April 09, 2003


Gerard Henderson's recent piece on patriotism in the Sydney Morning Herarld is called Rallying around the flag is no jingoism.. In it he recycles George Orwell, who, in his Notes on Nationalism, praised patriotism and rejected nationalism. The former was good the latter was bad. Henderson says that Orwell

"...defined patriotism as involving "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people". In this sense, the concept was essentially defensive. Not so, however, nationalism which, Orwell maintained, was "inseparable from the desire for power". The abiding purpose of every nationalist was to achieve more power for a nation."

Henderson uses this distinction to say that:

"Australia is a patriotic nation. Always has been. But it is not nationalistic - in that Australians have never attempted to impose power as a nation. Australia is essentially a pragmatic and empirical society....Patriotism looks like being around for quite some time. Moreover, most scoundrels find nationalism much more attractive."

I have dealt with patriotism here.

I take exception to this understanding of nationalism because Australia is a deeply nationalist nation, even though it does not want to incorporate Papua New Guinea into a little empire. Why so? Because the Orwell understanding of nationalism is an odd one.

One conception of nationalism is the romantic one based on language, culture and tradition. It has its roots in Herder and it gives us a cultural nationalism concerned with developing an Australian culture in opposition to an English colonial culture and an American mass culture. Another conception of nationalism is a civic or liberal one in which individuals give themselves a state and the state is what binds together the nation. On this acount a nation is viewed as a purely legal and political entity and the emphasis is placed on the sovereignty of the people.

What Henderson is not doing is questioning Orwell's identifying nationalism with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union) or a movement (political Catholicism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism). What Henderson seems to assume is the equation of nationalism with ethnic nationalism which is concerned with ensuring that each nation (a people bound by ethnic ties) should have its own sovereign state. So they promote the nation-state model, whiich means that all ethnic groups should have their own state. This then gives rise to incessant conflicts and wars betwen nations.

Henderson is quite right to reject this for Australia, which by and large has become a multicultural society. That leaves us with the civic conception based on Ausatralia as a liberal nation-state and which has been underwritten its self-determination and autonomy or independence.

But Australian history shows that the Australian people has been composed of a dominant Anglo-Australian class who controlled the state and who shaped a certain (ie., English) culture, language, history and set of traditions. These shaped the hand of the state which acted to minmize the existence of minority and immigrant groups so as to create the conditions for assimialtion. The aim of assimilation as a mode of governing a population was to make the Australian people linguistically and culturally homogenous so as to ensure national cohesion.

This is what Henderson ignores.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at April 9, 2003 09:47 AM | TrackBack
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