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On the modesty of Australia: the Bali bombing propelled Australia to the forefront of global terrorism issues and heralded a transformation in national identity.

Far from Australia, Remembrance Sunday was a feared ordeal of childhood. One was dressed up to the sound of hymns, and escorted by ashen-faced elders to stand for hours at the town war memorial. Wreaths were deposed in sub-zero temperatures, while bemedalled dignitaries evoked memories of an imperishable Highland Division at places we didn't even know on the map: El Alamein, St. Valery-en-Caux, the Ypres Salient. `Shoosh! Stand still!' my father would whisper, as we shuffled our feet to make it bearable. Recovering later at home among whisky, tea and scones, the talk would be of uncles, cousins and grandparents that had never come back: an extended family of the lost who made it all personal. So the nation must run through our own insignificant veins. Rommel might have pulverised the Scots in 1940s Normandy; but a justified and terrible revenge had been ours when, as in a Bible tale, he was put to flight in the Western Desert.

Last Sunday in Melbourne reminded me of all this. But the shock was mainly one of difference. Perhaps such events can be like prisms, focusing or high-lighting attitudes otherwise not so accessible to outsiders. In Britain the deeper passions are invariably those of a chosen people: God had obliged our nation and--it seemed to follow--would go on doing so, albeit with occasional chastisement. Religiously tinctured national identity is by nature immodest. Propensity to victory is written in its social genes, and taken for granted, as is the right to bully lesser breeds along the way. Scotland and Israel are outstanding specimens, of course, but the trend became near-universal in the nineteenth century. Populations lined up to claim their credentials, including war memorials, cultural identity charts and rites of remembrance. Cro-Magnon hunter-gatherers had originally taken over the globe; now it was the turn of nationalism--communal lineages rendered permanent, the emotions of kinship made over into statehood.

There was a single exception. One population stood apart from this standard route into modernity, in an alienation which no later adventure or subterfuge would be able to remedy. National-Identity politics quickly overran West and East alike--but it could do nothing for Van Diemen's Land, and the lineage of the First Fleet. Here, metaphorical blood was to flow by different rules, at a disconcerting tangent to the nation-state world. The descendants of a population torn from its roots and hurled across the planet were (so to speak) condemned to modesty. I put it this way to avoid the risks of counter-romanticism: the temptation to exalt the great penal settlement, and ascribe improbable virtues to its progeny. Essentially it seems to have been merely a matter of fact, plus a big quota of geographical and other accidents. However, any comparative juxtaposition of nationalist development at once shows the contrast--above all, when culture and identity-displays are allowed their proper place, rather than economics alone.

After the Bali bombing, no outsider could fail to notice the sense of an innocence being betrayed and punished. As if the Australians had been somehow `out of it', and are now being cruelly dragged into the world, made just like the rest of it. The Economist's report said:

More was shattered than lives and families. Australia has lost, perhaps for ever, its happy sense of security as a relatively isolated country. (`The no-longer-lucky country', 10/10/02)

Interestingly, this pulpit of capitalist globalism concluded by querying John Howard's ardent pro-Americanism:

An angry and confused country may well demand that Australia should pour its energy and resources not into helping America fight distant Iraq, but into helping its neighbours fight terror.

Yet that is puzzling too. From the Boer War onwards, Federal Australia has repeatedly intervened in world conflicts, as if doing so would demonstrate its normalcy. Only a year ago, Howard's Liberal coalition kept in power via the desperately normal tactics of keeping out illegal immigrants. Since then he has discovered another possible set of coat-tail credentials, by adhering to George W. Bush's new Mission on Earth. The day before the Sunday services I finished reading Thomas Kenneally's latest novel, An Angel in Australia. This is set in 1942, against the background of the Japanese navy's attack on Sydney harbour--an earlier outrage against the non-chosen (or `lucky') country. The story is of a young cleric's traumatic awakening, as he witnesses the even worse outrages committed by an American psychopath against a black GI and an Australian woman `angel'.

If intervention has had so little impact, it may be because of the different levels upon which Australian identity appears to work. Political identity has not been fused with a much deeper current of origins, because the matrices of ordinary `nation-building' were inapplicable. They can only be imitated--often rather dismally, and in a way that (not surprisingly) arouses little popular enthusiasm. Voting was introduced commendably early; yet the mass electorate had to be lashed to its duty. No political meeting I have attended here has been without its fervent front-row apostles of compulsory suffrage, as Australia's aberrant endorsement of democracy. Yet how many of them trusted the resultant political elite enough to let them get on with the first step towards distinct national identity, a republic?

The world is familiar with the sins of over-defined (or ethnic) nationalism. It is less aware of those linked to indefinite or fluid-state nationalism--inevitably, since there has been only one case of it. A national identity unable to use the past is inclined to compensate with the future, as an essence still to be attained. Commentators have indeed stressed this, but usually as a moral advantage: freedom from shackles and the dead generations. I doubt if structural anomaly is quite so easily converted into spiritual blessing. After all, it is the traditions of `who we are' that normally provide the basis and reference-points for both reform and revolution. Severance from roots and the occlusion of origins produces by contrast an uncertainty, even a volatility of outlook. The resultant feeling, coded as innocence', is somehow always up for political grabs. This is very moving to outsiders, but seems to pose questions as unique as its sources.

The commemoration of a nation's victims is always a mobilisation of the past, to reinforce the future flowing out of it. But where the past `we' remains indecisive or questioned, mourning is also a kind of appeal, like a plaintive question-mark. In Australia it asks who the bereft now want to be, or to become (questions that never worried us back home, the assumption being that with luck we would end up just like them). Will globalisation lessen the dilemma, by slackening the conformity of nation-statehood? Or will it powerfully accentuate the need for identity, in order to assert a place in the lower-walled world, and avoid new forms of servitude? Either way, the year of the Tampa folly and the Bali massacre may indeed have signalled the end of even more than the Economist's correspondent's happy isolation: indeterminacy and innocence.

Tom Nairn is Professor of Nationalism and Cultural Diversity in the Globalism Institute at RMIT.
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Author:Nairn, Tom
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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