A convict culture

‘Landing of Convicts at Botany Bay’ from Watkin Tench’s ‘A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay’, 1789

The fundamental social structure in Australia today is basically the same as what was disgorged from the first fleet in 1788 and after onto the shores of Botany Bay – the mass and their guards (‘experts’, ‘authorities’, those with power…school prefects…). A scabrous, thoroughly-connected crust of brittle ‘decency’ on a ‘decent’ society, before which the mass is to defer, and willingly defers, unquestioningly.

Before the Puritan colonists embarked for Boston, John Winthrop gave a lecture in which he said that they shall be ‘as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us’ (words aped by Ben Chifley – of the American titled ‘Labor Party’ – near the end of his term as Prime Minister in 1949).

Vision (and its abuses) has always been at the heart of American culture. In a now ever-more deeply fractured country, it is still there in parts, such as NASA.

National vision now lies with the Chinese – they know their time to lead the world is coming, just as the Americans knew their time to lead was near in the nineteenth century.

I heard ex-Prime Minister Keating’s speech writer Don Watson say on Late Night Live some years ago that Captain Arthur Phillip gave a speech when he landed (I don’t know how Watson knew this, since I understand there was no written record of this speech) which included the words ‘Men are not to go into the women’s tents at night’.

Whether Phillip said these words or not, they are entirely plausible, exemplifying the vast gulf between vision (the same vision Jorn Utzon had before he was driven from these shores never to return) and its necessity for a healthy society and authoritarian ‘practicality’.

Australians have shown vision – federation and the Snowy Mountains scheme are examples of it – but, as Donald Horne wrote in his ironically titled The Lucky Country (a title deliberately misunderstood by the bulk of Australians), they are, in general, deeply suspicious of it. It threatens their drive to acquisition, mortgage payments and holidays in Thailand.

Horne exemplified this dichotomous world view between America and Australia when he paraphrased a diary entry by the socialite Mrs. Marcel Dekyvere – chairman of the Black and White Ball Committee (in 1964) in response to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963 – ‘We must all keep our dreams, even if sometimes they don’t come true. Don’t you agree?’

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To anyone who reads this post – particularly any Australian – and thinks it unjustified: read this post and view the video with it.

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