Speaker by Various Artists

Niche nationalism

by Che Tibby

One of the things I have to come clean about is not having a deep appreciation of feminism. If anything, my understanding could best be described as that of an 'educated layman', meaning of kind of get it, but would never pretend to be an expert. The only thing I'm properly sure of is that it's all about making sure that stereotypes are tackled, and trying to break down barriers that prevent women from doing the fun stuff men take for granted.

So before I make an even bigger ass of myself I'm going to move on and say that for this reason I approached Germaine Greer's essay Whitefella Jump Up with a little trepidation.

I've read and mostly understood some Iris Marion Young and some Nancy Fraser, both of who address how women were historically relegated to the benches in public or political life, effectively giving them minority status. Luckily though, Whitefella doesn't really include any obvious feminist references, or if it did they went over my head.

Which is nothing to be apologetic about.

What had made me curious about WJU was the trenchant criticism levelled against it from nearly everyone I read. And I thought, hey, it can't be all that bad, right?

Wrong. Greer's essay borders on appalling.

In a nutshell, what Greer tries to argue is that Australian national identity owes a great debt to Aboriginal people, and that in order to 'fill out' this identity Australians need to accept and embrace their Aboriginality.

The idea itself isn't exactly new, I seem to remember first reading it 10 years ago in fictional form in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book published in 1974. There, Pirsig describes Americans of a particular ilk as owing a debt to Indians for particular language styles, or Marlboro-man type character traits of quiet strength and the like.

The thing about Pirsig though is that he considers Americans to not understand how this cultural conflation has affected them, and it's that point that hold most true for former colonies like Australia and New Zealand. But taiho, before you react emotively to the idea that you've been influenced by 'the natives', consider that this influence is usually considered to be pretty subtle. Consequently, Australians will not realise how much their language is unique in its use of phrases like 'secret men's business', or 'mob' (kiwis say 'bunch').

Greer tries to take this up to a new level though, with the intent of trying and get Australians to explicitly admit that their culture is in fact, Aboriginal. While this is an admirable intention, she fails because in my opinion she profoundly misjudges her audience (just for a change).

One of the things about Greer is that she has this tendency to really get under the skin of Australians, perceived as she of being an 'angry' academic who pops into Australia occasionally to deliver her version of where the nation is failing itself. Aussies like many nations being the self-aggrandising people they are, hate that. So naturally she cops flak.

In fact, when I was writing this a couple of friends popped into the café I was writing in. Pretentious I know, writing in a café and looking self-important. But all I have at home is instant coffee and one of though dodgy hexagonal percolator thingies! Anyhow, after explaining what I was writing about they both preceded to rip strips off Greer for not actually being a 'real' Australian any more.

So WJU fails in its intentions.

The idea is as challenging as it is perennial though. One of the things about New Zealand nation-building is its constant emphasis on racial amalgamation and the gradual growth of a unique, kiwi culture. But where this idea draws the most criticism has always been its overbearing nature. Historically, this particular culture has most often been defined through reference to the ideas and norms introduced by the Europeans, meaning that the indigenous has taken a back seat.

The thing that should be obvious to everyone though is how much Maori culture has bounced back, and the way in which it is much beloved by the majority of New Zealanders. To me, what really drives this inclusive 'one nation' attitude in New Zealand is that the mainstream really wants Maori to be a part of the picture. And this stands in contrast to places like Australia, that seem to just want the 'Aboriginal problem' to just go away.

Naturally Australians will deny this, but there's talking and there's action, and Australia is limited on action to tokenism when it comes to Aboriginal people. And not even useful tokenism. Don't get me started on that Reconciliation problem again.

Why I find this subject fascinating is that it runs to the core of a rapidly developing argument occurring world-wide about national cultures and what's happening to them in a new era of 'globalisation'. There are just two examples of articles in this vein, from the same source, here and here.

What seems, according to most commentators, to be going on is a weakening of the older formula of 'strong' and independent nation-states in favour of a less absolute independence through international cooperation, treaties, free trade and the like. Naturally, a lot of people see this type of 'weakening' as a threat to nations and there seems to be more and more being published on how nations can re-establish themselves and restore their relevancy.

The first thing to say about this is that nations don't need their relevancy restored. Instead, what I personally think we're seeing is just a movement away from the old 'ideology' based nationalism of the past. It used to be that political debate was all about this strict boundary between 'left' and 'right', but now things seem to have changed too much to use these labels. Not that this stops idiots from using phrases like 'left-fascists'.

Ah-hem. "Totalitarian". Thank you (munter...)

What is more important is the movement towards culture and identity as the main arguments our societies are organising themselves around. In plain English this means that we aren't arguing about market vs. state anymore, that battle was won by the right in the 80s. Instead, everything seems to be slipping towards social and cultural battles about the content of what it means to be 'a New Zealander', or 'an American'.

And in a world of high population movements this type of inclusion/exclusion argument will become increasingly important, because being 'indigenous' is a strong, 'niche' claim to belonging and inclusion that can be levelled against recent arrivals or 'foreign' influences and isolate them.

To bring us back to Greer, in a way she's on the right track, but simply asking Australians to start describing themselves as Aboriginal when they're invested two generations in selling themselves as a 'migrant' nation is too far off the mark. Plus it runs contrary to the morality arguments that seem ubiquitous to defining contemporary nations like Australia and New Zealand. With morality, norms and values playing an ever greater part in national self-definition, placing 'Aboriginality' at centre stage when the 'stain' of genocide still haunts the public psyche is once again profoundly misreading her audience.

How this niche nationalism plays out in the future should be highly interesting, if not only because its all too often just the old 'right' trying to wedge the liberal 'left' by making them seem weak in the face of the new conflicts that globalisation is bringing us. And by conflicts I mean bigger things that grumpy fundies, how much American TV do you watch for example? Or how much American music do you buy? Do you buy from the local chippie, or do you go to maccas?