Australia’s Values

And so we arrive at another Australia Day, a national holiday affixed with such contrasting emotions as to be one of the more confounding days on the calendar. Coincidentally, my last post on this blog was exactly a year ago, where I lamented the history attributed to this day. (2013 was a very busy year for me, but I feel this is a good day to recommit to my writing here.) However, with this post I would like to look at something different. 

During the past 12 months I took a sociology class at a university that is perhaps best known for its prestige and tendency to produce pretentious wannabe academics. In the midst of some disappointing conversations on social issues, the idea was tossed up by the lecturer that the quest to name cultural values, and the pride that a nation can have in them, is misguided and exclusive. Inevitably, she said, cultural values would leave people out and draw a line between those considered “Australian”, and “non-Australian”.  She stopped just short of saying that it is wrong to have cultural values in Australia.

I find this a strange notion. I wished I had voiced my disagreement, but maybe I was too flummoxed and challenged by the idea to speak my mind. I guess now I have had a chance to reflect. 

The first point I would like to make, is that I understand the argument. Proscriptive cultural values have the potential to exclude, especially when they are founded on narrow interpretations of how a life should be lived. Think societies based around religious dogma – such as in Iran – or those that embrace definitive personifications of nationalism, such as with our own “Aussie Battler”, a white Australian (usually male), who toils with their hands, remains stoic, and takes pride in the sacrifices they make. In Australia, such proscriptive images impact mostly on our Indigenous population, as well as our vast culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

But the exclusivity of these cultural values aren’t inherent to the concept of having cultural values. They have merely been poorly chosen and reflect a racially narrow tribal mentality of national belonging.

The second issue I have is that our laws reflect our values, and lay them out for all to see. Sociologists are eternally fearful of saying or believing anything which could remotely be construed as ethnocentric, but even a cursory look at our laws reveals that we are not as accommodating of others’ cultures as we think. Whilst the arranged marriage of young girls to older men is something that is practiced in several cultures around the world, in Australia, we have a law against the practice. This is because we value a child’s right to a childhood, as well as their agency in choosing their own partners at an age when they are able to make the decision for themselves.  

Similarly, Australia upholds the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in relation to a children’s right to an education. Our law states that young people must be engaged in some form of education until the age of 15 or 17, depending on the state. Even though some cultures around the world do not support this right – at least not as an often enforced and focused upon facet of their society – this is compulsory in Australia irrespective of the culture a child citizen has originally come from. It is compulsory because we value education and a child’s access to it.

Finally, I believe that many people who come to this country as new Australians, do so because of our values, not despite them. To claim that we shouldn’t be proud of these values may come as a shock to those who have immigrated here to enjoy the freedoms we have, the equality we (attempt to) realise, and the agency we value. If not for our cultural values, then why did more than a quarter of our population (at the 2011 Census) leave their country of birth to live here? 

The French have liberty, fraternity, equality. In America they appear to value freedom and bravery. But in Australia, we seem to have head-in-the-sand boganism, and a progressive intelligentsia that derides this, while championing a post-modernist sense of ambiguity. I feel we are missing out. 

I don’t want Australia to have values that exclude large swathes of people from feeling like they are an Australian. But I do want some national values to be proud of. They can also have the effect of binding those of us from disparate cultures with a shared journey. Ultimately, I read once – in a Sam de Brito column of all places – the words of John Raulston Saul: “alienation at its most essential level is not poverty or unemployment. It is the inability to imagine your society and therefore to imagine yourself in it.” What makes us all Australian if not for a shared vision of what it means to be an Australian?

I really wished I had put up my hand in that sociology class…

 And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.

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My rant about Australia Day

I guess this piece will be one of hundreds from us Aussies, reflecting on this, our “most special of days”. But I feel like I want to write it out, so I can properly understand my thoughts on it all.

So, on 26th January 1788, 11 ships – loaded with English convicts, military, and a few free settlers, arrived at a part of Sydney now known as Botany Bay. This was the First Fleet, and it marked the beginning of the colonisation of Australia by the British.

There was, of course, a native population. Indigenous peoples that had a curious (ethnocentrically speaking) way of living. They were grouped into many different and linguistically unique “nations”, had little concept of notions like property and possessions, no understanding of western ideas of individualism, and lacked awareness of agriculture and cultivation.

To the arriving colonists and convicts, these people were savages; and although at first, efforts were made to establish a simpatico relationship, as the months became years, the years flowed into decades, and the decades bled into centuries, the treatment of Australia’s first peoples has been typified by slaughter, kidnapping, cultural genocide, land misappropriation, and racist policy.

Because the transgressions are so many, the subjugation so prolonged, it has been common to cite the day of arrival – of invasion – as the day that symbolises when all the shit began hitting the proverbial fan. It has led to a call by many for the 26th of January to be observed as a national day of mourning, a chance to to not celebrate our achievements, but to reflect on our past wrongs. To focus not on national pride, but rather national reconciliation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This is not to say that there is not a lot to be proud of and celebrate. There absolutely is. I love my country. I love living here, and (most of the time) I love calling myself an Australian. But my pride is not unconditional, and it is certainly not blind to the facts of our history, and the realities of our present.

Our understanding and attitudes towards Indigenous people are still quite paternalistic at best, and downright racist at worst. I am not going to lay all blame for all of Australia’s wrongs at the feet of white Australia. I find that view narrow-minded and failing at balanced judgement. But what I will argue, is that it seems rather incongruous with our national qualities of egalitarianism and mateship to celebrate a day that to a section of our communities, represents the beginning of the dissolution of their way of life.

It is also the very meaning of irony, that a day intended to bring all of us together with a shared sense of national pride in the fact that we are all Australian, essentially distances the First Australians.

Calls for our national day of celebration to be moved to a different date are on the money. Such proposals are often misunderstood – or have their intentions bastardised – and interpreted to mean that we should not be proud of our heritage and our country. This is a furphy. We need an Australia Day. We deserve a day off. It is essential for us to celebrate our nationality and be thankful for living in a country, which – on a comparative international scale – is pretty fucking good. But why 26th January?

For as many years as I can remember, my Australia Day has been the last Saturday in September. (For any non-Melbournians or people with no taste in sport, this is the day of the AFL Grand Final.) Nothing makes me prouder than watching the year’s best teams playing the greatest sport in the world. It’s a day when I get together with my mates, drink a lot of beer, cheer, high-five, and get really, really excited.

I can understand that heaps of people couldn’t give a rats about footy, and I’m not seriously suggesting that this become our national holiday. It’s a Saturday after all; I don’t want to miss out on a day off. But it does highlight the bloody obvious fact that patriotic celebrations are not eternally linked to any certain date. There is nothing we do on 26th January that cannot also be done on a different day. We can still eat lamb, drink beer, and listen to Triple J count down the 100 most overrated songs of the previous year on any day of the calendar. It needn’t be a day that is so hurtful to Indigenous Australians.

So today, as on other Australia Days, I will take the time to reflect on how much further we have to go as a nation to repairing the cultural rifts that still fracture our communities. I will not think about what it means to be Australian; I’ll save that for another day. For to do it today, on the 26th of January, would force me to conclude that being an Australian means taking what I want and doing what I want, no matter who gets hurt. It means encroaching onto land already occupied, and then designating it free land. It means assigning an intrinsic value to a people that places them on the same level as koalas and bottlebrush. It means having such an extreme sense of ethnocentrism, that I would kidnap children from their parents, under the ruse of offering them a better life. I don’t want to celebrate these things. I want to mourn them. I want to be sorry for them.

I am proud to be an Australian. But not today.

Carn the Bombers.

And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.