Waleed Aly on “national identity”

Yesterday evening I attended a fundraising dinner for Lindsay Tanner held by the Melbourne FEA, held in a function room at the Moonee Valley Racecourse. The decision to attend was easy; I consider Tanner to be among the ALP’s best parliamentary performers and amongst all the current members of parliament, I think it’s a fair bet that his views align with my own as closely as anyone’s.

Lindsay spoke mainly to acknowledge the support of people involved in the evening; the keynote speech for the evening was provided by Melbourne academic and writer Waleed Aly. Aly, author of the book People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West, is perhaps uniquely positioned to offer an insightful commentary on the so-called “clash of civilisations” that is vexing politicians with respect to multiculturalism today. Through his utterly cross-cultural life, one could say that Aly personifies the reasons why the “clash” that hawks are touting does not really need to be a ”clash” at all.

Aly spoke for around fifteen minutes and touched on several interesting points during his speech, which in some ways was a bit of a riff on the ideas expressed in this article for The Monthly. Possibly the most profound idea he raised related to “national identity” and how different nations conceptualise their national identity. In Europe, people generally are bound together in a rich national history of architecture, religion, and struggle: culture provides the cornerstone of people’s national identity. The United States, however, is different. Consider this excerpt from the Monthly article:

To travel, as I recently did, from Miami to Tulsa is to experience culture shock. About 60% of Miami’s inhabitants count Spanish as their first language and you can easily go for hours without hearing English. I had extraordinary difficulty getting my order taken at a Pizza Hut because I was ordering in English. Miami lives up to its occasional nickname of ‘North Latin America’. Tulsa, by contrast, offers confirmation of every small-town-America stereotype. It is where a Wal-Mart employee told me that he thought Australia was Europe’s most unique country. Beyond the ever-present flags and cable televisions, it was difficult to tell that the two cities were part of the same country.

As Aly goes on to argue, the cornerstone of national identity in the United States is not so much cultural as it is civil. Americans are united in their love for their country and its values, despite their often vast differences. It’s worthwhile contrasting this, as Aly does, with the recent Australian experience in relation to “national identity”:

In Australia, we were urged to remember that ours is a nation built essentially on the Judeo-Christian tradition, that ours is a culture derived essentially from Britain, and that we are an English-speaking nation. For John Howard, integration meant “learning as rapidly as you can the English language”. Learning English is a good idea, of course, if only for pragmatic reasons. It is something altogether different, however, for the prime minister to make it a hallmark of Australian-ness. Miami, according to this logic, is not a symbol of glamour and success, but an abomination of national fracture.

This is something more like the European conceptualisation of “national identity”; a conceptualisation that is arguably faring less well than the open-minded, open-ended modern American version. It does make one consider that Australia is perhaps quite far from being the “world leading” multicultural society that many of us would like to think that it is. Are we trying to force our multicultural citizenry into a monoculture that it is quite simply impossible to force them into?