It was on one of those blue-sky, Sydney summer afternoons early last year when I first realized something had gone awry with the Australian flag. The date was Jan. 26, 2008 Australia Day. I'd just returned to Sydney as a freelance journalist after some years in New York City and was having lunch at a pub in the beachfront suburb of Newport when an uneasy, skin-prickling moment dawned. Around me were hundreds of young white men and women, many of them drunk, chanting the national war cry "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi oi oi!" Almost all were sporting the Australian flag. It was painted on cheeks, tattooed on backs and chests, worn as a sarong, bikini top, scarf or bandana, wrapped around shoulders and emblazoned on T shirts and baseball caps. I'd never seen so many manifestations of it. Was this a new fashion accessory, or some kind of political statement?
My husband, a white Australian who grew up in Sydney in the 1970s, was bemused. It would have been "absolutely unthinkable" for him, or any of his friends, he said, to have gone out to a pub wearing a flag or chanting nationalist slogans as young men. I knew what he meant. I grew up in Sutherland Shire, in Sydney's south, where my family South Indians from Malaysia had settled after immigrating in 1988. And although the Shire, as it's called, is one of the most Anglo-Saxon regions of the country, it was like the rest of Australia in its laid-back attitude to national sentiment. Sure, it was good to be Australian, but the rest of that stuff the flag-waving, the chest-thumping was the province of those jingoistic Yanks. When I was a teenager, the flag fluttered benignly on national holidays. There were occasions on which it flew prolifically, such as the 1988 national bicentenary celebrations or the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But generally it was not hawkishly displayed on front lawns, from cars or on bare flesh. My husband asked one of the revelers why he was wearing the flag. He grinned and drawled, "Why? Because we're Australians, mate. We're proud of it, and we're not afraid to say it."
Australians never used to have to say it. Pride in the country was largely unmentioned, taken for granted. In recent years, however, there's been a surge of racially tinged nationalism, particularly among the young and coalescing around the Australian flag, which has become the symbol of a new tribe of über-patriots up and down the land. In 1997, anti-immigration politician Pauline Hanson draped herself in an Australian flag for one of the country's most notorious campaign photos a testament to her "Australianness," and specifically her white Australianness. In December 2005, during the infamous Cronulla Beach race riots, thousands of youths draped in flags rampaged against nonwhites; just a few weeks later, at a large music festival in Sydney, flag-waving revelers were at it again, harassing nonwhites and prompting the event's organizer to decry the "racism disguised as patriotism" that such behavior represented.
On Australia Day this year, for the fourth time in a row since Cronulla, violent nationalism came to the fore. The flag my flag was the emblem of choice for drunken nationalist outbursts across the nation; in Wollongong, south of Sydney, Australia Day violence was the worst police had ever seen, with mobs of drunken, flag-clad teenagers brawling in the streets. In Manly, in north Sydney, an 80-strong flag-waving mob harassed and assaulted nonwhite passers-by and shop owners, jumped on cars and chanted "Aussie pride."
In the few years away, I'd missed this rise of ultra-nationalism and somehow not noticed the way the Australian flag had become embedded with a silent message for nonwhite Australians: "You're out, and we're in." It's a message that affects a large proportion of the country. Since the removal of the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy in 1973, Australia has become markedly multiracial. The 2006 census showed that of a 20 million strong population, over 40% were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. After English, the most common languages spoken are Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic and Mandarin.
That hot afternoon at Newport showed a far different Australia: not a rainbow mosaic, but the monochromatic world of the John Howard generation. These white youths had grown up during the decade of the former Prime Minister's conservative administration they had witnessed the tacit acceptance of Hanson and her divisive politics, and had been caught up in the panicky xenophobia that swept the nation in response not only to the arrival of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but also to the growing visibility and affluence of Australia's nonwhite communities. All this went through my mind as I watched them dance, sing and wave their new battle standard in the sea breeze.