In one of those eccentricities of time and date, Burns Night in Scotland (January 25) shades into Australia Day (January 26), especially for anyone using social media. This made for a very odd Friday evening this last week while I was working late. I saw Scots cheerfully celebrating their country’s greatest poet and the bonhomie that much of his writing engenders, while my Australian friends (ranging, as do all my friends, across and along and inside and outside the political spectrum) presented a far more equivocal picture.
There were people saying ‘sorry’, often by altering their Facebook profile picture. There were people dressed in Australian flag capes. There were people who do not like Australian flag capes calling the cape-wearers ‘bogans’ (that’s Australian for ‘ned’ or ‘chav’, for our Scots and English readers). There were people saying that calling people ‘bogan’ was classist. At one point a spirited to-do on a left-leaning friend’s page ensued over that term: the leftie wanted to show his pro-indigenous street-cred, only to be called on his dislike for the ‘lower orders’ by other lefties. There is also, apparently, a move afoot to rename Australia Day ‘citizens’ day’, which was being pooh-poohed by all comers, at least on my Facebook feed.
It was all a bit sad, really.
The Scots, meanwhile, were reciting poems about haggis (as well as eating it), doing highland dancing in the streets, playing bagpipes and downing whisky. Lots of whisky. No-one was saying ‘ned’ about anyone else. Everyone, so far as I could see, was having a good time. And drinking whisky. The response on St Andrew’s Day is similar: attempts by the nationalists to make it too sombre cut no ice. In a country that has–at least historically–had riots and murders over football, national festivities unite, rather than divide. That is a credit to the Scots. Because Scots have this in their history. And this. Oh, and this as well. Of course, I’m being remiss if I leave out this. Or this. By any standard, Scotland has an unusually bloody history. Yes, you may counter, so do many other European countries. But the Scots climbed out of the mud and blood and produced the Scottish Enlightenment. To a large degree, the rest of the developed world has had an easy life because the Scots figured out how to do modernity (so we didn’t have to).
The relatively trivial nastiness of Australia’s history needs to be assimilated, not used to found a set of competing narratives that attempt to exclude all other narratives. And that doesn’t mean forgotten, either. It means remembered and worked through intelligently, without imposing a given version on other people who are living in the country at the same time. The people who say ‘sorry’ every Australia Day need to understand that when they do that, they are engaging in moral grandstanding and making themselves and their story even less likely to be heard. People who wear the flag as a cape need to know that they are poking every returned serviceman in the eye, not to mention many older Australians (all of whom will have been taught that the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground). There are many other instances of the same thing. And all of us, I think, need to dial back on the ‘bogan’ rhetoric. I disagree intensely with its author’s politics, but my own fondness for using the English and Scots equivalents of ‘bogan’ was called into question by reading this book. In it, Owen Jones points out that it’s easy to slip into a sort of righteous rhetoric about an entire class of people without actually realising that each of them–just like their educated social ‘betters’–is an individual.
I’m not pretending this will be easy. But it can be done. And that it can be done in a country with as much blood-drenched, sectarian history as Scotland suggests that, if Australians engage their brains, it will be a walk in the park.
Maybe, just maybe, the young women in the photograph illustrating this post are starting on the path to useful historical assimilation.