A Nation Once Again
“A Nation once again.”(Thomas Davis)
When you are able to read this, I will be busy taking my interview to become an Australian Citizen. It’s the penultimate step to my standing up in public and saying:
From this time forward, under God,
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.
It’s not something I take lightly. For a man who makes jokes about everything, I am at the core a very serious fellow. It’s a nation I want to be part of, a nation whose identity is shaped not by your place of birth or your sex, or skin color or religion, but a nation – or a group – whose ideals, principals, values and the things the people have in common as a result, override most of the considerations of mere geography or appearances. Those who don’t find a place to fit in it… don’t want to. They want the people to fit around them, and that never ends well, because it is narrow, and really, people aren’t. We come in all types. Migrant countries are a very broad church, and defines themselves as being broad, with ideas like freedom of association, speech and equality before the law. It’s an antithesis, in fact, of the ‘Nationalism’ of ‘just-like-me tribalism’, which I personally think is about to creep its way over the earth again. It’s a group or Nation with a professed set of ideals that I actually want very badly to be part of, to identify with, to support and be supported by. I spent a lot of my life striving to foster these ideals in the old country. South Africa may get there, one day, but to me it has slipped away into the other kind of nationalism – Where it is a very narrow church, getting narrower and nastier by the day.
Besides, that I was a lot keener on becoming Australian when I discovered they didn’t really greet newcomers by throwing another Chimp on the barbie, but shrimp. (Yes, I am called ‘monkey’ and not without reason.) I’m fond of shrimp. And if there are three things I really love about this nation it’s the concept of ‘a fair go’ (no matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s about merit not kissing up or being the right orientation or skin color), and mate-ship (which seems a natural feature of harsh environments and frontiers, where helping out those who are doing it tough is just part of what you do. Those in big civilized cities seem more prone not help their neighbors, but wait for the government to do it. It’s not how we operate, out here, but I do see it as problem creeping in to crowded places), and the Aussie Battler (It’s a little different to the US, where a ‘winner’ seems to be the top of the social respect pile. A battler might die having lost everything, and might never have come out a winner in multiple attempts. But no matter how often life knocks him down, he gets up and tries again. And no-one gets more social respect. I have no yearning to get literary prizes (yes, I know, they cause active revulsion in the majority of readers, but some people are terribly proud of them), but I think I’d done well in life if someone at my deathbed, having achieved nothing much, someone said ‘he’s a real little Aussie Battler’ to my kids.
I always thought Australia and the other ‘migrant’ countries (which have drawn from many nations –in the old narrow tribal sense of the word) tend to be about ideas and not geography.
And of course ideas are stuff of fiction. Which brings me around to ‘Nations’ and the concept behind them, in fiction. We’ve gone through periods when both types of ‘Nation’ were evoked in fiction. When fiction could be more than a little Jingo-ist. When it was used to narrow the tribe and define its identity, and belittle those who didn’t have the right markers, (language, religion, skin color, etc. etc.) When ‘the Wogs began at Calais’ (spare me the fainting fit. It was a very common expression, at that time.) History and wars – and tough times (coming to a neighborhood near you, soon), tended to bring it out strongly. Of course, depending on your point of view, or what kind of ‘Nation’ you were referring to (a narrow one of shared language, a similar genetic makeup, or a broad one) it was a good or bad thing. Let’s temporarily steer away from that, (as your good may be my bad) and focus on how it affects the numbers of readers (rather than how readers are affected by it).
In some ways it was a nice easy pass. A convenient stereotype to save you having to explain that the American character was a good guy, and the German/Japanese/Ping-pongian was a bad guy (or if you were a German writer why the American/French/English/Ping-pongian were bad guys. Instantly identifiable with as ‘just like me’ and readers do like that. If they can identify with your character, they care, and as a writer the biggest battle is won. It’s a bit more bizarre on the modern US left (where 95% of traditional publishing are) where hating the US (or at least its history and everyone who isn’t just like them) is their ‘national’ tribal marker, but it is for those who think like them, as much of a stereotype.
My own view is the ‘nations of ideas’ are about to take a hammering as the ‘nations of narrow tribes’ seem to be ascendant across Europe, Asia, and to my distant and not very knowledgeable eye, also rising in the US. I am of course very biased, and believe the ‘Nation of shared Ideas’ will eventually win ascendancy again, BUT here is the thing – as more people can belong to nation of shared ideas (so long as those ideas are ones which are broadly acceptable – say equality before the law) than can to a nation of shared narrow tribal characteristics (because these start to break down fast into smaller and smaller tribes. “You’re Italian/I’m Italian’ soon becomes I’m from the North, you’re from the South, and gradually disintegrate into two neighboring villages hating each other. And oddly they’ll tend to side with distant and utterly different, rather than those who are similar and close. The Khoi-San/Hottentot sided with Boer settlers (that they knew little of and were culturally and linguistically miles from, to beat up their neighboring tribe, whom they were very similar to. History is full of examples, and for another, present one, the NY City latte sipper who thinks Communist China or Muslim Arabs sweeter than the ‘redneck’ who lives in the same country, eats the same food, speaks the same language, wears the same clothes, and, to those Communist Chinese or Muslim Arabs, looks identical.).
As a supporter of a Nation of shared Ideas… I see interesting times for the writer ahead. And I see considerable fragmentation ahead, before a rebuilding. It is, taking the long view, a process that happens again and again. But at least with the shackles breaking on how and where and what we can publish… it’s no longer only one way traffic.
So: where do you see the nation in fiction, particularly sf/fantasy in the next few years?
And wish me luck for the interview. I am sorry I will only be back when many are asleep to answer comments.
Update: It went just fine. (they have a little test – Barbs and I both got 100% :-))