Part 3 transcript

Phillip Adams:

Raimond Gaita making the opening statement in our discussion on Australian nationalism.  This is a late night live special coming to you from La Trobe University.  Our next statement is from you, Ghassan Hage.

Ghassan Hage:

I think there will be something in common between what Rai just spoke about and what I will be saying.  And perhaps some interesting diversions as well.  I think I’m trying to address very specifically the question Is Australian nationalism a problem today?  And I want to begin by speaking about nationalism in general. 

What is so nice and what is not so nice about it?  We all agree I think that nationalism is ambivalent and has very good things and very bad things about it.  I will also move to speak about nationalism in the specific historical circumstances, not just the specific historical circumstances of Australia but maybe more generally Western nationalism as it is emerging and its shape in itself in the present era.  And I will end up by making a few comments about the specificity of Australian nationalism in the specific historical period we’re talking about today.

First, nationalism in general.  Let me perhaps approach nationalism not so much as a macro ideological thing, but just ask the question “What does it feel to be a nationalist?”  So it’s kind of like social psychological.  What does it feel?  What kind of buzz does nationalism give the nationalist?  And maybe we can most generally regardless of which nationalism we are looking at, we can say that nationalism involves both an impulse for possessiveness and an impulse for companionship.  When I make a claim that this is my nation, I want the nation as a possession, but there’s always something else.  Maybe linked to what I call love of country, but I think it’s love of everything that the nation involves.  And it is a desire for companionship, and a desire for companionship is not necessarily a desire for control or for possession.  In a statement like “this is my nation” when you think about it phenomenologically, that is, how do people construct themselves when they make a statement like “this is my nation”, it always involves a double sense of positioning oneself in the space of the nation “This is my nation”, because “This is my nation” means “I belong to the nation.  This is my nation.  I belong to it.”  But when you say, “I belong to the nation” you are really imagining the nation as a container and you are in it, in the nation.  Here, the sense of space that the nation you are thinking about, is more like a cuddly, mothering space, whether you are thinking about the community, whether you are thinking about the territory, the landscape, whether you are thinking about your other fellow nationals, all of them have an embracing function.  They contain you.  But when you say “This is my nation” you are not just saying “I belong to the nation”, you’re also saying “The nation belongs to me”.  And when you make a statement and this is the same statement – I’m separating them analytically – but they’re always intermingled.  I cannot say “This is my nation” without thinking “I belong to the nation” but I also am thinking “The nation belongs to me”.  And when I say “The nation belongs to me”, think about it, here the speciality is actually inversed.  I no longer think of myself as a point being contained by the nation, on the contrary, I start thinking of myself as “I am the containing case, I am looking, this is my nation, I want to look and capture the nation in its totality by my gaze, I want to make sure nothing wrong happens to my nation, I want to control it”  but as I said the two are related because I want the nation to belong to me so that I can belong well to the nation.  I want to control things in my nation so that the nation embraces me nicely.  These two are always then together. 

But both of them are elements of possessiveness. Both of them are about the nation functioning in a specific way and one might even say in instrumental logic.  I don’t think such modality of nationalism does not involve love, but it depends how you define the purity of love.  You might think of it as corrupt love but it involves some form of love.

But when you are looking at nationalism as companionship, as involving a sense of companionship, if you like from a philosophical point of view, nation as possessiveness is more under the category of nation for me, it is the notion of for, it is there for me, functioning for me.  Nationalism as companionship is under the category of with.  The nation is with me.  The landscape is with me.  My other fellow nationals are with me.  This is what I mean by this notion of companionship.  We have a relationship of with-ness of togetherness.

Now, I think when we think about nationalism today, perhaps I should borrow from one of my favourite thinkers ever, Frank Zappa, and paraphrase him and say “nationalism is not dead, but it smells funny”.  It smells funny because maybe the element of with-ness in nationalism is shrinking and the nationalism of social control, the nationalism where the nation belongs to me, I belong to the nation, is becoming the most dominant experience of nationalism.  I kind of think about it, that today we have a globalisation of a very specific form of nationalism, which is what I call the nationalism of unachieved colonial settler society.  Notice you have in history, achieved colonial settler society, like Australia in history, the US, Canada, they are countries that have been colonial settler countries but gradually, at some point in history, they said “We’ve settled the country”.  Sure, we have killed, maimed etc indigenous people and they still raise their voice every now and then, but really, as Nietzsche would say, what are my parasites to me?  There is a sense of power that comes from an achieved colonialism.  A sense of power that, I’ve done the job.  Unachieved colonialism breeds a very different nationalism.  Unachieved colonialism, we saw it in apartheid South Africa, we see it in Israel today, unachieved colonialism is a sense that – I want to finish the job, but I can’t.  I’m still surrounded by the barbarians and the barbarians are going to get me.  And so my nationalism never relaxes and I start becoming more and more consumed by the desire for control precisely because control is so unattainable.  Here definitely I don’t look at indigenous people and say, what are my parasites to me?  This is what Nietzsche would say is a different sense of power.  And so this is the kind of nationalism that is becoming globalised.  I think we are increasingly living in societies which see themselves as surrounded by barbarians.  The Muslims are out to get us.  Even if I was living in an achieved colonial settler society like Australia or the US, suddenly I’m starting to embody a nationalism of an unachieved settler society because I feel globally that I’m surrounded, they’re coming by boats, the barbarians, as you know, never come by plane.  They came by boats and so their psychological impact is much more important.

So, I think what we have today in the face of this unachieved colonial nationalism which emphasises those controls, emphasises anxiety, emphasises the barbarian other, we get the cosmopolitan reaction of a nationalism which is really not nationalism, a cosmopolitanitism, which tries to say, down with the nationalist, down with the petty, I am for control, I am a universalist, I don’t care about the nation etcetera.  And I think the problem has been to try and recapture the with-ness of the nation.  What the cosmopolitans do in a sense is throw away the nation as control and the nation as companionship.  And maybe this idea of love of country involves elements of how do we resuscitate or how do we regain a sense of nation as companionship.

And I think, to finish with the specificity of Australian nationalism, I think Australian nationalism, despite being as I said, achieved colonial nationalism and now unachieved colonialism, has many points, specificities, which allow us to regain this sense of companionship.  I think one of the crucial issues about nationalism as companionship is that the individual, the nationalism, accepts a sense of frailty.  The nationalist who is out for control does not like to imagine themselves as frail.  They like to be omnipotent.  Frailty comes with with-ness and I think one of the nice things about Australian nationalism is that it has always had an element of recognition of our frailty as human beings.  I think it is unique in the sense it is celebrating Australian nationalism, celebrates human frailty in a way no other nationalism does, even in Anzac, I think you can take the Anzac myth as a kind of universal myth in the sense of we are humans climbing the hill of life.  Are we going to be mowed down anyway?  And as we are going to be mowed down, we’ve only got each other.  And this sense that we’re going to be mowed down anyway, this sense comes I think from an Australian tradition which also is linked to the inability to totally domesticate the landscape.  Here there is always the recognition that I’m not so important.  I’m not so omnipotent.  Take it easy, mate, whatever you do.  And so in this sense, I think we can recapture within Australian nationalism elements to emphasise and counter the moods of anxious aggressive colonial nationalism that we have today.  Thank you.