A comfortable nation afraid to get off the couch

In late 1847, Karl Marx and his fellow communitarian radicals were accused by certain bourgeois conservatives of undermining the fundamental social institutions of private property and the family. His riposte was characteristically scathing, and ingenious:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population … Abolition of the family! On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family based? On capital, on private gain.

The exploitation and uneven distribution inherent to capitalism, Marx claimed, had already corrupted these older forms of social life, reducing them to obscene parodies of their former selves. He thus dismissed the allegation as entirely bogus, akin to being charged with the murder of someone who is already dead.

The same sentiment should be revived today amid the frequent claims that foreign, unintegrated ethnic clusters are eroding Australian identity, a claim normally backed up by an appeal to 'Australian values' as the rite of passage to full participation in the benefits and privileges of civil society.

The truth is that the unenlightened self-interest and moral decadence that have sustained this country’s much touted economic growth have already hollowed out Australian identity. And thus the mantra-like use of the terms 'Australian' or 'un-Australian' should be regarded as little more than empty nostalgia, hearkening back to a time when such terms actually meant something.

The clearest index of this loss of national identity has been the shift in foreign policy and immigration. (For a contiguous reading of many of these same political trends, I must refer the reader to Peter Hartcher’s wonderful Quarterly Essay, Bipolar Nation.)

Paul Keating’s willingness to engage with the life and economy of the Asia-Pacific was itself an expression of the strength of Australian identity, which he saw as sustained by national remorse for past crimes, prodded by a government unafraid of moral leadership, codified in an Australian Republic, and nourished by the depth of artistic imagination. Such an Australia, said Keating, has nothing to fear from the prospect of Asian immigration because our internal fortitude could withstand the 'tide', and the sheer attractiveness of our abundant way of life couldn’t be resisted for long.

Of course, this robust vision had to distinguish between the 'actually existing Australia' – whose racist feeling and addiction to sport inspired nothing but disdain from Keating – and that grander reality which could be modelled, aspired to, achieved in our time. The real threat to progress is for the people to fall out of step with the government, and not the other way around. Keating recognized, better than any other politician, that in order to achieve our nation, as Bertolt Brecht put it, it is necessary "to dissolve a people and elect another."

Howard’s "relaxed and comfortable" approach to national life, then, was not simply a rejection of Keating’s aggressive, deliberate reforms. It represented a vile pandering to our cultural inertia, an affirmation of our basest tendencies. And whereas there was little room for sport in Keating’s Australia-to-come, Howard’s immigration policy seems modelled after his sports obsession: it is a chest-beating, green-and-gold type of national pride that is most keenly felt when staring down a formidable foe.

Every bit as shameless and recalcitrant as John Hewson’s opposition to Mabo, Howard’s persistent appeal to this country’s latent racism has re-energised the role of fear in the national psyche – fear that our prized possessions might be taken from us by some foreign intruder, that we ourselves might be dispossessed of our cultural birthright. There was thus something terrifyingly accurate in the comments of one of the participants in the Cronulla riots of 11 December 2005:

It was better than Australia Day … I had the best time of my life. Not because we were there fighting Lebos, but just the atmosphere, you know. Everyone has had enough of them.

Isn’t this is what 'Australia' means today? Beneath the thin veneer of our hackneyed national myths, it stands for the translation of a lust for sporting rivalry into populist hostility against foreigners, whether on the beaches of Cronulla, or in the form of anti-immigration sentiment expressed by recent immigrants, wanting, as it were, to close the door behind them (a theme that emerged strongly from Judith Brett’s recent book, Ordinary People’s Politics).

As the ideal political counterpart to this quasi-patriotic bravado, Howard’s tough language on "protecting our borders" functions as a kind of perverse theatre designed to convince others – at home and abroad – that there is some national treasure left to protect. It is hard not to draw the connection to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which Frank’s ridiculous sexual antics conceal his total impotence.

Perhaps we are now witnessing the local fulfilment of one of Jean Baudrillard’s most astute predictions: that the West "will be defined solely by the foreign bodies that haunt its periphery: those it has expelled."



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Existing comments

Hello! It was Paul's 'willingness to engage in the ...life of the Asia-Pacific' that led his government into accepting the invasion of East Timor in 1975, after its independence from Portugal, that helped bring about 24 years of murder and repression by the Indonesian government.

Claude Rigney | 24 April 2007  

Mr Rigney takes exception to the Australian Government's engagement with Indonesia, notwithstanding its murderous regime. I'm not qualified to comment about that beyond noting that Indonesia invaded East Timor during an era of realpolitik evil called the Cold War, only some months after the re-unification of Vietnam, only a decade after the overthrow of Sukarno.
Finally, after too many deaths, it was Indonesian president Habibie who initiated East Timor's liberation.
In 1979, I recall sitting on a bus on Parramatta Rd, Sydney, when I overheard a gaggle of school boys up the back talking in broad Strine about their heroes, NSW's Sheffield team; how good the Waugh twins were, especially Steve.
I turned to look, and not one of those children had an appearance of Anglo-Celtic ancestry; Lebanese, perhaps, Vietnamese, Chinese, those kids are indeed Aussies, one and all.
I am proud of our culture that is strong enough to be tolerant enough to welcome diversity. I am proud of our public education system, through which that tolerance and diversity is engendered, and the culture thus nourished.

David Arthur | 24 April 2007  

I couldn't agree with you more, Scott. Howard so skillfully positioned himself as the leader for the 'battlers', while systematically undermining the structures that protect the vulnerable - whether through IR legislation, the destruction of welfare, mandatory detention or even the attack on media ownership laws. What alarms me more at present, however, are the signs that Kevin Rudd may not be so different. But I cling to my hopes of a genuinely courageous moral leadership!

Joanna | 26 April 2007  

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