Monday, January 21, 2008

An Imagined Community: Australia and Nationalism

As Australia Day approaches, we can expect a lot of pointless navel-gazing from commentators in the media about what it means to be an Australian. Much of the commentary will take on a familiar format: rhetorical questions, for instance, about whether being Australian means going to the cricket, or holding barbecues, or drinking beer, or engaging in other similarly mundane, cliched activities - all will eventually be answered in the negative, of course.

Others will point, with saccharine sincerity, to the long-standing Australian traditions of "mateship", the "fair go" and the tenacity of the "Aussie battler" as defining the national ethos - though, if they are being honest with themselves, they will also acknowledge that the concepts of friendship, fairness and perseverance are hardly unique to Australia. Others still will opt to take a less charitable view of the country, pointing to the decline in egalitarianism and the rise of exclusionary nationalism during the Howard years. While this may well be true, these are, again, hardly social movements that one can say are uniquely confined to Australia.

Regardless of which angle these doyens choose to take on our national narrative, I can guarantee one thing: all will offer the disclaimer at some point during their insufferable musings that defining the Australian culture is "difficult". The reason for this is obvious, though few of them - I suspect - will acknowledge it: there isn't anything especially unique about Australian culture. There is nothing here that cannot be found millions of times over among the peoples of the world. There is no thread which runs through each of our 21 million citizens to the exclusion of all the other people on the planet. All that binds us is the scope of a largely arbitrary geographical boundary.

Of course, we are not unique in this regard. Defining the culture of a large, pluralistic society will always be impossible. The concept of a nation - no matter how apparently strongly defined its "culture" or "traditions" are - is still an artificial one, one created and bought into by the human beings who live within its boundaries. We are, to invoke the memorable term coined by Benedict Anderson, living in "imagined communities":

"Benedict Anderson defined a nation as 'an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign'. An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and cannot be) based on quotidian face-to-face interaction between its members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity. As Anderson puts it, a nation 'is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion'."



The consequence of this is that the nature of national identity will always be illusory, will always be tenuous and will always be the source of internal dispute. Many gallons of ink and tons of paper will be employed in the exploration of what defines this nation, but all of it will be wasted. Besides our humanity (hence the broad themes, common to most people around the world - like fairness and egalitarianism - that have been offered as definitions of Australian culture previously) and our collective willingness to submit to an ambiguous, fractured vision of nationhood, we - as a people - share little in common. In a nation that nurtures plurality, supports the sovereignty of the individual and enforces both with the provision of liberal legislation, none of this should be a problem: regardless of our dispositions towards nationhood, societies should sustain themselves through a process of mutual tolerance. It is only when conceptions of nationality are artificially contrived and enforced upon societies that this system is threatened: we are emerging from just such an age.

To quote Waleed Aly, from Sunday's Age:


"John Howard nurtured a type of civic national religion. Within the space of a decade, Anzac Day rose to the level of sacrament. The flag, too, became sacred — to the point where schools were ordered to fly it if they wanted more federal funding. Even when drunken hordes wearing it as a cape rioted against non-whites in Cronulla, Howard could not bring himself to object to its sordid use: 'I would never condemn people for being proud of the Australian flag,' he declared, sending the discussion in a nationalist direction. A month later, a flag seller in Ringwood reported his sales at a 40-year high."



Aly then speculates on why it was that Howard found middle-Australia - normally skeptical about conspicuous displays of patriotism - so receptive to his neo-nationalistic agenda:


"Questions of culture and identity became naturally militarised in the post-September 11 era. The prevailing anxiety had everything — our cities, our lifestyles, our culture — under threat from invasion. The implication was that we had to defend ourselves. This naturally made the re-emergence of Anzac Day a perfect fit. It is instructive that the Cronulla rioters dubbed themselves sons of Anzacs. The immigrants they obviously detested, by implication, were not. It is a subtle but important indication..."



Given the fragile and contingent nature of national identity, it should be no surprise that it often manifests itself not as a positive affirmation of what we are but as a violent opposition to what we are not. This, history will show us, is the problem with nationalism. It cannot, by definition, be inclusive as a movement because there is nothing that universally binds the people of a nation or a culture: these are entirely the artifacts of imagination. In lieu of this, our only recourse is to identify that which we are not: those within our imagined communities who differ most conspicuously from those promoting the nationalistic agenda. Cronulla, then, wasn't borne from a resurgence in national identity, it was born from the frustration of not being able to find such an identity in the first place.

All this surely must bring us face to face with the question concerning the proper place of nationalism in our society. Traditionally and almost universally, nationalism has occupied a privileged position in the realm of social dialogue, almost beyond any possibility of reproach. Love for and commitment to one's nation was seen as the height of nobility. But the study of history must surely bring this conception of nationalism into question.

Recently, religion - which has traditionally occupied the same, privileged position in social dialogue as patriotism - has come under strident criticism from a number of best-selling authors. Sam Harris, among others, makes the point that the "free-pass" given to religion is no longer tenable in the aftermath of September 11th: the religious beliefs that people hold can demonstrably effect the lives of others, and it is therefore folly to consider these beliefs inscrutable. When apologists for religious belief make the point that not all religious belief is bad, that much of it makes people feel good and provides meaning to lives that would otherwise have none, Harris argues (a little too unequivocally in my opinion) that it is just such an attitude that enables radicalised religion in the first place. If people hold the a priori belief that religion is "good" and that all "bad" religions are simply corruptions of "true" faith - a phenomena that philosopher Dan Dennett refers to as "belief in belief" - then it becomes difficult to offer meaningful criticism of any religious belief until after it manifests itself violently. But by then, of course, it is too late.

The same arguments can easily be levelled against nationalism. While much of it is harmless - while much of it has a beneficial effect on individuals and the imagined communities they constitute - much of it is not. Much of it is, as I have already detailed, divisive and exclusionary. So long as we unquestioningly accept the premise that the patriot - the man who unfalteringly loves his nation of birth - is a shining examples to the rest of us, then we facilitate the kind of belligerent nationalism that has wrought only violence and division wherever it has been manifested. When we see Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots fighting at the tennis over long-standing nationalistic divisions, we cannot help but see the senseless folly in this. The question is, why can we not see the same when it applies to us? Why can't we see just how arbitrary and unnecessary our own nationalistic yearnings are?

"Arbitrary" here is the right word. Let me stress that there is good sense in identifying with those who live near to us. My compassion is, in a way, much more efficiently directed towards those in my street than towards those half a world away. There is sense, too, in a more universal identification: the acknowledgement of our common humanity and the inherently equal worth of all human life. But there is absolutely no sense - especially in an age where they are defined increasingly less by racial or ethnic distinctions - in national identification. It is an imaginary, arbitrarily drawn border that stretches local compassion too wide and confines universal compassion too narrowly. The day that the sovereignty of nations is eroded in favour of governance both more local and more global, is the day that world-peace appears on the distant horizon. Until that day we are stuck with our imagined communities: archaic, arbitrary and inherently divisive.

Happy Australia Day everyone!

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