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Manipulating the nation on Anzac Day

Australian flagAs Anzac day approaches, Australian flags start flourishing in our streets and on the young as fashion statements. To many, this display of patriotism/nationalism is inoffensive and appears even as a sign of cohesion. But it may also be a worrying facet of the growing appeal found in exclusionary identity politics.

As defined by Benedict Anderson, nationalism rests on the idea of an 'imagined political community'. Although the tensions which accompany the idea of a nation and of a national feeling are evident, most would associate this feeling with some kind of innate strength.

Most of us would have felt this irrational pride at the exploits of some sportsperson or actor. That they live thousands of kilometres away, perhaps even overseas, that they earn far more than the average person, and that our chances of meeting them are extremely low, does not seem to matter. We may still feel closer to them than to the friendly salesperson of 'foreign' background at the corner shop.

Nationalism forces us to identify with people with whom we have nothing in common but a birth place and a government; this birth place can extend, as in Australia, as far as a continent.

Supporters of nationalism would reply that we share much more. Fellow citizens share a common history: they are bound by the dead, by a common heritage and destiny. But what helped nationalism to survive, apart from people's wish to belong to defined and limited communities, was the possibility of selecting what enters one's heritage. The argument for shared history as the basis of nationalism takes into account primarily the glorious elements of one's country. At best, it twists the darkest hours in order to give them a veneer of respectability.

The appraisal of the role of France during the Second World War by the French is telling. The Vichy regime gave birth to the 'Vichy syndrome': denial became the tagline and General De Gaulle praised an abstract 'eternal France' for having freed itself. From this myth was derived an apparent unity against the enemy and the rejection of the Vichy regime as illegitimate. Vichy was a mere parenthesis, an unfortunate accident: it was alien to France.

An important part of the French population found morally reassuring the idea of this quasi-universal Resistance. When Robert Paxton rightfully argued that Vichy had collaborated en masse, willingly and ideologically, the reaction from France was extreme and the academic was vilified: he was an American; it was illegitimate for a foreigner to judge France.

The way in which Vichy syndrome developed is reminiscent of the creation of the denialist culture that became a cornerstone of Australian history-writing. The Australia John Howard praised in opposition to Keating's 'big picture' and to the 'black armband view of history' was similarly selective. Australia's history became one of great achievements; the balance was tipped to the positive, despite a few 'blemishes'.

In his refusal to apologise, Howard made these blemishes someone else's responsibility. Those who had done wrong in Australia were long gone and not directly related to 'us', yet they were celebrated in the ideas of the bush and its egalitarian values. Moreover, their wrongdoings were right in the moral settings of different times. Like the collaborators in France who sent thousands of people to their deaths in concentration camps, the cruel behaviour of the settlers towards Indigenous Australians was excused by the circumstance of history.

Despite the bad name given to nationalism in academic circles with reference to events such as colonisation and collaboration, many still hold dear the idea of nationalism as a progressive force. A new generation of academics has recently sought to reclaim nationalism from the xenophobes and to use this 'patriotism' as a weapon for 'progressive' change. They argue that the growing crowds of flag-wearing, southern star-tattooed, Aussie Aussie Aussie-yelling youth flocking to ANZAC cove should be reclaimed by the left.

Both Australia Day and ANZAC Day have become increasingly visually aggressive displays of Australian pride which fortified the Howard government and its ethno-exclusivist vision of Australian nationalism. Its strength has led Kevin Rudd to refuse to oppose it strongly. Instead, he chose the safe middle ground of reassuring historiography and pure nationalism; he too wants Australians to be 'relaxed and comfortable'. With Rudd, it is time 'to move beyond the arid intellectual debates of the history wars and the culture wars of recent years'. So, why couldn't, indeed shouldn't, the 'progressive' left use this movement for its own purpose?

'Reclaiming' this 'patriotism' poses two major issues. First, revolutionaries relying on nationalism as the motor for their universal goals have quickely seen that such strategies will backfire. Any kind of nationalism, even one resting on universal values or human rights, will eventually be limited by its own definition and create a form of exclusivism: you are Australian or you are not. Would all flag-bearers accept or tolerate those who believe in another, non-Australian, way?

The second problem with nationalism is more subtle, but perhaps more perverse. Using the patriotism or nationalism of the 'masses' relies on the populist tricks increasingly used by the oligarchic alliance of wealth and science. These view  the 'people' as a tool to be used to push an agenda, or an issue to be dealt with, rather than as the basis for democracy.

While it is important to acknowledge the potency of ideas such as nationalism and their implications, it is a mistake to believe one can tame exclusivist concepts for the sake of greater purposes. It has been attempted before and has failed consistently because of the inherent contradictions at the core of such a project. As many Western countries such as the United Kingdom witness increasingly violent proto-fascist demonstrations, let us hope that this ANZAC Day will not be the day patriotism shows its ugly face.

 Aurelien MondonAurélien Mondon is co-organiser of the Australian Nationalism Symposium that takes place today, 22 April 2010 at La Trobe University Melbourne. He is co-founder of the Melbourne Free University project.

Topic tags: aurelien mondon, anzac day, nationalism, patriotism, gallipoli.vichy syndrome, john howard



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Existing comments

Excellent and thoughtful article - thank you Aurelien.

Helen Bergen | 23 April 2010  

cannot a clear distinction be drawn between the dark fore of nationalism and the bright light of patriotism? Wilde was wrong about the latter because it conveys pride whereas the former toys with hysteria. As a writer I have spent much time resisting nationalism only to be condemned as unpatriotic.

peter roebuck | 23 April 2010  

I am a Vietnam Veteran and I am commenting about Aurelien's article on ANZAC Day from that perspective. I acknowledge that the politicians can and do do use Anzac Day for their own advantage. That disturbs me. I was at the Dawn Service at the Shrine in St Kilda Road in Melbourne and later participated in the March. I usually do both in Canberra where I live. I was as usual extremely sensitive to what was being said on the Day, both at the Ceremonies and in the Media. I agree that in the Howard years an aggressive stance was generated which made me feel quite uncomfortable. The events of Australia Day Cronulla Riot may have been in part triggered by that rhetoric.Since then I feel the Nationalist political temperature has fallen. I was not relaxed and comfortable but at least I was not so tense this year.

For me ANZAC Day is a time to remember those who died, were wounded in mind or body and those, some well known to me who, burdened by the events of the unpopular war, "topped" themselves or who hit the drink or other drugs to kill the pain.

I just hope that we Veterans will be allowed to spend ANZAC Day in remembering those we worked with all those years ago who are no longer with us.I also hope those whose role is to influence the public, respect our views and feelings as in the end, it is OUR day.

Gavin | 26 April 2010  

I'm with Gavin on this one. Anzac Day belongs to him and those who would grieve with him. It's time that they took it back from governments and politicians who have and co-opted it for their own purposes. Howard desecrated Anzac by using it to shroud his military, security, and immigration initiatives in mindless and unquestioning patriotism.

May I recommend the new book What's Wrong with Anzac? by Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake?

Warwick | 28 April 2010  

Thank you Aurelien, Jock
"You see that fellow with the grin, one eye on the girls,
The other on the pub, his uniform shabby already?
Well, don’t let him hear us, but he’s the Unknown Soldier,
They just let him out, they say he lives forever.
They put him away with flowers and flags and forget him,
But he always comes when they want him. He does the fighting."
- Douglas Stewart “Sonnets to the Unknown Soldier”

John William McQualter | 12 May 2010  

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