Nationalism and racism


In the lead-up to "Australia Day" on January 26, former TV host Ray Martin restarted a debate about the need to change the Australian flag.

Martin pointed out the obvious: the flag, with the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner, is inherently divisive.

It excludes Aboriginal people, for whom British colonialism meant genocide. And it excludes a whole swath of migrants with no ties to Britain.

The debate around a new flag echoes the debate about the need to change the date of Australia Day, with January 26 being recognised as Invasion Day by Aboriginal people.

Celebrating the day that began the British invasion and genocide is a permanent slap in the face for Aboriginal people.

Whatever rhetoric accompanies the celebrations, it sends a message that Australia is first and foremost a country for white Europeans.

The debate is also partly fuelled by the rising use of symbols of Australian nationalism as weapons to target non-whites (especially Muslims). This was most dramatically expressed in the 2005 Cronulla riots.

This racism can be seen in violent assaults on Indian students and the spread of Facebook groups with titles such as "If you live in Australia and don't speak English, you can fuck off!"

Those who set up such groups inevitably claim they are not racists, merely defending the "Australian way of life".

As such, one of these groups included, in its list of "Australian" traits migrants must accept, the following: "If you don't believe in a Fair Go, you can fuck off!"

Clearly, irony is not a strong point for racists.

However, open expressions of racism are still widely considered unacceptable. There still exist strong anti-racist sentiments among much of the population.

This is partly the legacy of powerful anti-racist movements in the 1960s and '70s that ended Australian military involvement in Vietnam and won limited land rights for Aboriginal people.

The offensive seeking to reverse such anti-racist gains often covers itself in more widely accepted nationalist symbols.

The effectiveness of this strategy was revealed when the 2007 Sydney Big Day Out organisers attempted to ban the Australian flag from the music festival. Organisers pointed out that, in previous years, the flag had been used as a hate symbol.

"How can you ban the Australian flag in Australia?", screamed the media. This issue was presented as "political correctness gone mad" and affront to all "proud Aussies".

But no one misunderstands the meaning of an aggressive white man waving the flag in the face of someone non-white or wearing a hijab.

For these reasons, the debate started by Martin is welcome. But changing symbols can never be enough.

As long racist policies continue (towards refugees, Indigenous peoples, Muslims), attempts to use non-racist "national symbols" and rhetoric smacks of hypocrisy.

The racists respond to this by attacking "political correctness". The racists claim "liberal elites" are trying to stop them from "telling it like it is".

They have a point — whatever rhetoric is used by the authorities, Australia fundamentally remains a white person's country.

Can this problem of deep-seated racism be fixed within the context of "Australian nationalism"?

Attempts to give Australian nationalism a non-racist content tend to end with empty phrases, such as the oft-repeated insistence that Australia is "the greatest country on Earth".

Why? Channel 10's 7pm Project panellist Carrie Bickmore said on January 25 it's because we have the world's best beaches.

Whether or not this is true (has she been to the Caribbean?), it is irrelevant. All continents on Earth have amazing natural wonders.

By any conceivable measure, Australia is not the world's best nation: it doesn't have the highest living standards, the least inequality, the lowest infant mortality rate, the longest life expectancy or the happiest people (a July 2009 study by the New Economics Foundation found the happiest were in Costa Rica, which incidentally has abolished its army).

And certainly it isn't very great for the original inhabitants of the land, who face terrible poverty, dispossession and are jailed at a rate greater than Blacks under apartheid in South Africa.

The biggest problem is the idea that "we are all Aussies" doesn't match reality. Is it possible to create a common national identity across a society riven by class, race and other deep divisions?

A member of the super-rich, a public servant and someone from the growing underclass may all be citizens of the same country, but they live on different planets.

Attempts to create a specific "nationalism" to unite sections of a divided society inevitably end up basing themselves on one segment. It isn't surprising that this plays into the hands of the racists — especially as it suits the powerful, who are always looking for an excuse to "divide and rule".

Australian society has always contained different trends. The history of genocide against Aboriginals and racist policies towards non-whites is one.

But there is also a proud tradition of ordinary people standing up to injustice, including racism. This includes winning rights for workers, taking on sexism and homophobia, opposing Australian military involvement overseas, winning land rights for Aboriginal people, and saving the Franklin Dam from being built.

This is a proud tradition, but not exclusively "Australian". It is part of the same battles against injustice, of the powerless against the powerful, that are being fought in various ways in every country on Earth.

To try and give this proud tradition a "nationalist" content ignores history.

One proud example of struggle in Australia was the 1854 Eureka Stockade by miners fighting unjust licensing fees. But it involved miners from all over the world, who chose the Eureka flag as a consciously internationalist symbol to unite them all — a point Neo-Nazis who adopt that flag as their symbol fail to comprehend.

The global nature of such struggles against oppression is even clearer today. Capital recognises no boundaries. Australian corporations, like BHP, exploit labour and resources the world over.

Australian workers, Aboriginal people and environmentalists fighting Australian mining companies have more in common with those in places like Chile, Papua New Guinea or Ecuador who are doing the same than with BHP's major shareholders

Appeals to a narrow nationalism clash against the urgent threat of a potential global environmental catastrophe. Humanity is going to confront this collectively or not at all.

Confronting racism requires mobilising the real anti-racist sentiments in Australia — and these sentiments are inherently internationalist in spirit. Attempts to create a more inclusive nationalism merely try to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Changing the flag, and changing the date for Australia Day, are necessary steps. But it isn't possible to tackle racism simply by changing symbols. As long as racist polices continue, racist ideas will find a hearing as an explanation and justification.

Defeating racism requires changing the system based on racist practices. And changing that system is a global struggle.