NOT all that long ago, ”Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” was just an innocuous, if inane, chant at sporting events. Commemoration of Anzac Day was greeted with indifference. And the idea of tattooing sunburnt flesh with the Southern Cross was, well, strange. Not today.
For many, this new patriotism is no more than an expression of chauvinism. Loving your country means beating your breast and declaring for all to hear: ”Straya – love it or leave it.”
Not just that, but believing that you can identify ”real” Australians and, conversely, those who don’t belong here.
Such patriotism is indeed the refuge of ratbags and racists. The mistake of the Australian liberal left has been to dismiss all invocations of national solidarity as dog-whistling. Better to avoid patriotism than to be tainted with the stain of jingo. Better to embrace a morally pure love of humanity – the cosmopolitan love of the stranger. But we do not live in a world of cosmopolitan purity. We continue to live in a world in which communities count, not least national ones. We address each other not in Esperanto, but in a national language. And we judge ourselves not according to abstract standards but to values moulded by national experience and bearing the imprint of national character.
We take our attachment to egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go seriously. Most of us have a warm affection for our country and its qualities.
Until recently, these feelings were largely consonant with the benign patriotism defended by George Orwell. Patriotism involved, as he argued, a ”devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people”.
This kind of patriotism – subtle and contained, defensive rather than aggressive – isn’t about putting your love of country on conspicuous display.
Something happened during the Howard years. Patriotic kitsch became respectable. Australians who loved their country all of sudden felt the compulsion to win plaudits for doing so. They succumbed to crass sentimentalism.
And so, where once Australians cringed when Pauline Hanson draped herself in our flag, today thousands of young Australians do so while greeting dawn in the Dardanelles with a can of VB in hand, slurring the words to Waltzing Matilda.
The corruption of patriotism has got to the point where AFL coaches vapidly appeal to the spirit of Gallipoli to fire up their teams for ”battle” in Anzac Day fixtures.
It is possible to regard such shifts in sensibility as the result of a vulgar narcissism that exists not just in Australia but in all Western societies. Patriotism has become just another symptom of people’s dependence on an admiring audience, of their insatiable need to find emotional bonds with others in a world otherwise devoid of meaning.
There is a more telling tale, though, of progressive intellectual and political failure. Preferring the comfortable terrain of moral righteousness, the Australian left surrendered national values to reactionaries and racists in the culture wars.
John Howard was free to pervert egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go in pursuit of his warped view of Australian history. Patriotism, unsurprisingly, became the preserve of right-wing ideological zealots. A love of country meant the George Bush patriotism of fighting missionary wars in the Middle East.
As Howard’s former speechwriter, Christopher Pearson, argued as recently as last month, one ”cannot have an adequate notion of patriotism unless it allows for the possibility of wars, defensive or pre-emptive, waged on foreign soil” in defence of ”the Judeo-Christian ethos”. Yes, and look where that got us.
A very different Australian patriotism is, in fact, possible. We needn’t pander to either racist narcissism or deluded neo-conservatism. There can be a liberal patriotism in which a love of country needn’t mean the simplicity of ”my country, right or wrong”. This very phrase came from a 19th-century senator from Missouri, Carl Schurz, who actually said: ”My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”
The point is that any authentic patriotism takes seriously one’s national tradition. It is about knowing what is best about your country, and demanding that it live up to the best of its tradition. When it falls short, one’s patriotic obligation is to criticise one’s country.
As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it in a speech last week, engaging with our history necessarily means confronting some ”hard truths about our past”.
There are radical implications to understanding things this way. For one thing, it reveals the poverty of the conservative view that patriotism must mean we must withhold all criticism and insist on a ”positive balance sheet” in the national history.
It also underlines how a national story is never etched in stone but is open to debate. It is only right, for instance, that our national identity should bear the imprint of the diversity that makes up contemporary Australia.
Realising such a patriotism, however, requires a rethinking on the part of Australian progressives. It is time for those of us who believe there can be civic virtue in loving our country to reclaim patriotism.
By: Tim Soutphommasane, THEAGE.COM.AU