TRUE OPINION: As we edge near yet another day of confected patriotism and nationalism, Australia’s cultural identity relies on a large amount of confectionery to get over the fact this land is stolen, writes our new columnist Tom Tanuki.
I’m shovelling lamington-flavoured potato chips into my mouth as I write this. I cannot taste either potato chip or lamington. Conflicting chip and lamington factions conspire successfully to cancel each other out. It’s awful and I hate it. However, I’m reliably informed by ads and social media that this is a nostalgic treat. As we approach January 26, I’m dosing up on cross-branded products manufactured by multinationals to try and feel something approaching a national identity.
Something I’m fond of about my 1980’s Australian childhood is what I recall of the blasé attitude of people around me toward national fervour. Commemorating some national day seemed a bit too eager. They gave us some massive coin in primary school to commemorate the Australian Bicentenary, which I apparently couldn’t use to buy lollies at the milk bar. I don’t even recall hearing the anthem at primary school, let alone being forced to stand for the Imperial March for some weird American reason. Barry Humphries capitalised on the overbearing sense of cultural cringe that pervaded our colonial existence, and this came in handy whenever we hit the world stage. When we won the 1983 America’s Cup, our neo-liberal PM took a break from making it easier to sack Aussie employees to tell Aussie employers that they’d be a bum for sacking employees who took a sickie. He was wearing a suit festooned with Aussie flags. We laughed along a bit too loudly so our friends could hear, while quietly clutching to our cultural cringe like an amulet.
I remember seeing re-runs of Australia You’re Standing In It as a kid. Rod Quantock cringed at Melburnian ‘identity’ as a marketable, tourist-ready campaign. He cringed with us about Moomba, Melbourne’s cringe-festival (Moomba is a word that means ‘up your arse’, because Indigenous folk are good at taking the piss and white Australians are shit at getting it). Young me sopped all this up. I learned that nothing’s worth waving a bloody flag about. Why bloody would you? Mind you, I grew up cloistered in the outer-suburban then-white enclave of Melton. I was sheltered in my early days from the growing tension in the awkward post-White Australia policy 1980’s between institutionalised multiculturalism and racist white resentment over mounting Indigenous efforts to point out colonial brutality and claim native title. As I tried to spend my big Bicentenary coin on choccie freckles and failed, I had little idea about the 40,000+ Indigenous people protesting the shame of the Australian Bicentennial celebrations. But at least I knew then that there was nothing worth jumping up and down and carrying on about regarding nationhood.
Something’s changed over the years. A succession of right-wing revisionists in Canberra, in the rags, in universities and on social media have worked to do a number on the blasé attitude towards Australia. John Howard championed right-wing revisionist historian Keith Windschuttle and characterised the sober view of British invasion as a “’black armband’ view of our past”, urging us instead to join a goggle-eyed celebration of a made-up history full of war heroes and stuff. The Labor and Liberal dichotomy awkwardly joined hands in a chorus of promising us at election time that they’d Get Tough On Asylum Seekers!!!!!, something we’ve apparently been demanding for over 20 years. So we all got used to supporting internment camps and obsessing over our borders, like the DPRK.
Pauline Hanson did a flash photoshoot as a 1950’s-era Australian housewife scrubbing Australian flags on a washboard and hanging them up on a Hills Hoist, which seemed like a harsh treatment for flimsy Chinese-made flags. Bamboozled, broke idiots later compliantly took to the streets in 2015 at Reclaim rallies, festooned with more flags than Bob Hawke in 1983. They were pretending to be American patriots and doing a rebellious ‘grassroots movement’ by doing exactly what several Australian PMs had told them to do. I felt the sense of nationhood from my countryfolk had morphed from shoulder-shrugging into gleeful, unhinged flag-waving.
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I just missed something as a child. Perhaps I simply didn’t enjoy those trips to the milk bar and the supermarket enough. That, I’ve now come to learn, is where you draw your sense of nationhood from.
Plenty of Icy Poles and lamingtons help soothe a mind guilty over the implications of fucking a whole continent’s Indigenous population
Hysterical Australian boomer Facebook memes often compel the scroller to REMEMBER THE WAY THINGS WERE BACK THEN!!!! They tell me that ‘UR ONLY AN AUSSIE CHILD OF THE 80’S IF YOU REMEMBER…’, compiling a list of lo-res, watermarked images to tell me what I enjoyed about my childhood. All of the images are products manufactured by multinationals. There’s a packet of chips. A lamington. An icy pole. A lolly. Another icy pole. A yeast-based spread. This, then, is our childhood in consumerist Australia: trips to milk bars, or to supermarkets, to buy products manufactured by multinationals. White Australians have always been allowed to forget, or ignore, the rest.
Our current PM, who plays cricket and goes on beach holidays while Australians are being incinerated, is a telling icon of that modern historical amnesia. This year, he’s funding a $50 million+ celebratory recreation of Captain James Cook’s voyage around Australia. Captain James Cook never went on a voyage around Australia – only the Eastern seaboard. Doesn’t matter. He came here and ignored instructions by British admiralty to show locals “every kind of Civilty and Regard” when he shot at some Gweagal locals upon first contact and took their stuff. Nevermind, can’t remember that. Cook contaminated our modern legacy unforgivably by marking the first settler-coloniser relations with this land’s traditional owners with violence. Whatever, who cares. He’s a hero or something. Forget the past. Here, remember this other past.
The thing is, many of my memories of my past in Australia are consumerist ones. They’re foggy memories of buying shit in the shops as a kid. All we did apart from that in outer-suburban 1980’s white Australia was roll in the dirt in a dry outer-suburban paddock, tearing out chunks of serrated tussock for fun. Sometimes we saw ads on the telly (That’s another hallmark of Australian national fervour: sharing 80’s tv ads). White Australians spent their childhoods eating sweets, not being told about the true millennia-old history of this continent and its traditional owners, and generally not giving a shit. I have realised that this lazy attitude towards nationhood of my childhood might not have been eager nationalism, but in its forgetfulness it was a helpful conduit to the prancing, over-the-top celebrations of today precisely because it involved no realistic reflection on our brief colonial experiment. It ignored the grand, sweeping Aboriginal history that dwarfs our post-1788 historical snapshot just the same as it did the flag-waving, opening the door for organised nationalism to twist it. It was a blank white slate on to which the patriots have been easily able to stamp their cooked desire to party on the 26th.
Now we’re into Australian show-nationalism. And the retrospective of white ‘Australian culture’ amounts to little more than this: cross-branding. We cross-brand our ancient snacks, the ones we remembered we liked from all the memes on Facebook. So, Smith’s might make a lamington Dorito. Bega might turn out a Vegemite musk stick. A Peter’s pine-lime Wagon Wheel shaped like a flag. A Nippy’s Teddy Bear snotblock. Or something. In truth, I’m not sure if we even remember if we ate these snacks or not. Perhaps it was all ret-conned into our head by ads and giddy memes. Here’s one thing you liked when you were five! Here’s another! And here they are, together! See, you do have a history – it’s here in this packet! Share it on Facebook!
The local Coles into which Tom Tanuki innocently wandered into the other day (Images: Tom Tanuki)
I went into a Coles the other day, and it looked like a 2015 Reclaim Australia rally. This never happened when I was a kid, I think. Massive floating flag thongs hanging everywhere – because if our nationhood isn’t contained in a chocolate bar, it’s definitely hiding in an item of footwear. It all looked very eager to celebrate something I am not comfortable with. I think our modern nostalgia, and the patriotism we’ve made up to go with it, is more confected than the sweets I used to buy from the milk bar. I have gone on into my adulthood to read far too much about our brutal history of invasion and occupation, of slaughter and displacement and attempted genocide. I won’t be part of celebrating that or the lies we’ve told to cover it up.
But that’s just me, and I’m a bloody spoil-sport. I clearly didn’t enjoy the childhood sweets enough. That’s my problem. I need to get into them more and stop being such a whinger. While I was in Coles, I brushed aside the forest of flags and gathered a trolley loaded with cross-branded Australian foods. Damper-flavoured Iced Vovos. Cordial-flavoured chocolate bars. Cross-branding collaborations between Australian ice cream manufacturers and Australian producers of bad alcohol. Vegemite Warheads. Milo snakes. And lamington chips.
As I write this I’m devouring them in the hope of sugar-rushing my way into locating something worth celebrating about Australian national identity. So far it’s not working. I can’t remember anything worthwhile and I feel sick. I have relocated my big old Bicentenary commemorative coin and a little part of me thought it would be funny to pop into Coles and try to buy more cross-branded sweets with it, like when I was a kid. But the way they look now they’d probably label me a traitor and deport me for it.
I’ll be at an Invasion Day rally on January 26th, walking off my cross-branded treat binge and acknowledging our real history. See you there.