Australian flag over Bondi beach, Sydney.

Australian flag over Bondi beach, Sydney. Photo: Fabien Astre

Australia Day is approaching so it must be time for every liberal-minded, socially-aware person to begin distancing themselves from nationalism.

Nationalism, as we all know, was the catalyst for One Nation, the Cronulla Riots, ‘F*#k Off, We’re Full’ bumper stickers, and those hideous polyester undies emblazoned with the Aussie flag that are stitched by children in Chinese sweatshops.

It brings out the worst of our racist undercurrents, the sexism of the Aussie BBQ, and leaves us with a nasty rash.

Or does it?

Before you smugly point to western Sydney and roll your eyes, think about the small spark of pride you felt when Gotye was nominated for a Grammy or when Our Nic or Our Cate wins an Oscar? What about that stirring of pride you felt when you heard Kate Morton was feted at the world’s largest publishing fair in Frankfurt?

Do you silently cheer when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sticks it Ned Kelly-style to another one of the world’s governments? And what about the push to become a republic? If you don’t subscribe to nationalism, then what does it matter if ‘one of us’ is head of state? If you’re a citizen of the world then surely having a foreign head of state is a symbol of cosmopolitanism.

When pushed, some will claim that none of these things are nationalism. They’re patriotism. And patriotism, as the cliché goes, is love of country while nationalism is a hatred for everybody else’s.

Patriotism is cheering the green and gold at the Olympics, lip-synching the second verse of the national anthem at the grand final as you wonder if you’ve ever used the word ‘girt’ in a sentence, and solemnly attending the dawn service on Anzac Day.

It’s a nice idea this whole nationalism/patriotism distinction, but things aren’t so clear-cut in practice. For the most part, the nationalism versus patriotism divide is a distinction without a difference. Nationalism is intertwined with patriotism and vice versa.

Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University Michael Billig refers to the ‘quiet’, respectable version of nationalism — what some call patriotism — as ‘banal nationalism’: it’s the nationalism that pervades everyday life and, for the most part, goes unnoticed. 

‘In so many little ways’, Billig writes in his book Banal Nationalism, ‘the citizenry are daily reminded of their national place in a world of nations. However, this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding.’

He goes on, the ‘image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.’

And, in some respects, banal nationalism is just as, if not more, powerful than the louder, more exotic expressions of nationalism.

Whereas a person wrapped in the flag is unmistakably nationalist, banal expressions of nationalism fly under the radar. Since they slip quietly into the background of daily life, they become part of the natural order of things.

But they can be activated for other ends at a moment’s notice, such as justifying war. Banal nationalism lays the groundwork so politicians can play the nationalism card to great effect.

Julia Gillard did this after five Australian service people were killed in Afghanistan in August 2012.

‘We cannot allow even the most grievous of losses to change our strategy,’ she said. ‘In my view, that wouldn't be appropriately honouring the men we have lost. In my view that would be letting our nation down. We went there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through.’

The unspoken argument here is that finishing things that you start and honouring your war dead are defining attributes of Australia and Australians. And this strikes us to be so self-evident that it is almost beyond debate. This is just what Australian’s do. Full stop.

This isn’t to suggest that banal nationalism is necessarily a bad thing. Like any interesting and powerful idea, whether nationalism is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the context. It’s a matter of the details.

Nationalism can be productive. For example, for many years, Australians took pride in the project of nation building. This meant ensuring that everyone had access to basic services and rights — even the right to a job — just because they were a fellow national. It was also expressed through our bipartisan political support for things like immigration and, up until the beginning of the 1990s, assisting asylum seekers.

I’m not suggesting that Australia was a utopia. It wasn’t. Racism and social and ethnic division certainly existed. But these existed alongside a quiet determination among both the electorate and political leaders on both sides that these things were in the national interest and, to a certain extent at least, beyond politics.

Such nationalist sentiments often meant that people supported things that, on grounds of pure material self-interest or commercial viability, might have appeared utterly irrational.

Such expressions of nationalism have been overshadowed in recent years by flag-waving nationalism, but we would do well to recover them. Rather than simply dismiss nationalism absolutely, we need to embrace the positive, productive side of nationalism and become more aware of when it is being misused.

Best of all, you can be a nationalist without wearing the flag as a cape.

Christopher Scanlon is Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science at La Trobe University and co-founder of www.upstart.net.au