingua franca, they subscribe to liberal internationalism the way their forebears subscribed to Christian internationalism. For the rest, nationalism is a comfort, bringing a sense of community and pride. It need not be intrusive. The American's call it Patriotism. It is not the last refuge of the scoundrel, but a pleasing texture to life. It is why we pay attention to the political institutions of our democracies.
The search for the distinctive features of a national culture is often a valid and indeed enriching thing. But it can be spoilt by the accompanying need for easy slogans and facile formulas.
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