Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2018

On Patriotism (2018), by Paul Daley (Little Books on Big Ideas)

By coincidence, I’d just read Paul Daley’s latest piece in The Guardian: it’s called ‘The moment that forever changed my perspective about Anzac mythology‘… when on the same day when I called into the library, Daley’s contribution to MUP’s Little Books on Big Ideas series had just come in on reserve.  It’s called On Patriotism, and this is the blurb:

Serving the country beyond the battlefield

How has militarisation come to define Australian valour? Why has commemorating the centenary of World War I dominated our sense of patriotism? On Patriotism explores what it really means to love and serve your country. Paul Daley contemplates ways to escape the cultural binds that tie us to Anzac, British settlement and flag-waving.

I’m sure Daley would have appreciated the irony of my optometrist’s question when he saw me reading it in the waiting room: is it from a conservative point-of-view? he asked.

Well, hardly.  Daley’s essay is a passionate rebuttal of what passes for patriotism in Australia today, and it’s fair to say that conservatives probably won’t like Daley’s derisive views on the costs and extent of Anzac commemorations and the forthcoming Captain Cook memorial, or his scornful opinion of John Howard and his attitude to Indigenous dispossession.  Daley rejects the idea that national identity began with Gallipoli, and seems disappointed that even Donald Horne identified Anzac—’the Festival of the Ordinary Man’—as an understated but critical tenet of national identity.   (This was despite Horne in 1964 having noted the ‘very lack of any definite nationalism’ in Australia.  He thought that in the shadow of ‘an age that [had] seen so much horror and cruelty unleased in the name of nationalism’, this was no bad thing).

But Anzac day was very different in Horne’s day:

…25 April 2018 represented peak Anzac—three-quarter time in a 51-month, $600-million carnival of Australian World War I commemoration that ended on 11 November: Remembrance Day.  What was, when Horne wrote his 1964 book, a day of folksy, thoughtful reflection has been transformed into a permanent commemorative sound-and-light show.  Any capacity for quiet reflection on the 62,000 who died in World War I, or the 102,000 defence personnel who’ve perished in all of this country’s overseas operations, has been drowned out amid the type of boisterous jingoism and exclusive you-flew-here-we-grew-here style of nationalism that has imbued Australia Day with even greater potency since the 1988 bicentenary.  (p.12)

More to the point in terms of Daley’s quest to interrogate contemporary Australian patriotism, Anzac Day is now considered ‘sacred’:

In 2015, the historian Peter Cochrane wrote ‘Drape ‘Anzac’ over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct’.  (p.13)

It seems to be true. An excerpt from The Australian newspaper (26/4/2013) pours scorn on any challenge to the idea of Anzac as the defining sentiment of Australian nationalism:

‘The best advice we can offer is that they ignore the tortured arguments of the intellectuals and listen to the people, the true custodians of this occasion.  They must recognise that the current intellectual zeitgeist is at odds with the spirit of Anzac.  It recognises neither the significance of a war that had to be fought nor the importance of patriotism.  Honour, duty and mateship are foreign to their thinking.  They may be experts on many things, but on the subject of Anzac, they have little useful to say.’ (p.20)

However, I am not entirely convinced by Daley’s interpretation that this excerpt implies an accusation of treason.  While I am most certainly not, as my readers would know, an apologist for The Australian, Daley’s claim seems a bit excessive to me:

By this rationale, those who questioned Anzac as the defining sentiment of Australian nationalism during the centenary would be at best unpatriotic.  By implication, challenging or undermining the national sentiment built around Anzac would seem to be treasonous. (p.20-21)

However, Daley has only just over 100 pages to make his case, which makes nuance a difficult thing to achieve.  (For my money, James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow is the best book to read on the subject of  Anzac, and since Brown is a defence analyst and former army officer, he has impeccable credentials).

Instead of focussing on overseas events like Anzac and 1788 as defining moments in our nationhood, Daley suggests that a genuine reconciliation with Indigenous Australians offers a better way.  We could be drawing meaning from country itself.

Alas, On Patriotism is pitched, it seems to me, at the converted.  Referring to Hawke as celebrant in chief for the 1988 bicentennial exclusive party for non-Indigenous Australia or to ‘Khaki Howard’ visiting Gallipoli in 2005 and to Barnaby Joyce as oafish and obstreperous like some sunstruck bunyip sage isn’t going to win any converts to the cause.  A more temperate approach might have been more effective.  We do not want to see our country divided in the way that the US and UK are, and we need discourse that builds bridges from the territorial aggression of Cronulla and the jingoistic flag-wavers, not more fuel on the fire.

There are many of us who would like to see a treaty, who were dismayed by Turnbull’s hasty dismissal of Uluru Statement from the Heart, who would like the War Memorial to acknowledge the Frontier Wars and who agree that reflecting on the cultural depths of this ancient land is a good basis for generating a new kind of national spirit.   There is much to reflect on:

… the extraordinary elements of our continent and its history—the enduring civilisation and remarkable survival against the odds of Indigenous people; Australia’s global precociousness on women’s suffrage and workers’ rights; the tension between our multiculturalism and treatment of refugees; a wilderness that’s the envy of the world and the pioneering activism to protect it; and our country’s early role as a global multilateralist… (p.95)

And yes, forging a consensus about what kind of republic we might have is important too.

But unfortunately, I don’t this inflammatory little book is going to help in the quest.

Fiona Capp at the SMH feels more optimistic about it than I do. 

Author: Paul Daley
Title: On Patriotism
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2018, 126 pages
ISBN: 9780522874389
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:On Patriotism


  1. Patriotism and over-celebrating Anzac Day don’t have to be synonymous, though it suits those in favour of war to act as though they are. As it happens I am not a fan of either, the one leads us into war and the other now celebrates war where it once commemorated death.


    • I share many points of agreement with Daley, I just don’t like his confrontational style because it gets us nowhere.


  2. Sometimes you have to be confrontational when the prevailing spirit really gets to you. I entirely agree with Wad (?) and find the spending on defence and war memorials especially quite appalling. I haven’t read the book by James Brown, but wouldn’t regard him as any more expert simply because he served with the army. Daley is a very respected journalist who has also written at least one book on WWI and if memory serves right, has written a PhD on it, too.


    • I don’t doubt that Daley has researched everything thoroughly, but as I say, I think he’s reinforcing progressive opinions but not really contributing to change.
      What I meant by James Brown having Defence credentials is that the Right can’t just dismiss him as a Leftie…


    • Bill, Annette. WAD are my initials.


  3. There are so few journalists willing to take a more radical position on these serious matters that I for one am glad that Paul Daley is willing. As a daughter of a WW2 veteran I know first hand the damage done to veterans and its effect continues accross generations. I take V.Woolf’s position that the world is my home. The divisions created by wars continues to facilitate a simplistic politic that keeps us enslaved and true care for country both past and present unachievable.


    • I’m entirely in agreement about his aims. (As I think I’ve made clear in the review).
      The problem is that there is widespread support for the current militaristic interpretation of patriotism, and I don’t think that will turn around without a more sophisticated approach than insulting the people who hold it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for discussing this one so thoroughly! I’ve been really wanting to read it, and you’ve given me some great perspectives on his approach. I do kind of chuckle at the thought of some conservatives picking it up, thinking it’s going to reinforce their pre-existing ideas – they’re in for a rude shock!

    It’s true that preaching to the converted is probably not the way to win hearts and minds and effect change on the whole, but by the same token I think there’s value in it sometimes. It’s all too easy for us to become disconnected from our “tribe”, to feel like we’re alone in our views in the tumult of debate and controversy. Sometimes, reading a book that affirms your position, perhaps even stretching beyond it or forcing you to consider it through a more critical lens, is really valuable. I’ve always been horrified at the amount of money we spend on commemorative events and services while veterans literally starve on our streets, but I find almost 100% of the time if I voice this view, I’m shouted down as disrespectful and unpatriotic. Daley’s essay would be a great refuge. Thank you again for sharing!


    • That’s a very good point, Sheree, I hadn’t thought of it like that. And I should have, because I’ve certainly had that experience, of feeling like “the only one in the village”.
      And you know, it isn’t only the money. In James Brown’s book, he points out that the practice which has emerged of prime ministers attending the funeral of every soldier who dies on active service, means that it has happened that a PM has missed a really important meeting of international and long term significance that has been planned for months. And the preoccupation with WW1 means that we haven’t commissioned a history of more recent operations, and that’s not just of historical importance, those histories are what defence planners use to evaluate the effectiveness of military strategies.
      You have to wonder where it will all end…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well rest assured, you’re certainly not the only one in the village, Lisa ❤️ I think the publication of books like this one is a good start; if the ball gets rolling on a cultural perspective shift, it will exert pressure on MPs and gatekeepers to change policy and approach, it will become politically expedient to approach this issue differently – one would hope!


        • LOL Primary schools (which is where I made my career) are not exactly hotbeds of progressive thought, so I often was the only one in the village in that milieu!
          Just this morning I started reading Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right. I haven’t finished reading it but he talks about engaging people where they are, as in asking disempowered anti-Muslims who it is that’s made their jobs disappear and their Centrelink payments inadequate. It’s not Muslims, it’s the representatives that they voted for, in Canberra. That’s where their resentment should be focussed.
          So I extrapolate from that, is that the way to get under the skin of rabid patriots is not to insult their heroes (Howard et al) but to ask these people directly whether they think injured soldiers should get better support or that the money should be spent on Anzac commemorations and statues of Captain Cook… It’s a no-brainer when it’s put like that.
          Where did I read recently that ‘change happens when people change their minds’? That is what we need to work on, IMO.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Lisa. Having read Paul’s book twice I don’t think he insults people. (Declaration: the book is dedicated to Honest History.) There is so much blowback against those who criticise the prevailing Anzac-based nationalism that a bit of reinforcement is welcome! About to post an appreciation of the book on the Honest History site.


    • Ah well, we must agree to disagree there.
      But I am (as you may already know) a fan of Honest History, so I look forward to seeing your review there.


  6. Interesting review as usual Lisa and really enjoyed the comments. I am going to make 2 points only. Firstly I no longer read The Australian. It was once my go to choice for news but the phone hacking event outraged me to the core and I consider Murdoch has the blood on his hands of many dead in the middle east. That so called newspaper and its stable in general are dog whistlers of the highest order.

    Secondly you write “Alas, On Patriotism is pitched, it seems to me, at the converted.” I am afraid that that may sum us all up when it comes to topical events. There seems few who meet in the middle.

    Forgive me if I am slow to get back to some of the reviews. Life gets iin the way sometimes and one has to read books of course lol.


    • We are of two minds about The Australian then!
      I also think you are spot on about the chasm between left and right, but my point is that nothing will change unless some of the less strident on both left and right can be persuaded into the middle. And that has to be done in a more appealing way than in this book IMO.
      I mean, John Howard, what can I say about him that could convey my contempt for the man and his divisive policies? But I am well aware that many people who are not very interested in politics, liked him enough to vote for him for all those years. Half my colleagues at school would have voted for him, if not more, especially when he started throwing around cash bribes, and they were university educated people. In a way, insulting him, is insulting their choice and by implication their intelligence, and they’re not likely to listen to that.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] On Experience; Susan Johnson’s On Beauty; Germaine Greer’s On Rape; Paul Daley’s On Patriotism and On Fairness by Sally McManus.  I like these books: one can read them in an hour but they […]


  8. […] On Patriotism by Paul Daley and […]


  9. […] On Patriotism, by Paul Daley (Little Books on Big Ideas) […]


  10. […] He distinguishes nationalism from patriotism because patriotism means devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. (I wish I’d read this essay before I read Paul Daley’s On Patriotism).   […]


  11. […] On Patriotism, by Paul Daley […]


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