Our new Prime Minister has given each of his new minion-sters a little ‘welcome to power’ gift. He announced the gift on Twitter last night: ‘a lapel pin with the Australian flag on it.’ PM Morrison has apparently been wearing one for years because, he tweeted, ‘it reminds me every single day whose side I’m on. I’m on the side of the Australian people.’
On the same day the miniature Aussie flags were being handed out, the last statement of US Senator John McCain was being broadcast around the globe. ‘We weaken our greatness’, the ghost of Senator McCain reminded us, ‘when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.’
Sometimes we describe death as ‘the other side’. It is the ultimate divider—there’s no coming back once you’ve gone there. What quirky timing, then, that the American presidential candidate known for refusing to take predictable sides in politics offered his message about patriotism and tribalism from the other side on the same day our new Prime Minister tacitly enjoined Australians to think of ourselves as divided into sides.
Here’s the problem: my world is not made up of sides. My understanding of social and political relations is more nuanced. Though I disagree with many of Liberal MP Julia Banks’ policy positions, for example, I am sympathetic to her decision today to bail out of federal politics. Bullied by the protagonists in a baffling party leadership contest, she’d had enough of the ‘internal political games’ that demanded she pick a side.
We humans are clever. We can rub our stomachs and pat our heads at the same time. We can also simultaneously disagree and sympathise with other humans. ‘Taking sides’ is too simple a metaphor for the complexity of our alliances and allegiances, our certainties and our ambivalences.
And thank goodness for that, because we usually get ourselves into strife when we reduce our sense of identity to banal singularities. Muslim/Christian. Climate change-believer/denier. Patriot/anti-patriot. These kinds of over-simplifications are the basis of the violent tribalism that McCain was warning against. There is more that unites Americans, he told the world, than divides them. And there is more that unites those of us lucky enough to live in Australia than our new Prime Minister would like us to believe.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no particular beef with flags as lapel pins. In recent years lapel decorations have been flourishing in Australia. Sometimes we wear rainbow ribbons to signify our support for equality. Sometimes we wear white ribbons to signal our concern about violence against women. Pink ribbons embody our hopes of eradicating breast cancer. Poppies help us to remember the soldiers who died in terrible wars. Some of us advertise our football team allegiances on our lapels. Sometimes we wear these reminders of our causes and concerns as armbands instead of lapel pins. We change it up, because we care about many different things. We belong to many different tribes. As poet Walt Whitman wrote, we ‘contain multitudes’.
My beef is with the Prime Minister’s definition of what is symbolised by those little flags he handed out. He wants us to believe that there are those ‘out there’ who are not on our side. The membership of that other ‘side’ is deliberately not specified. When you are implying threats and conjuring enemies, the murkier the better. Eternal hyper-vigilance is required to make sure we recognise them when they appear. And a fearful hyper-vigilant populace is a more easily manipulable one.
The taking of sides first requires the making of sides. It’s a dangerous and potentially destructive tactic. There could be no coming back once you’ve gone there.
Dr Sian Prior is the author of ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing).