Thanking our veterans; triggering the left

The world of Australian aviation is in some ways an intensely patriotic one, with Qantas serving as the National Phallus and a source of national pride. As such, the comments section on Australian Business Traveller‘s recent article about Virgin Australia joining in the government’s initiative to thank armed forces veterans for their service becomes utterly comical.

In this article, it is noted that the federal government launched an initiative encouraging corporations to give special perks to armed forces members, even if many of those perks work out merely to be a relatively meaningless expression of gratitude. Virgin Australia joined this initiative, but Qantas did not. Qantas, for its part, makes special announcements on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. However, Virgin are reconsidering joining this initiative, as there has been public backlash.

Flynn’s article remained neutral and descriptive. It asked for the audience’s opinion and invited discussion. The comments section, in response to the invitation, was full of hysterical bleating inflected with unsophisticated leftist tropes; to use present-day vernacular, many AusBT commenters were triggered.

So one must ask, why? For the life of me, I don’t see why a relatively token gesture is something to get worked up about. From a libertarian perspective I don’t like the government attempting to commandeer or ‘influence’ private businesses or engaging in attempts to engineer our civic culture or popular norms, but this isn’t a big deal. It isn’t an atrocious infringement on our liberties like the War On Drugs, nor is it a useless and aggressive war, nor is it a massive drain on the taxpayer like the ABC, the funding of public university “Grievance Studies” departments, or the Australian Institute of Sport. At worst, its a silly feel-good low-cost public-relations initiative that works out to government-corporation marketing.

But on the internet, outrage is gold and calm discussion is “TL;DR”. So of course we had hysterical paroxysms of complaint about this gesture being “jingoistic,” “nationalistic,” “too American and thus un-Australian,” and “a Murdoch conspiracy.”.

AusBT serves an Australian audience, many of whom are able to afford premium airfares. Presuming that the comment section is representative of the reader base, let us ask the important question: what do the comments on this article tell us about Australia’s upper classes?

The first, and obvious theme is a near-reflexive anti-Americanism. The argument proceeds as follows: announcements thanking our veterans are something made in the United States, but this is Australia and not the United States, and being like the United States is bad.

This argument appeals to two different things. The first is the Genetic Fallacy (“it comes from the USA, therefore it is bad”), which is simply Not An Argument. Of course the United States is imperfect, but to suggest that the USA has nothing good about it is simply bizarre. The second thing this argument appeals to is, ironically enough, nationalism; the argument suggests that there is a national Australian identity and that the citizens of the USA have a national identity as well, and that Australians should act in accordance with the Australian identity and that citizens of the USA should act in accordance with their own national identity, and that these cultural groups should remain distinct as possible.

Such an appeal is indeed rather ironic considering many of the comments condemn nationalism and conflate it with jingoism (which is a massive category error). Unfortunately in the post-Trump age, “nationalism” has become a swear word and has been conflated with both jingoism (which is aggressive, expansionist, saber-rattling-foreign-policy nationalism) and fascism (which is authoritarian-to-totalitarian nationalism that controls citizen’s economic and personal lives). But “nationalism” is merely the proposition that there are natural political units (or “polities”), bound by things like shared history, culture, language, civil-political norms, ideology and sometimes ethnicity, which are referred to as “nations.”

If you believe that there is such a thing as “the Welsh,” “the Irish,” “the Germans,” “the French,” “the Americans,” “the Canadians,” “the New Zealanders,” “the Australians,” “the Japanese,” “the Chinese,” “the Palestinians,” then you are a nationalist. Even if you believe that nationhood is socially constructed (a position I agree with), you’re still someone that accepts the basic premise that national identities are sociologically real and unless you believe these identities should be ultimately abolished then you are a nationalist.

The ironic nature of this all is that a disgust towards what is considered American-style nationalism is being celebrated as simultaneously “transcending” nationalism and also being an embodiment of an Australian-style nationalism. Is it nationalism or is it anti-nationalism? Is being opposed to nationalism the height of the Australian national identity? Obviously these are ridiculous logical knots that show the deep ambivalences the Australian upper classes have about nationalism. Which of course forms a nice contrast with the fact that the Australian union movement have consistently rallied behind Australian nationalism and incorporated it into their belief system and iconography. One wonders, is the AusBT reader’s comment section a reaction to even the slightest and most marginal tinge of low-class “bogan”-ness? I mean all those icky bogans probably vote for Pauline Hanson! Clearly not the people able to afford a Premium Economy ticket, let alone Business or First Class!

Of course, merely thanking our veterans with airline announcements does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t help the crippling PTSD many combat veterans endure. It doesn’t say anything at all about foreign policy. Nor does it really say anything about national identity. It is, in many respects, the height of tokenism. So why is such a gesture consistently conflated with American-style conservatism or accused of being some kind of Murdoch-backed right-wing conspiracy? Maybe the only reason they hate the idea is that Virgin Australia’s compliance with the government’s scheme is giving a “win” to a Coalition government.

From my own perspective, I am simply indifferent. I’ve travelled on domestic services within the US, where veterans are thanked repeatedly; it really doesn’t matter and no one pays attention. It is a tokenistic, meaningless gesture that does nothing for actual veteran well-being. It has no connection to any particular direction in foreign policy.

As has been  written many times in Reason magazine,  whinge-fests like this are symptomatic of the politicisation of everyday life. In politics, one wins and the other loses; mutually beneficial collaboration and exchange is not permitted. Speaking as someone who wants more win-win situations and less win-lose situations, I ask: can we please stop politicising stuff like this?

Especially stuff so absurdly f***ing trivial as airline announcements?

Andrew Russell