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Friday, 27 January 2012

Australia Day

A couple of interesting reflections on the significance and meaning (not?) of Australia Day by Kym at  Larvatus Prodeo and Peter Chambers at  This Blog Harms.

Both reflect on some of the changes to the character of the day and the celebrations over recent years. Kim first:
I think everyone of a certain age can also remember a time when “Australia Day” was pretty much a nothing day. A moveable feast that made a long weekend, where some obscure ceremonies involving firing salutes would take place, and where a few history re-enactors would have their One Day of The Year .... It was, of course, always a day when The Great Forgetting moved into overdrive, and Indigenous people, rightly, sought to remember and remind by renaming it Invasion Day and marching, and being visible. 
But it wasn’t a day when people who – in any way – departed from The Great White Australian Male Norm – had to observe bunches of drunks with Australian flags draped over their shoulders marauding about, demanding people kiss said flags, and generally harassing anyone who visibly departed from said Norm. And chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!”. 
But what are we left with? Sermons and worthy speeches about unity. But a strange unity between the Official Symbols (Flag, Governor-General, military flyovers, and so on) and the appropriation of those symbols by a minority of nativists who believe that they “grew here” ... This is not unity. It’s actually disunity wrapping itself in the flag of Nation and unity. 

Peter draws attention first of all to the oddness of the day. 

Australia Day is an odd selection for a national day. I mean, most nation-states celebrate independence: independence that they fought for, or won, or were given. I suppose this is impossible in Australia, seeing as we effectively refused it when given the opportunity. Nonetheless, the obvious choice is Federation, which was on January 1, 1901. It would be the technically correct choice, since before that, ‘we’ weren’t a nation, just a bunch of self-governing British colonies. But it would also be the hungover choice, given that it’s also New Years Day… in Australia. Scotch that.
But it gets weirder as soon as you ask what Australia Day actually purports to commemorate. I mean, the arrival of a bunch of stinking prison hulks full of transported convicts, mostly men, and their introduction of smallpox to the local Aboriginal populations… Well, it doesn’t seem like our finest moment. Convict origins, shit food, barely potable water, various types of pox, no toothpaste, insufficient opportunities for conjugal bliss… it seems like an experience that most peoples would prefer to forget.
Then he puts his finger I something that I had been partly conscious of but not got round to fully articulating - the extent to which national identity is now being expressed as consumerism, identity without history and detached from memory. this shifting to a consumerist focus has happened increasingly over the past decade, but has been really noticeable during the past two or three years.
This is a picture of an Australia Day merchandise stall at a Woolworths.No doubt you’ve seen it at yours, if you’re a shopper (and how could you not be, if you’re Australian). When I look at this rack, I see nude capitalism: the emptying out of everything. Rack upon rack of cheap, tacky, Swanston St-quality merchandise, whose only uniting factor is the flag (on which, weirdly, the flag of the colonist still looms large). Check just around the corner at bigger stores, Woolies are also pimping be-flagged boogieboards. Ten years ago, Australians would have laughed at gullible tourists for buying this crap… now, judging from what I’ve seen on the Mornington Peninsula and at the tennis, we’re lapping it up. ... Australia Day has become something irredeemable, full to the hat brim with its own emptiness. But, as I see it, there’s a way through this. It’s the difference between celebration and remembrance.
All this before the actual media event of the Prime Minister and tony Abbott retreating for the Lobby Restaurant and the protest by people attending the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the comments by Tony Abbott. The two episodes were overlapping, but not identical, but that's to the issue here. What the overlapping episodes showed was that political leadership in Australia has no sense of the importance of truthful remembering about this nation's morally complex history.

Christian "remembering" on Australia Day is going to be even more complex because what we are remembering here involves placing the story of church here in the context of its identity as a pilgrim people, that cannot own the claims of our nation as final and determinative of who we are but place ourselves in a longer and broader story. The Epistle to Diognetus reminds us of some of the tensions of this location for the task of remembering:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle....While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.

"They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. 

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