Be strong, keep ‘young and free’

Jun 9, 2019 by

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Almost one-third of the players in the State of Origin on last 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.

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