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Australians, we should not all rejoice on Australia Day

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Racism, sexism and our class system hold Australia back from fulfilling its ideals, writes Peter Catt.

Let America be America again …

O, let my land be a land where Liberty 

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, 

But opportunity is real, and life is free, 

Equality is in the air we breathe.


(There's never been equality for me, 

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free".)

(America never was America to me.)

Langston Hughes' Let America be America again is a poem for Australia on Australia Day. It is a poem for every nation on its national day. Langston Hughes was a significant poet, playwright and novelist who died in 1967. He was African-American. He lived in the days of segregation. In Let America be America Again, Hughes lists the ways in which "America never was America to me" and the ways it was "never America" to many others:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek -

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I offer Let America be America Again as a reflective piece as we approach Australia Day because it is primarily a poem of hope. For after listing the ways in which America fails to live up to the image it holds of itself Hughes reminds the reader that they have the capacity to make America into what it says it wants to be.

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath -

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

As we approach Australia Day, the poem invites us to reflect and then act.

In my view Australia fails to be Australia primarily because of three acts of denial. 

We deny our racist tendencies, we deny our deeply embedded sexism and we deny the existence of our class system. We deny the existence of these blights on our national life because they don't fit with the image we have of ourselves as being egalitarian and with the pride we feel when we promote ourselves as the land of the fair go.

Chris Gayle of the Melbourne Renegades faces the media.

Chris Gayle of the Melbourne Renegades faces the media. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Our national anthem expounds these heady virtues, which will always be aspirational, in the present tense, as if they are a completed reality.

Any attempt to bring to the surface for reflection and reformation our racism, sexism, and classism is met with anger or ridicule because naming these tendencies exposes the dissonance that exists in our national life. Acknowledging and dealing with dissonance is always uncomfortable.

And so the dissonance lives on.

As we proclaim equality our entrenched sexism stands up with the crowd at a cricket match as they rise to greet with extra enthusiasm the cricketer who belittled a professional woman, and smiles at us benignly as a political leader dismisses concern over men's behaviour towards women as "political correctness". 

Our "comfortable racism", as US journalist and comedian John Oliver described it, flexes its arm to ensure that Indigenous advancement continually results in abject failure. It also uses the language of protection to justify the mistreatment of children in detention. A form of abuse with which we are comfortable while at the same time reeling at revelations of the historic treatment of "our" children by those who ran our schools, clubs and churches.

In similar vein the entitled class lectures the largely disenfranchised about the dangers of seeking even a fraction of the resources to which the entitled have access. And decry as an attempt to introduce "class warfare" to our egalitarian nation any move to call them out on it.

On Australia Day itself the dissonance in our national life bubbles very close to the surface. For Australia Day, in and of itself, contains an irresolvable dissonance that cannot be beaten down by calls to be patriotic.

At any number of citizenship ceremonies there will be speeches about egalitarianism, inclusion, welcome and the free go, while the very choice of date leads to a deep sense of disconnection and a feeling of exclusion for those who can only dub the day as Invasion Day.

In some places this dissonance is being acknowledged by the simple act of keeping a minutes' silence on Australia Day.

Like Langston Hughes I have every confidence that the nation I love is capable of being what it says it wants to be.

Australia can be Australia again. By naming, acknowledging and facing the sources of dissonance in our national life we can make "this Commonwealth of ours renowned of all the lands".

Peter Catt is an Anglican priest serving as Dean of St John's Cathedral, Brisbane. He is President of A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia) and is a Chair of The Australian Churches Taskforce of Refugees.

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