Another year, another bloody Australia Day. Like most people who reside in Australia, I was happy for the public holiday. And along with most members of what Gerard Henderson labels ‘ the intelligentsia’ (who are you, Henderson, Trotsky?) I rolled my eyes at the waving and wearing of that imperial vestige we call ‘ the flag’, among other things.
But this is such a predictable leftie response, isn’t it? The micro-debates that crop up around this time of year are full of predictable positions. The lefties extol the virtues of multiculturalism, rename the day ‘Invasion Day’, and call people with Southern Cross tattoos bogans. The conservatives complain about lefties always complaining, and cite the stability, prosperity and good weather we are all so very lucky to enjoy.
We always talk about the accoutrement of our patriotism, but never our patriotism itself. The reason we don’t is probably because there’s not much more than that to Australian patriotism – the accessories, rather than the whole outfit. All style, no substance, as the cliché goes.
If we were to see Australians draped in flags, getting drunk and hurling insults at people who aren’t white, we may be inclined to think that Australian patriotism is senseless and jingoistic. Yet the same thing could happen (and often does) on St Patrick’s Day, or perhaps even during a buck’s (or hen’s) night. The drunkenness and the insensitive remarks are largely the same, though the accoutrement has changed. On St Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish, on a buck’s or hen’s night, everyone is a g-string-snapping hornbag, while on Australia Day, everyone is a dinky-di boganic automaton.
Are Australians really so patriotic in the way we think they are? Australia Day is for most people, I think, less a national day of back-patting and more another excuse to dress up and drink (two favourite Australian pastimes).
I remember reading Gideon Haigh’s essay on nationalism, ‘In Matters of Prejudice’, a couple of years ago. He described the different sort of patriotism he saw in ‘the bush’ as opposed to the face-painting and flag-waving he saw in ‘the city’. The farmer he described meeting had an understated love for his country expressed through a small stickpin of the flag on his shirt. (Again, it all comes down to fashion!)
Maybe I’m just trying to make it all a bit more palatable, but I see the flag-waving and face-painting of Australia Day as similar to Halloween. It’s a game, where people go out, get together, dress up a bit and have some ‘fun’. It is Australians playing at being patriotic when really they are nothing of the sort. Most Australians most of the time don’t seem to give a toss about expressing love for their country. The regalia that hangs off shoulders and car windows on 26 January is what Frederic Jameson would call a ‘blank parody’ (or a pastiche) of patriotism. ‘Yeah, Australia’s great’, and it doesn’t move much beyond that. If it seems like I am trying to characterise this as unproblematic or harmless, think again, as I think it is probably the most problematic kind of patriotism: blind and terribly unthinking. It is an altogether different beast from, say, the United States’ patriotism, which is indoctrinated into children and fostered in almost every other influential institution. In the US, people are told their country is great all the time, and why it is great. Here in Australia, it’s one day of the year, often alcohol-fuelled and carbo-loaded with barbeque food. Australia’s really isn’t the sort of earnest, self-serious patriotism of the US, and for that reason is so easily revealed to be desultory.
Perhaps it is time that in discussing the relevance and meaning of Australia Day we stop focusing on the fashion itself and stop taking it so seriously, when for most people it is nowadays either just a day off, or a national dress-up party/barbeque.