Thought for the day: maybe the amount of toxic nationalism in a country is pretty much independent of circumstances. In other words, maybe Australia’s propensity to beat up on small numbers of helpless refugees has nothing to do with the refugees themselves, but is simply the result of any more significant target for nationalist anger.

The thought is prompted by the fact that I’m in the Basque country, where nationalism is taken seriously. Here in St-Jean-de-Luz, on the French side of the border, most of the directional signs are bilingual, French and Basque. I doubt there are many people here who speak Basque as their first language, but the French have an unpleasant history of suppressing their own linguistic minorities, so it’s nice to see them at least making a gesture in the right direction.

But topics such as this are incredibly controversial. In Spain, every move to address Basque grievances has been met with fierce opposition. The Basques even fought on the republican side in the Spanish civil war, despite being devout rural Catholics, because the fascists were also centralists.

The right talk about the threat to the unity of “the nation”, as do the opponents of devolution in the UK, or the opponents of greater rights for the Kurds in Turkey, or the Turks in Bulgaria, or (insert your own favorite example) — ignoring the fact that for the minorities it isn’t their “nation” at all. What they want is either secession or the reconstitution of the state on a non-national basis.

That’s how nationalism works in most of the world. Countries have borders resulting more or less from historical accident, and they’re rarely a neat match for ethno-linguistic frontiers. Or else (or in addition), there are large waves of immigration that disrupt an existing ethnic balance — as France worries (wrongly, in my view, but not totally unreasonably) about the influx of Muslims from north Africa. Either way, problems.

(Einstein called nationalism “the measles of mankind”, but that’s not entirely fair; nationalism sometimes works together with progressive forces, since many nationalists just want freedom for themselves. The problematic sort of nationalism is what used to be called chauvinism, but the more recent usage of that in the context of sexism has eclipsed the original meaning in most people’s minds.)

Australia has been mercifully free from most of this. The opposition to bilingual education for Aborigines is a faint echo, but that’s hardly a key issue for most people. Being a country of immigrants, we have no real national minorities, and recent groups of immigrants have assimilated readily. English is almost universally spoken, and no other language contests its primacy in any substantial area; nor does our large measure of cultural homogeneity seem threatened.

But national chauvinism, being essentially irrational, isn’t appeased by the lack of grievances; it just manufactures them. Hence, our periodic outbreaks of moral panic over boat people and people smugglers. Objectively, they are trivial, but nationalism is about symbols, not substance — and at a pinch, any old symbols will do.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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