Almost one-third of the players in the State of Origin on Wednesday night refused to sing the national anthem because of a quibble over one word. They take exception to the word “young” in the phrase “young and free”.
The players all identify as Aboriginal or Islander, and their argument is that their forebears have been here for 60,000 years, and the word “young” is disrespectful to them.
They have received support from people who ought to know better, including Tanya Plibersek, the opposition education spokesman.
If such a small issue can create such a disproportionate response it is a sign of just how fractured our society has become under pressure from grievance merchants and left- and right-wing identitarians who want to give special privileges to particular groups.
The fact is that this is the national anthem, and national anthems belong to nations. Australia is a very young nation (although a very old democracy), having come together from the six British colonies on the continent of Australia in 1901.
Before that Australia was just a continent inhabited by various indigenous tribes, subsequently joined by European settlers. Before the arrival of the English, there were no sophisticated governance structures, and certainly no pan-continental indigenous government.
What we celebrate in the national anthem is the nation that has brought us all together as citizens, and in the case of Australia this is a very new and modern project. As nations go, it has also been a very successful one.
We can celebrate it without ignoring the fact that the country has had human inhabitants a lot longer than it has thought of itself as a nation.
And the same goes for all nations in the world today, some of who have been inhabited by humans much longer than 60,000 years.
The players want to change the word to “strong”, but that is to totally change the meaning of the phrase. “Young and free” is forward looking and adventurous, acknowledging that we have a lot of maturing to do. “Strong and free” is much more muscle-bound, and strips the sense of optimism and ambition out of it entirely.
It’s true that the anthem is a bit awkward and antique – “fair” means beautiful, and who uses “girt” anymore. But whose anthem isn’t?
A quick Google survey shows a large degree of overlap between the best and the worst 10 anthems in the world, many of whom contain words and sentiments that might be considered overly chauvinistic, if not dangerous, in our country.
Take the Marseillaise, imagining the children of the “father” land marching on, and marching on and watering the furrows with “impure” blood. Or the Indian one, which is addressed to a Hindu deity.
The Star Spangled Banner is about battle too, but addresses nationhood only indirectly through the agency of an early version of the Stars and Stripes flying over Fort M’Henry in 1814 during and after an English bombardment.
Other anthems are improbable for different reasons. God Save the Queen, set to a popular tune at the time, has a sense of parody with its triple rhymes “victorious” and “glorious”, followed by the half triple rhyme (if there is such a thing) of “over us”. Yet many countries of the Commonwealth, not just the United Kingdom, use this as their national anthem.
People sing these anthems, despite their oddities, and disconnections from the present, because they are symbolic and provide a bridge with the past and shared experience in the present. They speak of the experience of the nation, often encapsulated in one event. They are not treatises (or treaties), they are hymns, and just a little sacramental. They are meant to bring us together not pull us apart, but this requires effort on our part not to be pulled.
If nations are about community so too are football teams. And community requires compromise. There are 54 words in the first verse of Advance Australia Fair, so these footballers are canning the whole song because of less than two per cent of its content. Why not just omit to sing the one offending word, or more assertively, insert your own adjective?
Canada is an interesting case, as it effectively has two anthems – the French and the English. They’re similar, but not the same, with the English version using the phrase “strong and free”, and the French version being overtly Christian with a reference to the cross and faith.
Canada is bilingual, so has to have a French version. But in other countries, the anthem has been translated into minority languages, with the Stars and Stripes, for instance, having been rendered in German, Spanish, Cherokee and Navajo, amongst others.
I don’t think anyone would have an objection to Advance Australia Fair being rendered into an indigenous language. Perhaps it could be sung alongside Advance Australia at the beginning of ARL matches.
It could be substituted for the “Acknowledgement of country”, which even when it is delivered by an indigenous man like Jonathan Thurston, rings hollow. It reduces prior ownership of the land to a snapshot of what obtained when the European settlers arrived, tokenises Aboriginal culture, and represents separateness.
The tragedy of this event is that it reflects some deep and disturbing currents in our culture at the moment that threaten to derail the Australian project, and these young men have most probably been influenced by others with just this purpose in mind.
It is another manifestation of using mass civil disobedience when you can’t win using rational argument. It relies on the majority of people being prepared to compromise with emotional blackmail, or just giving up and walking away in the face of persistence.
These same tactics are being used to further the call for an Aboriginal advisory body to parliament, and a Makarrata.
I have always been sympathetic to the Aboriginal cause, but it can’t proceed on the basis that some people have a better right to title, or say, than others because of race. The cards have fallen where they are, and we must all play our best game with what we have, not try to reshuffle the deck.
If Aborigines want more say in the government of Australia then there are existing mechanisms to get elected, and there are large areas of Australia where Aborigines are in the majority. A number have successfully made the trip.
Like most Australians, I had no say in being here, so I don’t bear any personal responsibility for what went before, and trying to perpetuate an antecedent state of affairs when its time is well-passed won’t serve any of us well, Australian born or immigrant.
Australia is young. It’s a project in which we can all rejoice. It’s unfortunate that these young men, all of who put on a display of honourable masculinity on and off the field last night, have been convinced it doesn’t have a spot for them.
Illustration: National Library of Australia.
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