TUMBY BAY - As the nations of the world seal borders to ward off the coronavirus and questions begin to be asked about the future of globalisation, the concepts of nationalism and identity are moving to the fore.
Suddenly the progressive idea of being a citizen of the world seems to diminish in favour of national identity and loyalty.
Nowhere is this being expressed more so than in the isolationism preached in the USA. Not only is it sealing its borders but the so-called ‘preppers’ are packing their guns and heading for their bunkers in the hills.
Even in Australia the impression of a nation under siege is beginning to gain ground as the fight against the virus progresses.
Our politicians tell us that we are now ‘at war’, not with an armed aggressor but with a virus. The rhetoric is compelling.
Driving around Tumby Bay on an unusual Anzac Day it was hard not to notice the many Australian flags decorating the houses of this town.
Earlier, in the light of the dawn, I listened to the distant sound of a bugler playing the Last Post at the local war memorial while I was eating breakfast under the back veranda.
It was an eerie experience, even for a diehard pacifist.
Of all the things the virus is forcing us to reconsider, our national identity is near the top of the list.
In one fell swoop the virus seems to have put paid to the sense of planetary unity that the climate crisis had been developing and encouraging.
Overnight, ‘save the planet’ has become ‘save the nation’.
Watching Papua New Guinea’s dogged attempt to pull all of its disparate tribes into a cohesive nation over the years has been fascinating and instructive, but PNG is not the only nation where such a concept is problematic.
In Australia, pulling together all the tribes of Europe and the tribes of many other lands is equally fraught.
At a personal level, reconciling the baggage of one’s past heritage with that of an adopted and relatively recently constructed concept such as ‘Australia’ can be difficult.
I was born in Oxford, England, a place so remote in my mind that it could be the other side of the moon.
Then, until I was eight I lived in Suffolk, East Anglia, of which I have a clearer memory, before I came to Australia with my family.
I became a naturalised Australian in 1983. I didn’t especially identify as an Australian but it was necessary so I could get an Australian passport to get back home when I went overseas.
After 1983 I couldn’t do that with my British passport unless I got a re-entry visa. If it had required getting an ear ring or a tattoo instead I probably would have done that too.
I had no qualms about giving up my British passport. The only reason I had it was because it was cheaper than an Australian passport and didn’t require all the citizenship rigmarole.
I liked living in Australia and wanted to continue to do so. It is, after all, one of the most pleasant and safest places in the world.
While I’ve never particularly felt like an Australian, I don’t particularly feel English either.
If push came to shove and I was forced to identify with a country it would probably be Ireland, where my father was born. I don’t quite know why but the blood flowing in my veins feels distinctly Irish.
Over the years my wife and I have owned tiny bits of Australia and even farmed some of it. We currently own about a zillionth percent of the continent.
I’m not sure whether land ownership equates to nationality. I’ve never owned any land in England or Ireland.
Land ownership is, of course, a subjective concept. We might have title to our tiny patch but if we fail to pay our rates and taxes it can easily be taken away from us. There’s nothing permanent about our tenure.
When it comes to land I think I prefer the traditional indigenous concept of the land being a communal resource over which people have certain obligations in exchange for occupancy and use.
Such a concept precludes to a large extent the need to declare any nationalistic relationship.
Australia’s indigenous people were just people living in the landscape. The group identity they claimed had more to do with their cultural affinities. A bit like why I feel Irish.
The European legal concept of ‘native title’ unfortunately put paid to that traditional idea and indigenous Australians are now regularly engaged in frequent and unprofitable arguments about land ownership as a key expression of their identity.
Being a citizen of the planet feels quite comfortable to me. It precludes all sorts of prejudices, including racism.
Feeling at one with my Papua New Guinean and other overseas friends as planetary citizens is quite liberating.
Is it possible to be a citizen of the planet while also being a citizen of one of its many nations at the same time?
The rednecks in our midst will say emphatically ‘no, if you don’t like the flag, leave!’
It seems that this question might exercise a few minds in the near future.
Does Australia really want to be a fortress in the Great Southern Ocean?