The embarrassment of nationalism: a love that does not have a name

I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
Yet, though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

Mary Gilmore’s quatrain evokes much of what I want to explore. Many of us feel comfortable with her opening two lines. The second pair arouse embarrassment as they undercut the nobility of the opening. The final line does so by striking a chord in our experience.

In the time that you will take to read this sentence, a child will have died somewhere in Africa. Which of us has shed a tear? We accept that that infant is as precious to its family as are the children closest to us. Yet we weep when our loved ones die, not for every tolling of the bell.

Our emotions fracture between a general lament and a local grieving. The latter attachments is subsumed into the mentalities known as nationalism or patriotism. Yet, those terms carry a burden of disquiet. People say, “But, I’m not an extreme nationalist”, and “I love a sunburnt country”, as they recoil from the U.S. Patriot Act.

To name what one is not is easier than to find the word for cultural feelings and political attitudes that do not have a name of their own. Place-ism is not even the half of it.

One way to start is to distinguish chauvinism, racism, jingoism/militarism and nativism from each other, and thereby see how each relates to patriotism and nationalism. Too often, all seven terms are treated as synonyms. Our excursion into lexical semantics is to prepare for combat against public policies that are nourished by the worst in these overlapping attitudes.

Chauvinism. “Everything Australian is better than anything from anywhere else.” That has not been my experience. Some of the opera productions I have enjoyed most were in Europe and some of the worst in Sydney – but note that the converse is equally true.

In evaluating local creativity, we should eschew the double standard of “good for an Australian”. At issue, is good for what? I place Margaret Preston in the top trio of settler artists. On a scale of all Europeans across the past millennium, does she get into the top 300? She holds a significance for Australians that Rubens or Leger can not offer because her imagery helps us to grapple with how we imagine our social place in this physical space.

Nor am I an inverted chauvinist, one of those who lambaste Australia as the most racist/sexist country in the world. I do not know which society merits that title but, having lived in Japan for two years, I suspect that it is not Australia.

Inverted chauvinists seized on Cronulla to confirm their moral superiority, reciting the Pharisee’s prayer: “Thank you, god, for not making me like other White Australians – a racist.” 

Racism. That biologists spurn the categories known as “races” will never stop some people associating certain physical characteristics with patterns of behaviour. One counter to that falsehood is to be more exact by speaking of ethnic prejudices. Instead of that precision, racist has become a catch-all for prejudice of every kind. Indeed, apologists for US imperialism have tried to initiate proceedings under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Those of us who are against US-Imperialism are very much in favour of such Americans as Mark Twain, Angela Davis or Michael Moore. Similarly, resistance to the British Empire had nothing to do with being anti-Anglo-Saxon-Celt, but cherished the legacy from Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Mann and R. H. Tawney.

Jingoism/militarism. Keating tries to distinguish nationalism from patriotism by linking nationalism to the Imperial disaster at Gallipoli and patriotism with a defence of the homeland along the Kokoda trail. Like Howard, Keating can not get beyond trained killers, as Carr failed to do in his model high-school history syllabus. Why does slaying the flower of our manhood excite middle-aged politicians? Why cannot they begin from creative achievements, Nobel Prizes - or even Olympic Medals?

Despite my revulsion for chicken-Hawks (Bush and Beasley), I confess to a fondness for the 1960s suggestion that, instead of balloting 20-year olds to Vietnam, Australia should have nationalised the oil companies before conscripting the Young Liberals to ward off the Marines.

Thus far, we have rejected three attitudes in cutting through to acceptable facets of nationalism and patriotism. Nativism is a bridging case.

Nativism: Any notion that only the native-born can be fully citizens is foreign to my ideal. For once, I am close to the Duke of Wellington who denied being an Irishman: “Being born in a stable does not make you a horse.”

Republicanism has little to do with having a resident for president. I would prefer a foreign terrorist - Mandela. His qualities express Republican virtue in ways that the imperiousness of the native-born Costello and Turnbull never will.

However, overseas saints are unsuitable as our president because they lack the familiarity with the political and social habits needed by a head of state. Had Mandela been exiled here rather than to Robin Island, he would have acquired those aptitudes.

The exclusivist attitude towards political rights is easy to dismiss. More taxing is to deal with how living here affects artistic production. What, if anything, is valid in the nativist claim that tourists cannot depict the landscape? Did Lawrence get the spirit of place after fewer than 100 days in the continent? If so, how much longer did it take an English painter to adjust her palette to the blueness of Southern skies?

In some ways, I am a cultural nativist. We should honour the Jindyworabaks who cleared a path to a vernacular for our landscape by cleansing Australian verse of glades, carpets, aisles, fairies and the like. Today, those images can be used only in jest.

On certain questions, we need to be extreme nativists. Cane Toads are the answer to anyone who thinks that a solution in one part of the globe can be as efficacious in every other part. Less devastating was the experience of installing races to let fish swim back up dammed streams to spawn. A model imported from the Salmon races in North America had to be torn out and replaced with ones tailored to the habits of Victorian species.

Having set up some border protections, and given refuge to several alien thoughts, we return to our interrogation of patriotism and nationalism. The purpose is to highlight the dangers from allowing reactionaries to claim the everyday experiences that flood through the multiple expressions of patriotism and nationalism. 

Patriotism as love of country voices one of its registers in concern for the built and natural environments. Yet those milieux could not be more different. The built is the outcome of human activity, as is much of what is conceived to be nature, when it is the by-product of firing or cultivation.

Patriotism, therefore, depends on more than a fondness for places as givens. We become attached to places through our remaking of nature, from refashioning built inheritances and by re-imagining those practices. Such activities continue to make us human, as a species and as individuals. “Sensuous human activity” attaches us to places and to generations who had remade themselves by working on those localities.

Two cameos display social labour as the taproot of patriotism. In the first, a spokeswoman for the dirt farmers at Gumly Gumly in the 1930s honours the toilers by marking moments in her community’s survival with doggerel. Her impulse to memorialise fills photograph albums, family gossip and genealogies. All communities are imagined. In the second, a 1950s British woman immigrant to Yallourn recalls: “The interest we have in Australia stems largely from the fact that we feel we have helped to make one small portion of it grow.”

The lives that Australians have made here are not superior to cultures elsewhere. The existential fact is that the environments through which we remake ourselves cast a spell over us which is more potent – whether to attract or repell - than those we view from afar.

Critics of capital-P Patriotism and capital-N Nationalism must take a care lest our denunciations are heard as denigrating those intimate concerns. The task is to show how those affections that nourish patriotism and nationalism are grounds for opposing current policies on war, workplaces and degradation of our environments. Showing respect for the worth that people invest in places, and memories, including grief for the slain, is an invitation to discuss these matters. Any slighting of such connections surrenders the most potent source of ideology, namely, our sense of being human. The reactionary is then free to twist that ontological fact into Blood-Soil-and-Iron propaganda.

A further political risk arises from cutting progressive politics off from nationalism and patriotism. To tell settler Australians that nothing we have made here is of value leaves us susceptible to the assertion that we must rely on Great and Powerful Friends, an assumption which has led us into war after war. That inadequacy complex extends to running our own economy, opening the gate to despoliations.

Arthur Phillips coined “the cultural cringe” for the fear among generations of settler Australians that everything from Britain, or the US, is, by definition, better than anything we could do here. Phillips added a warning. The reaction to cringing is likely to be the colonial strut. A national character with no self-confidence will cope by boasting, which leads to Chauvinism. Spurning the cringe and the strut, Phillips settled for a relaxed upright stance. Anyone for slouch-ism?

If patriotism sways around places and people, nationalism is bent towards the state, coupled as the nation-state. The accurate term is nation-market-state. Objective scholars omit market to disguise the fact that states exist to control resources. The capitalist market was the matrix for the nation-market-state.

The task of the nation-market-state is to organise capital and to disorganise labour, which is what Howard has been up to by spinning centralism as “aspirational nationalism”. Centralism has never been a path to socialism, rather to etatism.

The class direction of centralism has been to strengthen Empires, which is why the colonies federated (i.e., centralised) in 1900. Under the defence power, all authority flows to the Commonwealth in time of war, that other means of retaining or grasping markets.  Equally, States Rights has been a way to preserve certain interests for competing fractions of capital at particular moments. The balance is slipping towards centralism to match the globalisation required to propel the expansion of capital. “Aspirational nationalism” is the companion to Howard’s deployment of central powers in Work Choices to dismangle working-class organisation.

To sell that destruction, Howard appeals to a national unity which denies the gulf between those who own the means of production and those who must sell their labour power to live. If we are all in the same boat, the majority are chained to the oars.

One face of nationalism is anti-imperialist and the other pro-national unity. The former recognises a class divide at home which the latter deplores as an invention of agitators to sever bonds to the Imperium. The distinction needs no keener illustration than when the pro-conscription rump of the Labor Party split away in 1916, and its members joined a new party, called the National Party, and later the Nationalists. This self-branding seems paradoxical. How could the King-and-Empire crowd call themselves Nationalists? They were using national in the sense of a common “national interest”. The Nationals opposed Irish working class (those Pat-rioters) who had split the populace over conscription and economics.

Many nationalists adopt that title for our anti-imperialist stance, of what we are against globally, rather than what we favour at home. I am a nationalist in as much as I want a state strong enough to ward off corporate plunderers, now led from the US of A. Meanwhile, I fear a state that is strong enough to repress nationalist opposition to our overlords, domestic and foreign.

There are days when I muse about being an anarcho-nationalist.

Humphrey McQueen

A start towards an historical materialist explication of modern nationalism will require integrating an analysis of the nation-market-state in our era of monopolising capitals, [see Lenin’s Imperialism (1916)] with some account of the hominisation touched on above [see Marx’s anthropology in The German Ideology (1845)].