Of Pride and Prejudice

Of Pride and Prejudice

29 Apr 2010

Aurelien-MondonthbAurélien Mondon
a.mondon@latrobe.edu.au
Ph.D candidate
School of Social Sciences
La Trobe University
Bundoora, Victoria

As famously defined by Benedict Anderson, nationalism rests on the idea of an ‘imagined political community’. One need not be an academic to witness the tensions which accompany the idea of a nation and of a national feeling, and yet, 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 sportsman or woman born in our country; at the success of one’s fellow countryman or woman at the Hollywood box office. That this sportsperson or actor lives thousands of kilometres away, perhaps even overseas, that they earn far more than the average person, and that the chances of meeting them are extremely low, does not seem to matter.

Most of us tend to feel closer to them than to the friendly salesperson of ‘foreign’ background at the corner shop we go to everyday. In many ways, nationalism forces us to identify with people with whom we have nothing but a birth place and a government in common; this birth place can extend, as in the case of Australia, as far as a continent.

To this critical appraisal, supporters of nationalism would argue that we share much more. Fellow citizens share a common history: they are bound by the dead, by a common heritage and destiny. But are we?  What helped nationalism to survive, apart from people’s wish to belong to defined and limited/exclusivist communities, was the possibility of being highly selective as to what enters one’s heritage.

Indeed, the argument for the shared history of a country as the basis of nationalism is always subjected to an extreme bias that takes into account primarily the glorious parts 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 what Henry Rousso has called ‘Vichy syndrome’: denial became the official tagline and General De Gaulle praised an abstract ‘eternal France’ for having freed itself. From this myth was derived a semblance of unity against the enemy and an almost universal rejection of the Vichy regime as illegitimate. Vichy was a mere parenthesis, an unfortunate accident: it was alien to France.
 
The words of De Gaulle, if not his ideals, were attuned to an important part of the French population which 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.

Such examples are present in every nation. The way in which Vichy syndrome developed is reminiscent to the creation of the denialist culture that became a cornerstone of Australian historiography. 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 sure to make these blemishes someone else’s responsibility.

Those who had done wrong in Australia were long gone and not directly related to ‘us’, yet these same Australians 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 to be excused or lessened by the circumstance of history.

Despite the bad name that has been attached to nationalism in academic circles where events such as colonisation and collaboration are discussed, many still hold dear to the idea of nationalism as a progressive force in the manner the French revolutionaries did at the end of the eighteenth century. A new generation of academics has recently sought to reclaim nationalism from the xenophobes and use this ‘patriotism’ as a weapon for ‘progressive’ change.

The growing crowds of flag-wearing, southern star-tattooed, Aussie Aussie Aussie-yelling youth should be reclaimed by the left. Australia Day has become an increasingly visually aggressive display of Australian pride that gave great strength to the Howard government and its ethno-exclusivist vision of Australian nationalism. This strength was such that Kevin Rudd has convincingly refused to posit himself strongly in opposition. 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, the French and other revolutionaries relying on nationalism as the motor for their universal goals quickly saw that such strategies can only 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. Is it a judgement or is it all relative? Would all flag-bearers accept or tolerate those who believe in another, non-Australian, way? Would this non-Australian necessarily be regressive?

There is second problem with nationalism, more subtle, yet maybe more perverse. Using the patriotism or nationalism of the ‘masses’ as a means to an end is not only dangerous because hardly controllable, but it also relies on the populist tricks increasingly used by what Jacques Rancière has called the oligarchic alliance of wealth and science, which views 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 seems to me 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.

Aurélien Mondon was the co-organiser with Russell Marks of the Australian Nationalism Symposium that took place at La Trobe University on 22 April 2010. In association with Professor Robert Manne’s Ideas and Society programme, the debate was chaired by Phillip Adams featuring Marilyn Lake, Ghassan Hage, Raimond Gaita and Andrew Markus.

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