Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday essay - the Australian identity

Yesterday was Australia Day, or for some Aboriginal people, Invasion Day. Looking back over the many words I have written on Australian life and history, one of the themes that comes through is diversity.

By present global standards, Australia's population is not large. By historical standards, Australia's population is large relative to many past global entities simply because the global population has grown so much.

Let me try to put this in perspective. In 1821 the British Empire had entered its final growth phase. The French had been defeated, the world was open. In 1821, the population of the islands that made up Great Briton and Ireland was a bit over twenty million, Today Australia's population is approaching twenty three million. See what I mean?

Size brings complexity, but not necessarily diversity. The Greek Islands in classical times were varied; the relations between them were complex and played out on a geopolitical great power stage; yet their populations were small.

Australia's diversity began early.

Australia's Aboriginal peoples were not then "the Aborigines", a label that suggests uniformity and commonality. They were a varied group in terms of language, culture and physical appearance. They varied in their genetic make-up. "The Aborigines" is in fact a modern construct, a label created by the arriving Europeans and the Aboriginal response. The story of the relations between the new arrivals and the settlers they found is all about labels and responses.

The Europeans who came were not the same either. Today we speak of England or Ireland or Scotland as though these are entities, as if a person from England or Ireland could somehow be classified as a member of a common entity and therefore distinct from the other. It just wasn't like that.

A displaced Gael from the Scottish highlands, a Somerset villager, an Irish peasant fleeing the potato famine, all spoke differently, all thought differently, all acted differently. They were not the same. This is true of other groups too, such as the early Chinese and German settlers.

We speak of early German settlers, but there is a terrible ambiguity about that word German.  Today we think of it as a political term, someone coming from what we now call Germany. In fact, Germany as a political state really did not exist until the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, the term German was as much a language, ethnic or cultural marker as a description of nationality. Those living in Germany did not necessarily speak German, while very large numbers of those speaking German or one of its dialects lived outside Germany.

When Wilhelm Kirchner, the Hamburg Consul in Sydney, began organising the first large scale German migration in 1848, those coming were likely to classify themselves by the specific entity they came from; they were Silesian or Bavarian first, not German.

Kirchner's 1848 book, Australien und seine Vortheile für Auswanderer (Australia and its Advantages for Emigrants) was full of praise for life Down Under. The 1850 edition included letters written by German settlers in various parts of NSW who had arrived as a result of his previous work in Germany. Another wave of German immigrants arrived in the 1860s as a result, settling in the Illawarra district and around Albury on the Murray River. They came to seek a better life and to escape religious persecution.

The Ursuline nuns who arrived in Armidale in 1882 to establish a new girl's school came because the new German Empire was intolerant of the Roman Catholic orders and was seeking to seize their property. There were deep historic reasons for this prejudice, but there was also a desire by the new state to establish an ordered German society. As so often happens, as has happened in Australia many times, the need for uniformity in the new order overrode acceptance of difference.  

The Ursulines date their foundation to 25 November 1583 when a  small group of twenty eight women and girls met in the Northern Italian city of Brescia. Under the influence of Angela Merici, they attended mass and then signed their names in the Book of the Company of St. Ursula. In doing so, they signified their willingness to commit themselves to God, living according to the rules drawn up for them by Angela.

The initial Ursulines lived in and served the community. The new order spread rapidly in a decentralised way. Church pressure then transformed them from an open to a cloistered group, but they retained the tradition of openness and community contribution.    

The Ursuline nuns that arrived in Armidale in 1882 were highly educated but spoke very little English. They found a very different world, far removed from the European culture that they had known. The first school they established, St Ursula's in Armidale, quickly became a success.

Initially the Ursulines concentrated their educational focus on educating their girls not just in religion, but in the culture the nuns had brought from Europe. They saw education in broad, holistic, terms. Then, recognising the growing importance of exams and of further education,they began preparing girls for public examinations.

At a time when the Church focused especially on the need to provide mass primary education and was in fact suspicious of education for women, girls from St Ursula's in Armidale were entering University or Teacher's College. In this sense, the Ursulines were well in front of broader social trends.

The Chinese were another distinct group. The ending of transportation to NSW created severe labour shortages in the pastoral districts. Between 1847 and 1853, nearly 3,000 indentured Chinese labourers were imported into the colony during the period. Most of these were from the densely populated southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien) where conditions were difficult and a significant rise in population had put pressure on available resources. Entry to the new colonies was relatively easy, for the ships of the East India Company had early established trading routes between Sydney and China. 

These early Chinese faced considerable difficulties. They had little English, but often couldn't talk to each other either because they didn't speak the same language.  

Life could be dangerous. In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River with 12 Chinese on board. A thirteenth was found wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was reportedly quite mad, although no-one knew how he had got there. Madness in isolation was a general issue, as was suicide. There was also sometimes violence between Chinese and between Chinese and other groups.

All human groups require narrative, stories that link present and past. We identify with our group or groups first, and then with the broader society. Beneath the broader narrative of Australia lies a series of family and and group narratives, stories of how we came to be. The pattern is interesting and complex, if often unseen. Stories of past injustices, of past successes, of the normal human story, are preserved and re-presented.

Old enmities remain. You can see this in soccer brawls; in Irish attacks on perfidious Albion;  in the brawls among different Aboriginal groups or between Aboriginal and Pacific Islanders in the housing estates; in the growing number of Australians who have fought and died in conflicts that seem remote, stories on TV or in newspapers, but were so real to the individuals involved through their personal narratives that they felt required to do their bit. Spain, Syria, the Balkans, Rhodesia, the list goes on.

The central challenge in any migrant society is the creation of a sufficiently strong narrative that will hold the society together in the face of diversity. Australia faces a special challenge because of the high proportion of overseas born, far higher even than Canada. Further, the mix of new arrivals is changing all the time.

The older Greek men who gather at the Eastlakes shopping centre to sip water and coffee (Photo essay - a taste of Eastlakes) now feel part of the past. Their story, once a central part of the Australian narrative, has been overtaken by new stories. Their experiences, the struggle to establish themselves in a new country, the very texture of the suburbs that they knew, have been swept away. Their cathedral, their diminishing societies, now stand as visible remains in a changing world of gentrification and new groups. They want to tell their stories, to have their experiences re-affirmed, validated.

All human beings need affirmation of the value of their personal experiences. All human beings struggle when their past is swept aside. I do, you do, we all do.

Other countries have higher proportions of overseas born than Australia. The United Arab Emirates come to mind. The distinctive thing about migrant societies such as Canada or Australia as compared to say Singapore or Dubai is that migrant societies have chosen to be open.

In Singapore or Japan or some of the European countries, Governments and citizens worry about preserving the existing society. They seek to increase the birthrate to avoid the exiting dominant group being swamped. Ethnicity, historical connection, is central. I do not have a problem with this, but Australia has chosen a different path. We have chosen to be an open society even though that means that past dominant groups must be swamped in time.

To hold the society together, we look for central narratives. Australians debate over multiculturalism versus integration or assimilation. In practical terms, the reality is that they are all much of a muchness, seeking the same objective. The difference between them is one of emphasis. In all societies, a degree of assimilation or integration is required for the society to work. In all immigration societies, acceptance of difference is a further condition for success.

The real debate in Australia comes over our choice of unifying symbols. This is actually quite difficult, for those symbols have to reflect a diverse, ever changing, society. They have to be symbols that people agree on, that link present and past.

Forget old debates such as a republic versus monarchy. They are old debates that reflect past divisions and differences. Most people don't care. What is it that we actually promote, that has traction in our current Australian society?  It seems to me that that this comes down to a few very common things.

The first is nationalism. We promote Australia as an entity that people have lived and died for. By implication, our new arrivals must accept this. We actually do this quite well, although our very success makes me a little uncomfortable.

The second is a civil society whose values exist independent of questions of religion or ethnicity. This I strongly support.

The third is the promotion of what we might call the Australian way, of images and values linked to our past. Mateship is an example. The Australian popular culture is very powerful, although it makes many uncomfortable. It carries through in a variety of ways including music and advertising.

This is the real unifier, for it is independent of the divisions within our society. All can share, all can identify. Drop bears, a VB ad, Not Happy Jan, all appeal. Even if you come from a tradition that does not recognise drinking or has different views on the ostensible message, you can still understand the basic message. That, to my mind, is our strength.  


Interesting if somewhat depressing take on Australia Day from skepticlawyer: Flag capers. This year I wasn't really conscious of the threads she talks about, although I knew that they were there. I guess I let them slide over me now. Still, as a matter of curiosity, after reading skepticlawyer's post I did a blog search on Australia Day. The usual suspects were there, but it was all much more muted than I have seen it before.

Looking back at last year, I ran some some Australian "facts" from a twitter feed at the time. I laughed then and still find them funny. So to repeat:

  • The drop bear was introduced into Australia as a measure to stop the rampant pest The Cane Toad
  • Australian schools begin at 9am and close at 3pm to prevent children from walking to school during koala feeding times
  • Australian Rules Football was invented as a way for ladies of the CWA to exchange scone recipes by semaphor
  • When Australians feel they are about to vomit, they reach for a Murray-Darling basin
  • Phar Lap was actually a shetland pony from New Zealand
  • slip slop slap is the national child raising policy
  • the first draft of Advance Australia Fair read "Our land abounds in nature strips"

In a comment on skepticlawyer's post, Don Aitkin pointed to his own post, Whatever happened to the ‘Australia’ project?. There Don wrote in part:

But yesterday also made me wonder, again, what had happened to the ‘Australia project’. This is my term for the urge that immigrants had in the 19th century to build a new society under the Southern Cross that would be free of the the injustices of the old world. As I argued in What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia, the project was put on hold again and again, by the Depression of the 1890s, the Great War, the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. You can’t do much about the building of a fair and decent civil society when you are scratching for work or fighting for your country.

The project was resumed in the 1950s, with the real growth of the national capital, the opening of education to girls as well as boys, the building of infrastructure like the Snowy scheme, the common rail gauge and the improvement of highways, and the expansion of higher education. By and large, the new wealth of the society was shared around. In the 1990s and into the new century that impetus slowed and seemed to stop. Wealth became important for its own sake: it was as though the whole point of the Australia project was to make us all rich, and when we were rich we could do what we liked.

Don is concerned about what he perceives to be a loss of the original grand vision. I am actually a little cautious about grand visions, but I do agree that there has been a loss of imagination, of willingness to take on larger challenges. There is something very sterile about public discussion in this country at the present time.

I don't think that it's just a fact of increasing age affecting my judgement. I don't hark back to any particular golden age. But reading past debates, the thing that stands out today is a loss of belief in what's possible. Our present ways of thinking have become a straight jacket that rule out alternatives.

I used the word narrative in this post to describe both personal or group histories, as well as the broader national story. Our present national narrative has become very narrow, narrow at all levels.  


Anonymous said...

Really good post Jim. Thanks for the time you took.

I have a query about your closeout: do you think those 'Aussie icons' resonate as much with younger generations? I mean, I knew what you were saying, and agreed - but would your daughters, for instance, choose the same images?

Made me think of the book "Gone Fishin'" and a much later film 'Japanese Story' about a young Japanese executive visiting the outback.

Or doesn't it matter so much, so long as the inner-chant is "Aussie Aussie Aussie" - which I despise almost as much as "USA USA"?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd and thanks. I know that both my girls identify with two of the thee symbols I cited. Not sure about VB. They also are happy to "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie"!

Anonymous said...

That's interesting Jim; do they really enter into that spirit? My own three (I'm judging 5-10 years older) consistently express only embarrassment at such overt displays.

A couple of posts ago I mentioned an RFS volunteer reporting his last callout was "pretty ordinary". That, for mine, is more the 'spirit' I admire. The callout in question was to an horrific car crash where four teenage boys ran into a tree - all dead, and the engine block ended up 30 metres behind their remains.


Jim Belshaw said...

Maybe there are differences, kvd. My girls and especially Helen likes these things because of the irreverence. They dislike overt nationalism unless someone attacks Australia.

I think the volunteer example you cited is consistent with that.

Rod said...

I couldn't help but think about todays implications of your comments. You made me think about the treatment of different ethnic, religious and cultural groups in Australia.

You discussed the mainly positive or at least confused 'assimilation' (I don't know which word to use) of several different ethnics groups and you touched on the negative sentiment sometimes expressed towards these groups. It may surprise you but that actually made me feel a little less impressed by our 'inclusiveness' (I don't know what word to use here either) in Australia.

The prejudice that the existing population has always to some degree had towards newcomers I think is a persistent characteristic of Australians, or even more broadly, humans. It seems we have always had some openness, but that is always tempered by prejudice... probably mine included!

Whether it be invasion day, Australia day or the Kasakh national day, I think humanity has a problem. It is surprising that we live in a country that still manages to function despite our innate flaws as a species.

Ok... too many days off work... yesterday I did a solo of Bound for Botany Bay at a Aussie day party... now I'm just getting philosophical. Hope the bad weather lets me get back to reality on Tuesday!

Anonymous said...

Rod, fair comments - but don't forget that in order for there to be an 'us' there must always be a 'them'. It seems rather pointless in a way: if there were no perceived threats (or benefits?) to our 'identity' there wouldn't really be a need for a distinct 'identity' anyway.

Maybe like you; grasping for words.


Jim Belshaw said...

I wouldn't be too hard on us, Rod! If you focus on the mistreatment of groups in this country you will find lots of examples. If you look at the overall pattern, we haven't done too badly. Pretty bloody well, actually!

Jim Belshaw said...

It's not just a question of threats or benefits, kvd. I think all groups define themselves in part by comparison to others.

Rummuser said...

The UAR and other Arabian nations like Saudi Arabia, Oman etc have much larger 'outsiders' in their total population but all these are never allowed to acquire local citizenship. They are there to work and go once the contract is over. So, Canada and Australia have different problems than these countries.

Jim Belshaw said...

I wonder about that Ramana. What happens in the longer term when you are so dependent on guest workers?

Evan said...

David Malouf made an interesting point: Australians define themselves by landscape (not the past or cultural achievements).

I think Australia's inclusiveness (with the scandalous exception of Aborigines) is about behaviour. It is not about blood or heritage so much (although this has made some inroads of late - which is appalling I think). Our inclusiveness is about doing things in a particular way. In this sense (apart from the Aborigines) racism isn't all that prevalent in Australia - it is cultural imperialism that the Right (and a good deal of the Left) is promoting.

Evan said...

As to Don's comment. I think the neo-liberal tosh found a particularly genial environment here because we had always been suspicious of rhetoric and grand schemes. We had always valued material things and been reticent about metaphysics (if we had any time for it).

We took on the Brits by seeing who was best at sport. We specialised in things like medical research which made a difference to people's lives.

So neo-liberalism fitted.

And its rule remains unchallenged. It is the language which politics is discussed in (by all 'sides').

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that I would argue, Evan, that if we are going to change we have to put aside labels including neo-liberalism. Labels come later as applied by historians to explain! I am going to have a go at a post that actually does paint a vision!

Evan said...

I very much agree Jim.

A positive vision is very much needed. And for me it will need to be significantly green - ie. deal with how we can all flourish on this country.

I do think there has been a failure of nerve about vision in the last several decades.

Jim Belshaw said...

I knew that the Green issue would be important to you, Evan! But we can accommodate that!

I have been mulling over the idea of a vision while tidying up. We actually all know pretty much what needs to be done, although there are questions of balance and of priorities. I don't want to write something in nice words, simply express views. We spend so much time packaging now that the content get's lost.

Rummuser said...

It is an under - reported problem. Locals do not want to perform many of the tasks performed by the guests and there is no other employment. With development itself slowing down, the guests who return home face other problems locally.