Elsewhere, the white English have history on their side. They forge themselves through hundreds of years of wars, and art, and the stories of great men (and they are, in the realms of these myths, almost all men.) And they use this great weight of white culture so that they might unknow; so they can ignore the stories of those they have spent centuries enslaving and displacing.
White Australians like myself have neither of these things. We are peculiarly lacking both in the supposed moralistic fire and fury of the Americans, and in the culture and history of the English. The national identity of white Australians was not born in a revolt. We were sent to this country as prisoners, and we remain, to this day, desperate to conduct our business in the shadow of the Americans and the English. We are terrified of abandonment; horrified by our own shortcomings, both real and imagined. And we have never revolted: we still swear allegiance to a Queen who has no business with us; who remains irrelevant, anachronistic and functionally useless.
Nor do we have a clearly delineated culture of our own. We have only the most minimal of a state-sanctioned history, and we ignore our true national character – the one defined by the violence committed against Indigenous people that continues to be enacted up to this day. The things we pride ourselves on are things we have only gained via years spent persecuting, murdering and abusing the Indigenous custodians of this land: our beaches; our rugged outback. And the larrikinism and sense of humour we claim as our own – the Akubra-hat sporting, shrimp on the Barbie, ‘Strayan maleness – is a flimsy disguise for our great racism, sexism and homophobia.
There is so little to unite us – so little but the cultural philistinism that sees us underfund and disregard our artists; the cruelty we enact on immigrants fleeing persecution and seeking refuge; the continuing systems of oppression and dispossession that we profit from, and refuse to dismantle. There is so little to unite us but the wrongheadedness and arrogance that defines all of those who are not willing to accept their status as invaders. So little to us but our cruelty, and our anger.
White Australians have aids to help us, so that we might forget the widespread and systemic murder and displacement of Indigenous Australians. Intense patriotism, often disguised as a form of all-encompassing, harmonious national unity, is one of them. And the things this patriotism demands from us – servitude and awe – make it indistinguishable from faith. It is a form of belief; a civil religion with its own complex system of rules, regulations, and practices.
“[Civil religion] is used to explain the religious awe and sacredness we attribute to the state as citizens, whilst also pretending that the modern state is neither sacred nor religious,” explains Dr Christopher Hartney, a senior lecturer in the Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. “Ritual has a homogenising effect for large groups of people. In this respect, the Dawn Service for ANZAC Day can have parallels with firing up the BBQ and listening to triple j’s Hottest 100 on Australia Day. But the ritual is only powerful if the largest possible number of people are willing to participate in it.”
And, as white Australians, we are willing to participate; unfailingly willing. We commit annually to events like ANZAC Day, a highly ritualised religious celebration born out of deliberate mistruths. For, despite its supposed historical significance, ANZAC Day has only the most tangential of connections to the facts.
The galling, unpleasant reality of ANZAC Day is too horrible to celebrate.
After all, the significance of the August Gallipoli offensive that inspires so much of the ANZAC myth and serves as the cornerstone of ANZAC Day itself has been “distorted” according to many historians. Australians made up a mere five per cent of the forces involved in the offensive, and only seven per cent of the casualties on both sides. The relatively inconsequential outcomes of the offensive are often overlooked in favour of painting a much grander story of Australia’s independence and awakening, one imbued with great international importance. “The only reason … ANZAC is considered a special, once-in-a-lifetime [myth] is because we have imbued it with that meaning,” writes James Brown in ANZAC’s Long Shadow.
Then there are the Diggers we have spent so many years determinedly transforming into martyrs; soldiers who were considerably less saintly than they are often depicted in retellings of the myth. These were not smiling, resolute martyrs; these were young men facing “fear of death or mutilation … the trauma of appalling sights, sounds and smells, [and] extreme discomfort, exhaustion and illness”, as Alistair Thompson notes in Anzac Memories: Living With The Legend.
That amongst the ranks of Diggers there were “frightened cowards, murderers of prisoners, businessmen, con-artists willing to swindle their ‘mates’ and a host of other less romantic things” (Inventing Anzac, Graham Seal) is inconsequential to white Australians. We desperately need Diggers to be heroes. We need them to absolve us.
After all, the galling, unpleasant reality is too horrible to celebrate – that these were poor young men sent en masse to die in a war that Australia had no part in. We are not happy to merely mourn the great tragedy of their deaths; to weep over the senseless loss of their lives. We need them to be more than that.
And so we elevate them, and we whitewash them. The involvement of Indigenous Australian soldiers is consistently downplayed in favour of the myth of the white male Digger, and attempts by Indigenous Australians to reinsert themselves into the ANZAC narrative – as when members of the National Aboriginal and Islander Ex-Service Association staged a march in Thornbury so as to spread awareness of those in their community who had died in wars overseas – are broadly ignored.
All this so that we might pretend it was through the cleansing fire of war that Australia came of age. All this so that, every year, we might hold up an enforced, artificial image of the Australian: the beatific, Caucasian, calmly smiling soldier, armed with a rifle, and topped with a broad-rimmed hat. And all of this, so that we might deny the real bloodshed that defines us – the continued torture and murder of Indigenous Australians.
Australia Day fulfils much of the same role. It unites a group of people who are not united, and it assists with an intoxicating and fabricated story that we wish to tell ourselves. That it takes place on a day of national sorrow and mourning for Indigenous Australians is horrific in its own right, and is an issue in desperate need of being addressed. But whatever date the celebration falls on, unless the myth of our Australian national character is broadened, the day will remain a ceremony tied to oppression, and exclusion, and cruelty.
Not that all white Australians are open to even entertaining the discussion of whether or not the date of Australia Day should be changed. Mark Latham, the one-time Labor leader and a man whose life post public office has seen him get in a brawl in a fast food car park, meet with an alt-right sympathiser, and allegedly set up a Twitter account to disparage and troll his opponents, has launched his own campaign to counter a potential change of Australia Day’s date.
Save Australia Day Video
SAVE AUSTRALIA DAY! Imagine what would happen if the Greens and Labor Left get their way and abolish Australia Day on January 26…. Please share this video as widely as possible to keep our great national day on January 26. Visit www.saveausday.com for more information…
Posted by Mark Latham's Outsiders on Tuesday, 9 January 2018
The campaign, spearheaded by an amateurish and desperately confused satirical video, crystallises a lot of the wilful misinformation that some white Australians offer up when confronted with the barbarity of their traditions. The video imagines a world in which the constant prying of surveillance cameras stops poor, disenfranchised Caucasians from being able to conduct barbeques on Australia Day; in which pensioners must hide their lamingtons and their proud history from a vicious, Nurse Ratched-esque overseer.
It seems to be of no matter to Latham that the history of Australia Day itself is largely a myth – the celebration has only really been linked to January 26 since the mid ’90s. Moreover, as Dr Hartney points out, there are other supposedly sacrosanct, traditional Australian national days that have been recognised as inappropriate and cast off like so much unwanted baggage. “My father remembers [when] we used to celebrate Empire Day in Sydney,” says Dr Hartney.
“But as a child of Irish-Australian parents he came from a family who felt such a day was ridiculous and offensive to Irish Australians. Thankfully, such a day no longer exists. But if people really don’t want to change the date [of Australia Day] because of ‘tradition’, then they should be made to explain why we don’t go back to Empire Day.”
Latham’s video is also laughable – if only sadly so – in its weirdly twee and limp imagining of what a totalitarian state might entail.
At the start of Latham’s video, a young mother must shred the Australia Day card her child has made for her, scared of the retribution she might face if she embraces her national identity. Such an image is nicely ironic. Changing the date of Australia Day – or giving up Australia Day altogether – does not require hiding the truth, or destroying it. It requires embracing it. It requires understanding that to be a white Australian is to be an invader; to have a violent, bloody history of oppression, and of pain.
Latham’s video is also laughable – if only sadly so – in its weirdly twee and limp imagining of what a totalitarian state might entail. Its villains are cartoon-esque; shadowy; like something pulled out of a children’s book.
Although, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Latham has summoned up such a misguided and half-baked impression of what oppression might look like. After all, like so many other white Australians, he has had so little firsthand understanding of it.
It hurts to leave myths behind. We are not very good at it. We struggle when it comes time for us to let go of stories that we have embedded so deep within ourselves that they are indistinguishable from our flesh and blood – and it feels like a kind of assault when other people come along and get rid of them for us.
But it is the only way forward. It is the only means of progression that makes any sense. “I have very little in common with many other people in Australia except perhaps for language,” Dr Hartney explains. “The concept of the ‘Australian’ nation must always be renewed and refreshed – Australia Day allows me to share a very abstract communion with every other Australian. [But] if some Australians feel that they are left out of this totemic projection, or if the ideal of Australia becomes irrelevant, then it is wiser to change the day and make the name more effective.”
We gain nothing when we hold on to outdated systems; when we enforce an image of ourselves that is old, embarrassing and, even worse, actively damaging. Australian patriotism does not connect us to our history, or to one another. At its best, it is a white lie, uttered to absolve white Australia of their collective guilt. And at its worst, it is an evolved, subtler form of oppression: one more atrocity in a great, bloodied history of them.
Join the Invasion Day 2018 rally at The Block in Redfern at 10am on Friday January 26.