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Patriot games

By Tony Coady - posted Friday, 3 November 2006

Samuel Johnson famously declared that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel, but the American satirist Ambrose Bierce may have been closer to the mark when he said that it was the first. In any case, the fog of patriotic fervour now lies so heavy on the Australian political landscape that it is necessary to clear some of it away lest we lose direction entirely.

Attachment to the good habits and institutions of one's country and a modest pride in the genuine achievements of one's co-nationals is a commendable attitude, capable of forging ties and cementing community feeling. But patriotism has a strong tendency to go beyond this.

The slogan, "My country, right or wrong" is palpably absurd, but the more seductive, though equally foolish, idea is that my country can actually do no wrong, or, at any rate, no serious wrong. The emotions of patriotism all too often blind us to the moral crimes and follies that "we" have committed and can again commit. When this is combined with the political advantages of populism, the mixture can be lethal. It is not only scoundrels who misuse patriotism; the foolish and opportunistic also do it.


Our politicians are falling over themselves to reach the peak of Patriot Hill. They vie with each other to make new and more dramatic proposals for pulling the rest of us into line with some opaque vision of Australian values.

The proposals range from the conspicuously silly, such a Kim Beazley's visa pledge to Aussie values for tourists to the downright unpleasant, such as Andrew Robb's proposal to force migrants to wait four years for citizenship instead of the present two.

There is even a whiff of it in Julie Bishop's call for a common national school curriculum designed to fend off Marxist, feminist and even (God help us!) Maoist interpretations apparently being foisted on our unsuspecting Aussie children  by ideologues in state education bureaucracies.

Much of this combines exaggerated fear with extravagant attachment to a comforting fantasy of a stereotypical Australia. The fantasy is supposed to protect us from the fear. The fear itself is partly a genuine if overwrought fear of terrorist acts, and partly a formless dread of unusual foreigners, especially, nowadays, Muslims.

I remember when Australian patriotism used to be a quiet and modest affair. The 1950s that our prime minister is so fond of was actually a time when loud affectations of "Aussie values", condemnations of "anti-Australian behaviour", and indulgence in flag-worship would have been greeted with astonishment and scorn.

I can only hope that some of that earthy, cynical realism remains in our make-up, but decades of exploitative advertising ("C'mon Aussie, c'mon") and imitation of the most sentimental elements in American culture have undoubtedly had their effect. The idea that respect for law, regard for justice ("fair go"), and concern for women's rights somehow flourish distinctively here ("Aussie values") and languish everywhere else is of course nonsense, but that is the impression regularly conveyed by many of our political leaders, and reinforced in much of the media.


The Steve Irwin phenomenon is instructive. His death was sad and shocking, but the hysterical sentimentality of the media reactions to it and the casting of Irwin as a heroic embodiment of Aussie-ness were bizarre.

Irwin's high-voltage buffoonery and loud, extroverted, continuous talking are quite unusual characteristics in this country. It is indicative of the prime minister's tin ear for Australian dialect that he should have described Irwin as a "larrikin" when the more accurate colloquialism would have been "bit of a ratbag". In fact, the crocodile man was better known and more loved in America than Australia, which may explain some of the prime minister's infatuation with his image.

The really impressive thing about the celebration of Irwin's life was not the media hyperbole, the politicians' gushing, or the professional sincerity of various celebrity actors. No, it was the quiet dignity of his family, especially his father, whose brief speech was understated and genuinely moving. The family's rejection of the absurd offer of a state funeral injected a rare dose of common sense into the aftermath of Irwin's sad death.

The dangers of patriotism have just been dramatically illustrated by the recent criminal indictment in Turkey of the novelist Elif Shafak for having insulted "Turkishness".

Her alleged crime consisted of writing a novel that explores the dark secret of Turkish crimes against Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire when thousands of Armenians were massacred in an outrageous ethnic cleansing.

We are still some way from criminalising criticism of our past (and to the credit of the Turkish courts, she was acquitted) but the price of massive self-deception and manipulated sentiment so often inherent in the patriotic voice is very high. We need to confront our urgent problems calmly, rationally and with an eye to empirical facts and universal values. Patriotic posturing is at best a distraction, and at worst a dangerous folly.

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First published in The Age on October 7, 2006.

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About the Author

Professor Tony Coady is Professorial Fellow in Applied Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He has published extensively on definitional and ethical issues to do with terrorism. His book, Morality and Political Violence will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

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