Ashamed to Be Australian

Yesterday I overheard a discussion about immigration between two middle-aged men. One said, finally, in a broad Northern English accent, “I’m ashamed to be Australian when I see how this country treats its immigrants.”

The man, tall, good-looking, in his sixties, was a lecturer at an Australian university, and a first-generation Australian (a ten-pound Pom) with children and grandchildren born in Australia. I wondered who or what he was loyal to. He is an intelligent man; he must know that we need to control our borders. He must also know that not all asylum seekers are refugees. He knows about the housing and transport problems in all our major cities. He knows about our lack of water and fragile landscape. Yet he apparently feels so strongly about Australia’s migration policy—its treatment of refugees—that he is prepared to deny his new chosen country. If you are ashamed of your country, you should leave. To choose to stay in an environment of which you are ashamed is to continue the shame, and therefore to live in a place of ever mounting shame. Nobody should do this; especially, one should not visit such shame on one’s children and grandchildren.

I came home and Googled “ashamed to be Australian”. I found the usual suspects—Friends of the Earth ashamed to be Australian; Aboriginal medal winner ashamed to be Australian; a photo of a woman with a sign saying “Ashamed To Be Australian” marching against the Iraq war; Rai Gaita—giving a lecture on Shame at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. Gaita gives some background information on the Aristotelian honour/shame tradition and the post-Christian ideals of goodness and guilt. He claims post-Christian guilt to be psychologically insufficient and to be more concerned with what “to do” rather than what one “should be” (good stuff, I would have thought)—that we should see shame as the “fine sentiment of an evolved morality”. Gaita believes that “collective responsibility” needn’t be collective guilt or shame, and refers to Keating’s “we took the land, we took the children from their mothers …” as an “identity forming relationship” of national fellowship. He then derides Professor Peter Sutton for suggesting that reconciliation should happen between individuals rather than through national institutions. “Only as an Australian whose identity has been shaped by being Australian, by attachments to this country, can I feel rightly ashamed of what was done by my political ancestors,” he says. Yet, as a first-generation Australian, Gaita’s political ancestors were Romanian/German/European.

So, fundamentally, Rai Gaita thinks you can have your shame and eat it too—you can quite properly be ashamed to be Australian as long as you don’t descend into morbid self-abasement. In fact, he would argue, it is more shameful not to feel ashamed to be Australian than it is to feel this self-righteous kind of shame. In fact, strangely, Gaita’s kind of shame is almost a badge of honour—it is only, he feels, the enlightened (those who accept without question the Stolen Generations and the Australian attempted genocide) who shoulder this shame who can truly hold their heads up as Australians. His is a shame without fault—a shame without consequence, a shame true Australians can feel proud of. He does not discuss the fact that shame comes from “without”—from the community—that it withdraws the esteem of the individual’s peers on which his or her enjoyment of the good life depends. Nor does he explore the fact that the “post-Christian” “guilt” which he derides—comes from “within”—from “conscience” and that it requires not only penance, but also that amends be made and matters be put right … indeed what “to do” rather than what one “should be”.

Gaita is a left-wing moral philosopher when such a thing should not be able to exist, and should not be suffered. He is perpetuating a big lie about Australia and cannot see that his own complicity in this massive moral fraud (the Stolen Generations and the accusation of genocide against Australia) is deeply shameful. The manufacture of such a deliberate lie over such a long period of time despite the clear and undeniable evidence of its falsity, readily and easily available, is tantamount, in the field of moral philosophy, to mortal sin. He should stop writing or teaching philosophy until he admits his guilt and shame—or, he should hand in his citizenship as a sign of his “collective responsibility” and his sincerity in being “ashamed to be Australian”. Yet of all things we could feel pity for him—he has chosen this false path, though he has chosen it knowingly and deliberately. He now needs to make amends—publish his confession in the confessional of Australia, the meedja, and complete what will undoubtedly be a meagre penance considering the sin. This would be true humility and it would give passage to true guilt and its absolution. It would also prove that we are not yet quite post-Christian, and that Aristotle, for all his wisdom, did not really influence the modern world to anywhere near the extent that Christ did.

Australians do not recoil from mistakes they have made, even very large mistakes. We celebrate one every year on Anzac Day. We came to the global community, over the centuries, like poor people from out of town. We could see that we were unsophisticated and we cringed in front of Europe and Britain on our knees until we were allowed in. We opened up to pizzas, falafels, rice and pasta, coffee and wine without too much trouble and we sometimes hid our lack of self-esteem and our fear of isolation in a certain xenophobia that the good migrants from Italy and Greece and other parts of Europe eventually broke down. We assimilated with them at least as much as they did with us.

Australia is a moveable feast, a magic pudding that has, so far, not run out. We have all become rich and free, with many peoples, from cultures much older than ours, now begging us to let them in. This is a land to be proud of. Yet those who are ashamed to be Australian would accuse me of jingoism for writing or even thinking this. They think it clever to hate Australia with a kind of jealousy—that such a simple, unsophisticated, lower-class sort of people should have been able to make such wealth and freedom, and adapt to such diversity.

Any fair observer would see that Australians are never ashamed to be Australian—ever. Not even for Pauline Hanson, not for Germaine Greer, nor Edna Everage. Not ashamed of Robert Menzies or John Howard or Mark Latham. Not even ashamed of John Kerr or Lionel Murphy or Alistair Nicholson. Even the opponents of these people, who may loathe them, would not say they are “ashamed to be Australian” because of them. Most would even see some redeemable, undeniably Australian qualities in Pauline Hanson, Lionel Murphy, even Auber Octavius Neville.

Our poets and writers of historical fiction, even Kate Grenville, who attempts to channel political correctness into the eighteenth century, still do not stoop so low as to deny their own heritage. The overwhelming majority rely heavily on their Australian-ness: Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Edna Everage, Les Murray. Our poets have never been ashamed to be Australian, nor our artists, nor our politicians—not even Kevin Rudd in the hottest instant of his apology to the Aboriginal peoples was ashamed to be Australian.

Of course, in the very act of denouncing those who are ashamed to be Australian, I open myself to the accusation of being a far right-wing nationalist Nazi. So goes the possibility of eulogising the land we come from, of talking about the beauty of the country or its quirky way of living—its mongrel quality, for example. There is a certain mongrel in Australia and Australians which has been developed as much through the nature of its landscape, as through the character of those who chose to call this country home. It’s an edge, a little bit of unsophisticated larrikin that has often worried new first-generation Australians. They mistakenly take it for naivety or ignorance rather than for the conscious vulnerability it is. An open-ness to the possibility that anything can happen—a vulnerability that was necessary in order to survive the emotional and physical landscape of the country. The Europeans hated it—the flies on the food, the budgie smugglers, the football, the “past carin’” attitude. Italian and Greek migrants after the Second World War struggled to get a handle on this aspect of Australia. However, they did, and now their children and grandchildren, second and third generation Australians, excel in this quirky little twist which is so subtle and essential to the Australian psyche. They take it back home to Europe and wield it mightily. They seem to be proud to be Australian and enjoy taking their little bit of mongrel for a walk in the old country.

Desperate for identity, we place forests of pukamani poles and Aboriginal paintings in just about every art gallery in the country, yet we fail to explore who “we” are, where “we” come from, and where “we” are going. It would all end in jingoism. Only the “we” of Paul Keating and Rai Gaita, the “we” of “We took the land, we stole the children …” is acceptable. This aspect of progressive thinking lacks the poetry to seek the sublime in the ordinary as well as the exotic. These are the people who love our national anthem, yet many of us cringe every time we hear the terrible infantile song sung and we still do not know the words. It sounds much better sung in an Aboriginal language no one can understand.

In Fitzroy, the gay community recently held a function which was advertised as a “Reclaim the Shame” party. It seemed to me (as an ordinary heterosexual citizen) that they were nostalgic for the shame that was once upon a time applied to homosexuality. Apart from the clear political message—that the general community should revisit the cultural shame of having heaped shame on the homosexual community for being homosexual—it also displayed a kind of quirky sexual deviance—that shame itself was an extra thrill. Being shamed is a sexual turn-on. “Hurt Me” the poster said … let’s all get together and be shameful. Yet they would not have been able to feel the shame, because true shame cannot be manufactured—it comes from within. Pure shame comes from what used to be called “conscience”, and if a person goes against their own conscience, they feel shame.

The conscience of a nation is as difficult to define as the conscience of an individual. In the olden days conscience was clearly defined by Christianity, the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins, though there was endless nuance and interpretation. Lately conscience seems to have been replaced by human rights, equal opportunity, natural justice and a plethora of other progressive left-wing concepts defined by the United Nations. It is believed that this is the pathway to a greater individual freedom, yet the legislation which eventually accompanies such “rights” removes individual judgment and individual responsibility and places all citizens at the mercy of the state. This is the state attempting to become the church by redefining morality and forcing it down the throats of unwilling citizens.

It would seem, then, that those on the progressive side of politics no longer need to feel shame from going against their conscience, but only when they find themselves “politically incorrect” and therefore outside “the lore”. These people feel shame when we reject illegal immigrants, or when we intervene in Aboriginal communities, or when we “deny” global warming, or the Stolen Generations, or when we do not accept their verdict of genocide. The shame they feel is a righteous shame, a shame to be proud of. It is, however, absolutely intolerable and far more shameful to be a “denialist” or a “sceptic”. Such people are shunned and shamed by the withdrawal of esteem from their peers and they are shunted from their jobs into isolated positions in the shade where they cannot embarrass Australia on the world stage. This socialist, PC, simulated conscience of the progressives tolerates individual human rights above all else and has developed legislation, law and global moralities, to enforce it. Its intent is to expand individual freedom, yet its outcome is a strangulation of free thought so complete that citizens can no longer even name their shame, and certainly not suffer the consequences—the redemption.

When I buried my father and my mother in the Australian earth in Melbourne ten years ago, I didn’t need a “welcome to country” ceremony before the funeral. I buried them in their home, in their land, where they came from. They both fought in the Australian Army against the Japanese—my father, a coast watcher in New Guinea, up trees with a walkie-talkie, my mother nursing Australian survivors from Changi prison. They put their lives on the line for years in foreign countries to protect what they used to call “the Australian way of life”. Once, and only once, when my father was slightly inebriated, he told me of a time he had come across five Japanese soldiers badly wounded and suffering from the disease beri-beri in a clearing in the New Guinea jungle. He said he shot them all. Then he said nothing, and in the silence I could see that it still bothered him greatly. He was a devout Catholic and he would have confessed this. His confessor would have forgiven him. Yet his conscience still disturbed him. A Trappist monk once told me that it was an insult to God if, after being absolved of a sin, you could still not forgive yourself. Yet still, forty years after the end of the war, my father suffered from this sin. He knew it was a sin.

I often have a day walking in the hills behind Apollo Bay thinking how I own it all. The Great Ocean Road, the Otways, the trees, the rivers, the ocean—I own it, it’s all mine. I know it’s a mad thought, but I revel in it and it makes me feel free and comfortable. I snuggle into Australia as if it were my own bed. I dispense with private property and law. On these days I cross fences, walk through farms and catch fish as if it is all mine. I feel free and unencumbered by any sort of national shame. I know I have paid my dues and that this is my country and my children’s country, my grandchildren’s land. I inspect my beach and my ocean, and neither the English willows nor the marine national parks disturb my meditation. I must admit I feel proud to be Australian, but I keep this mostly to myself—it’s not something I feel the need to share. I wish this same peace for all Australians and remind them that becoming Australian is a process that takes time and constant vigilance—maintenance—that in the end, there is an Australian trying to get out, in every human being on earth.

Patrick McCauley’s articles for Quadrant include his account of teaching in Wadeye, which appeared in the December 2008 issue.

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