Tim Soutphommasane, “Reclaiming Patriotism: nation building for Australian progressives”, CUP 2009, pp 135.

When I was a kid we used to holiday down the Mornington Peninsula, a habit that many Victorians will have memories of from their own childhood. Childhood flows like eternity for several reasons, one of which is that new things disclose themselves to you for the first time, in all their transcendent, unrepresentable being. The first time you plunge into the water on a surf beach, the first game of French cricket, later the first time surfing alone, the first drink, first night out at a pub, the sharp taste of VB, Chisel on the juke box, girls in Rip Curl tops.

Those memories are the form by which my love of country, of place, presents itself — universal experiences in a unique and particular form to be harked back to and relived, as necessary to country love as is the host to the sacrament.

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For Tim Soutphommasane they’re something else — “sentimental mush”, along with barbeques and the beach, etc, naive attachments which distract us from the real task of building a new form of patriotism in postmodern Australia — one entirely evacuated of nationalism, and sentiment, in favour of an abstract attachment to a set of ideas.

This strange book — an exile’s idea of attachment, by turns idealistic, cynical and envious in its proposals for a progressive patriotism — has met with great support and interest from several left-liberal intellectuals, many of whom should know better. Soutphommasane has done a PhD at Oxford, and worked briefly in Kevin Rudd’s office. A Laotian-Chinese by birth, he spent some of his childhood in France, before his family came to Australia. Growing up in a rural area and attending an agricultural high school, he thus finds himself in a strange situation — part of a large refugee movement, yet growing up apart from the neighbourhoods they established, while finding himself among a bunch of people whose national feeling would have a fair deal of white nativism about it.

For Soutphommasane, that naive form of nationalism has caused a total rejection of patriotism as a value by a loose group of writers, activists and commentators lumped together as “progressives” is a political and philosophical error. In the Howard era, such people identified patriotism with the worst aspects of Australian Anglo-Celtic chauvinism and rejected it utterly. Our apparent identification of much of Howard’s policy and statements on refugees, multiculturalism etc, as “dog whistle politics”, using coded language to pay lip-service to universal values while secretly communicating a message of racist chauvinism and xenophobia. Infected with a cosmopolitanism developed since the 1960s, progressives have entirely cut themselves off from local loyalties, and fallen into alienation and despair.

Patriotism is something they should develop not because it is a good in itself, but to rejoin the national conversation:

“to be politically active, to be successive advocates for change and reform, you have to engage the minds of other citizens … to deny patriotism is a sure path to political impotence … In the face of rapid and far-reaching economic change … the nation remains the last remaining source of stability and security,” he writes.

Though Soutphommasane occasionally gestures to an absolute value to patriotism — “it is no different to other forms of loyalty or love, and a necessary condition of collective self-improvement” — the understanding of it is overwhelmingly instrumental. A sense of patriotism is what holds a multicultural society together, and the global pressures towards dispersion must be countered by a “liberal patriotism” manufactured by state and cultural apparatuses — explicit talk of “Australian values”, a cultural literacy curriculum, an explicit yoking of infrastructure development to the task of building a “stronger nation”, a compulsory “citizenship knowledge” test as a prerequisite to the right to vote, an explicit spruiking of “ecstatic myths” such as Gallipoli, and a ban on dual citizenship, among others. If an abstract “liberal patriotism” is not engineered, the reservoir of national feeling will flow into Cronulla-style riots, or into said VB/barbie/FJ Holden “mush”.

There is some truth to the charge that Australian activists sometimes single out Australia as having a uniquely maligned history, an over-reaction to the self-congratulatory kitsch of the past decade — and a false analysis of what is just one settler-capitalist society amongst a number. But Soutphommasane’s analysis of the actual politics of the Howard period strikes me as quite wrong.

Thus the concrete expressions of national life — the taste of a local beer, the shared interest in a seasonal sport — are rejected as “mush”, while great attention is given to arid experiments in building a patriotism based on celebrations, either of moments in progressive history, of little interest to many people — Australia’s alleged role as the world’s first universally franchised democratic nation (a role that would have comes as news to the Aborigines, or “fauna”), for example — or more sinisterly, to a conscious surrender by intellectuals to the “ecstatic myth” of Gallipoli, followed by its propagation among the wider populace, as a progressive patriotic moment.

This is curious — like many progressive patriots, Soutphommasane quotes Orwell on the nefariousness of the left, yet does not take Orwell’s point that a genuine love of country is expressed through concrete experiences, girls walking in clogs over the cobbles, warm bitter, the Guardian etc etc. In the Australian context, he seems simply unaware of many of the progressive left traditions that did attempt to ground a universalist politics in local expression. “There was a decline in progressive nationalism from the 1960s on” he argues. In fact, the 1960s and 1970s saw its greatest efflorescence when the localist themes of the radical left — the revival of the bush ballads, connection with Aboriginal Australia, the self-publishing of local serious novels etc — fed a general wave of radical and critical nationalism, from the new theatre, local music to the Australian independence movement, a genuine republican movement, in contrast to the top-down ARM of the 1990s.

Whether Soutphommasane is even aware of this movement or not is unknowable, but it certainly does not fit his account of nation-building, which is a process of state and market bringing a “liberal patriotism” into being as its cultural adjunct (“nations follow states” says Gellner, erroneously, quoted here approvingly). The Australian Independence Movement could sometimes be silly in its attempts to elevate bush culture (The Bushwhackers, the Kalkadoon bookshop etc), but their sense of place was at least concrete, and created a democratic political-cultural program that yielded results.

Soutphommasane has his own complex history, which suggests various reason why such a curiously contentless and lifeless alternative to real countrylove and social solidarity might appeal to him — the aspiring dreamer amid the dreaming spires of Oxford has simply reprised the act of Petrach and the first nationalists — the Renaissance thinkers who invented nationalism from their student clubs (“the nations”) and then projected them back onto the regions they came from.

People on the left know this, so why have they gone gaga for this new, rather bloodless attempt, to manufacture consensus in a postmodern patriotism? One answer is that most intellectuals, academics, etc, who do not reflect on their own process — do not think about how their ideas come to be — will always tend to come up with elitist schemes that they represent as the bodying forth a greater truth. In Australia recently 2020 has been an expression of this, and Soutphommasane’s elitist manufactured patriotism dovetails with that conference — and its obsession with social control — quite exactly.

Patriotism if you want it — and I would prefer to talk about separate things like countrylove, a sense of place, social solidarity — can’t be built off the plans. You have to work with what you have. That is a problem not only for intellectuals, who live in the inherently cosmopolitan global world of travel and ideas, but also for the born exile, whose existential challenge is simply that they are thrown into situations where they may find themselves unaccepted, excluded, defined against.

My memories of growing up, the beach, cricket, taste of a Sunnyboy, etc, are what make me Australian, but by that definition they exclude Tim, his childhood carried on the winds of war. That’s tough, but pretending you can legislate against the complex network of chauvinism and cultural privilege that makes up much of patriotism, through generally applied improving schemes is foolish indeed. Most importantly, the political formula is wrong. Progressives didn’t lose — we won. Not everything we want, but the refugee issue is framed differently, the question of foreign war, trade union rights, etc. Ultimately who was more “patriotic” — the Oxford exile, or the Brunswick Trot, wearily grabbing a placard and going to another demonstration of behalf of David Hicks, an Australian abandoned by his government? Thanks, but I’ll take the latter. Your shout. Someone put Khe Sanh on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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