An Easy-Fit Boutique Identity

It is a curiosity of human nature that people often seize on only part of who they are to explain who they are. They take one aspect of themselves and present it as a public image. The part emphasised will normally be that believed to have the potential to attract the greatest attention or admiration.

Take family descent. We are all a product of various family streams. If one of those families is more renowned than the others it is that one, if any, the individual will want people to know about. We had some next-door neighbours when I was growing up who believed they had a distant connection with the family of a Scottish earl. Even though they had a different patronymic this connection would be introduced in conversation and they christened their daughter with the name of the earl’s territorial title. Presumably they thought it added more lustre to themselves than their actual surname.

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There may still be people in Australia who would bask in a British aristocratic connection but there’d be none at all among our contemporary articulate class, what passes for our intelligentsia in the media, politics, education and the arts. They want to be thought of as Aboriginal, or, to use the term they prefer, indigenous (we are in fact all indigenous unless we were born overseas). One wonders at the psychology behind it. Do they feel it puts them on the side of the dispossessed and oppressed, without the irksomeness, as they gaze out from penthouse or mansion over Harbour views or rolling acres, of actually having to be dispossessed and oppressed themselves? That they are sort of virtually hard done by? Or do they imagine it distances them from the “invaders” who founded this country as we know it but are now universally detested by this class—even though those most vocal in condemnation, bereft of or blind to irony, never admit that by their own continued presence here they are compounding the “invasion” and continuing its supposedly illegal “occupation”? Why don’t they go somewhere else and leave Australia to its “traditional owners”?

Some of these people’s great-grandparents would have been rummaging in the family history to find a convict they could boast descent from. By the perverse values of snobbery, that used to be regarded as the equivalent of patrician in a nation that, notwithstanding the pioneer W.C. Wentworth’s desire that it have a House of Lords, had no aristocratic founders. How things change. No one with a public reputation to keep up in Albanesian Australia would want it put about that there was a convict forebear lurking in his family’s past, or worse an early colonist, or worse again someone who fired a rifle at marauding natives; and if it did get out, the revelation would be accompanied by torrents of histrionic apologies from the descendant.

There was a time in the 1950s when the snobby thing to be was “European”. Educated refugees from Hitler, mainly Polish or Austrian, though some pretended to be French, ran film festivals and started galleries and restaurants in our inner cities and were looked up to for their culture and (sometimes carefully maintained) foreign accents. Their locally-born admirers would sometimes try to reproduce the accents in their own speech when holding forth about the genius of Ingmar Bergman or the artistry of Mirka Mora.

Self-presentation is subservient to fashion in more things than clothes or hair. Where some people wear glasses with silly frames or (if male, but you can’t be sure) grow beards to draw attention to themselves, these are frivolous vanities compared with the fashion for claiming some degree of Aboriginal descent. The latter indicates a more serious approach towards shaping the totality of one’s image. It implies a range of views and attitudes that go beyond Aboriginality to embrace the full repertoire of leftist belief—package-deal opinions, as the Oxford don Lord David Cecil called them—so that two or more people who profess Aboriginal connections will have the same views on climate, Trump, abortion and the rest. It is a fashion more evident every day as the number of self-proclaimed Aborigines rises—the current figure of around 812,000 is 25 per cent higher than six years ago. None of the claimants is wholly Aboriginal, and none professes to be; the degree of descent adduced is often very limited, an eighth or less. Aboriginality then is only part of who they are, and yet it is the part they shout from the housetops, invariably preceding their putative connection with their preferred “mob” with the word proud.

It is only recently that Aboriginality has become chic. Let us imagine the case of, say, a senior ABC pontificator who was born half-Aboriginal and who, in the earlier years of his career did his best to hide the Aboriginal half, emphasising his Anglo surname and upbringing. All at once, in direct and shameless imitation of the racial politics of the United States, where “white supremacy” is being transformed into white subordination, our Stone Age predecessors on this continent, rechristened on the North American model “first nations”, are all the rage. The pontificator promptly rediscovers the other half of his heritage, forswears the Anglo bit, “identifies” as Aboriginal and becomes a media hero for his “courage” in breaking through the race barrier as a “proud” whatever-tribe-he-asserts-his-descent-from “man”. (That last word is essential, the use of “Aboriginal” or other descriptor as a noun by itself being for some reason now frowned on by whoever determines these linguistic fashions, so that instead of “slave”, for example, the currently correct form is “enslaved person”. This follows the earlier transition of “coloured”, to “person of colour” and “disabled” to “person with disability” or “with different abilities”.)

Most Australians are still, no doubt to the chagrin of multiculturalists, of Anglo or Irish descent, but those who claim Aboriginality would never dream of making that the central element in their self-identification, even when they know they have far more British blood than Aboriginal. Their Aboriginality is what we might call a boutique identity, an identity for show like a window display. Its purpose is personality enhancement, to impress the world, or that part of the world that attaches importance to having the right opinions and attitudes, which for the time being are those that prevail on the Left. It inevitably implies virtue, since the identity selected will be one which the Left regards as marginalised and oppressed. It is drawn from a range of characteristics—ethnic, sexual or cultural—which have become fashionable with boutique identitarians as resources for ornamenting their personalities, as, for similar motives, the street-fashion-conscious have adopted the tradition of savages (“primitive peoples”) in disfiguring themselves with tattoos for ornament. The process is like the conscious exaggeration of a structural element in architecture, a column or a pediment, to make a building stand out, a device much in vogue among recent contemporary architects of the postmodern school and consonant with the confused postmodernism of Western culture, which is the context in which boutique identities have appeared en masse.

In other words, a boutique identity is a distortion. It is on view not because someone happened to be born with it as a basic element of who they are, a simple unavoidable fact of their existence, but as something to be shown off, paraded, boasted about, to achieve some status or obtain some advantage. There is no difference in quality between Aboriginality and Irishness, but in contemporary Australia there is no self-flattering virtue attaching to the latter. Those who emphasise Aboriginality in their genetic package would see no more point in talking up their Irish descent than in drawing attention to their armpits. (Irishness had its day a generation ago, chiefly among boozy university lecturers; it lingers on as a motivating factor, even if not drawn attention to, among Australian republican zealots and, in Victoria, people with Eureka flags on their back windscreen.)

The other boutique identity as keenly taken up as Aboriginality is that of a minority sexuality. Of gay, lesbian and trans, trans is probably the current favourite. A sign of a sex-mad society such as ours is that everyone is expected to announce his sexuality as part of his CV. Once it was something you kept out of conversation; now no conversation with the possessor of a boutique sexuality would be complete without it. So we had the example of Sydney University dean of arts, a self-described “feminist and queer studies scholar”—is that really a field of scholarship? True, she’s from dreary New Zealand where it seems they take all this gender nonsense seriously—announcing at the time of her appointment that she was “non-binary”. So? Does that make her a better teacher? That is the aspect of her personality she ought to want to be known by.

One boutique identity would be enough for most people, particularly if the identity requires full-time maintenance in promoting it wherever you can—spinning out its potential for attracting media sympathy for your “victimhood”, exploiting its capacity for collecting grants and scholarships, and procuring the benefits of “positive discrimination” in the form of minimal competition for a good job. But for the energetic and tireless in their own cause it is possible to manage two or even more identities.

I was struck by the case of a Todd Fernando, an “LGBTQ+ Commissioner” appointed by—who else?—Daniel Andrews in Victoria, the only premier in Australia who sees a need for such a functionary. Todd is described by the Melbourne Age, presumably without even the ghost of a smirk, so desperate is that newspaper to get the contemporary pieties right, as “a queer Wiradjuri cis-man” (how can you write satire when you get that sort of thing in real life?), the “cis” denoting that he was born male and hasn’t had an operation, and the “queer” a former slur against gays repossessed by its erstwhile target group as a term of “empowerment”, these days indicating a certain militancy. So there we have one boutique ethnicity and, by implication, three boutique sexualities. One wonders how much time that leaves for “LGBTQ+” commissioning.

One difficulty in all this is that if you confine yourself within the limits of your boutique identity you leave no room for the inconsistencies and intellectual untidinesses that distinguish the interesting individual from the single-issue bore, a species with which the Left, for obvious reasons, is inexhaustibly endowed. It is saner, and more interesting for your friends, to renounce the clear lineaments of a labelled identity to be instead who you really are, even if your bag of preferences and attitudes is a bit of a jumble. As Walt Whitman declared in Song of Myself, 51, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).” I’d rather listen to Whitman contradicting himself than to boutique identitarian Bruce Pascoe expounding his single issue with tedious coherence. 

Christopher Akehurst, a regular contributor, lives in rural Victoria.


18 thoughts on “An Easy-Fit Boutique Identity

  • loweprof says:

    As Stan Grant put it in his book Australia Day (page 78):

    “I think of those people I have met who discover a long-lost Aboriginal ancestor and construct an entirely new identity for themselves.”

    Some time ago I discovered that one of my 64 great-great-great-great-grand-parents was a Menang woman from Kinjarling (an area now known as Albany, Western Australia). I now identify as a proud Menang man from Kinjarling.

  • Malcolm_Prentis says:

    And I am 3% Nigerian because one of my immigrant great-great-grandfathers was half Nigerian, born in the West Indies to a slave mother. His father came from a slave-owning Anglo-Saxon family. My problem here is whether I owe or am due compensation. Could one of the identitarian nomenklatura please enlighten me?

    • Brian Boru says:

      The answer Malcolm is that you are both owed and are due compensation. To put this problem to rest and get closure for your troubled mind I suggest the following.
      Firstly find a person of repute who is prepared to be a witness. In front of that witness take a $5 note from your pants right hand pocket (with your right hand). Pass the $5 note to your left hand and place it, (with your left hand) in your left hand pants pocket
      Have your witness sign a statutory declaration attesting to what they have seen.
      Send the completed declaration, together with the $5 note to me (care of QOL). I will, by return mail, forward you a certificate of guilt atonement and you will then be a proud, (insert name of tribe here) person.

  • DougD says:

    “this connection would be introduced in conversation and they christened their daughter with the name of the Scottish earl’s territorial title. Presumably they thought it added more lustre to themselves than their actual surname.” Another Scot, Burns, skewered this fairly common affectation, in response to a name-dropping fellow dinner guest:
    Ye talk of the lords ye’ve dined with
    And the dukes ye supped with yest e’en
    But a louse, sir, is still a louse
    Though it crawl on the locks of a queen.

  • padraic says:

    Thanks Christopher for explaining the meaning of cis. Up to that vocabulary point I was coping with most of this new jargon but that one beat me. All this stuff is a pathetic joke. One’s Australian citizenship should be enough and central to identity. What you do with your “culture” in private is your business – leave the rest of us out of it. I suspect these extravagant claims to being Aboriginal among the activist/victim class is to boost the numbers needed to take over Australia as per the actions and slogans we hear and see. Alternatively, it could be a form of reverse snobbery to make them feel superior to the common herd (as they seem to see the rest of us) – shades of Orwell’s “Animal Farm”.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Irving Goffman was on to some of this in the 60’s with his book on ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. What people want to be seen as in the public view is often very dependent upon fashion. You note the rise now of ’boutique opinions’ which some also refer to as ‘luxury beliefs’, a set of values subscribed to in order to elicit empathic admiration without responsibility for any of the effects of your positioning.- climate worriers in their waterfront houses with no problem in paying their soaring electricity bills come readily to mind here. This sort of values subscription is possible because their circumstances are comfortable. They don’t actually have to worry about more pressing things in life, such as earning a living and raising a family if you aren’t well off. Such virtue posturing is one of the sins of our current age, and a very annoying one at that.

  • lbloveday says:

    Quote: “…grow beards to draw attention to themselves”.
    I grow beards to avoid daily shaving, as do a number of my mates.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Family name fame. A search of my surname throws up page after page of the deceased celebrity Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. A Knight, a Nobel Laureate and twice elected head of the Royal Society of London. At his death, he had the longest ever entry in “Who’s Who”. What a grand set of genes he had to share with descendants of the same name!
    Great connection, until …. Fifteen years ago, genealogists published that he was born out of wedlock, father uncertain, surname of a friend taken to hide the shame. My ancestral study of his forebears was wasted. His gene pool remains uncertain, as does my one claim to fame. I have abandoned studies of fame by association as another frivolity. Geoff S

  • Artie says:

    I don’t know where my parents or my grandparents came from. I didn’t know my great grandparents. If anyone every told me where they came from, sadly I did not pay attention. I am confident they were all good people.
    I know where all of them have gone. That doesn’t seem to help me much either.

  • David Isaac says:

    Those who have no pride in their ancestry cannot be expected to have much interest in the fate of their progeny.

  • pmprociv says:

    All this brings to mind the odd TV show I occasionally watch of the “Who do you think you are?” genre. The protagonist seems almost always to be a celebrity actor, or singer, and invariably their attention is drawn to an ancestor, say 5-6 generations back, who came to grief in some tragic way — reliably causing the professional thespian to shed the obligatory tear. Meanwhile, I’m just about shouting (much to my wife’s annoyance): “What about the 31 (or 63 or 127) other ancestors you had back in that generation? Surely some had better luck.” Go back far enough, say 7-8 centuries, and each of us is looking at up to a million ancestors. That, of course, means most of us are descended from royalty, and quite a few even from Ghengis (or is it Jinghis now?) Khan. There should be a statute of limitations . . .

    As for the “proud First Nations man/woman of X-Y-Z tribal ancestry” (without any mention of European genetic input), that is a key feature of racism: the person is proud not of their character (a la Martin Luther King) or personal achievements, but purely of their racial background. Weren’t we in Australian meant to be well beyond that now? What reaction could I expect to publicly declaring myself a “proud White man, of Russo-Ukrainian background”? I’m so impressed that Jacinta Price always makes a point of acknowledging her Celtic ancestors, of whom she’s clearly proud.

  • en passant says:

    Race is so easy to pick isn’t it?
    My grandchildren have the following genetic strains:
    1. Anglo-Saxon = 56.5% (with convict ancestors on the First Fleet)
    2. Vietnamese = 12.5% (their grandmother is part Vietnamese)
    3. Celtic Scots = 6.875%% (their grandfather is half Scots, but even that is mixed)
    4. Italian = 6.25% (from their grandmother)
    5. French = 6.25% (from their grandmother)
    6. Anatolian = 3.125% (from their grandmother)
    7. Norman French = 2.5% (through their grandfather from 1066!)
    8. African = 3% (everybody in the world has at least this percentage and a gene marker to prove it!)
    9. Celtic Irish = 2.5% (from their great, great grandfather)
    10. Viking = 2% (from a gene marker via their grandfather)
    11. Plus markers for Thai, Cambodian and Polynesian!
    This makes them All-Australian!
    But the real issue is what affiliations can they claim and who can they sue as victims?

  • Occidental says:

    “A single issue bore”, yep, I think i’ll steal that.

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