Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Oedipus Waves His Flag

I am currently reading Kingdom Come by JG Ballard. One of the recurring motifs in the novel is Ballard's growing unease at the seemingly inexorable rise of the St George flag in small town England. He is right to be concerned about the political implications of this rise in patriotism, but if a few England flags are making Ballard twitch then a couple of months in Australia would give the poor man an aneurysm. Australian flags bedeck all manner of shops from bakeries to newsagents with no apparent purpose other than to display their Australianism, the unspoken message being that this means white Australianism. While shopping for souvenirs the other day I came across two car stickers, one read "Australia: Love it or leave it!", quite a stark choice with not much room for rational debate or contemplation, yet this implied ignorance and xenophobia was carefully hidden behind a fairly innocuous slogan. The same could not be said for the next sticker, which proudly declared "Australia: Support it or fuck off!". I'm not sure what the sticker was defining as "support" but I'm fairly certain that even daring to question it would have earned me a rousing 'fuck off'. The kind of climate that allows this sticker to made, sold, and proudly displayed does not welcome self-reflection or critical questioning, especially not from outsiders. This type of nationalistic fervour is everywhere with barely anyone bringing it to ask.

A few months ago Channel Seven's Sunrise featured a report on a young Muslim man who burned the Australian flag and his ensuing "journey to redemption"(or was that assimilation?). Clips of the flag-burning incident also featured clips of drunken thugs wrapped in Australian flags with provocative slogans like "you've flown here, we've grown here" written on them. However we weren't treated to a story on the redemption of these slobs, in fact no-one criticised them in the whole report. I can't speak for the motives of the young Muslim's attack on the flag, but by the end of the report I felt like burning the bastard flag myself. You feel alienated enough being an Anglo-Saxon non-Australian, I can only imagine how it feels to come from the Middle East or Asia. Whenever I hear the Neanderthal cry of "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" it send a chill down my spine like a "Heil! Heil!", and it's certainly an equally brainless and pathetic chant as the Nazi call. It is a rally cry for the hate-filled and frustrated, and a lot of people are answering it.

Hyperbolic words like 'fascism' are thrown around often without proper thought, especially towards America, but in Australia's case it may not be too far wide of the mark. It is certainly closer to fascism than any other Western nation. America is in the grip of a repressive conservatism too, no doubt about it, but America is different. Its patriotism is the hubristic triumphalism found in any empire at its height. The flag waving belies a genuine confidence, some might say arrogance in its power. Fascism does not thrive in these conditions, it feeds on self-loathing and insecurity, traits that Australia has in spades.

America severed itself from the British Empire and stepped boldly forward with its own flag, its own identity. It set out created a new country and succeeded. Australia by contrast sort of stumbled into being, inexorably tied to 'the Mother Land' even now. If Australia is so sure of itself why does it still have to have a Union Jack on its flag? If it is so forceful and independent why did it vote to keep a foreign monarch as head of state? The answer is that behind the tough talk Australia has a terrible lack of confidence in itself. It fails to stand aloft on its own terms and so collapses into imbecilic, unquestioning rhetoric about being "the greatest country on earth" without considering what that means. The best country in the world surely wouldn't need to keep telling itself that it was the best, but Australia pumps its national ego up again again with cheap patriotic pep-talks because otherwise it would collapse. Rarely is the question of why Australia is supposedly go great explored as the self-relection would be too complex, too ambiguous. Yes it is beautiful, but it would be a pretty bleak country with no beauty spots at all. Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa are all beautiful too, earth is beautiful so why is Australia special? Yes it is a stable country nicer to live in than, say Zimbabwe, but so are Europe, New Zealand and North America, so why is Australia singled out? The patriots shun such difficult questions and prefer instead to use sport as a measure of who's 'best', because that's something easy and tangible you can measure. If you win the most gold medals you must be the best country right?

America is the brash, independent offspring and Australia is the boy who likes to act hard in the playground but in reality likes holding Mummy's hand and secretly wishes he was still on the teat. We see it all the time in the obsession with Britain that is not reciprocated. Brits like Australia and Australians, but they also like Americans, Irish, Canadians and other nationalities. Australia holds no 'special place'. Similarly Australia has a place in the national consciousness as nice place to live, but so do New Zealand, Tuscany, Spain and the south of France. Australia is not given any special priority. In Australia by contrast Britain is held up a a sort of obsessive love/hate object. Whenever they beat us at sport (which is admittedly quite a lot) the nation goes into a Oedipal frenzy, but they still cling to our flag, to our Queen and to the idea that we are desperate with envy of them. A recent advert show hordes of Brits flocking to Australia from drizzly old Blighty to sample the wonders of Bundy Rum in the sunshine. Thus Australia is defied as a desirable place not because it is nice in and of itself, but because the Poms want to come, so it must be good. It's the national equivalent of self-esteem coming from being liked by the cool kids.

Hitler thrived on Germany's lack of esteem after defeat in the great war. Mussolini appealed to Italians' jealously of the other European nations' empires. John Howard's ugly, xenophobic policies thrive in a nation with only a half-formed idea of itself. Until Australia becomes truly independent it will continue with its destructive bipolar nationalism, with its fear of change, with its hatred of non-Anglo-Saxons. My fear is that the rot has already set in too far.

1 comment:

the airport exile said...

This gets right to the pumping heart of the matter. Well written and necessary. I find it hilarious that anti-immigration attitudes come from nations that were founded on immigration - so Australians saying "Flown here, grown here" is an idiotic statement. If anyone has the right to use that it's the dwindling indigenous population. The same goes for America. But I suppose it's the natives fault for not being strong enough to resist the white man, isn't it? History is written by the winners, but they seem to forget that not all the losers were evil...