Because the Coalition Government is so pitifully bereft of policy, its only option is to fight the coming election as a culture war, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.
IN A DISCUSSION of nationalism, it’s useful to revisit the definition — this one is from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Definition of nationalism
1: loyalty and devotion to a nation
especially : a sense of national consciousness ... exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranationalgroups
Nationalism is based on the assumed inferiority of everyone who isn’t of your nation. In psychology, this behaviour is known as "outgroup derogation" and is used to bolster self-esteem. By devaluing others, individuals and nations are more easily able to believe in their own superiority.
Nationalism is a dysfunctional competition based on illusion, insecurity, contempt, prejudice, xenophobia and racism. If you aren’t us, you’re against us, is its slogan. Nationalism isn’t inherent in the human psyche. Rather, it’s a fluid and socially constructed phenomenon that appeals to the very human need to belong, and to build an identity.
Next time conservatives rage against the scourge that is identity politics, you might like to point out nationalism, that most powerful of conservative refuges, is identity politics in perhaps its most crude and destructive form.
And we are going to see a lot of it in the coming federal election campaign.
Uniting citizens against perceived or confected threats from outgroups to their nation’s culture, security and interests, can win politicians government. Former PM John Howard’s unexpected victory in the 2001 Federal Election came after a campaign based on fear of asylum seekers allegedly transgressing Australian sovereignty and the conflation of those asylum seekers with the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
For several months in 2018, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton worked hard to stoke fear and uncertainty prior to the Victorian State Election, with the dissemination of hysterical propaganda on the subject of so-called “African” and “Sudanese” gangs. Dutton’s project to create a demonised outgroup and unite citizens against a State Government that allegedly tolerated them failed and Victorian Labor retained power. However, a great deal of lasting damage was inflicted on the targeted communities.
For decades now, this electioneering model has been fundamental to Coalition campaigns, including demands for a single national identity, national unity and the retention of so-called "traditional" culture, for which we can read, White and Western. To be fully human, according to current Coalition ideology promoted by right-wing media, is to embrace Western ideals. Failure to do this situates individuals and communities in the derogated outgroup, which is then considered less worthy because of its refusal to submit to the national “we”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already begun the 2019 Federal Election campaign with the claim that
"You vote for Bill Shorten, you know that the boats are going to start. If you vote for Scott Morrison, you know that the boats will remain stopped.”
“Boats”, as Morrison uses the word, is a metonym for everything that is not white and Western. In other words, everything that allegedly poses a threat to Australian culture and traditional values. Dangerous criminals, welfare dependents, terrorists and disruptors of all kinds are referenced in this one word, “boats”.
“Boats” signifies the ultimate outgroup, against whom “legitimate” Australians can measure themselves and take comfort in the belief that we are not like them, our nation is not like theirs, therefore we are better.
The conflation of national pride with border protection is, at its core, an expression of a masculinist ideology – sometimes referred to as toxic – that conflates the ability to keep others out with positive values of strength, autonomy, security and safety.
However, nationalism is not just used as a weapon against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Australia. Central to the myth of Western superiority is the othering (viewing or treating individuals and groups of people as intrinsically different from, and alien to, oneself) of Indigenous citizens.
The habitual nature of Liberal Party derogation of Aboriginal history and culture was starkly evident in this tweet posted by the Liberal Party prior to the 26 January 2019 Australia Day celebrations:
“Activists” is a derogatory term in this context. The “activists” protesting the celebration of the invasion of this country and its catastrophic consequences are primarily Indigenous citizens. Non-indigenous citizens taking part in protests do so as supporters and allies.
The Liberal Party claims that white Australians need to have their right to celebrate a national day “protected” from Indigenous citizens by the Liberal National Party Government. The message conveyed is that Indigenous citizens are dangerous and will imperil other Australians going about the innocent business of celebration.
The reality that the celebration is far from innocent and is legitimately contested is suppressed in this post. The offending parties, according to the conservative Liberals, are instead the “activists” who allegedly threaten the White folks fun with the truth.
“Activists” are, in this case, the perceived internal threat, as opposed to the perceived external threat of “boats”. In both cases, the Australian nation is framed by Liberals as in need of protection from those bad others who seek to damage or destroy it. And in both cases, the Coalition Government undertakes to provide that protection.
In two short sentences, the Liberals have demonised Indigenous citizens, dismissed their history, portrayed them as a threat to Australian people, who just want to enjoy “our national day” and, as well, have privileged “our” right to “our” celebration over and above every moral and ethical consideration.
If you do not accept the Coalition mythology surrounding 26 January, you do not belong. If you do not belong, you are a threat — even if your people have been here for 60,000 years. The Government will protect those who do belong from the threat you present. White culture trumps Indigenous culture, for no reason other than that it is white.
Difference is weaponised by the Liberals. They have no appetite for learning from difference, enjoying difference, adapting to difference. There is only, in conservative thinking, an appetite for homogeneity, no matter what the cost. Difference, in conservative thinking, can only mean that its hold on power is endangered.
Because the Morrison Government is so pitifully bereft of policy, its only option is to fight the coming election as a culture war. It will be assisted at every turn by the rightwing media, who love nothing better than a good stoush about traditional Australian values. National pride will be invoked as politicians fight to prove who best can keep our borders non-porous. Self-determination, sovereignty, flags, anthems and symbols of national identity will encourage individual attachment to the state, and the supremacy of a national consciousness over human interest and rights. It will be ruthless. It will be wretched. It will deepen divisions, encourage racism and xenophobia, and make life extremely difficult for many communities.
So perhaps this is a timely reminder from George Orwell on the perils of nationalism:
By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad”. But secondly – and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.
You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.
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