The Lucky Country – part seven: the sickness at the heart of Australian culture

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat,’ Richard Glover, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20.04.90

I arrived home to find my partner ashen-faced. The cat was wailing in the kitchen and the kid was clearly upset. The words came gushing out as soon as she saw me: “I don’t know what to do. I just found myself agreeing with Bruce Ruxton.”

Since she had confessed, I thought I could too. A healthy marriage, after all, is based on sharing such dark secrets. “Yep,” I said, “I agree with him too.”

The issue, you understand, wasn’t Asian immigration, gay rights, or whether environmentalists are all dole-bludging hippies. It was Anzac Day.

Ruxton, the Victorian president of the RSL, is currently doing battle with the journalist Phillip Knightley, who has expressed the view that next Wednesday should be Australia’s last Anzac Day.

It is absurd, argues Knightley, that the battle at Gallipoli should provide our key national image of war. Gallipoli, he says, was a defeat; and a defeat in a battle waged for British interests.

Better to celebrate, he says, the taking of Damascus by the Australian Light Horse, or the victorious battle by General Sir John Monash’s troops on the Western Front in the last months of war.

“Monash’s scientific breakthrough tactics,” he says, “were a powerful factor in the German decision to ask for an armistice and  thus a real turning point in history. Yet the Australians who fought on the Western Front appear doomed to live forever in the shadow of Gallipoli”.

But Mr Ruxton replies that these triumphs, along with others, are already marked by Anzac Day, and that traditions, once established, carry their own weight and importance.

But we can take the argument further. Knightley is right: Anzac Day does mark a defeat. But as such it is in keeping with one of the most consistent themes in the Australian legend: the celebration (or at least worldly-wise acknowledgement) of failure.

Any country can make hoopla about its victories. What makes Australia unique is the way it has always preferred to remember the brave-but-defeated, the underdog and the loser.

Consider, for example, some of the subjects of Australia’s successful historical films: Phar Lap, the story of a horse with  international promise who was poisoned; Les Darcy, the story of a boxer with promise who was killed; Breaker Morant, the story of soldier with promise who was shot.

And, of course, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the story of fighters of promise who were misled and misused.

Dad and Dave never expanded and made it rich, they just battled on against flood and rain – two steps forward, three steps back. The heroes of Lawson and Paterson were triers more than they were doers; just as the great national bards were humourists rather than battle-balladeers.

Waltzing Matilda, the real national song, is about a tramp who can only find freedom through suicide. The Dog on the Tucker Box comes from a poem reciting the multiple disasters of an accident-prone bullocky.

Oh, to live in a country that makes a national icon of a dog that relieved himself in a bullocky’s food hamper.

But not, it seems, for Knightley.

He wants Australia to follow every other nation: to edit the defeats out of history and concentrate on the victories; to puff itself up and worship the tall poppies.

His Dog on the Tucker Box would be straight from Walt Disney – a heroic pup who saved the bullocky’s life rather than spoilt his dinner.

But I rather like Australia’s curious traditions: I like being part of the land of the rising inflection, where every statement is turned into a question; I like a tradition that sees the grim absurdity of life and embraces legends of defeat with a wry smile.

There are many who have argued against Australia’s traditions: arguing our lack of self confidence has held us back; that we have driven away our talented by rejecting a culture of success.

There  may be some truth in this, and certainly we face continuing battles to wean ourselves from cultural and economic cringes of various kinds.

Of course, we do need to wave the flag and be proud. But my problem remains: how can you be flag-wavingly proud when what you’re proudest of is the lack of a pompous, flag-waving pride?

All in all, it seems to me a perfect symbol. And that’s why Bruce Ruxton –  just this once – is right.


26 thoughts on “The Lucky Country – part seven: the sickness at the heart of Australian culture

  1. Both Glover and Ruxton are wrong, in my opinion. The mentality that celebrates defeat and failures depresses and demotivates achievers, and at the same time makes it more difficult to promote social justice. No wonder so many people in Australia suffer from depression and commits suicide.


    • Hello Yi Ping Wang, thank you for your comment. The ‘celebration’ of defeat and failure as well as being emblematic of a deeply sick culture and reinforcing (as you point out) that sickness, that culture, are very powerful tools for social control. Phil


      • Phil, thank you for your kind insight! I wonder how were these tools for social control introduced in Australia. Is there a post of yours that tells a little history of these tools being used in Australia? Personally I found its influence very powerful although subtle at times, and I am curious why there is not much public discussion of the matter. Cheers Yi Ping Wang


      • Hello Yi Ping Wang, thank you for your question. You might find posts of interest by searching for ‘the lucky country’, ‘Australian culture’, ‘Australian shame’ and ‘Australian servility’. Because I have lived my life with a commitment to ‘vision’ (a concept which the Americans have made central to their culture, despite all the criticisms that can be made of them, but which Australians react to with hostility and suspicion) I have had to give these matters a great deal of thought. Phil


      • Thank you Phil for pointing out the direction for me to look further. It seem that I will enjoy reading Horne’s The Lucky Country cover to cover. Cheers!


      • I’m sure you will – and congratulations for reading it and for wanting to ‘pull apart’
        the complexities of Australian culture. There are a few other books by Australians ‘in a similar vein’. One (written earlier) is by A.A.Phillips who ‘invented’ the term ‘cultural cringe’. Here are my notes from it:

        A.A.Phillips, The Cultural Cringe, Melbourne University Press, 2006

        From ‘About this book’

        P. wrote an essay in 1950 pub. in Meanjin called ‘The Cultural Cringe’.

        2 ‘a disease of the Australian mind…the Cringe Direct or the Cringe Inverted.’

        3 An effect of the cringe is the estrangement of the Australian intellectual.

        53 Australians who ‘fled from the poverty’ of Australian culture:
        – Henry Handel Richardson
        – Miles Franklin
        – Christina Stead
        – W.J.Turner
        – Jack and Philip Lindsay

        61 ‘The swing between submission and assertiveness has lost its extremism, but the final conquest of the colonial problem has not yet been achieved…We are still not quite sure whether to be proud or ashamed of ourselves.’

        62 ‘The Australian temperament is essentially pragmatic – a quality which is sometimes mistaken for materialism. In truth the Australian does not ignore spiritual values provided they are plain, direct & assessable. His limitation lies in an obstinate bondage to the positive, a preference for the sum with an answer verifiable in the back pages of the book. He turns aside, scornfully and yet timidly, from the glories and terrors of the incertitudes, from the exaltations of the mysteries. Such a conception as Andre Gide’s Return of the Prodigal is scarcely imaginable as the product of an Australian mind. Consequently we escape that cooling and thinning of humanity which afflicts the Gide type, but we cannot achieve Gide’s kind of depth and reverberation. Yet the incertitudes and the mysteries, the excitement of the sum which never comes out, are the food and wine of the artist, whatever his country…Only when the contour-smoothing erosions of time have reconciled us to the acceptance of mystery will the colonial dilemma be finally solved.’
        (My note) This is useful – I think of the problem addressed here as the inability to embrace intellectual uncertainty. This amounts to ‘the new’, ‘innovation’ etc.

        From the Notes
        ‘1 It is perhaps relevant to quote here the opinion of Professor A.G. Mitchell of the Sydney University that Australians are the only Anglo-Saxon community which is ashamed of having its own way of pronouncing the English language.’
        (My note) Cf. the Texan pronunciation of ‘Iraq’ since the Australian supported U.S. invasions of Iraq and the history of that pronunciation as Bush II came under increasing criticism in the U.S.


  2. I read some of your earlier posts on Donald Horne which shed some light onto the situation back in the 1960’s, however I still wonder if there is an identifiable historical origin for these tools for social control in Australia. Cheers! Yi Ping Wang


    • While parts of Australia did not begin as convict settlements (e.g. Adelaide), the convict stamp is very much present on Australian culture – little more than 200 years is a very brief period of time, particularly given that Australia is an ‘island continent’. The convict stamp can be seen in the toxin of cynicism (distinct from a healthy skepticism) which many white Australians pride themselves on (but would never admit), in the attitude to authority and of those in authority, in the destructive religion of ‘the ordinary’, and in many of the points that Horne made in his book. Australian servility and shame are further (and most powerful) evidence that Australian culture, in my view, is still (though rapidly developing – reflecting the development of international relations [through immigration, travel, trade, internet etc.]) a fundamentally convict culture. ‘Culture’, more than the sum total of what has been achieved (or in the case of Australian culture, lost) refers to how a people or person think/s about the future, about what has not been achieved, and Australians with their myopic leadership are very bad at this – again, as Horne pointed out. Phil


      • Thanks for giving me a brief overview of Australia’s convict history and its impact on the Australian mentality. It is interesting but sad to see how people develop such self-defeating coping mechanisms in the face of oppression. Yet it is sadder still to see the media if not the government continues its promotion of mediocrity among the people, as if there is nothing it would desire more than a country full of no-brainers running around doing nothing other than paying taxes and breeding future no-brainer tax-payers. I hope something will happen to break this vicious cycle.


      • Despite the strength of my criticisms of Australian culture I believe Australia will one day rise beyond the status of a ‘middle’ power. In terms of the potential for development, the country has ‘youth’, size and enormous material resources (despite all that is said about the amount of desert – Australian ‘small-thinking’ and negativity yet again) and with an enormous influx of migrants – particularly from Asian nations – which will wash the Anglo-sourced convict mentality out to sea where it will hopefully sink without trace, the culture of this country will fundamentally change – for the better. The concept ‘vision’ will no longer motivate Australians to bare their teeth.


      • Yes, there is hope for Australia. Although I see the governing body as the driving force behind the self-defeating and self-depreciating mentality of Australia through various means of social re-engineering, people will have to demand the change when they (we) have had enough. Or perhaps, because we could utter a cry for change, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. According to Tolstoy, the human world is always on the way to perfection, and the understanding of this process of perfection is one of mankind’s greatest joys and this joy is accessible to all. Cheers!


  3. Thanks Phil, for the info on the cultural cringe. I don’t know how I missed reading it earlier today. I found your info very helpful, and I can definitely agree on Australians being very pragmatic, even to a point of being untrustworthy (my personal perception). I don’t know if you were born Australian, and while I see we both being critical of certain Australian mentality, I do not wish to cause offense to Australians’ feelings. But what troubles me is that the mainstream Australians are so lack of self-esteem they have to inflate its near non-existent nationalism, and crack down on anything remotely arouse some sense of inferiority, in order to maintain some adequacy. It just appears very superficial and narcissistic to me. I guess I have to be thankful for Australians’ superficiality and narcissism, as without that I would not have suffered enough to develop the understandings that I have had so far. Suffering is blessing in disguise. This is perhaps the trade-off of the Australia’s addiction o happiness as mentioned by Horne.


    • Hello Yi Ping Wang, Again, thank you for your thoughts. My position is internationalist (many people on one planet). I have given a great deal of thought to Australian culture because it, manifest through Australian people, has cost me so much (it is a primary reason for my setting up my blog – to have an outlet). While every dominant culture and class doesn’t ‘take kindly’ to being questioned, there is a particular set of elements in Australian culture that together enforce conformism to a pervasive littleness of spirit in an extremely effective way. Horne and others have addressed some of these elements. The very standard of living in Australia, rather than being used as a base for the development of vision is itself used as a primary tool to enforce conformism and littleness – through intellectual apathy. Phil


      • Thanks Phil, for your kind and wise insight as an internationalist. Thanks for providing this outlet. It is much appreciated. And I notices you have a few articles on this site on philosophy and psychology, which I am very interested in also. I am looking forward to reading up all these articles! Cheers Yi Ping Wang


      • Hello Yi Ping Wang, And thank you for our discussion – I have definitely benefited from your thoughts. Your wish to think about and understand Australian culture rather than just submit to the dominant ideology of ‘happiness’ is excellent. Last night I rang a Chinese friend who was a doctor in Beijing and told her about you and about our communications. She was very interested to hear what you wrote – she got me to read your words to her – and she had much to say in response herself.

        I would very much appreciate to read what you think about Horne’s book. There are a couple of other books in a similar vein I could refer you to if you were interested. My very best wishes, Phil

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for your kind wishes, Phil. I am grateful and really enjoyed our discussions! Now I am a little curious about what your Chinese friend had said in response to my posts, hope my opinions did not offend her in any ways :p

    Yes, I will definitely keep you posted with my thoughts on Horne’s book once I get started with it. It might take a while though, as there are a lot of stuff on your site that I am really interested in as well.

    Best Wishes!
    Yi Ping


    • Hello Yi Ping, My friend, like you, is also very thoughtful and was not at all offended by what you wrote – she was very interested to hear it. One thought I am having through these exchanges with you and also through knowing my friend is what an enormous step it must be to leave the country of one’s birth, which one knows so well and move to another entirely different country with its language and culture to ‘start a new life’. It is a courageous thing to do.

      I look forward to reading more of your thoughts. Best regards, Phil

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, I am relieved that your friend is ok with my ideas. 🙂 My parents came to Australia, and I kind of just followed along. They were the courageous ones, I guess. I was happy that I got away from the ultra-stressful final year of high school in China though. :p In a way, I am grateful for my parents’ decision to move to Australia, as it certainly allowed me to grow intellectually and spiritually in a way that I could never have imagined.

    Best Wishes
    Yi Ping Wang 🙂


    • Hello Yi Ping Wang, Now it is my turn to be a little curious… I am intrigued that, after our discussion and the points you have made about Australia and Australian culture, you seem to be implying that living in Australia has ‘allowed you to grow intellectually and spiritually in a way you could never have imagined’ – I assume in a way that you thought not possible in China. Do I understand you correctly? Best regards, Phil


      • I think intellectual and spiritual development is not only possible but also encouraged in China, as China takes great pride in its rich intellectual and spiritual heritage.

        What I meant by ‘in Australia I have grown intellectually and spiritually in a way that I could never have imagined’, is that in Australia I have had to experience the kind of injustice that I could never have imagined in China. Chinese people are brought up very differently, as our families, schools and society at large are very diligent at instilling positive values to their youngsters. I perceive a much stronger reverence for divine justice in China than in Australia.

        Because of my upbringing in China (and possibly my karmic merits from distant past), I was able to obtain a relatively solid intellectual and moral foundation, and to conduct a fairly blameless life in Australia. Hence when I was attacked by the forces under the mainstream Australian mentality, I was able to identify the issues in those situations, by seeking answers through religion, politics, psychology and philosophy. This in turn enhances my intellectual and spiritual development.

        Another way of illustrating how hard it would be for me to imagine the journey I had been through had I not lived in Australia for a long time is that, when I shared my painful experiences with Chinese people who have only been to Australia for a very short time, they often found my experiences hard to believe, but when I shared my the same experiences with Chinese people who have been living in Australia for a long time, we usually ended up having a very enjoyable bitch session together.

        I hope this answers your query, and please let me know if you have more questions.

        Yi Ping


      • Hello Yi Ping Wang, thank you for your reply which I read to my Chinese friend over the phone – she understood ‘where you were coming from’ – and we discussed your reply. I particularly noted the words in your first sentence, that ‘China takes great pride in its rich intellectual and spiritual heritage’. This attitude is most important to me. When I discussed this with my friend she said that Australia is only a ‘young’ country but I think that such a response doesn’t take into consideration all those elements which Horne and I have pointed out and criticised. In other words, you don’t have to have an ancient culture but a ‘bigness’ of spirit towards (the future regarding) intellect and culture (which are synonymous) and which attitude, despite loud assertions to the opposite, is very much lacking in the dominant culture and ideology in Australia.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your kind understanding, Phil. You are correct in making a distinction between ‘age’ of a culture and ‘biggest’ of spirit. I did not write ‘China prides its long history’ (which may also be true) precisely because of the difference of spirits. I see both Australian and Chinese cultures as unique. Australian culture although short in age, does have a strong connection from its British origin, which when combined with its harsh convict history gives Australian culture a very unique footing. There may be other elements contributing to the difference of spirit, such as religion. Although I found some ideas in Christianity/Judaism agreeable, my Chinese mentality found it uncomfortable with others. I hope to explore my own understanding on these subjects when I start reading your articles on philosophy and psychology.

        By the way, I came across this article yesterday: I think you might be interested, perhaps already read it.

        Best Regards
        Yi Ping


      • Hello Yi Ping Wang, Thanks for the link. Although I hadn’t read the article I was aware of most of what is in it – it is a very good and important article. One doesn’t have to go looking far to find the truth about the relations between the US and Australia. Pilger is a very successful journalist internationally and the quality of his journalism is rare for an Australian. But his tendency to exaggerate sometimes, to ‘overcolour’ his reporting unfortunately leaves him open to criticism by those who want to reject or deny the argument he is presenting. When a person is opposing/exposing the dominant ideology or class they have to be very careful in this regard or they might be thought of by those otherwise favourably inclined to them as simply continuing the manipulations everyone knows the media is already filled with. Best wishes, Phil

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Phil, thanks for your valuable insight. Journalism can indeed be a very subjective matter open to debate and manipulation from either side. It seem to be very difficult if not impossible for ordinary people to be presented with hard evidence to reach a clear verdict of what is really going on. It will perhaps take a life time to make some improvement of one’s discernment. It can be interesting to take assumptions and wait for truth to unfold. 🙂

        Best Wishes
        Yi Ping


      • Hello Yi Ping Wang, for a long time, when I was young, I wouldn’t pay attention to the media because I knew there is so much dishonesty and manipulation in it, but then I realised this could not have suited those who are dishonest, manipulative and exploitative better – and I began to pay a lot of attention to all the media, which has obviously expanded immensely since. It is definitely possible for a person to ‘piece things together’ and I think that in this, at an individual level, is the best hope for the world.

        To formulate one’s position on the issues that impact on one, to be able to logically defend that position is the most difficult thing to do because it means not only thinking an issue through to a conclusion but also, in the process, confronting one’s prejudices which have been trained into one from birth or have arisen simply because they were the ‘easy option’. That is why I think that your wish to ‘pick apart’ and understand Australian culture is so good – all the more so because you come from another culture. I only wish a lot more Ozzies were prepared to do the same, to understand and act on why Horne, for example, referred to Australia as ‘the lucky country’… Phil

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Phil, thanks for your kind encouragement! Horne is indeed an exceptional Australian! It is perhaps easier for me to question the Australian mentality as I was born and raised in a different culture for a large part of my upbringing. If I assume that you were born and raised in Australia, yet can come to recognise the detrimental aspects of its mentality, then please consider yourself exceptional too. People like you and Horne, and perhaps myself included, may be born with a particular talent to serve a particular purpose in life. When we perceive reality in a certain way, we care enough to share with others, providing them with our perspective so that they can benefit from our insight, test its accuracy for themselves and in turn hopefully make more informed decisions in life. And we can be quite open to others’ views to further expand our perspectives to develop better understanding of the reality. All these takes great deal of time, energy, and both intellectual and spiritual accumulations. It may be hard for average Ozzies to have the resources to do that.

    I have met some Ozzies who are very decent people deeply confused and/or disturbed by the realities they perceive in Australian society. While they were grateful to me for my insight, I can sense a deeper sense of helplessness in them after our communication which I understand and can empathize with. I have friends who are uncomfortable to allow me sharing my frustration with them. Sometimes people may need a fantasy to justify their drive for life. Sometimes people believe simply because they want to believe. Truth can be a heavy burden to bear. Not all of us were built to be the bearer.

    This is perhaps one area that I think the age of a culture could make a difference. In older civilizations such as China, the force of good and evil have had ample opportunities to combat each other while force of evil was not strong enough to win every time. People develop systems of morality from observing the workings of good and evil from these conflicts. Where as in Australia (I can be completely off the track on this matter), I suspect that the force of evil started on a strong footing, as firstly the rights dignity and goodness of people were denied and discounted due to the convict beginning of the contemporary Australian culture, and secondly the moral standing of the governing body is highly suspecting from the beginning, and masterful when it comes to crushing people’s spirit to keep them low and controllable. In order for this system of oppression to survive, more negative propaganda has to be fed to the public day in and day out to deny the bigness of spirit, to cut off the tall poppy, and to maintain the status quo. The current system of democracy in Australia along with its distorting media is actually very effective at keeping public from discovering corruptions and deceptions of the government, and disempowering its people. I think this can be a complex yet interesting area of history and psychology to study, and I hope to find more answers by reading Horne to start off.

    Therefore I think the reason that we don’t see more Australians questioning its culture, is that many of them know how strongly it is enforced by the governing body, and how despised they would be if they dared to utter a cry. And another reason is that even if people make such a cry, the media does not allow such cry to be heard. Search engine such Google is configured in such a way that it gives such material way more prior placing than others. I found your site because of your comment in another site. When expatriates complains Australian mentality on internet, they are often swamped by countless ‘patriotic Ozzies’ causing very ugly scenes. I don’t know if you have noticed that. If such oppression is allowed to persist and prosper, then there will indeed be a bleak fate for Australia. Yet I do believe that in time truth and justice will prevail. Perhaps what is important is not whether Australian culture will be transformed, but how we will be transformed by our experience of the Australian culture. Please allow me to thank you for shedding the light on the matter for me and others when we are in need of guidance in this maze. And I would like to thank you with these two quotes:

    1. The Paradoxical Commandments (by Kent M Keith)
    People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centred, love them anyway.
    If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives, do good anyway.
    If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies, succeed anyway.
    The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow, do good anyway.
    Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable, be honest and frank anyway.
    The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds, think big anyway.
    People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs, fight for a few underdogs anyway.
    What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight, build anyway.
    People really need help but may attack you if you do help them, help them anyway.
    Give the world the best you have and you will get kicked in the teeth, give the world the best you have anyway.

    2. In the Embers lyric
    We live and we die
    Like fireworks
    Our legacies hide
    In the embers
    May our stories catch fire
    And burn bright enough
    To catch God’s eye
    We live and we die
    Like fireworks
    We pull apart the dark
    Compete against the starts
    With all of our hearts
    Till our temporary brilliance turns to ash
    We pull apart the darkness while we can
    May we live and we die
    A valorous life
    May we write it all down
    In cursing light
    So we pray we were made
    In the image of a figure eight.

    Best Wishes
    Yi Ping

    Liked by 1 person

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