After news of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan made headlines, it was only a matter of time before a politician uttered the words “This is not who we are”
This is a sad day for Australia.
I know Australians will be distressed by this report. I am too. This is not who we are.
And as the Chief of the Defence Force said this morning: "We are all diminished by it." https://t.co/Nn3ZN9voq6
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) November 19, 2020
Australia has been trying very hard for a very long time to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the idea of ‘we’.
It has tried to create the impossible, or at least the grossly contradictory and hypocritical, by aggressively separating and dividing people across every imaginable line while simultaneously appealing to an idealised sense of ‘we’ whenever it is convenient or expedient.
We are separated across state lines, a fact which has never been clearer than when watching our Prime Minister first attack Victorians and then try to steal their achievement as his own.
We are separated across racial lines with racist dog whistling from media and politics, and more overt racism from everyday white supremacists.
We have simultaneously rejected Indigenous rights, rejected multiculturalism, and embraced assimilation in a way that allows racism to be framed as only a problem when someone complains about it and not when someone enacts it. The divisive act, separating we into us and them, is the acknowledgement of mistreatment rather than the mistreatment itself – “Why do they always have it to make it about race?” they ask, to an elusive ‘them’ who they like to imagine make everything about race.
We are separated across political lines with a renewed animosity and disdain aimed not just between our political parties, but from our politicians to the people they are meant to represent.
You dirty lefties are too easy. Enjoy your weekend.
— Peter Dutton (@PeterDutton_MP) December 9, 2011
We work hard to separate ourselves with all sorts of real and imagined differences; AFL or NRL, Ford or Holden, devon or fritz, potato scollops or potato cakes, and while many of these are a bit of a laugh, some have still led to more than a few playground/pub punch ons over the years.
We also separate ourselves in ways that actively dehumanise those of us who are not we so that we are less concerned about their human rights being denied (which is of course the point of dehumanising someone in the first instance); homeless, unemployed, incarcerated, lower income, asylum seekers, Indigenous peoples – if only they’d worked a little harder, not jumped the queue, not made it about ‘us and them’, not been mean to me once in primary school, then they’d be one of us, then they’d deserve dignity, respect and basic human rights.
And amongst all of that division there is a singular unified theory of ‘We’ that transcends time and space and all of reality.
The mythical ‘We’ who arrived on the First Fleet, even though it was not us who committed the massacres once we landed. That is not who we are!
And the we who were already here for thousands of years before us are not we but they, but only because they always make it about race by playing the race card, and they didn’t even invent the wheel so they should be thankful it was us who invaded and not some other them, not that it was even an invasion to begin with… and on it goes.
It is the We who wins gold medals at the Olympics, or beats India at the cricket, or New Zealand in the rugby, but it is not us if they refuse to sing the anthem, or if they take a knee, or dare to wear an Aboriginal flag, or throw an imaginary spear. That is divisive! That is not who we are!
It is the We who fought bravely in every war (except the frontier wars which never happened) so that we can celebrate our veterans, our beloved ANZACs, with alcoholism, gambling and sacred biscuits once a year. We forget they even exist outside our imagined dreams of past national glory even as we all mindlessly chant ‘Lest we forget’. And when they return different from when they left and in need of our support, we pass the buck yet again because it is not us who fail our returned service men and women just as it is not us who committed the war crimes – that is not who we are.
We is an impossible dream but still one that many feel is worth pursuing, personally I could take it or leave it, especially since that dream has been turned into a nightmare by those who exploit us by using we as a convenient scapegoat allowing them to pick and choose not just who is we, but when we are we. We push them away for not being we enough, we thin the ranks of we by declaring that all of us who do wrong in our name were never really we to begin with – they are unWe. They are not the real We. They are not who we are.
But either it is who we are, because we share a sense of collective identity, and accept collective responsibility for both the good and the bad, or if it is not then we, the collective embodiment of Australia, does not exist as anything other than a system of ever changing rules that benefit a select few, that denies Indigenous people justice, and that locks up brown people for trying to exercise our legal right to seek asylum.
We are the greatest nation on earth, because we only accept collective responsibility for all the good stuff while denying any responsibility for the bad stuff, though we will still happily keep the land and resources that were gained through doing the bad things that we didn’t do.
But here is the long and short of it for all of us.
If we want to have “Australia won a gold medal at the Olympics” then we also have to take “Australia committed war crimes”.
Of course we did not all individually do all the bad things anymore than we all collectively did the good things, for that is what being a collective is all about – collective responsibility.
And we do not need to stand for an anthem or salute a flag or be suitably proficient in English to do that, we just need to acknowledge problems where they exist and strive to make them better and never turn a blind eye or shirk our collective responsibilities to ourselves, to each other, or to our fellow human beings regardless of where we come from.
There is strength in the collective ‘we’, but there is a danger when we let them decide who we are and who we are not.
The modern incarnation of jingoistic, patriotic, racist as fuck, white ethnostate loving nationalism has its roots in the Howard/Hanson era, but of course is merely an adaption of the same white ethnostate ideal that Australia was built on. Once the idea of a Whites Only nation was put to bed, Australia was either going to embrace true multiculturalism or it was going begrudgingly accept that not everyone can be white while demanding that they damn sure do their best to act it anyway. This is where the origin of ‘One Nation’ comes from, for before it was a racist political party it was part of a strategy aimed at getting people to accept multiculturalism.
As Andrew Jakubowicz explains:
Multiculturalism may well be supported by 80% of Australians, but this level drops when anxiety about border security rises. So, multiculturalism’s opponents have much to gain from heightened public concern about “Muslim immigration”.
Hanson’s election has helped clarify the sides of the debate around how Australians have “imagined community” for more than 30 years, since Geoffrey Blainey first shaped the opposition arguments. There is one nation with many cultures, which was Bob Hawke’s 1989 definition of multiculturalism. And then there should be only one culture albeit followed by many races, which is Hanson’s conceptualisation – though wrongly labelled as “One Nation”.
The first sees Australia as a civic nation in which reciprocity and difference, supported by core commitments to democracy and equality, provide the architecture for creativity and cohesion.
The second sees Australia as an (Anglo-Christian) ethnic (multicoloured) monocultural nation in which assimilation into an imagined singular worldview drives calls for cohesion and claims of social strength.
We have never really reconciled which of the above ‘we’ we mean when we talk about ‘we’, and until we do we will be incapable of working out where we are heading because not only do we not know where we are, we apparently don’t even know who we are, even if some of us want to pretend to know who we aren’t.
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