They say that travel broadens the mind, but I’ve often found returning home opens your eyes the most. It is one thing to travel to foreign lands and learn about the incredible diversity of cultures and ways of life in the world, so different to our own yet so normal for others. It is completely another however, to come back home and see your own country, it’s customs and it’s people through eyes that have seen the alternatives out there. Things you once never noticed become glaringly obvious – customs and behaviours that you never questioned before, never even really thought about before, stand out as completely bizarre – the way Australians insist on putting winter-themed Christmas decorations up in temperatures that nearly melt them is a good example. Combined with this shattering of your sense of normality, the questions people ask you when you return home are enough to shake you to your core.
It was 2010 when I returned from a year solo backpacking through Europe. Still reeling a bit from the reverse-culture shock, I was at my old high school doing a talk about my experiences when one of the students asked the question that stopped me dead in my tracks;
“When you were travelling, were you proud to be an Australian?”
12 months prior I would have answered that question in a heartbeat. Of course I’m proud to be an Australian! Australia is a great country! It might not be perfect, but it’s my home and I love it. But this time that answer seemed hollow. Australia is a great country? What does that mean exactly? After all those European nations I’d visited, after all the things I’d seen done better than Australia does them, after coming home and realising just how incredibly unpleasant parts of the Australian culture can be, can I honestly say that Australia and everything in it is ‘great’?
And was that ever true? To say “Australia is a great country” or that “I’m proud to be an Australian” is a massive sweeping statement. What about all the things I don’t like or that I’m not proud to be associated with? What about the widespread racist undertones that colour our reaction to immigrants? Or the way we so frequently scorn Aboriginal Australians for being in the mess our ancestors put them in? What about our drinking culture that borders on self-destruction? Or the way we’re so happy to excuse nearly any crime, even rape, provided of course that the offender is really good at football?
And the funny thing is that this is true even if you don’t think these things are a problem – if you’re totally fine with our passive discrimination towards brown people, you’re hardly going to be fine with the legal line of multiculturalism, are you? No matter which way you slice it, there are big parts of Australia that any individual will dislike, simply because anything as massive and complex as a country is going to contain a lot of contradictory behaviours and standards.
Am I proud to be an Australian? What does that even mean?
But this is just semantics, right? You can still be proud of something even if it’s not perfect, you just need to do your best to improve on the flaws. Indeed you could argue that is the defining characteristic of a patriot; someone who is proud of their country regardless of its problems, and is willing to do what it takes to overcome these flaws. Hooray for patriotism!
But this comforting line of reasoning still wasn’t quite doing it for me. There had always been something… disquieting about being proud of my nationality that I’d never been able to put my finger on exactly. I’d usually gotten around it by writing it off to the way patriotic messages tend to be used to promote bigoted agendas, rather than a problem with patriotism itself, but after a year travelling I wasn’t so sure this was right any more.
A nasty, persistent little question kept floating into my head; when was the last time I was proud to be Australian that didn’t involve comparing Australia to another country? Think about that for a second. When do we as a people really stand up and say, “I am proud to be an Australian?”
Sport is the first thing to come to mind, when our team is competing against other nations to see who is the best. If they weren’t competing against other countries, but rather other Australian teams, would we be wrapped in patriotic fervour then? Of course not, we’d barrack based on whatever state or region they were from. Why is that? They’re still Australian teams, surely if patriotism is about celebrating who we are then we shouldn’t need other countries around to feel that way.
How about Australia Day then? The day where we all celebrate the birth of our modern nation (while awkwardly ignoring the theft and genocide that made it possible) by taking a day off, going to the beach, wearing vaguely-patriotic clothing and relaxing. No other countries are involved in that, so surely that shows we can be patriotic without comparing ourselves to others, right? But ask yourself, how much of what we do on Australia Day is actually in any way about being proud of our nation? The vast majority of us just appreciate an excuse for a day off, and wear our green and gold thongs more for the look of the thing rather than to actually make a statement about the state of the the nation.
Except of course for those that do take Australia Day seriously; the small but extremely vocal group every year who, decked out in their Australian flag cape, make it their mission to tell everyone they can how awesome Australia is. How do they do this? Why, by ragging on foreigners and immigrants of course! Sometime physically! Even their moto, “Australia is the best country in the world!” confirms the pattern – not just that Australia is a great country, but the best in the world. We can’t even stop comparing ourselves to other countries even when none of them are paying us any attention.
But what’s the problem with that? Even if patriotism seems to be built entirely around comparing ourselves to other countries, why does that make it a negative thing? Nearly all pride functions like this after all; we’re proud of winning at sport, aceing a school test, or physical looks, or our artistic skills. Just because these things are relative to those we are better than doesn’t mean we should be proud of our achievements does it? Well there’s two answers to that:
1. Measuring our quality relative to others, whether that be how great our country is or how pretty we are, is a brilliant way of making yourself a neurotic ball of smugness and anxiety. Either you’re going to be gloating at those who are ‘below’ you, or stressing about those ‘above’ you, and this is never going to stop because you will never be the best at everything – even if you were, you’d have to worry about threats to your very many titles. It’s little wonder then that the most loudly patriotic among us also seem be the most insecure and easily threatened.
2. You have sweet bugger all to do with anything you’re proud about. Every human being is a product of a million different factors they have no control over, from their genetics to their upbringing, their nationality, their socio-economic status, right through to which post code they belong to determining which schools they are eligible for. All of this means that it’s debatable whether an individual has any influence over what they achieve in life, let alone how great their home country is. So if you had virtually no control over the state of your country, what the hell do you have to feel proud about? And when everyone else had equally as little to do with their situations, let alone where they were born (or can afford to move to), how can we justify comparing ourselves to them, let alone feeling smugly proud about our superior situation?
Enough dancing around the point, allow me to put my cards on the table: patriotism is not about the celebration of who we are and what we have achieved, it’s a celebration of what we are not, who we are better than, and why we should look down on them. It’s a divisive, alienating, simple-minded response to our own insecurities, attempting to make ourselves feel better about our problems by mocking those who have it worse, and resenting those who have it better.
I stood there, staring blankly as this realisation thundered through my head in front of that class of increasingly uncomfortable high school students, and realised that this was why I had never been comfortable with the idea of patriotism. Arseholes like Pauline Hanson, John Howard and the Cronulla rioters didn’t hijack patriotism, they were products of it. ‘Aussie Pride’ wasn’t being twisted to their agendas to fear and loath outsiders, to wilfully ignore our own shortcomings and blame others for them – being proud of our country and comparing ourselves endlessly against other nations, despite none of us being able to claim much credit for our situations, was the neurotic soil in which the diseased plants of xenophobia found root.
So am I proud to be an Australian? No, but neither am I ashamed. I did not have a god damn thing to do with being born here, and despite what I’d like to tell you, I’m yet to personally have had much of an influence over the current state of the nation. But while that means being proud of my country makes no damn sense, so too is being ashamed of my country equally ridiculous, despite its many flaws. And once we’re free of this patriotic allegiance to the idea of a nation, the situation becomes a lot less uncomfortable:
I am an individual who lives in Australia. There are many good things about Australia, as well as many bad things. The good things should be celebrated and encouraged. The bad things must be changed. And on this very simple basis, free of all the anxiety and arrogance of patriotism, my duty is clear.