Ingeborg van Teeseling

2018 – the return of the weak patriot


The uprooting of the Turnbull government has revealed the wriggling species of Australian, ‘the patriot’. Short on logic, but long on using nationalism to advance themselves, I suggest we salt the earth as we move forward.



This has been the week of the patriots. And I am still confused. First, there was Tony Abbott, caught outside the Liberal party room just after the political assassination of Malcolm Turnbull. Yes, sure, it had been messy, but what we had to remember most, he said, was that “above all we are patriots”. And something about a Liberal tradition, aimed at making “the country (as) strong and as good as it possibly can be”. No idea what that had to do with the backstabbing that had just gone on, but it was the word “patriots” that stuck with me. A few days later, I heard it again. In a different context, it has to be said. This time it was the last will and testament of John McCain, who used it to teach both his compatriots and his president the real meaning of the word. For him, patriotism had to do with service and love for country, with “respect for the dignity of all people”. It was about “good causes bigger than ourselves”, about “ideals, not blood and soil”. “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence”, McCain wrote. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down”.

For a while there I had visions of Abbott enrolling in “Patriots 101” with teacher McCain. I know the Republican is dead, but Abbott once wanted to become Pope, so I’m certain he’s got great ties with the Almighty. Things can be arranged, I’m sure, especially now he has put a severely religious Prime Minister in the hot seat. Then I realised that Abbott would probably be as bad a student as Donald Trump. As the Atlantic wrote not so long ago, Trump is incapable of understanding true patriotism, because he doesn’t even understand “the distinction between self and country upon which the idea of patriotism rests”. The American newspaper made a difference between nationalism (“the belief that your nation should dominate others”, in the words of George Orwell, that there is something good about “competitive prestige” and other people who lose) and real patriotism, which is about “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one has no wish to force on other people”. What Trump doesn’t get, the paper wrote, is that a patriot sacrifices himself for his country, doesn’t ask his country to sacrifice itself for him.

What Trump doesn’t get, the paper wrote, is that a patriot sacrifices himself for his country, doesn’t ask his country to sacrifice itself for him.

That, obviously, brought me neatly back to Tony Abbott, who has been engaged in attempts to destroy Australia and its democracy for his own gain. The fact that he uses the word “patriot” is, of course, very odd in the Australian context. For Americans, the word rings true. They believe in their special task in the world, in Manifest Destiny, the conviction that they are better than anybody else. The British, too, feel like that. Empire and all that. That is why Brexit is becoming such an enormous mess, and why it is happening in the first place. Britain first, that sort of cheerfulness. Australia, on the other hand, is a middle country. We have never ruled the waves and we don’t think we know everything better. We realise we are a work in progress, like every other country. We think all this “Team Australia” rhetoric is a bit much. We don’t like extremes, in any way, shape or form. We don’t like rallies where people shout and wave flags. We don’t think, like Tony Abbott seems to think, that we are at war with anybody. We want to be left in peace and if politicians would stop blabbering that would be good, thank you.

But Tony Abbott is not like us. And like Donald Trump, his patriotism has nothing to do with his country, and everything to do with himself. It is not about McCain’s adage of love, but about hate. Not about serving, but about revenge. Not about openness and sharing, but about borders and walls. There is no integrity, no loyalty, but xenophobia and egotism. A big fan of Tony Abbott is a man who calls himself The Great Aussie Patriot. Sherman Burgess is a far-right nutcase, who hates Islam and anything he considers left-wing. To Burgess, Rupert Murdoch is left-wing, part of a “global elite”, out to get well-thinking gents like himself. When Abbott was removed as PM, he wrote that this was part of a conspiracy to transform Australia into a communist Islamist state. Just after the latest government shake-up, the Patriot tweeted that we now have “a Zionist Jew as Treasurer and a LGBTQ faggot in charge of Defence”.

Lovely, patriotism, isn’t it?



Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

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