On 5 November, 1963, President Kennedy sought to unite the rival claims to Thanksgiving Day of Virginia and Massachusetts, and of the harvest and God. There had long been secular thanksgivings in Europe; then the new Americans gave thanks to their God. They started in 1619.
On 4 July 1776, the American colonies declared their independence from Britain. Their Declaration of Independence said that all men were equal.
On 26 January 1788, the English claimed to own what is now called Australia. White officers hoisted an English flag and drank porter to toast the Crown. They had come to open a jail. A few days later, the women came ashore; the sailors hit the rum; and their pandemonium was an orgy.
On 14 July 1789 the Paris mob stormed the Bastille, the symbol of the ancien régime and feudal Europe. Then they promulgated their Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The Americans and the French celebrate these days. Why wouldn’t Americans celebrate the cream of the old world making a brave new world under God? Why wouldn’t the French celebrate the birth of their freedom and a proclamation that stands with the Declaration of Independence? These are days of national identity. But why would Australians want to celebrate the English dumping their scum on this God-forsaken land?
True, these latter-day patriots are like one-eyed Collingwood supporters. The Puritans were a minority in England, but in America they had the numbers, and the intolerant will to use them. They gave us Salem and a gritty determination not to pity those who had failed. The Declaration’s reference to ‘equality’ was a bare-faced lie. The Founding Fathers were patrician slave-owners. They disdained commoners and they loathed democracy. Their war of separation saw terrorism and atrocities. The atonement for slavery only began with the next Civil War. It goes on still.
Terrorism was inherent in the French Revolution from day one. The mob wanted to burn to death a woman believed to be the daughter of the Bastille’s governor before his eyes. Instead they paraded their victims’ severed heads. France would know a ghoulish Daesh style depravity. Napoleon brought order – and the Empire and aristocracy – and more than five million dead in his endless wars. It took France a century to get over it all. Their anthem still celebrates ‘Aux armes!’
Both America and France, then, paid a fearful price in blood for their ennobling Declarations.
But we can understand the American and French national days. The West sees the triumph of the Enlightenment in each revolution. In Washington on the ‘fourth’ and in Paris on Bastille Day, you might even sense something sacred in the buzz. But who gets a charge out of opening a slammer?
That’s why some down here can’t get excited about Australia Day. If anything, its ineptitude seems to be sadly Australian. But there is more to our queasiness.
First, we can’t have our Independence Day because we are not independent. We need Britain for our head of state. We started out under the English Crown and we are still under it. Should we still celebrate our self-imposed immaturity? Should we thank God that after 200 years, we still can’t stand on our own two feet? Or should we not feel humiliated? And are not those who are loudest in proclaiming the glory of Australia Day on 26 January also the loudest in saying that we should retain our dependence on Britain?
Next, and relatedly, these same people are our own eternal no sayers. They don’t want change. I do. I’m desperate to see us grow up. But our patriots for 26 January are often against equality, at least in marriage, and against sense, at least on climate, energy and the environment.
Finally, boat people had arrived here before the First Fleet, but how ironic is it that the people determined to celebrate these English boat people are also the most determined to shut out the refugees we demonise as boat people? Human history has a mean streak that we saw after both the American and French revolutions. Those who make it into the club want to slam the door hard in the face of those left outside. It’s dreadful to see migrant nations doing that to refugees.
This conflict between the older, meaner, and more fearful, and the younger, warmer, and more hopeful reminds us of the sad schism of Brexit. And here, perhaps, is the foundation-stone of our mediocrity and of our fear of the new.
That’s why some Australians can’t take seriously Australia Day on 26 January. And that’s without one word about the blackfellas. Or the Honours List. Or that glorious day at Cambridge University when a lecturer of colour referred to our first white boat people as ‘water-borne parasites.’