Celebrating genocide and conquest

Issue 

Every year it becomes harder to ignore official Australia's celebrations of nationalism. For weeks, supermarket aisles have been given over to garish displays of things to buy for Australia Day on January 26: Australian flags and hats, stubby holders and thongs displaying Australian flags.

None of it would look out of place at a Reclaim Australia rally.

And then there is that ad for lamb featuring popular SBS broadcaster Lee Lin Chin. It is tongue-in-cheek, for sure, showing a military operation to enforce Australians worldwide to barbecue lamb for Australia Day.

But the domination of Australian politics so far this century by xenophobic, refugee-bashing “border security”, involvement in imperialist wars and the “war on terror” narrative — in which failing to adhere to ill-defined “Australian values” is seen as a security threat — makes the ad's aggressive undertone seem only half joking.

The rise of Australia Day over the past two decades would seem to be a victory for the right-wing academics who waged the “history wars” for the government of John Howard.

All nationalism is based on myths but Australian nationalism is strikingly artificial. None of the objects or “traditions” promoted for Australia Day — beer, thongs or lamb barbecues — is distinctively Australian. Even the flag is not uniquely Australian — its most prominent feature is the British flag, the Union Jack.

What is never explicitly stated by those promoting the January 26 national holiday is what it is actually celebrating: the British conquest of Aboriginal land, genocide of Aboriginal people and creation of a “New Britannia” — an artificial, wholly imported nation.

This reflects Australia's deeply rooted denial of its history and identity as a racist colonial settler-state. January 26 is an appropriate date for a celebration of historical amnesia whose symbols are those of the 2006 Cronulla anti-Muslim pogrom and politicians announcing new laws attacking civil liberties or new imperialist wars.

Since at least the centenary of conquest, 1888, Aboriginal people have protested on January 26, marking it as Invasion Day or Survival Day. The establishment response is to feature “Aboriginal inclusion” at official Australia Day events and express bewilderment at why Aboriginal people do not see the day as one of celebration and often do not identify as Australian.

Yet the legal basis for the foundation of modern, capitalist Australia was the doctrine of Terra Nullius, which declared the continent “unowned” and its inhabitants non-people.

The genocide that began on January 26, 1788, is probably the worst in human history. Adolf Hitler drew inspiration from it. Shooting, hanging, biological warfare, concentration camps and slavery were used.

The 20th century policy of assimilation meant not only outlawing Aboriginal language and culture but systematically stealing babies in a eugenics-based program of “out-breeding” to eliminate the Aboriginal race.

Demands from the Australian establishment that Aboriginal people should “move on” and forgive and forget this genocide and join in the celebrations would be racist and offensive even if it all belonged in the past. However, it does not.

In the 21st century Aboriginal babies continue to be stolen, Aboriginal people remain imprisoned at a rate that dwarfs that of African-Americans or even black South Africans under Apartheid. The Australian media has given more coverage to #BlackLivesMatter protests against racist murders by the police in the US than to similar protests by Aboriginal people protesting racist murders by police in Australia.

Through policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention and the Western Australian community closures, state and federal governments are denying Aboriginal people basic infrastructure and civil rights and effectively carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing for the benefit of mining corporations.

In all Western capitalist societies racism is used by the ruling class to promote solidarity between the haves and the have-nots. This is particularly the case in a colonial settler society like Australia.

The society that arrived in 1788 consisted of convicts — mostly working class and rural poor British and Irish people convicted of property crime and Irish rebels — the soldiers who guarded them and a small elite of ruling class bureaucrats and businessmen.

Some convicts escaped and made common cause with Aboriginal people resisting the invasion. However, the colonial rulers were able to offer convicts relative freedom and quantities of land unimaginable to poor people in Europe at the time in exchange for their participation in the conquest and genocide.

This remained the racist basis of Australia's national identity — prosperity derived from an abundance of stolen land and resources. Until the 1960s, the racist nature of this identity was explicit. Aboriginal people were denied citizenship, and the immigration policy was known as the White Australia Policy.

The Australian Labor Party, whose message to workers has always been that the key to better wages is protection of white privilege, shamefully promoted this policy.

Australian racism today shares the focuses of racism throughout the West: refugees and Muslims. The degree to which Australia's mistreatment of refugees is more extreme than in other Western countries, and the success of Australian politicians in using refugee-bashing as a diversion from unpopular policies, is a reflection of the deeply-rooted nature of racism in Australia.

The new nationalism demands pride in being Australian without reflection on what we are asked to be proud of. With the emphasis on barbecues, beaches, sporting events and music festivals, Australia Day is a celebration of being an affluent nation.

Yet despite being affluent, Australia has one of the largest and fastest growing wealth gaps among Western nations. In celebrating being the “lucky country” of boundless plains and beaches — all stolen from the Aboriginal people — Australians are meant to forget housing unaffordability, growing unemployment, falling wages and cuts to welfare, education, healthcare and public services.

It is time for Australians to stop celebrating. Aboriginal people frequently say that demanding they celebrate Australia Day is like demanding Jews celebrate the birth of Nazi Germany.

This is true. However, it is also true that demanding Australians celebrate Australia Day is like demanding Germans celebrate the birth of Nazi Germany.

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