How to consider identity, pride and country

My weekly Guardian column:

I rarely feel proud to be Australian. Perhaps it’s a personal distaste for any form of nationalism, or my long-held belief that human rights abuses increasingly define our nation as brutal, petty and racist. It’s hard to feel pride when we… lock up children in Pacific detention camps… and incarcerate indigenous men at… record rates.
When I… wrote a column… in the Guardian last year about gaining German citizenship, I explained that:

“My identity is a conflicted and messy mix that incorporates Judaism, atheism, anti-Zionism, Germanic traditions and Anglo-Saxon-Australian beliefs. And yet I both routinely reject and embrace them all. It sounds exhausting but it’s actually invigorating. I never feel I belong anywhere. I can’t be a Jew, atheist, German or Australian without a bundle of caveats.”

A number of readers understood my point, feeling culturally and socially unsure where exactly to fit in. Yet others wondered why I felt so estranged from my country of birth, Australia. After all, they insisted, we aren’t perfect, no country is, and we’re far freer than the vast bulk of states on the planet.
The message appeared to be that I should be grateful for what we have, stop the leftist self-loathing, celebrate the strengths and condemn the faults while campaigning to make them better.
I think about the notion of identity and the ways in which our public discourse constantly insists on a bland association with Australian mateship, a cliché notion that means everything from waving the flag on Anzac Day to enjoying a beer with friends on Bondi beach.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these acts, but they’re largely undertaken by men and women from Anglo backgrounds using alcohol as a perennial lubricant. Because our political and media elites are mostly white, it’s hard not to conclude that pushing this particular version of Australianness hasn’t been designed for the Muslim imam, the asylum seeker from Pakistan or the Aboriginal man from Katherine. How truly inclusive is our country?
During last weekend’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, I heard Australian historian Henry Reynolds, author of many books (including the recent… Forgotten War… on the battles between white settlers and Indigenous fighters), speak on the great silences that still permeate this nation. “We should stop looking overseas for meaning”, he said. “It’s time to come home, and look at our own history.” Reynolds resisted the current Australian government’s push to take our history back to imperial times. He asked us:

“Why do you celebrate Anzacs so much? With tens of thousands killed in foreign wars we have to say these men died for a cause, fighting for democracy. But I don’t think they did. Recognising our past is important and this affects how we see our future.”

Listening to Reynolds made me reflect on my own uncomfortableness when assessing whether Australia has ever been the “lucky country” for the masses of men, women and children never treated as equal citizens. The Saturday Paper… recently investigated… the shockingly high number of black kids in state care – 1,000 children are taken every year in New South Wales alone – which they headlined, The Next Stolen Generation.
How can these facts not affect our feelings towards the place we call home?
Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser took part in another writer’s festival session last weekend. He discussed his… recent book, which calls for the closure of the US intelligence base Pine Gap and the abolition of the US alliance with Canberra. He was asked by a questioner about the real Australian spirit.
We like to think of ourselves as larrikins and anti-authoritarians, the man said, yet as a nation we blindly defer to US whims on war and policy. Fraser agreed and said that it would take a political shift to become a truly independent country. I wish I didn’t agree with him, but we have never been really been free from foreign direction.
So where’s the dissent from this worldview, from the idea that perhaps I should be far more thankful for the peace, security and artistry offered here?
The 2013 World Peace Index found Australia was one of the… most peaceful places… on earth. True, I feel weirdly excited when watching Australia play the World Cup football, even though we have no chance of the championship. I travel the world and defend my nation’s essential goodness and decency, even though I harshly condemn its discriminatory stance. I’m excited about the new film by Australian director David Michod,… The Rover, because it’s a cinematic story with a local, dystopian heart. I was deeply impressed during the writer’s festival by the ingenuity of Sydney-based special effects company… Animal Logic… when talking about their remarkably creative work. I like that tourists in Sydney can purchase a… kangaroo scrotum… keychain.
Does it matter that citizens aren’t always proud of their country? My role as a journalist and commentator isn’t to heap praise on political leaders, or presume their motives are pure. My responsibility isn’t to find happy stories to make readers feel good about the world. As US investigative journalist… Jeremy Scahill… said on a panel with me during last week’s Sydney writer’s festival, our role as reporters isn’t to develop Stockholm Syndrome when being around the powerful, military or elites.
Governments come and go and Australia is undeniably a… more equal society… than when I was born in the 1970s, though there’s a long way to go for true parity between all the different classes. This reality is a computing impossibility within a capitalist system, so wishing for it is fruitless.
The issue here isn’t falling into the trap of proving how much I love my country to appease the false patriots who demand allegiance to the draconian idea of “being Australian”. Instead, I’ll believe that my country could one day, with the population not being led but leading, become a nation in harmony with its original, Indigenous inhabitants and reconcile its colonial past with a bright and egalitarian future.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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