Flying the flag

25 January 2010

Written by: Tom Cowie

As thousands gather on the local sports ground to celebrate the nation’s coming of age, the night sky is lit up with an explosion of red, white and blue.

Amidst the extravagant display, an insignificant distant glow transforms into distinct flames. People begin to slow their wild hooting as they realise the adjacent tennis court has been set alight by this artificial display of might.

Immediately after the fire is extinguished, the air is filled with renewed sounds of whirring fireworks. This brings a chorus of “Yeah” and “That’s why I love this country!”

I watch on with a certain degree of cynicism, silently thankful that the colours in the sky represent the Star-Spangled Banner rather than our embattled Aussie flag. This is Main St, USA, and it is the 4th of July.

My thoughts take me back to a few months previous, when I sat beer-in-hand in a mate’s backyard, partaking in the Australia Day tradition of listening to the radio while boasting of how little import we place on the day.

As we approach January 26 once more, our country has rarely been less sure of itself.

Claims of an inherent culture of violence and racism have been met by heavily contrasting views. While some take the philosophical approach that we have an obligation to welcome other cultures, others flat out reject this idea claiming conservative views reminiscent of ‘White Australia’ days.

In effect, we are a nation divided by nationalism and internationalism.

The existence of nationalism, although complicated to explain, has extremely deep-rooted origins. As James Kellas argues in his book The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity, it has a series of necessary conditions relating to both human nature and political history.

Internationalism, or the belief that the world would benefit from co-operation and understanding between differing cultures, can therefore occur where one of these conditions is not satisfied.

As I sat on that Californian sporting field, I started to ponder the reasons behind the unique internationalism that my Aussie friends and I hold so dearly.

Since I am fairly certain human nature is the same in Australia as it is elsewhere, it must come down to something in our political history.

It may stem from the fact that we gained our nationhood, not from the blood of a sword, but through the wonders of democracy. In order to become the Commonwealth of Australia we never had to face any genuine oppressors, thus were never forced to rally together.

Perhaps I do not even recognise myself as a true Australian, despite my family’s roots in the sunburnt country dating back well over a century.

Those who claim that immigration can work only with integrationist principles risk forgetting that we came into this land with complete disregard for any existing culture. This is something to be remembered as we welcome more of our immigrant friends to our shores.

Whatever it is, we cannot shy away from the fact that the national day for most of our neighbours is a celebration of their freedom. This is a concept most of us simply do not have a clear understanding of.

It is easy to take one’s freedom for granted when it has never been removed.

This Australia Day, I will once again sit beer-in-hand in a mate’s backyard while listening to the radio.

One thing I will stop short of, however, is boasting how little importance I place on the day. This can only be counterproductive in resolving the battle between nationalists and internationalists.

This does not mean we must carry on like our country is bigger than Jesus and more superior than the mother who jumped the gun.

Rather, it is a day where we can take stock of how this clash of views is eroding the pillars of society built by both our immigrant and native forefathers. It is a chance to better appreciate the freedom we have, especially when it is a freedom that we may not have had to work for as hard as some others.

But most of all, it is an opportunity to put aside our petty differences and ensure we still have things to take for granted in the future.

Sam Drummond is a law student at Monash University and a SYN radio broadcaster. He has also been published at the National Times.