As Australian as the Library Queue

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Last year on Australia Day, a man peed on my foot. He was sitting on the seat in front of me on the bus into the city, where he’d been clutching a bottle of wine in a clichéd paper bag and shouting obscenities at our fellow passengers; telling the women in front of him they were "sluts" and the Asian students to his left that they didn’t know "the true meaning of Australia Day". Then came the trickle of liquid down the seat, settling in a puddle beneath my quickly raised thongs.

A few minutes later, as I waited in the CBD for a friend, a reveller threw a beer bottle into the bushes behind me. I exchanged a grimace with the girl standing next me and we cursed our poor judgment for choosing to leave the house on Australia Day.

I’d asked similar questions of my judgment the day before at the Big Day Out in Sydney, which seemed filled with people in flag-printed attire and T-shirts reading "if you don’t love it, leave it". They were no doubt spurred on by the media circus around the festival "banning" the Australian flag and the Daily Telegraph‘s urges to rebel against the organisers, but as a friend put it, there’s something about Australia Day that some people embrace with "the same shithead opportunism with which they treat footy matches and racial riots".

You’ve probably guessed that I’m not the most enthusiastic patriot around.

And you’d be right. I can’t remember the last time I watched a football game. I’ve been to the cricket once, when I was eighteen, and I took a magazine with me and asked in all seriousness why the players took so long to "pitch" (for the information of fellow non-cricket fans, the correct term is "bowl").

Possessing the pale skin of my Irish heritage, I go to the beach approximately once each year and leave with dry, pink shoulders no matter how much sunscreen I put on. I prefer cities to the bush. I only drink beer when there’s nothing else available.

Lest it sound as though I’ve wholeheartedly and elitistly rejected the core tenets of Australian culture, I should point out that those particular tenets of Australian culture rejected me first.

I was a child too short-sighted to catch a ball, who spent her weekends borrowing out the maximum allowed number of books from the local library. Sporty, bronzed, anti-intellectualist Australia and I just didn’t mesh.

Which isn’t to say that I was ever particularly bothered by it. I learned early, as most people do, to find people who were "like me" to hang around with and block out the noise of everyone else. If the beer bottle chucking, bus seat pissing, flag waving folks wanted to claim the mantle of "Australian" for themselves, they could go right ahead and take it. I’d just sit over here and be unAustralian then, thank you very much.

But, as you’re probably thinking right about now, that’s kind of stupid. Because while the people who drape the Australian flag over their shoulders at music festivals — or who cheer "Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi" at the cricket — might be the showiest about their nationality, they don’t have a monopoly on what being Australian is. And nor should they.

The guy who yelled out obscenities on the bus last year was a self-announced Australian, sure, but so were the girls who wrote "there’s piss on this seat" on a piece of paper I’d torn out of the magazine I was reading, to warn others not to sit there. Cheek, consideration of fellow passengers, and a disregard for cheap paper binding are all very positive — and very Australian — traits. He was just the loud one.

The Big Day Out might have looked like a sea of misdirected nationalism in recent years, but the flag wearers were well outnumbered by music lovers dressed in fairy wings or band T-shirts. They were just the more visible ones.

Conservative commentators have been harping on for years about how the so-called Left "elite" need to make room for the voices of "ordinary Australians" — such as themselves. I would suggest that we similarly need to make room for versions of "Australianism" that deviate from the same old book of myths.

No doubt, there are a lot of people in this country who take pleasure in and identify with the larrikinism of Steve Irwin, the athleticism of Cathy Freeman, the girl-next-door-made-good quality of Kylie Minogue or the beachy beauty of Jennifer Hawkins.

But there are a whole lot of others (and many of those in the former group) who enjoy — or even prefer — the grace and intelligence of Cate Blanchett; the devil-may-care rebelliousness of Germaine Greer or Peter Singer; the soaring creativity of silverchair’s Daniel Johns or fashion designer Akira Isogawa; the compassion of former Young Australian of the Year Hugh Evans; the wit of Chris Lilley; or even the delightful nerdiness of our new Prime Minister.

It’s obvious that we appreciate and take pride in these people and their accomplishments. But for whatever reason, they haven’t become as much a part of our national story as our athletes and larrikins — even though, in many ways, they better reflect the country’s diversity and reality than the myth.

In part, this is because Australia has always had a difficult time defining itself. Put it down to our post-European settlement culture being born too late in the game and evolving in insufficient isolation to become truly culturally distinct. But it’s also because it’s part of the very nature of national mythologies to be a pile of crap. I mean, does anyone seriously think that the French are all snobs who wear stripes, or that Americans are all brainless cowboys?

And maybe that’s the point. Not particularly liking Australia’s national mythology is not the same thing as not liking Australia. Just as criticising elements of your country’s behaviour is not in itself disrespectful — and certainly not grounds to be told to "leave it".

There are a myriad of ways to respect and appreciate one’s country. Some of us might drape a flag over our shoulders, others (okay, me) might have been known to skip down the street on the way to the ballot box on election day. Some of us get goosebumps when Australia wins the cricket, others got them when we signed the Kyoto protocol.

This is a country for all types, even wanker Diet Coke Lefties like me. It’s Australian to call yourself a wanker, isn’t it?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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