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New national icons from a revised national identity?

By Raja Ratnam
Created 02/07/2009 - 23:05

New national icons from a revised national identity?
by Raja Ratnam [0]

A combination of British policies: to ‘discover’ what was already known by others to be there; to expropriate and exploit a far-off continent; and to dispose of an undesirable segment of its own population, led to a mono-coloured (but highly pigmented), mono-cultural Australian people being dispossessed. Their treatment by the new arrivals, who preached justice officially but practised treachery and butchery, is well documented.

It goes without saying that the indigenes were not permitted to adapt to the new arrivals. The latter, claiming to have entered terra nullius, preferred assimilation (by any means) for those indigenes who survived the dispossession and killing.

Imbued with a strange mixture of Christian colonial superiority and an equally queer fear of the foreign peoples around them (with their inferior skin colour, cultures, faiths, and everything else), after a period exceeding a century and a half (about six generations), the white New Australian decided to increase the population by immigration. White Christians (preferably Roman Catholic?) able-bodied men would build up the nation, indirectly countering the (imagined) threat of the ‘yellow hordes’ from the north. The immigrants were initially expected to assimilate, later to integrate. That is, they were required to adapt to their new home.

Adaptation is, of course, a two-way process. The host peoples must be receptive to the newcomer. Arriving during the White Australia policy era (almost at the inception of this immigration policy), I found the ‘old Aussie’, the Anglo-Celt, a cultural contradiction. Reflecting an understandable ambition to create a secure haven for ‘white’ people living a little too close to countries with inferior coloured people, the White Australia policy intended that no white man would shirk any task, and would be treated fairly. The nation’s fabled ‘fair-go’ ethos was thus born. Thus, even the ‘lowest’ worker behaved as if he were an equal to all others in the land – except the ‘blacks’, ‘Chinks’, Afghans and Kanaks, of course. The exceptions were undeniably inferior, but perhaps unequally. At the same time, the white Aussie claimed Christ as the Saviour of all mankind! But then, was it any different in other places which European man sought to exploit?

Why were coloured people considered inferior? Mainly through a misreading of the New Testament’s “Only through me shall ye know God”. (Krishna’s “Whatever god you pray to, it is I who answer” says otherwise.) A great pride in the white man’s ability to (temporarily) dominate coloured people all over the world by means of his weaponry, commercial cunning and chicanery, leading to politico-social rape and economic despoliation, somehow rubbed off onto the ego of the simplest Anglo-Celt Aussie. A small residue of this illegitimate pride can still be found in places, mainly with the oldest generation.

This was the culture I and other Asian students encountered in the late 1940s, with pride in our respective ancestry and associated religio-cultural heritage. We were not even surface-scratched by the often aggressive or rude behaviour of the Anglo-Aussies (eg. we were often the last to be served in shops, except by the Mediterranean shop keepers). The oral and behavioural insults merely irritated us. We waited for the Anglo-Celts to join the rest of mankind in time – which they did.

In fairness, one must surely accept that vast cultural value changes should not be forced upon a populace. Did successive Australian governments give their people enough time to adapt to the huge post-war influx of immigrants and refugees bringing with them significantly divergent cultural values and practices? It took about a generation (about twenty-five years or more) before the Anglo-Aussies accepted the European displaced persons and immigrants fully, and for the offspring of the latter to feel comfortable. It took more than thirty years for the Europeanised Aussie to accept fully the coloured immigrants and refugees arriving since the mid-1970s, and for the offspring of the latter to feel secure.

Value and behavioural changes are thus essentially generational changes. The oldest generation when I arrived in Australia, the one which talked about ‘home’ (in Britain), had to pass on to the unavoidable Celestial Abode of the Heavenly Father (where they would find that all human souls are equal) before the life of the Asian students became less irritating. The indigene had to wait a little longer for acceptance or tolerance.

My children’s generation, including the children of ‘wogs’, ‘I-ties’, ‘chinks’ and ‘blackfellows’, then brought Australia out of its own Dark Age. My grandchildren’s generation does not see colour on skin or hear accents; and neither knows nor cares about ancestry, ethnicity or tribal traditions. A shish kebab is a souvlaki is a satay-stick, right? In the event, the issue of equal opportunity to rise to the highest levels in occupations and society may soon become irrelevant.

My experience with refugee children from three continents playing together under the loving care of motherly childcare workers in migrant hostels showed me the Australia of the future. It also led me to believe that there has to be an innate (ie. instinctive) tendency for us all to reach out to others. Time, I believe, is proving me right. But, one might have to blindside a few tribally-minded politicians, and muzzle some of the priesthood, at least for a short while. And, if pride in distant ancestry and ethnicity becomes somewhat ephemeral, having been weakened by a progression of osmotic merging of successive generations into an Australian persona or identity, should we, on behalf of long-gone tribal forebears, weep? Would this merging not be evidence of an unavoidable social evolution?

Did not the representatives of the tribes of Great Britain progressively merge into a unique (white) Anglo-Australian identity, with that fabulous ‘fair-go’ ethos? Have not the offspring of the post-war white and slightly off-white arrivals from Europe merged into a cosmopolitan Australian? Why then should not the rest of the world now represented in Australia contribute to the evolution of a revised but outward-looking multi-coloured, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Australian identity, with a further merging of cultures?

It is my belief that a revised Australian Family of Man will eventually emerge, reflecting a communitarian (not tribal) mutuality. We might then offer a necessary leadership in a world torn by an indefensible and unwarranted emphasis on difference and relative superiority.

Now for the sixty-four dollar question: since a large number of immigrants, both white and coloured, have re-shaped this nation for the better, will they now be permitted to contribute to the identification of a revised package of national icons? Carefully selected and evaluated, a palimpsest of a national iconology might be achieved, where nothing significant of the past is obliterated.

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