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In defence of 'good' nationalism


Amid the rise of far-right extremist groups and the carnage of the Christchurch terror attacks, the ‘N’ word has got a bad rap. But political sociologist Rachel Busbridge argues that nationalism can be harnessed as a force for good.

What does it mean to be a real Australian? 

It’s an oft-repeated and seemingly innocuous question, conjuring timeworn stereotypes of dinkum blokes in blue singlets sinking beers around the barbeque.  

But in a land that’s still haunted by the ghosts of the White Australia Policy, it’s a question that often lifts the lid on a proverbial can of worms. In recent times that lid has been hauled opened, with the rise of the radical far right in Australia closely mirroring the resurgence of nationalist movements in Europe and the United States. 

When an armed Australian man invoked white nationalism and opened fire on Muslims at two New Zealand mosques, killing 50 and injuring dozens more, citizens of both nations began a process of self-reflection. 

The atrocity forced many Australians, especially those in politics and the media, to examine their role in stoking the fire of racial anxiety.   

“It's absolutely horrendous to think that 50 people have to die in awful circumstances for that type of examination and scrutiny to emerge, but at the same time, the fact that it has emerged is something good, and something we need to keep pushing forward,” said ACU sociology scholar Dr Rachel Busbridge. 

The Christchurch massacre provided a clear example of the dangers of far-right nationalism, but Dr Busbridge argues nationalism is “absolutely fundamental in responding to these types of horrible events”.  

“The extreme views of these far right nationalists are clearly beyond the pale, and the best way to assert that they're incorrect is to present a different version of nationalism, one that promotes the ideals of inclusiveness and tolerance rather than hate and violence,” she said.

Pray for New Zealand

Dr Busbridge, a Lecturer in Sociology at ACU in Melbourne, is one of a growing number of scholars who believe progressives should be harnessing the energy of an inclusive form of nationalism in order to avert the ugliness of its regressive, exclusionary cousin.  

In an article on The Conversation, she argued that the power of nationalism was often underestimated, pointing to its role as “a social and political force … not all conservative and problematic”.

“Nationalism is something that’s built into our world – we live in a world of nations – and this is one of the most important elements shaping modern life,” Dr Busbridge told Impact.

“When we’re thinking about the ‘good’ side or the more progressive side of nationalism, we can discuss its ability to produce a sense of solidarity amongst citizens … a sense of identity and community, something that locates them in the big world and allows them to make sense of their lives.” 

‘We are none of these things’ 

The response of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern to the Christchurch attack has been widely praised, with commentators noting she had “become the face of her nation’s sorrow and grief and its resolve”. 

“We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism,” Ms Ardern said in the aftermath. “We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.” 

Dr Busbridge said this statement, and the online groundswell of #thisisnotus that followed, was a classic example of progressive nationalism.  

“When you look at how she and other New Zealanders and Australians responded, it was made very clear that this type of hate does not represent them, that this is not who they are as people and as a nation — and these are very important claims against this type of white nationalism,” she said. 

“Speaking of the nation in ways that make clear we are a peaceful society, we are an inclusive society, we are a tolerant society … when leaders invoke that language and talk of 'we', they are invoking nationalist ideals.” 

So what’s another example of progressive, inclusive nationalism? 

In 2015, Adelaide street artist Peter Drew sought to challenge perceptions of Australian identity with a poster series featuring the words, “REAL AUSTRALIANS SAY WELCOME”. 

Inspired by the lyrics of the national anthem – “with courage let us all combine” – Drew shone a light on our nation’s asylum seeker policy and gave thousands of his fellow citizens a reason to be proud of being Australian.

In defence of good nationalism

“I think that’s something most Australians want to be able to express, but for maybe the last 10 years or so, our national identity has been hijacked by bigots,” he told The Guardian

Dr Busbridge said the posters were an example of “a positive spin on nationalism” that’s not tied to a particular ethnicity or religion. 

“We don’t really know what a ‘real’ Australian is, and obviously different people have different views on that, but Peter Drew mobilised the idea that a real Australian is someone who says ‘welcome’, someone who is open to other people, who’s willing to give others a fair go,” she said. “I think that’s an important claim to make in the current political context we find ourselves in.”

Dr Busbridge, whose research has explored how multicultural groups have used nationalism to form alternative ideas of national identity, said the power in the simple act of calling ourselves “Australian” was often taken for granted. 

“We forget how powerful this is, the fact that immigrants can become Australian, that they are accepted as Australians, because that isn’t actually the case in a lot of places across the world,” she said. 

“If you look at countries like Germany, for example, you’ve got immigrant communities that have been there for decades, like the Turks, who work there and speak the language and adopt some of the customs, yet they still aren’t seen as being German.” 

Land of the ‘fair go’

Perhaps the most Australian of all values is the notion of a “fair go for all”. 

We like to see our nation as the land of opportunity; or, as writer Richard Glover put it, “a country that prides itself as a special place: somewhere you can flourish wherever you were born”. 

But while many Australians still see the notion of a fair go as important, commentators have long been sounding its death knell, arguing that “the fair go is dead: now it’s the strong beating up the weak”.

The naysayers make the point that many groups in Australia don’t feel like they get a fair go, including women, new migrants, the working poor, gay and lesbian communities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.   

But does the decline of the fair go mean the problems with exclusionary nationalism are too hard to overcome?

“I agree that the dominant forms of nationalism in this country can be quite nasty and parochial and accepting of inequities,” Dr Busbridge said. 

“But this is a perfect example of how you can use these ideas to fight back, because the idea that Australians believe in a fair go only makes sense in a world that has nationalism. 

“So when a far right nationalist says, ‘we shouldn’t let refugees into this country’, a progressive responds by saying, ‘well, in Australia we believe in a fair go for all, so that’s why we should welcome them’.”

Dr Rachel Busbridge is a Lecturer in Sociology at ACU’s National School of Arts. She has held research positions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, La Trobe University and Freie Universität Berlin.

Dr Rachel Busbridge

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G