Part 2 transcript

Raimond Gaita:

Well, can you hear me OK?

Philip Adams:

Rai Gaita.  Cobber Rai Gaita.

Raimond Gaita:

A couple of years ago I heard Henry Reynolds lampoon, as it seemed to me, the idea that there could be something morally and spiritually deeper in national sentiment than citizenship.  I was surprised because to reveal the depth of the wrongs done to the Aborigines when they were dispossessed of their land for example, one has to appeal not to values of a kind that show themselves in responsible citizenship, but in fact a love of country.  By rejecting the claim that the notion of terra nullius applied when Australia was settled, the High Court’s Mabo Judgment in effect acknowledged that Aborigines could love the land so deeply that the forcible displacement from it would lacerate their souls.  Reynolds knew that of course, which is why I was surprised.  At the time he was worried, I suspect, by the increasingly aggressive nationalism, paranoid nationalism Ghassan calls it, of the Howard Government.  He was worried, he said on that day, that some Australians whose roots go back generations might be treated as second class citizens, sorry, would treat as second class citizens recently naturalised Australians.  And I understand his anxiety.  “Why don’t you and your fucking Jewish wife leave the country?”, just such an Australian asked me, offended that I, born in Germany to a German mother and a Rumanian father married to a Jewish woman, born in Israel, should say that Australians had reason to be ashamed of their past and present treatment of the Aborigines. 

It’s a terrible truth that a national identity of the kind that people call “love of country” far too often degenerates into aggressive nationalism.  We know its consequences around the world.  In so many places people are murdered in the name of nationhood.  In so many places good people defend the slaughter, defend the indefensible, because of their national or sometimes their religious allegiances.  And true to the same allegiances, others fall silent when they should protest.  Confronted with the deep hatreds inspired by nationalism and religious fanaticism, it’s very tempting to be suspicious of forms of human community that encourage people to say “we” in ways that go deep, and because they go deep, often provoke passions that exclude much of humanity.  We Christians, We Jews, We Muslims, We Americans, We Australians and so on.  Yet in apparent tension with this, we celebrate cultural and even national diversity.  We appear to believe that human plurality, essentially the plurality of peoples, is not accidental but essential to the ideals of a common humanity of all the peoples of the earth.  Essential perhaps, to our very concept of humanity.  Consider for example the importance we attach to multi-culturalism, national liberations movements and perhaps most revealingly, the importance we accord to genocide, as one of the most grievous of the crimes against humanity. 

We appear to be committed to two inconsistent imperatives.  The first is that we must acknowledge fully in our national political institutions the common humanity we share with the peoples of the earth, and the universal principles expressed in international law that honour that common humanity.  And the second is to honour the need that human beings have to love the countries in which they rooted and which have partly formed their sense of who they are.  And I want to suggest today that these are not inconsistent.  More strongly, I’m going to suggest that the first depends on the second.  It’s just a fact of human life that many, perhaps most, people develop deep attachments to places and institutions.  This is one of the fundamental ways in which identity is formed, through putting down roots.  Not all people, that’s true.  George Steiner remarked that whereas trees have roots, human beings have legs, but most people don’t want to wander all their lives, especially not at the beginning of their lives, or at the end.  The human soul needs warmth and for most people that comes from forms of belonging.  And for most people, their deepest attachments are local, to a particular part of the country, perhaps a farm, or a town, sometimes a city.  They may realise that their sense of belonging is wider than this, only when they are abroad, and discover just how pleased they are, if they’re Australians, to hear an Australian accent.  And that’s not a superficial thing.  Poets sometimes actually dry up in exile.  And recall how deeply it hurt immigrants in the pre-multi-cultural fifties when they were discouraged from speaking their mother tongue in public, sometimes abused for doing so.  Languages other than English were sometimes ridiculed as though they hadn’t really achieved the dignity of language.  Given the deep connections between language, thought and feeling, it’s no small matter effectively to denigrate someone’s native tongue, the language in which someone had discovered herself and to discourage families, lovers, friends, from speaking it to one another in public.  For many people less fortunate than Australians, the realisation of how important such things are to them comes brutally when they lose their country and live under foreign occupation, denied the right to speak their language, to honour their national institutions, fully to remember their past, and to pass on its treasures to future generations.  In such terrible circumstances, people realise that responsible love of country seeks protection by force of arms for what is loved and is owed to future generations. 

So though I understand the fear people express when they deny that there’s a political value deeper than citizenship, I don’t believe it’s a reason to deny that there can be such a thing as love of country and that it can be lucid and fine.  Because it fastens on to something that is inevitably a mixture of good and evil, love of country is however, always a mixture of gratitude, pain, joy, sorrow, pride, shame, guilt.  They’re in fact some of the forms of love of country.  The understandable fears that talk of love of country arouse in many people are reasons for thinking hard, in ways we seldom do, about how to block the many routes that love finds to jingoism, and to open the roots by which jingoism can find its way to love.  As Simone Weil pointed out in her wonderful book, The Need for Roots, compassionate love of what is good and fragile, rather than only grand, noble and heroic, is necessary for this.  So, too, is a lucid humbled acknowledgement of the wrongs we have committed as a nation, or become caught up in.  And for that reason I believe that rather than thinking less about military matters, we should, as a nation, think more and often harder about them.  Even if one believes it to be an ideal, it’s naïve and dangerous to believe that the nations of the earth will disarm any time soon, or that they will put their arms at the disposal of a world government.  The limitations of sovereignty, indeed the changed conceptions of sovereignty, that globalism has made inevitable, won’t change that.  Military power of any significant kind will remain in the hands of nation states or federations of them or alliances. 

There’s no hope of avoiding aggressive nationalism unless people see that there should be no conflict between their understanding of the common good and the national interest on the one hand, and the necessity that their nation should be answerable to significant parts of international law on the other, especially to the laws of war and the crimes called crimes against humanity. At the moment, the citizens of most Western nations seem to believe that only wogs, Chileans, Serbs, Africans, and more recently Jews, should be prosecuted in international courts.  Indeed they seem to find it virtually unintelligible that an Australian, British, French or German head of state should find himself or herself in the dock of an international criminal court.  But if the concept of a community of nations is to mean anything, then like all political communities, all of its members must be answerable to law, law that both expresses and constitutes the kind of community that it is. 

In the case of the community of nations the constituative laws must express what should be of concern to the citizens of all nations because they belong to such a community by virtue of being citizens of particular nations.  The crimes we call crimes against humanity should concern the citizens of all nations, again by virtue of their citizenship of a particular nation, if the ideal of a community of nations is to express a sense of the common humanity of all the peoples of the earth.

The concept of a national interest has to do with what is of fundamental importance to people in their capacity as citizens and patriots.  We should therefore find ways of persuading citizens that it’s in their interests as patriots to acknowledge that like all forms of love and all forms of virtue, love of country and honourable behaviour in its name, has its real and its counterfeit forms.  Real love of country is distinguished from its counterfeit jingoism by at least two things:  the desire to love truthfully, and the desire to love without the shame that would be only truthful response if the nation’s leaders and soldiers committed crimes that would justifiably bring them before an international criminal court.  Obviously, therefore, love of country can’t be unconditional.  Indeed, sometimes if rarely, love of country will show itself in a preparedness to take up arms against one’s government when the government is so evil that no one who is decent and who knows what it’s doing, could support it.  And such was the case with the German Resistance against the Third Reich. 

It’s a truism that the international laws that constitute the nations of the earth as a community of nations, express values that are in some sense, universal.  What kind of universality is pre-supposed here.  It’s natural and common to think that the universal values expressed in those laws are principles that can be extracted from the cultures of the nations that are answerable to those principles.  Those values, this ?? [15.38] continues, could be and ideally should be, expressed in a language that consciously prescinds from the local historically conditioned associations and resonances of any of the natural languages. 

But there’s another way of thinking about universality.  It’s suggested by the idea that great literature potentially speaks to all the peoples of the earth, but only as translated from one natural language into another.  Our understanding of what it means to commit and to suffer the crimes prohibited by international law, what it means to commit or be a victim of genocide, is often deepened by art, when film, a painting, a play, a novel or a poem moves us, for example.  And art provides a different model for universality than does science or political or moral philosophy, that seeks abstract universal principles extracted from the concrete circumstances of people who are intellectually and spiritually nourished by the way they’ve been rooted in this or that culture.  And that’s not because just as a matter of fact we haven’t been able to develop a universal language as humans of my youth used to wish for, with their hopes for Esperanto – it’s because that’s the kind of universality that’s appropriate to the content of great literature, content which often can’t be separated from its form, and whose form can’t be separated from the contingencies, the accidents, that have nourished particular cultures, particular forms of living, particular natural languages. 

On Anzac Day some years ago I heard on the radio in the words of a British poet, a beautiful elegy to Australian soldiers who had fallen in the two world wars.  I knew the praise to be truthful because I recognised the qualities that the poet celebrated in the men and in many of the women that I’d known in my childhood in country Victoria, and an anecdote by one of the Dunera boys, these were German-Jewish men who fled to Britain from Nazi Germany and then were interned there as enemy aliens, and then shipped to Australia on a boat called the Dunera, and an anecdote about them shows what the qualities that I have in mind are.  This man was at the back, this Dunera boy, was at the back of the column as it marched to a camp at the fringes of the desert.  And the Australian soldier who was guarding him stopped, handed him his rifle, and said “Here mate, hold this while I go to have a piss.”  The Dunera boy then said, “I knew I was in heaven.”  That story reveals, I think, how the universal value in this case, egalitarianism, can be inflicted in recognisable Australian ways.  And its spirit gives the distinctive character, I thought, to the decency that Australians showed, in amongst other things, to their treatment of immigrants.  At least, when I came to Australia in the 1950s.  And that spirit was formed by, and forms, the country’s history, literature, poetry, song, and, of course, a sense of its landscape.  And especially wonderful is the guiless simplicity with which the soldier acknowledged his common humanity with his prisoner.  How different, I thought, would it be if that soldier’s spirit graced the politics of national identity, the arguments we have about it.  Thank you.