Australia Day: is nationalism really so bad?

The progressive side of politics in Australia needs to embrace the nation and nationalism in order to achieve lasting change. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australian flag boxer shorts and bikinis, an annual political stoush about who was named Australian of the Year (and who was overlooked) and a binge-drinking holiday to mark the destruction of one of the world’s oldest people and cultures.

Viewed from many angles, Australia Day isn’t a pretty sight.

So, why do we even continue with national celebrations? You would have thought that a multicultural society like Australia would have grown out of nationalist nonsense and embraced a more cosmopolitan identity. Surely in a globalised, interconnected world, we’re all “citizens of the world”?

But is nationalism really so bad?

Despite its bad name, nationalism isn’t necessarily a dirty word. Like most other “-isms”, it’s an ideology that can be both productive and positive. However, it can also be thoroughly vile.

Many who abhor nationalism at home, for example, enthusiastically endorse it for others. This is particularly the case when it comes to minority and oppressed peoples and when the word “nationalist” is quickly followed by “struggle”.

Nationalist struggles by East Timorese, West Papuans or Palestinians, for example, get the big tick of approval from many people who wouldn’t be seen dead in green and gold zinc cream. Similarly, we heartily embrace Aboriginal nations, or the First People Nations.

While those on the progressive side of politics often sidestep the dreaded “N” word by talking about “self-determination” instead, such struggles make no sense if they are not at the same time nationalist struggles.

And shame and embarrassment about one’s nation (or national holidays) is itself only possible if you first have feelings of nationalist sentiment. As the noted thinker on nationalism Benedict Anderson has written, feelings of national shame are a sign of a highly developed sense of nationalism. Anderson wrote in a 1999 article in the New Left Review that:

No one can be a true nationalist who is incapable of feeling “ashamed” if her state or government commits crimes, including those against her fellow citizens.

Although she has done nothing individually that is bad, as a member of the common project, she will feel morally implicated in everything done in that project’s name.

Take, for instance, the apology to the Stolen Generations delivered by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. The apology was a response to the shameful treatment of Australia’s indigenous people. And it was delivered on behalf of and in the name of the nation.

Rather than being un-Australian, the so-called “black armband view of history” derided by conservative commentators and politicians is entirely consistent with being a nationalist. In this broader understanding of nationalism, national shame demonstrates that you care deeply about your fellow nationals and their actions.

In that regard, nationalism has a lot more going for it than more cosmopolitan identities, such as citizen of the world.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations may have actually displayed a highly developed sense of nationalism in Australia. AAP/Alan Porritt

At best, citizen of the world is an identity that can be genuinely felt only by those with privilege. It’s the kind of identity that is natural to a globally mobile elite that views any connection to a place or community as an intolerable restriction on their freedom.

At its worst, citizen of the world is utterly devoid of content. It has about as much substance as one of those ad campaigns for multinational banks you see at airports showing Thai dancers and Mexican peasants who, in spite of their differences, appreciate quick access to their money via a globally connected network of ATMs. While comforting, they’re utterly vacuous as a basis for civic identity.

Starry-eyed cosmopolitanism commits us all to being nice to each other, but seems incapable of anything more complex. Change, whether making amends for crimes of the past or building a more equitable, tolerant society, requires time and commitment. This kind of commitment comes from long and deep engagement with communities, including the national as well as the local and the international.

It’s not hard to see why many people have a dim view of nationalism. Many expressions of nationalism are racist, aggressive, vulgar and just plain awful. But the nation isn’t going away and the alternatives, while superficially comforting, too often lack substance.

Nationalism and the national project are too important to give up on. For all the faults and potential dangers, the progressive side of politics needs to embrace the nation and nationalism in order to achieve lasting change, whether it’s building national infrastructure, tackling climate change, making peace with Indigenous people or creating a distinctively Australian culture.