I was out surfing yesterday in some lazy summer swell at Cronulla, Sydney. While waiting for a wave I overheard some grommets - young surfers - talking. At first the discussion was friendly, but then it got ugly. One of the youths began yelling at the other. They were arguing over whether or not they should wear a T-shirt painted with the Aussie flag on Australia Day.
One of the youths claimed his mate was being unAustralian and politically correct, like the organisers of the Big Day Out. The organisers of this rock festival have asked patrons to leave their flags at home. They are concerned by what happened at last year’s event, which came only weeks after the Cronulla riots in 2005.
One of the surfers said he had gone to the Sydney BDO in 2006, and encountered nationalistic overtones. People he saw were wearing shirts and temporary tattoos saying “Aussie Pride”. One poor bloke was viciously assaulted because he refused to kiss a flag carried by a pack of drunk thugs. The other surfer laughed.
Waves went by unridden as the argument continued into a discussion of what the Australian flag represents. The pro flag-waver said that the flag symbolised mateship and a fair go for all. He added that when he took part in the riot last year all he’d been trying to get across was the issue of “respect” for the “Australian way of life”. He saw the attacks on anyone who appeared to be of Middle-Eastern descent as an endorsement of John Howard’s view that we needed to protect Australia from the “threats” of multiculturalism, immigration and the global war on terror.
The other bloke disagreed angrily, and said he hated such localism. In surfing culture "localism" is the process of dominating your territory.
Localism is about imposing your own cultural laws on others. It’s not just about making sure you and your mates get the best waves – it’s about protecting “your” beach and “your” women from “outsiders”. To avoid violent confrontations local surfers claim that if you give respect you will get it. But any surfer knows that’s not really true. The respect is one way because the local way is considered the authentic or authoritative way to do things. Other ways are not really respected, they’re only tolerated.
Political philosopher Preston King argues that: “There is something intolerable about the concept of tolerance and that if we concede a power to tolerate we logically concede the power to be intolerant.”
Localism’s version of respect sets locals up as legislators and guardians of their own laws, and perpetuates a very narrow sense of how things can be done.
One of the youths said he would never kiss the flag, he didn’t agree with John Howard’s policies on Aboriginal rights and refugees. The other surfer screwed up his face and called him unAustralian. He threatened to punch him if he ever rubbished the flag again.
Cultural Studies researcher Adam Gall from the University of Sydney explains that flag waving is a test of loyalty. By waving a flag at another the flag-waver demands “proof” of unquestioning loyalty to what they think the nation is and “Australian values”. If a person “respects” the flag they get to move about freely and safely. But if a person feels negative about aspects of the Australian state and does not respond as they are supposed to, the flag-waver finds their “proof” that they are unAustralian and disrespectful.
Federal and New South Wales state politicians have been claiming that the request by BDO organisers is an over-reaction and that the issue is simply one of law and order. Kick out the thugs, not the flag.
After the Cronulla riots John Howard made a distinction between the thugs at Cronulla and “real” Australians. In a similar vein, NSW premier Morris Iemma claimed that the BDO organisers needed to target the thugs and not stop other concert-goers from showing their pride in Australia.
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