If the Australian internet loves anything more than porn and comparison shopping, it is the chance to identify our most deeply held values by finding someone who may have dishonoured them. For a young, deluded nation that defines itself less by what it is than what it is not, this hashtag practice of “calling out” is a late expression of the charge “unAustralian”. We are, a bit like insecure teens, keen to build our identity by a process of exclusion. We are not a people who tolerate the tyranny of halal labelling. We are not a people who tolerate the strange grief of Glenn McGrath. We are not a people who tolerate “sexy” children.
Yesterday, many internet users identified the “unAustralian” in a campaign by supermarket chain Woolworths. That the retailer happened to violate Anzac Day, that rare institution we think of as inviolably Australian, gave birth to the hashtag #Brandzac and a thousand unified ragegasms.
That the Woolworths marketing department showed a gloriously poor taste is not in doubt. A company that makes prominent use of the term “fresh” used it again in this centenary month of Gallipoli. The Diggers were refigured as “Fresh in our Memories”, and that anyone adult human could think that the obvious conflation of a soldier who had laid down his life for empire could be meaningfully compared to a ready-made gourmet pasta meal for two is almost beyond belief.
But as others have pointed out, a good deal of the marketing that surrounds Anzac Day is naff. The “raise a glass” campaign by VB may have been refigured as an “appeal” through its donation to military welfare programs, but it’s still gauche and greedy to pin your beer to slaughter. However well-intentioned Camp Gallipoli might be, this horror holiday under-the-stars does not honour the memory of the war dead so much as it inspires a theme park. With and without the endorsement of the RSL, companies turn a profit from memory and, in so doing, challenge the ethics of remembrance itself.
Not that there can ever be a pure or authentic way to remember any act. Our national view of historical events changes with time, and there is an argument to be made that the act of passing legislation to protect the Anzac brand can produce only the opposite of its noble intention. The artificial imposition of glass on an event makes it less of an event than a dead museum piece. If we don’t allow Anzac Day to breathe and permit its ongoing suffocation by the sometimes perverse historiography of the RSL, it dies in the national memory. If you take this critical view of history as simulacra, and I tend to, then the Woolworths campaign is, even if ridiculous and crass, also entirely appropriate.
The RSL endorses a single version of remembrance of this terrible battle. When remembrance of anything is strictly contained and controlled, we inevitably start to forget. It was in 1983 that Alan Bond described his America’s Cup win as comparable to the “victory” at Gallipoli, and Geoffrey Blainey put a scholarly if positive spin on the slaughter. Certainly, we everyday Australians have begun to think of this event less as a tragedy or as a caution against fighting unwinnable or unethical battles in the Middle East than as an optimistic way of defining ourselves.
The reality of Gallipoli is secondary to its function as a powerful but empty signifier. And again, it seems to me, we are defining ourselves by what we are not.
We believe that we can see in a clear line to the sacrifice and slaughter a century ago, but what we see instead is an idealised and ideological version perfectly, if crassly, expressed by Woolworths. It’s not just Woolworths mishandling the memory of the Anzacs but the RSL and a range of institutions.
Blainey was largely responsible for popularising the term “black armband view of history”, intended to describe an unnecessarily emotional and purportedly fictional or naive view of the slaughter of Australian Aboriginal peoples. Perhaps this term is better applied to Gallipoli.
This is not at all to claim that this was not a bloody defeat. This is not to suggest that we are best to forget the war dead. It is, however, to propose that Gallipoli, thanks to the best efforts of some of our worst institutions, has become as hollow as the theme parks that will commemorate it.
Disneyland functions to make the things that surround it seem more real and, now, Gallipoli does too. We empty this terrible battle of meaning and fill it with easy glory and we are again defining ourselves by what we are not.