National identity and the celebration of national days

While debate about the appropriate celebration of our national day begins to fade and discussion about the most appropriate date to celebrate “being Australian” is forced out by other news items, I read Andrew Hamilton’s piece related to the issues at hand. (Andrew Hamilton SJ, Eureka St, 23 Jan 2017)

From the perspective of a beach-side vacation, Hamilton observed the simple delights of families and friends enjoying time together by the ocean and appreciated it for all of that. At the same time, he noted that for some in our communities, there can be deep pain and grief associated with the beach, the ocean.  While for many of us they are places of recreation, fun, friendship and inspiration, for others they can be reminders of death, invasion, defeat, exclusion and bitter memories.

No place, no symbol, no word, can carry a single association for different individuals.  It could be said that even a single individual has different associations with places, symbols and words at different times and in different circumstances. It is even more so for a nation.

What I find most refreshing in Hamilton’s article is that he does not try to deny the painful and the broken in our national relationships.  That is, he encourages us to bring the whole gamut of our responses, that is, the positive AND the negative, to days such as Australia Day.

National days, however, he writes, are more properly about memory and attentiveness to all the relationships that compose Australia. They invite us to notice and be thankful for and to celebrate the tenderness of our domestic relationships and the general amiability of our relationships with strangers and our international relationships.

They invite us also to allow these good things to measure the prejudice, gross inequality and violence in our society and the brutal self-interest in our dealings with other nations. They also measure the historical relationships that have shaped Australia, and particularly the violence, dispossession and subsequent discrimination and neglect in our relationships with Indigenous Australians.

Such an attentiveness calls for nuanced celebrations and more reflective language, ceremony and symbol in our celebration of such national days. In some ways, we have begun to do this in our celebration of Anzac Day, in which we try to balance the honour due to the brave, not only of our own country but of those against whom we once fought many of whom are now part of our nation; a balance, too, between the heroic and the horrors of all warfare – the best and the worst of humankind; between solemnity and iconic larrikinism.

Recent events suggest that we still have some way to go in developing such a balanced attentiveness in our celebration of Australia Day. The challenge of this is finely stated by Hamilton: Whenever it is celebrated Australia Day should evoke memories that make us thankful and memories that make us ashamed. Its celebration should also encourage us to reform what has been bent.

The challenge posed by Hamilton is one worthy of a mature nation. At the same time, a adjustment of date in the celebration of Australia Day might serve as a small acknowledgement of the distress stirred by the association of 26th January with colonial invasion and some of its terrible consequences. Shifting the national celebration to another date will still demand of us regular reflection upon the noble and less noble within our history and society.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Posted 9 February 2017

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