Let me set the scene for you. It is the beginning of a meeting, an assembly, a conference, a class. A quiet hush descends upon the audience: somebody with an almost perceptible halo ascends to the speaker’s place. “I would like to acknowledge,” they begin, and you know the rest. You sit there, an atheist in church, and wonder how notoriously irreligious Australia became quite so holier-than-thou.
My criticisms are not the usual ones, that it is tokenistic, or that those who are loudest about it are the least likely to sell their property and give the money to our indigenous brothers and sisters. All of this is certainly true, mind, and the more middle-class and university-educated you are, the more likely you are to acknowledge country. But man is everywhere hypocritical, humbug being as constant a part of human life as death and taxes. This knowledge ought not excuse us from striving against hypocrisy in ourselves, and certainly not lead us to embrace it, as many of our compatriots have speedily done. Nor is my criticism particularly motivated by antipathy towards those same brothers and sisters, who were eaten by modernity long ago, the very process we are now experiencing ourselves.
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I will not acknowledge country, nor have anything to do with the silliness that accompanies it, despite the very real risk to my employment that entails. I feel like a Catholic in Protestant England, doing his best to avoid the Test and Corporation Act, and wondering how insidiously, and without comment, public loyalty tests became an accepted part of our national life. As usual, I wait for some informed comment on the subject by my betters, those conservatives who hold, or aspire to hold, positions in public life—those I once respected—but find they are participating in various versions of the same charade as dutifully as their erstwhile opponents. It seems the spirit of Sir Thomas More died along with him, at least in this far-flung corner of the world that once shared his legacy.
The most recent conference I attended included a half-hour question-and-answer period about acknowledging country with a part-indigenous man who holds an important position in the local bureaucracy. The assumption was that the audience was already convinced of its rightness and necessity. I was paying very little attention, but managed to catch various snippets, including “If you don’t acknowledge country, country will get you”, as though the Rainbow Serpent was responsible for the various floods that have engulfed parts of the country. There was the usual reference to doing “harm” by not acknowledging country, but very little discussion of quite what that harm constitutes. I imagine he meant hurt feelings. I can forgive a great deal, but I find this bizarre retreat away from seriousness, the embrace of shameless cant, deserving of further exploration.
Chesterton is often quoted in the context of our post-religious world, stating that once man stops believing in God, rather than believing in nothing he will believe in anything. This appears to be the case, more so than “metaphysical poverty”—that is, a public life where no absolute claims can be brokered, despite their presence in private life, and somewhere in the middle a happy, ideologically neutered balance will be reached. But public life is an aggregate of private life, and the lesson of the last few decades appears to be that you can take man out of religion, but you can’t take religion out of man. If you produce a vacuum of public belief, something will fill it, and when you have a cultural life so reduced as ours, you can bet money it will be something dumb.
When it comes to seeking out the truth of the human condition, I prefer Genesis and Plato to Fern Gully and Pocahontas, but that’s just me. The great irony of our home-grown religion is that it isn’t home-grown at all—like nearly everything that pollutes our zeitgeist, it has its origins in North America. Rousseau is back, but his current guise is more Avatar than The Social Contract. Even our recently adopted terminology, “First Nations”—the notion of nationhood being eminently malleable, it seems—has its origins there. There is very little organically Australian about our quasi-secular, quasi-pagan neo-religiosity. The ABC in a recent article called our state capitals by their “original” names, juxtaposed with the names by which we better know them. Plans to rename all our cities to their indigenous equivalents would be imitating, of all places, New Zealand. Surely even our public silliness has limits.
But silliness is only part of the story, though a very significant part. There is a definite malice at work, too, in what follows in the wake of this new religiosity. The assault spares nothing, especially the truth, which is the first sacrificial victim. That same conference, I attended a seminar on “cultural safety”—anti-racism training in all but name. Well, if sin isn’t something you do, it’s something you are: and it must have been wonderful for the organisers to see so many pale faces engage in public confession.
One activity involved drawing circles when it came to our identity: what role did race play in how we saw ourselves? My table of white middle-class professionals drew tiny racial circles, because nobody identifies as one sixteenth European. There’s no benefit in that, and besides, we were all raised to be colourblind. Then, we looked at various history books, and made judgments about whether they privileged the indigenous experience—whether they were by mob, for mob, about mob, without mob or against mob.
The final activity was re-wording “deficit” statements about Aboriginal statistics: in other words, lying. The organisers were quick to remind us that, in the name of safety, they would shut down any dissenting voices. They needn’t have bothered. The vibe was more Hillsong than struggle session. Banal, yes, but people are always on about the banality of evil, and I couldn’t help but think we were fiddling while Alice Springs burns.
All religions need some kind of inquisition, I suppose, to defend that which is regarded as sacred, especially if your religion is largely interested in the manipulation of language. And the truth is that if you call the sacred profane long enough, the profane becomes sacred. By worshipping the primitive, we cast the civilised as valueless at best and villainess at worst. Only a people who have known no genuine collective hardship in a very long time could be so flippant on such a subject—and only a people who have come to hate their own history, and consequently themselves, could engage in such destructive frivolity. Worship is supposed to be Apollonian in nature, looking upward, not Dionysian, looking downward; all proper worship is struggle against our base nature.
All this should indicate that a very dangerous inversion of values has penetrated completely into our collective sensibilities, one that will certainly undermine any desire to defend ourselves against what the world is really like—the world that Nicolás Gómez Dávila described as “the man with a whip surrounded by savage beasts”. That is civilisation, and the beasts are within and without in equal measure. We forget the “savage” part in “noble savage” at our own peril, and come to resemble that which we revere.
Nonetheless, worship of Aboriginality can only compete glibly and half-heartedly with genuine religion, for while it serves as an act of public contrition, it in effect is an expression of self-righteous sentimentality that ought to send a thinking person screaming from the room. We launder the perceived guilt of those past to whiten the righteousness of our present garments. It is liberalism given the clothes of religion, and makes public demands of what we once considered the most sacrosanct part of man—his conscience.
While acknowledgment of country might have adopted a pseudo-religious fervour, its scope was always political and intended as such. It exists to reframe the language we use about our nation, as the architects believe that language configures reality rather than the reverse, and they are only half-wrong. If we reimagine the legitimacy of Australia, perhaps we can sculpt it how we please. And perhaps they can. They certainly want to.
Those who are quick to condemn historical instances of collective insanity forfeit the right to do so, given their empty-headed acceptance of momentary ideological shibboleths in our own age. Those who are pontificating about “elders past and present” would have been throwing up salutes in another time, because institutional and social proofs are proof enough—especially for those who would ape whoever happens to be the cause du jour for the sake of social clout.
And why are our leaders—in thought and in actuality—so afraid of opposing this? We might put it down to a mere lack of reflection, which would be entirely unsurprising, to a harmless desire to placate the ever-restless, but there is a sense of resignation when it comes to the direction of our collective energy. Do they fear the mob, the commentariat—the Racial Discrimination Act? I suspect the spectres are in their own heads. We police ourselves, because we have no desire to front the cost needed to fight the linguistic battle, let alone real battles. Far easier to quibble about budgets and inflation, as though our problems are material and not spiritual. Do you wish to be dominated forever by Mao’s magic words—to let the word racist be cast over you like some ancient pagan spell? Sticks and stones may break your bones, but now we worship them. That’s far worse than being called a nasty name.
We are a reduced people—so far as we can still be called a people—and our public rituals betray our uncertainty in our own story. This uncertainty might have spiritual origins but it is political in purpose. Don’t say what you don’t believe to be true, and if you do, don’t be unsurprised when everything around you ends up based on lies. We are direly in need of some latter-day Sir Thomas Mores.
Christopher Joliffe is a freelance writer and editor