It's a party nation, mate.
In April this year police shut down a party in Sydney's west which had five hundred people in attendance and had been advertised on social media. The usual bitterness and disappointment regarding the police's decision soon found expression in destruction of property, hurling of abuse and a few arrests. This party was just one of a series and a previous one, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, may or may not have involved a dead goat. The quotation above served as the host's characterisation of Australia and a justification for why, despite the chaos which had ensued, he would not hesitate to hold future parties at his house.
I could employ any number of adjectives to describe this affair. Familiarfirst comes to mind, as the premature conclusion of a party due to raucous behaviour is certainly nothing new. I would also reach for embarrassingand cringeworthy, maybe even slightly amusing. But, if the host is right, there is also something distinctly Australianat work here, and this, I think, deserves attention.
I submit that the association between drinking and Australian national identity is at its zenith, and this represents something of a cultural nadir. Our national holidays, Australia Day and Anzac Day, serve as opportunities for excessive alcohol consumption more than anything else. Australians are trying alcohol for the first time at younger ages, often at 13 or 14. We can also boast of gender equality in this important, often overlooked regard. Congratulations, females of Australia, you're now abusing alcohol at the same rate as your male counterparts. Drinking as a social norm now seems to rival all others.
Of course, this association is well known and well documented. In this year of political apathy, we can reflect on the role alcohol played at a time of great political upheaval and the only military coup on our soil - the Rum Rebellion of 1808. It's not much of a jump from here to Bob Hawke's speed drinking record of a yard of ale. I would venture that more young Australians know about this record than Hawke's economic one.
I would go slightly further than admitting a mere association between drinking and our national identity, and argue that it's binge drinking which constitutes the important criteria, at least for young Australians. FebFast, the organisation encouraging temporary alcohol abstinence, reports that Generation Y is more likely to connect turning down a beer with being un-Australian. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education argues that this same group of individuals, some 60% of young adults, drink with the objective of getting drunk. Is it such a leap to suggest, then, that in the minds of my generational cohort, the typical Aussie is necessarily a drunk one? I assume here that citizens of 'party nation' are not drinking to complement a meal (no doubt you've heard the reprimand, eating is cheating), nor to extend and enhance a conversation. What, then, is the point of drinking? Stupid question! Drinking is the point.
Am I being too dramatic? Isn't drinking just one of our delightful, often amusing idiosyncrasies? When I broach this subject with friends, I am told to chill out, or of course, drink up. In this reading, the problems of society's binge drinking and its hangover in health and mental burdens, corollary issues in the form of a culture of violence, even an embarrassing tagged photo on Facebook - all of this is dismissed with a kind of "she'll be right" casual indifference. This reaction, I think stems from the fact that my reluctance to join the 'party nation' isn't just about me, it must critique everyone else as well. Sometimes the dismissal, however, takes a more assertive form.
I once remarked to my classroom peers that I didn't particularly enjoy arguably the most Australian of Australian films, The Castle. I objected to the incoherent mix of satire and celebration, the film's demeaning and elevation of the typical Australian. Such an argument, however, was apparently forbidden. How could I not like The Castle? The latter part of my objection, that is, the reasoning, was not heard, or even engaged. To my critics, I had said something not just flat out wrong, but offensive to the sensibilities of 'real' Australians. Any measured objection to drinking often seems to warrant the same response. Any reader at all sympathetic with my argument thus far probably knows the castigation I'm speaking of, invariably beginning with, "Whaddya mean you're not drinking tonight?"
Anyone who knows or knew me well in my school or university days might seem a little baffled. Back then, I can't remember ever being accused of quaffing too little, and I collected my fair share of hazy, half-remembered and embarrassing nights. My grandmother, who has never been drunk in her life, always offered the same counsel when we were heading out: Always in moderation. This advice was invariably given, but rarely taken. My change didn't come from anything that dramatic, just too many mornings with an empty wallet and a killer hangover. For others, however, the cost is much greater.
Jill Stark's candid and moving memoir, High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze,explores one individual's difficult but ultimately rewarding break with the booze and points to the possibility or even necessity of change, for individuals and an Australian society fixated on binge drinking. I would point further, however, to change's inevitability, especially in terms of being Australian. There is nothing fixed or immutable about Australia's national identity. Generation Y might choose crapulence over moderation now, but its health impact will either destroy us or effect the necessary change. We may be a nation of young drunks now, but at our founding we were also a nation of racists. Turn the pages back further and you meet our dubious convict forebears, who inspired trepidation and fear long before a celebratory mythology.
So, as a final rejoinder to any critics and all the citizens of 'party nation', I offer this: part of what it means to be Australian is a constant conversation about what it means to be Australian. This is the case in any healthy democracy. National identity is always in flux, its fluidity shaped via ideas and disputation. Perhaps, then, some of my sober comrades will more assertively confront the revocation of citizenship when we turn down that drink.
I'm happy to debate any of my critics on these points, especially regarding what Australian identity can or should be. Perhaps we can even imbibe something while we're at it. But in moderation, of course.