01 December, 2006


Australians don’t seem to know quite who they are. That is, they are constantly banging on about their ‘national identity’ and ‘what it means to be an Australian’. Of course, some people know – politicians, the more right-wing among Sydney’s taxi drivers, the handful of remaining farmers, and so on. This rather vocal group of ultra-conservatives thinks it’s something to do with ‘mateship’, ‘openness’, ‘honesty’, ‘patriotism’ and so on (to quote from a recent radio phone-in show). Interestingly, they also know what it means to be un-Australian. Apparently this is people who are ‘intellectual’, ‘academic’, ‘urbane’, who don’t like sport, or who are un-patriotic. (They use the word ‘un-Australian’ quite unashamedly, despite the sinister associations it has with the word ‘un-American' – as in The House Un-American Activities Committee. But, of course, it would be un-Australian and probably ‘intellectual’ even to know about those dark times so far away and long ago.)

It’s all very sad. The main reason that politicians want Australians to have a sense of their ‘national identity’ is so that they will make good cannon fodder if there is ever another war. (Sorry, I mean so they’ll be ‘patriotic’.) Politicians are nasty.

The main reason that Australians want a sense of themselves is probably that they’re only human and we humans naturally like to know what tribe we’re in. The thing is, though, everybody here (except a handful of aboriginals – who are in an even worse state) left their own tribe behind just a short while ago. Culturally, they are Greeks, or English, or Vietnamese, or whatever, but they can’t really belong to those tribes anymore.

The sad thing is that national identities exist mostly to make people feel better about themselves by claiming to have traits that are better than other people’s. They exist to exclude or denigrate other groups. They rest largely on alleged racial characteristics that make one society superior to another in some way (the Italians are great lovers, the British are a ‘bulldog breed’, the Germans are thorough and efficient, the French… well, the less said about the French, the better.) And it’s all bullshit. National, or racial, or tribal identity is a dismal hangover from humanity’s distant past.

Being part of such a young and thriving society as Australia could be such a great opportunity. Why should we do anything the way it was done before? Can’t we learn from the mistakes of nationalism, racism, and exclusion? What about a society that feels good because it is human? Or has pride in itself because it is so diverse? Or which welcomes outsiders because it feels it is part of the world at large and embodies something of every culture within its wide compass?

Personally, I’m a citizen of the World. I’m a human being first and an Australian, Brit, European, Westerner, or whatever, second. My views on other people and on myself do not depend on where I happen to be sitting today.

It isn’t so hard to know who you are.

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