Straya Day is a day of mourning, and not just for the First Australians, writes Liam McLoughlin.
We can all agree that Australia Day is a sickening celebration of jingoism and toxic masculinity that buries beneath its own excretion the invasion, dispossession and genocide on which this nation was built. The argument that Australia Day is just like 1988 satirical science fiction action horror film They Live is more contentious, though no less true.
The film follows drifter John Nada as he stumbles upon a box of sunglasses in an abandoned church. When wearing the glasses John sees the truth beneath the advertising propaganda of the Los Angeles streetscape. A billboard impelling consumers to ‘come… to the Caribbean’ becomes the command ‘marry and reproduce’, money is emblazoned with the message ‘this is your God’ and a newsagent carries dozens of magazines which through the glasses read ‘obey’, ‘stay asleep’, ‘buy’ and ‘no independent thought’.
The glasses show Nada that society is ruled by aliens disguised as humans who use the media to manipulate citizens to consume, breed and accept the status quo.
Mark Hamill impersonator Slavoj Zizek has a short but brilliant analysis of the cult classic in his 2012 film A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.
For Zizek, the film’s portrayal of how ideology works is spot on. We’ve all grown up constantly eating from the trash can of ideology. It mediates our entire relationship to the social world and in many ways we enjoy this worldview, which feels entirely natural to us. The force of ideology makes us blind to the garbage we are consuming. Only by putting on the sunglasses, or by critiquing ideology, can we see the ‘dictatorship in democracy’, the ‘invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom’.
This is where it gets really interesting. Giving up our enjoyable ideological worldview is difficult and painful, represented by an eight-minute fight scene in which Nada coerces his friend Frank Armitage to try the sunglasses. Armitage rejects Nada’s demands so violently because he’s aware that he lives a pleasant fiction which the glasses will destroy.
Zizek says “This is a paradox we have to accept. The extreme violence of liberation. You must be forced to be free. If you trust simply your spontaneous sense of well-being, you will never get free. Freedom hurts.”
So, back to January 26th. There’s the dominant ideological view of Australia Day which is a god awful hotpot of clichés, BBQs, boats and militant racism. Then there’s the critique which contains some hard truths about the Indigenous population, asylum seekers, environmental destruction, poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, mental illness and domestic abuse.
This reality is painful for many and leads to aggressive opposition. It explains a lot about the public discourse of our national day, mainstream responses to daily examples of sexism by public figures, and probably the comment section at the end of this article.
It may be painful but if ever we want to feel well-founded pride in our country, we’re going to have to put on the damn sunglasses.
The Trash Can of Aussie Ideology, Oi, Oi, Oi
Aussie ideology looks a lot like this:
Released by Terry Mann aka ‘Coach Bombay’ in the lead-up to Australia Day last year, the clip struck a chord and went viral, quickly gaining three million views on Facebook and Youtube. Touted as an ‘alternative anthem’ and a ‘hilarious parody video’, the clip also shows that Aussies love their garbage ideology.
The two-minute music video is an ultra-conservative fantasy draft of every boring cliché you’ve ever heard about Australia. Set to the tune of Outcast’s party anthem ‘Hey Ya!’, it flashes through images of flag umbrellas, the harbour bridge, koalas and kangaroos, BBQs, the baggy green, fireworks, novelty size things, beaches, Uluru, white people, mullets, singlets, cork hats, sports, vegemite, boomerangs, lamingtons, VB and Midnight Oil.
Worse than this inventory of the who’s who of the 1970s are the capitalist, gendered and racist messages the song reproduces. We’re supposed to ‘Thank God for our resources coz they are the sources for our wealthy land’ as we see footage of mining and the smiling faces of Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. Thanks be to our capitalist overlords for destroying the environment and feeding us hatred of women and minorities.
We’re told ‘mateship is forever’, oh except if you made it to the continent first, you don’t eat pork, or you arrived here by boat recently. In fairness, in between all the white people drinking and eating baby sheep, Indigenous folks do get a run. Though only really for their paintings which white people like to hang on the wall, for their athletic ability which white people are obsessed with, and for their dancing which white people like as entertainment.
Meanwhile Coach Bombay thought it would be cool to show the Aboriginal flag upside down. Take that, 60,000-year-old culture! Finally, white people are fighting back!
The 20 per cent of Australians who speak a language other than English at home are thrown a bone with a two second frame of a load of them all thrown together.
Terry then interrogates foreigners: ‘so why ya, why ya, why ya, why ya not living in Australia when you know we are so happy here’. To which Peter Vincent writing in the Sydney Morning Herald last year responded “Dunno Terry, maybe because they tried to get here but got turned around by the Australian navy and are now in an offshore detention centre?”
We also learn that it’s cool to binge drink and it makes us really happy. Let’s not forget the suffocating masculinity which drowns most of the song. Australia at its core is all about mining, cooking BBQs, being mates, having a beer with the fellas, big things, watching cricket, mullets, singlets and go karting.
The incredibly popular clip swallows Aussie ideology whole. It’s capitalist, masculine and racist. Not only does it glorify many of the worst aspects of our culture, it ignores cruel realities at the heart of the nation and misses the many facets of Australia that are really worth celebrating.
It also goes to Zizek’s point that ideology is not something imposed on us but instead a spontaneous and natural expression of how we see the world.
Wearing Sunglasses This Australia Day
Donning the critique of ideology sunglasses, Australia looks a lot more like this:
Apart from being a terrific candidate for Tourism Australia’s next campaign, this parody of the original Straya video by Situation Theatre (aka ‘me’) sees through Australia’s self-mythology to the harsher realities for Aboriginal people, asylum seekers, women, minorities, the poor, and many others.
With levels of self-congratulation at ‘extreme’, the clip encourages us to step back from national ‘celebrations’ and think about what precisely we are celebrating.
As you bowl a few bouncers this Oz Day, recognise that we’ve never really owned our bloody history of invasion, dispossession, and genocide. Violence and disease decimated the estimated 750,000 Indigenous people living here across 400 nations in 1788. By 1920 there remained 60,000 and they were labelled a ‘dying race’.
While Paul Keating once gave a nice speech in Redfern and Kevin Rudd said sorry to the Stolen Generations, mainstream Australia has never properly come to terms with our violent past and our discriminatory present. Howard derided an honest reckoning as a ‘black armband view of history’, while in contemporary politics, Abbott said there was ‘nothing but bush’ before white settlement and Bill Shorten can’t even bring himself to say the word invasion, opting for the more anodyne ‘settlement’.
Our failure to fully recognise past atrocities bleeds into our continued execution of them. A long line of white governments have denied Aboriginal people the right to self-determination and as a result these communities suffer the grossest social, economic, legal and political inequality.
Life expectancy is about fifteen years lower, infant mortality three times higher and youth incarceration 24 times higher compared to these rates for non-Indigenous Australians. Meanwhile the Recognise campaign stumbles on interminably to distract us all from the slashing of Indigenous services, the closure of Indigenous communities and the urgent need for a Treaty.
As you drive your Ute to Bondi next Tuesday, see that for a society founded by boat people, we have very little empathy for them. Australia runs remote pacific prison camps with endemic physical and sexual abuse, described by Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry as ‘factories for producing mental illness’.
Our detention regime has killed Reza Barati, Hamid Kehazaei, Fazel Chegeni and over 30 other innocent people since 2000, and deported many others to their deaths in their home countries. 159 children currently languish behind barbed wire offshore and on the mainland, while in Nauru, children are forced into schools where they are abused and sexually harassed.
Over 100 nations lined up late last year to spotlight our crimes against humanity. In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found Australia had committed 143 violations of international law. We’ve breached not only the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but also the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture.
Take a moment during ‘Fitzy and Wippa’s Blokey Bonanza’ to think about how Australia not only systematically abuses the rights of Indigenous peoples and asylum seekers, but also ruthlessly despoils the environment. Since coming to power in 2013 the Coalition government has really stepped up the assault on the natural world. They’ve tried to delist 74,000 hectares of Tasmania’s World Heritage listed forests and weaken the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, hoping to hand over environmental powers to the states. They’ve reviewed marine reserves and defunded environmental defender’s offices and the CSIRO.
They’ve dismantled our climate policy, attacked the renewable energy industry and approved mega-mines in Queensland which alone will be the world’s seventh largest polluter. They’ve approved dredging and an immense coal port expansion on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef. They’ve retained $10 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies. Meanwhile, 2015 was in the top 5 hottest years ever for Australia, climate change is intensifying floods and bushfires across the country, and Peter Dutton thinks it’s a good time to have a laugh about entire Pacific Islands going under water. Lol Peter, Lol.
As you re-watch ‘The Best of The Footy Show 1994-2002’ for the 10th time, spare a thought for Muslims who experience racism at three times the national average as Bolt, Jones, Morrison, Abbott and the like stoke Islamophobia, riots and Reclaim Australia.
Between Fatty Vautin’s various attempts to wrestle a pig, take a hard look at what a multicultural representative democracy looks like.
As you rub sun cream on your pet Koala’s back, cast your mind to a decade of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and the over 1 million civilians Australia and our allies have killed in the process. See Australia’s shared responsibility in the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS and the global refugee crisis.
As you tuck into a vegemite coated novelty sized lamington, try not to throw up as you read that Australia’s wealthiest 1 per cent have more money than 60 per cent of the population, and the nine richest people have more than the bottom 20 per cent. Know that the gap between rich and poor has grown by 13 per cent over the past decade and will jump another 10 per cent over the next 10 years. While the Australian media cares a great deal about which mansion our $200 million Prime Minister might grace with his presence, it seems to give less than two shits that there are 105,237 people without a bed to sleep in. Perhaps you could have a couple over at your spare mansion tonight Mr Turnbull?
As you go panning for Wiggles in your local billabong, be reminded of the terrible toll of mental illness in this country, especially for young people. Suicide accounts for one in four deaths of young Australians, while 33 per cent of young people have experienced mental illness by age 25. And as you prove to the fellas once and for all just how big your penis is by injecting a case of VB into your bloodstream in three seconds, take a moment to think about the 1.7 million Australians who report physical abuse by someone under the influence of alcohol each year.
As you ride a Kangaroo to your local coal mine, look out for our disgusting public culture of sexism and misogyny and see how that feeds into the more private crisis of domestic violence. If you can’t see the links between the abuse of public figures like Julia Gillard and Clementine Ford, the attitudes and policies of men like Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and Jamie Briggs, and facts that 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 and 79 were killed by violence in 2015, look harder.
Come to think of it, maybe boycott this whole Australia Day nonsense and head along to your local Invasion Day protest.
Aussie Pride That Doesn’t Make You Spew
Wearing John Nada’s sunglasses is not just about seeing the depressing reality behind the seductive mythmaking. It’s also about being clearer on what is worthy of celebration and pride in our culture.
We can be proud of Adam Goodes and Stan Grant who courageously advocate for Aboriginal people despite the torrent of racist abuse that rains down upon them. We can be awed by Redfern Tent Embassy residents like Jenny Munro who camped on The Block for 15 months to secure affordable Indigenous housing in the area. We can be inspired by white Australians like Jeff Mcmullen, Paddy Gibson and John Pilger, who show solidarity with Indigenous communities by helping organise protests, forums and films which draw attention to the extreme discrimination facing Indigenous communities.
We can, like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s 10-day celebration of #HeroesOf2015, recognise true heroes instead of false idols. We can admire the refugees themselves who risk everything to find safety for their families as well as the political prisoners on Nauru and Manus. We can honour individual advocates like Julian Burnside, ordinary Australians who donate, volunteer, campaign and get arrested for asylum seekers, as well as groups like Love Makes a Way, the Gosford Anglican Church, the Refugee Action Coalition, People Just Like Us, Doctors Against the Border Force Act and Grandmothers Against Detention. We can respect these civil forces for pressuring government into accepting 12,000 Syrian refugees and be thankful that because of this movement, our inhumane regime will end one day soon.
We can celebrate the hard work and successes of the environmental movement. The Mackay Conservation Group won their battle to overturn approval for Adani’s Carmichael mine and thanks to the divestment movement, spearheaded by 350.org Australia, 14 banks pulled out of the Carmichael project. Activism by groups like Getup! was an important part of ending Campbell Newman’s war on the environment and tens of thousands of Australians showed up for the People’s Climate March. We can praise the courage shown by those subject to the 350 arrests at the Maules Creek Blockade over the last three years, as well as the advocacy of groups like Lock the Gate and sportspeople like David Pocock.
We can admire Islamic communities and leaders around the country who show forbearance and fortitude as they are made the scapegoats de jour. We can be proud of the many Australians who turned out in force against racial profiling by the Border Force in Melbourne and who constantly outnumber Reclaim Australia protests with their anti-racism counter rallies.
We can appreciate the hard work of so much of the non-profit sector on social issues like poverty, homelessness, mental health and alcoholism. In an age when government services are gutted by neoliberal ideology, these poorly funded organisations are often the only protection for Australia’s most vulnerable citizens.
We can rejoice that we have a country full of brave advocates for women like Rosie Batty and Clementine Ford. Such activists do incredible work agitating for the rights of women and suffer intense misogynistic abuse as a result. We can celebrate the fearless journalism of women like Sarah Ferguson in her documentary about the domestic violence crisis and acclaim groups like Destroy the Joint and Mad Fucking Witches who appropriate the sexist language of men for the benefit of women.
26th January: A Day of Mourning
Just like Frank Armitage when faced with John Nada’s demands to try the sunglasses, we all have a choice this Australia Day. We can do what’s easy and familiar. We can continue eating from the ideological trashcan and celebrate the existence of the Big Banana.
Alternatively, we can do what’s right but painful. We can put on the sunglasses to see Australia Day as the most insulting in our national calendar. In failing to recognise the violence at the heart of the nation, it dances on the graves of elders past and humiliates those of the present.
A day of self-congratulation is a sick joke for a country committed to crimes against humanity in offshore prison camps.
Until we start down a path of national healing which begins with a Treaty, an end to mandatory detention and the embrace of real Australian heroes, January 26th is cause for mourning, not celebration. Not just for Indigenous Australians, but for all of us.
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