Shame and the need to shame – a nation of little spirits

In the mid-1990s, Ansett painted a Waltzing Matilda mural on the side of one of its Boeing 737-300s

In the mid-1990s, Ansett painted a Waltzing Matilda mural on the side of one of its Boeing 737-300s

*   *   *

Email sent to Phillip Adams 02.12.04

Dear Mr. Adams,

I listened to your interview of Peter Conrad a couple of weeks ago with interest. I particularly appreciated not only his dismissal of ‘Gerald’ Henderson, but the way in which he did it, making it perfectly clear that for Conrad, Henderson’s sufficient descriptor is ‘pompous non-entity’ – and I would add, ‘in a provincial pond’. That Henderson should be given regular airings in the Herald and particularly on the ABC’s Radio National is sad evidence for the second part of my assertion.

I have also read the text of Conrad’s first three Boyer lectures. And they are, as I expected from an academic in the humanities, very frustrating. They barely move beyond a cascading display of learning, a preening of feathers, facilitated by a telling of tales, through the soft-focus of history. Charming and informative anecdotes follow upon each other. Bitterness – yes, material to work with – yes, but Conrad has so far given no indication of engaging with the depth of meaning and content that exists in the subject. His lectures sketch an interesting stream leading to our provincial pond, but the exposure and analysis of the destructiveness of the pond and how that destructiveness functions runs very weakly.

Nothing that Conrad has said so far can explain, e.g., the depth of cultural sickness in this country as displayed in that part of the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics when a song ‘celebrating’ the suicide by drowning of a failed petty thief, as he ran from authority, was sung by ‘candlelight’ by a packed stadium – as a hymn. Contrast this song with that of ‘John Brown’s Body’, a song of the U.S. Civil War which justifiably celebrates the courage of a man who stood against both authority and prejudice in the defence of black rights and was hung.

When one speaks of ‘Australia’ rhyming with ‘failure’ one speaks, essentially, not of what others have done to us and have told us about ourselves, but of what we have done and continue to do to ourselves and to each other. Although progress has been made and is being made, particularly as a result of immigration, Australian culture has shame and therefore the need to shame – this is where ‘tall poppy syndrome’, ‘nation of knockers’ come in – at its heart and coursing through its veins.

Our culture is built around the ‘celebration’ of (‘nobility’ in the face of) loss, failure and defeat. You are one of the very few people I have heard raise this and show interest in examples: Burke and Wills, Kelly, Breaker Morant, Dad and Dave, the heroes of Paterson and Lawson, Lasseter, Phar Lap, Les Darcy, Haines and Whitlam. Roy and HG’s savagely titled ‘The Dream’ (as Doyle said ‘If it rises above a blade of grass, cut it down.), the ABC’s Australian Story…

And in particular, Gallipoli. In 1990, when the inevitable letters from Private Jones to his mother began appearing in the papers, ex-pat Phillip Knightley argued that if we, as Australians, are going to ‘celebrate’ our involvement in the First World War (the first capitalist world war over areas of exploitation), rather than celebrating a defeat experienced on behalf of a dominant power, we should celebrate the victories of the Australian troops, e.g. on the Western Front. The ABC’s Richard Glover responded with a most bizarre article in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat’, (SMH 20.04.90 – I emailed him about this) arguing that we celebrate Gallipoli, as with our other failures, precisely because it was a defeat.

What is the sickness that runs through the above? More than that they focus on defeats and failures, it is that these are made a cause for celebration. The message in these ‘celebrations’ is the dark side of the myth of Australian egalitarianism, a myth cultivated in affluence and sunlight – the cultural imperatives ‘Thou shalt be laid back!’ and ‘Thus far and no further!’ Dream to (or worse) go beyond the cultural limits and you will be broken.

And the cultural limits are those of capital (I understand the words of Waltzing Matilda were shaped by the requirements of advertising) – you can dream, but only the small dreams of consumption – 1/4 acre block, $60,000 + p.a., 2 and 1/2 kids etc. The celebration of defeat is still not the fundamental issue, it is the celebration of a lesson. Will Conrad address this basic issue of shame as a means of class control. I doubt it increasingly as his lectures progress. He is too much the comfortable gentleman.

On the global stage we relate shame-based – both servile to a dominant power – first England, now the US (cultural imperialism only partially explains our dilemma) – and bullying in our region (Asia and the Pacific). That the ‘Deputy sheriff’ won’t sign a non-aggression pact with ASEAN is entirely consistent. What is not licked should be kicked. Our need for approval has led us into a closeness of relationship with the US as a result of which, I believe, serious consequences for this country are yet to happen.

The same need for approval (this time, awarded by ourselves) has been used by the government to cover its purpose for ‘going to the aid of’ the East Timorese – after 25 years of silence by Liberal and Labor governments and the deaths of 400,000. What else could explain such sickening, back-slapping hypocrisy, so many white, beaming faces, such an absence of geopolitical and economic analysis? The on-going corporate attempt to rape this poorest nation, even as it was declared a nation is the clearest pointer to the reality of Australia’s ‘rescue’ of East Timor.

Our self-loathing lies at the heart of the kicking Hanson got, and continues to get, even after she departed from politics. That those competing to sink the boot into Hanson the hardest were, without exception, the ‘educated’ middle-classes indicates how deeply shame and self-loathing run in our culture. Hanson was a test of how successfully we have dealt with our shame and the need to shame – and we failed that test – spectacularly. Her treatment by our ‘intelligentsia’ shows how deep and powerfully the current I write about flows. It is to her credit that Kingston showed Hanson some understanding.

That this nation has failed the test of national confidence, both internally and internationally is proven by Howard. He is in no way an aberration. He has risen from the heart of our culture and understands its meanness, shame and therefore the need to shame, intimately and instinctively. He has exploited this with absolute consistency to win four elections in a row. There could never be a clearer pointer, despite all assertions to the opposite, to how little this country has progressed in dealing with its cringe than this man and his government. Even Bush bases his meanness and aggression on his perception of the greatness of his nation, on its ‘right’ to impose itself on the world.

The greater one’s perceived capacity to achieve intellectual excellence and particularly one’s commitment to intellectual excellence, the greater the determination in our society that you should be broken, the more subtle, insidious and poisonous will be the range of devices employed against you – by family and friends. Ian Thorpe, recognising this, has assiduously (and successfully) cultivated a persona that bows to this Australian viciousness.

White, too, saw this nastiness and destructiveness – and to disguise the hurt of one who both loved and loathed what he saw and experienced, specialised in paying that nastiness back in kind. I don’t think he ever rose above that fundamental tension.

Australia will always be a servile nation until the shame – and the need to shame – that lie at its heart are named, focussed on and rooted out.

Phil Stanfield



12 thoughts on “Shame and the need to shame – a nation of little spirits

  1. Hanson did not reflect a sense of confidence, but a sense of insecurity and ignorance that is always at the core of the psychologically toxic Australian mentality. Howards’ failure to denounce her narrow-minded views also reflected the sense of insecurity and ignorance most Australians shared. And on top of that, Howards’ victories of the four consecutive elections by lying his way through continued to reflect the lack of confidence by Australians of their own political and intellectual discernments. Confidence comes from having esteem of one’s praise-worthy qualities, not from bragging one’s mistaken views however honest it may be. This is exactly why it is important to celebrate success and virtues instead of failures and defeats, so that people can learn to identify and adopt positive qualities as early as possible.


    • Thank you hyeonjunjang,

      in my view, Australians have to confront and deal with this sickness. I was reading through some of my notes last night and found this:
      ‘05.11.02 I heard on (Radio National’s) Late Night Live the American author of a book on Captain Cook say that quite possibly the reason why Cook has never achieved the fame he deserves in Australia is that he was a hero, that he is not an anti-hero like Kelly is.’

      Cook’s achievements were remarkable.

      Best wishes, Phil


      • I read Alecia Simmonds’ remarks about Australia being “a vast, sunny and anti-intellectual gulag”, and the reasons given were that academics and anyone who reminds one of academia are seen as too remotely social and hence fodder for much fire. It is definitely true that Australians have to seriously make their efforts to fight this sickness of anti-intellectualism, because despite the facts that Australians did invent some of the things that the world is thankful for, such as penicillin, this anti-intellectualism is likely to cut back on various other endeavors in the social spheres, such as higher education and so on. You would think that anti-intellectualism is especially strong in countries with an authoritarian streak or system governing it, but why is Australia guilty of it when it claims to be a western-style democracy? I liken it to the American saying of “crabs in a barrel”, while some others who have lived in Australia before claim that it is just groupthink in action.


      • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, hyeonjunjang.

        On the point of Australia being an authoritarian culture, armed police and soldiers are not necessary (although they have been used when the dominant class thought them so. If Whitlam had refused to accept his sacking they would have been used.) because authority is internalised and functions through such concepts as ‘laid-back’, ‘easy-going’, ‘nice’, ‘hard-working’, ‘ordinary’ etc.

        Particularly, the use of overt force would expose the limitations and reality of capitalist democracy.

        Cargo pants, an old T-shirt, an old baseball cap and thongs or old sneakers are the uniform and symbol of internalised authority in Australia. In wearing that uniform one says to others who do likewise ‘I’m one of you. We’re in this together.’

        What if you are passionate for vision and ideas? What if you have no interest in the religion of acquisition and consumption? Then the trouble will rapidly emerge for you, and come from multiple directions.

        Authoritarian projection gets to work with the result that such people are immediately identified as ‘thinking they’re too good for themselves’ – hence they need to be taught a lesson, to be cut down – to ‘our’ size.

        There is a deep antipathy amongst Aussies for those who ‘make waves’, who ‘rock the boat’, who don’t ‘know their place’ – with ‘us’.

        And you can see this at the most petty (and potentially dangerous) level. So many times I have been driving behind a car going at 40kph in a 60kph zone. As soon as I accelerate to get in front and go about my business, the other driver will speed up and do whatever they have to, not simply to stay in front but to keep me in my now enforced, ‘laid-back’ place. Their place, with them.

        In that experience, I am being taught a lesson. I have often observed the look of grim determination on their face at such times. So much for the ‘laid-back’ Aussie.

        If you haven’t read Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (though he wrote it in the 1960’s) I highly recommend it.

        The reality (as always) is very different from what the spin-meisters pump out.

        Best regards, Phil


      • “Cargo pants, an old T-shirt, an old baseball cap and thongs or old sneakers are the uniform and symbol of internalised authority in Australia. In wearing that uniform one says to others who do likewise ‘I’m one of you. We’re in this together.’
        What if you are passionate for vision and ideas? What if you have no interest in the religion of acquisition and consumption? Then the trouble will rapidly emerge for you, and come from multiple directions. ”

        To be honest, the moment I read that, it sent a lot of signals running through my head, as well as triggers of what I experienced during my 4 months in Sydney, Australia. In that particularly fateful time period, when I shared a house as a living space with others, I realized that whole culture of “divide and ostracize” that was practised in the house. While the majority were interested in drinking their weekends away and living their week through work to be able to drink on weekends, I was the only person who came from an academic background and was seriously scoffed and attacked verbally on all fronts. Needless to say, I left because it was not healthy.


      • Thank you for sharing your experience, hyeonjunjang, and I empathise with you.

        I use two lines from Pushkin to distinguish between Russian culture and Australian culture and to indicate what I think is so lacking in the dominant white individualist, consumerist culture in Australia – spirituality (as a materialist I am obviously not religious and for me the concept implies a sense of ‘wholeness’ and ‘connectedness’ – within, to others and to the world).

        The Russian is beautiful and as always, something is lost in translation. Pushkin wrote:

        ‘Sunday, Sunday,
        I wait for you with impatience’

        The Australian would understand that as ‘the week-end off’, time to not only enjoy the weather, party and have a drink but to be with friends and family etc.

        The word ‘Sunday’ in Russian is a cognate for ‘resurrection’ (of the spirit and of hope) and that meaning was implicit in Pushkin’s ‘simple’ lines – a meaning that is so well understood by Russians and has resulted in so much greatness in their culture.

        Best wishes, Phil


  2. I think that your remarks about Australian Tall Poppy Syndrome and the tendency to revel in knocking others down as a celebration of failure are spot-on. I do not know why Australians cannot celebrate the achievements and intelligence of others in a lot of these instances which you have mentioned, but must engage in a form of destructive criticism or wet blanket treatment of the person.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s