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.

An ideal world

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Eden from The Garden of Earthly Delights, between 1490 and 1510

In an ideal world, before I communicated anything, I would first ask myself:
i) what is the meaning I wish to convey?

then

ii) how might my words be understood?

The two could be very different.

Still, a two-step consideration worth aiming for.

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Reply to Jason

The Mongolian Octopus: his grip on Australia, 1886

Hi Jason,

the expression ‘arse-end of the world’ was attributed to a previous Australian prime minister – Paul Keating. I used it because it well expresses how the dominant white majority – particularly those of British heritage – feel about their position in the world – that they are a white outpost not only far from Europe and Britain but that directly above them are billions of Asians who could easily attempt to do and succeed at doing what the whites did to the first Australians.

This fear runs right through Australia’s history since 1788. It is, e.g., the reason Australia went to war in 1914 – because of Australians’ fear of the Japanese and to keep Australia white (the prime minister of the day urged Australians to go to war on this basis – can you believe it?!).

This issue is at the heart of Australian culture and Australia’s relations with the world, no matter how much whites lie about it – e.g. the 2 main reasons why Ozzies yap so loudly (the Chinese are 100% correct when they refer to Australia as the running dog of the US) about the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs are
i) a doomed attempt to drown out their knowledge of what they themselves did and continue to do to the first Australians (including exterminating them from an entire state – Tasmania) and
ii) to jump at the opportunity to display their servility to the US, in the hope that the US will save them from Armageddon.

In my view, the only way this issue will be resolved, because white Australians are so resistant to behave fairly to the first Australians and more broadly, to refugees, will be when millions of people of Asian heritage settle here.

Reply to John

Hi John,

Two points to illustrate the sickness and the degree of sickness at the heart of Australian culture:
i) ‘Australia Day’ is held on Jan. 26. That was the date in 1788 when the British claimed and stole 1/2 the continent from Australia’s indigenous (a crime they have never properly compensated the first Australians for, not even coming to a treaty with them as they did with the Maoris) and, at the same time, established a penal colony with the 1st lot of convicts. When (white) Australians celebrate this date, that is what they celebrate – and the majority (of whites) couldn’t care less – its a fun day.
ii) The Australian de facto national anthem is ‘Waltzing Matilda’. That song ‘celebrates’ prostitution (‘waltzing Matilda’), product placement (Billy Tea), theft, cowardice and suicide. Again, white Ozzies couldn’t care less – its a catchy tune over which they get all teary-eyed (it was sung at the 2000 Olympics). 

To get a better sense of how utterly sick this song is, compare it with the inspiring John Brown’s Body from the US Civil War.

What I am most critical about regarding Australian culture (which, for a number of reasons, I call convict culture) is not only its servility but the degree of it. Australians go out of their way to display it. First to the British, then, after their defeat at Singapore in WW2 by the Japanese (the thought of such military defeat has always terrified white Australians – consider the relentless racist tripe towards the Chinese with which the Australian media is daily awash) to the new dominant white, English-speaking, English derivative power, the US – now in decline. 

I could give you countless examples of this servility, many of which I have posted on over the years on my blog, as well as quoting the thoughts of intelligent and principled Australians on this subject (e.g. Donald Horne who wrote The Lucky Country [too true, cobber – we’re lucky alright!]).

The dominant white Australians still see themselves as a white outpost at the arse-end of the world, with billions – yes, gulp!, billions – of faceless Asians just to the north, just waiting to take ‘our‘ land from us (haven’t I read that before?) and the fear this perception causes is a key driver of their servility.

One day, quite possibly long in the future, when the majority of Australia’s population is non-white Asian in origin, this country will find the confidence to get off its knees and get its own flag and Australia Day – and flush Waltzing Matilda into the sewer where it belongs.

Certainly, visit Australia and the first Australians – they would welcome you and would enlighten you regarding their experience and struggles for justice.

The state of politics in Australia today

Salvador Allende’s last speech, La Moneda Palace, 11.09.73

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Ex- Labor (note the American spelling of the name of Australia’s oldest political party) leader Shorten: ‘We must be an opposition that stands for something. We must be a party of Labor that stands for the real world concerns of working men and women.’

The lucky country – all you could want

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Ben Groundwater, ‘Australian expats: Some Australians don’t want to come home and I don’t blame them’

Right now, there are still tens of thousands of Australians trying to get home from other countries. These are people based overseas who were told to shelter in place if they felt safe all the way back in March 2020, who have since decided that they would like to come home and yet are still waiting in a never-ending queue to return to Australia.

It’s shocking that they’re having to wait; though, at least to many of us, the idea that they’re trying to get home at least makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to come back to Australia right now? This country has handled the coronavirus pandemic more successfully than almost any other on the planet – at least, if you count success in terms of pure case numbers.

So yes, obviously if you lived in the USA or in the UK, in mainland Europe or in the sub-continent, you would be desperate to return home right now. That’s not news.

What is news, however, and what is far more interesting to me, is that for all the Australians trying to get home right now, there are many, many more who aren’t. Plenty of people have assessed the situation, seen the success Australia has had in controlling case numbers and keeping life relatively normal and still thought: nup. Not for me.

Last week, UK-based Australian journalist Kate Guest wrote a fascinating story in the Guardian about just that, about Australian expats who have elected not to return home during the pandemic, who have decided to stick it out in their new homes in France, in England, in Uganda, in Thailand. They’ve stayed for careers, they’ve stayed for family, and they’ve stayed because they just don’t like a lot of the things that current-day Australia represents, even when it’s largely virus-free.

And I have to say that so much of what was said by those expats rings true to me. I say this, too, as someone who did decide to come home to Australia as soon as the pandemic began, leaving my base in continental Europe, and as someone who – despite fancying myself as some sort of high-flying citizen of the world – does plan to call Australia home for the long-term future.

There’s a lot that I love about this place, and that suits me perfectly. But… Australia is not perfect. And that’s news. It’s also something that’s so much easier to see when you spend some time living in another country.

First problem: the anger that a simple statement like the one above will inevitably provoke. Australians are a brittle bunch, hypersensitive to any criticism, quick to shout down any dissent, quick to tell those who complain that if they don’t like it, they should leave.

We pride ourselves on our freedom of speech here, on the fact you can say anything you want – that is, unless you say the wrong thing, particularly if you’re black or Muslim, and then you will be mercilessly chased down and forced into hiding.

Still, that’s probably only a small part of what is keeping many expats from returning – though Australia’s shift to the political right is mentioned in Guest’s story. There’s talk of climate change in there, and our embarrassing lack of political will to do anything about it, plus our treatment of refugees that much of the rest of the world thinks is appalling.

Those things are important to me. But what’s also important is lifestyle, which, again, Australians tend to think we have the best of with our sun and surf and laidback attitude – but that’s all a matter of perspective.

If you want to live a socially connected life, a life of face-to-face contact with family and friends and even strangers, in a socially connected city with a dynamic culture and a strong sense of history and identity, then I’m sorry, but Australia is probably not for you.

Here we value space over social life, the desire for our personal quarter-acre trumping any chance of having a café and a bar and a few shops on every city block, the sort of places where people can congregate and socialise multiple times daily. Australians cities are designed to sprawl, so we can all have our castles, so we can all dig holes.

Australia isn’t particularly culturally rich. It’s just not. It’s lovely and it’s safe and it’s stable, and it’s the ideal place to have a family and live out your later years. But consider life in Spain, in Italy, in Japan, in India, in Vietnam, in Brazil, and there’s just no comparison.

Culture oozes from the pores of those countries, rites and traditions, festivals and carnivals, music, art, theatre, food that you’re surrounded by at every moment. Australia can’t compete with that.

There’s also the psyche of Australians. We fancy ourselves as devil-may-care larrikins but really we’re slavish rule-followers, meekly accepting draconian laws, grudgingly paying whopping fines for the smallest infractions because we love our safe, orderly society, we like to know what’s going to happen today, we like to be sure everyone will stick to the rules.

There’s a blokey, boofhead culture in Australia that I don’t always love, and that I can see would discourage many expats from coming back. Check out the ads on commercial TV here: Australians are far more comfortable with the beer-drinking everyman than they are with any other characteristic trope.

And yet – here I am. I have the astonishing and unearned privilege of being able to choose where in the world I would like to live, and I’ve chosen Australia.

However, plenty of people have not, even in the worst global crisis to affect many of us in our lifetimes. Still, they stay away. And that, to me, is news.

Capitalism, white supremacism, pride in servility and the ‘laid-back’ de-poo-tee sheriff

A 1908 postcard welcoming the ‘Great White Fleet’ to Australia

Emma Shortis, ‘There’s a lot of blame to go around for the chaos in the Capitol, but some belongs to Australia’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 08.01.21

Australians woke on Thursday to an unfolding coup attempt in the United States. One by one, leaders from across the world condemned what was happening in the US Capitol and called for peace. From Ireland, to Greece, even Boris Johnson in Britain, governments expressed their horror and dismay.

Our own government took a little longer to react. We shouldn’t pretend we don’t know why.

There is a lot of blame to go around for what is unfolding in the United States. Aided and abetted by extremists in the White House and in Congress, and white supremacists across the nation, Trump is orchestrating nothing short of an attempted authoritarian takeover of what we have been taught to believe is the greatest democracy on earth and the guardian of peace in our world.

But some of that blame also lies here, with us.

The Australian government’s relationship with Donald Trump got off to a rocky start. But once Scott Morrison assumed the leadership, Australia went all in with the man trying to steal the presidency.

In September 2019, Morrison told President Trump that “Australia will never be accused of indifference in our friendship to the United States”. He was right.

Morrison made those remarks at a rare state dinner hosted in his honour in Washington, DC. He was one of very few world leaders to receive such a prestigious invitation from the President. It came to him when it did because the Trump administration, with so few friends in the world, knew that the Australian Prime Minister would provide the President and his administration with valuable international credibility and support, and the photo op that he wanted. And that is what he got.

Australia’s former ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, was widely praised for his diplomatic skill in facilitating the invitation and for how close he had managed to get to Trump. And while Hockey played golf with the President, Australian parliamentarians gleefully wore MAGA hats and appeared on conservative television, expressing their unqualified support for the white supremacist in the White House and spreading his misleading theories. There was no rebuke from their leader.

The links between the Australian government and our right-wing media ecosystem are clear. While Sky News monetised and spread American conspiracy theories, Hockey went on Australian radio to say that Biden’s margin in Washington DC, for example, was “hard to believe”, and MP George Christensen posted on Facebook about “Democrat vote fraud”.

Elsewhere, leaders from across the world called on Donald Trump to concede defeat and ensure a peaceful transition of power. Asked to comment, Scott Morrison said only that American democracy was “great” and dismissed calls for him to say something meaningful as “divisive”. Called on at the time to condemn members of his own government for spouting conspiracies, he said nothing.

A few weeks later, Morrison was awarded a Legion of Merit for his trouble. The Prime Minister was “honoured” to receive the award that recognised how he had “strengthened the partnership between the United States and Australia”.

Australians cannot avoid the truth of our complicity. Morrison’s warm friendship with the President, our conservative media ecosystem’s promulgation of American conspiracy theories and giving a platform to US white supremacists – all of it helped Trump and the fascism he encouraged and unleashed. That can’t just be put back in the box.

Yesterday, Trump supporters flew Confederate flags in the Capitol. Even during the Civil War, that symbol of white supremacy didn’t make it to Washington, DC. But it has been held up, in similar fashion, by Australian soldiers serving alongside Americans in Afghanistan.

Australians are told that having such a close relationship with the United States is essential to the maintenance of our national security. But what kind of security is this? And what damage has it done to our relationship with the incoming Biden administration? There was never any security or strategic justification for the closeness of the Trump administration and our own government. The only reason for it was ideological.

It is only through an honest reckoning with that ideological closeness, and with our complicity in Trumpism, that Australians might be able to re-consider our place in the world. We did not have a binary choice between subservience to an anti-democratic white supremacist and abandoning the alliance. There were – and still are – other options.

Once, an American President assured us that the United States only wanted to make “the world safe for democracy”. Perhaps we should try to think about making our world safe from America.

‘Let’s disengage from China…slowly and carefully.’

Reply to Steve Miller

Hello Steve,

Thank you very much for your generous comment. What I particularly liked and is for me ‘the guts’ of Corinna’s and Gerry Gold’s essay is that two people who understand dialectics and write very clearly on it are not only calling for a major development of dialectics but, in the same essay, refer to ‘a new science of consciousness studies…rapidly moving into an area previously thought to be the reserve of those who believe in UFOs, ESP, table-knocking and “mind over matter”’.

I understand from this that not only are they calling for a development based on science of what we already know of dialectical laws and logic (a knowledge tested in practice), but they hold that that research should be undertaken in any area that could contribute to that development. It is to this that I responded.

Neoplatonism – a school that was always open to development – was an amalgam of Greek philosophy and a development on it, starting with Plotinus. Hegel wrote that Neoplatonism established ‘the ideal realm’ and that Alexandrian Neoplatonism incorporated all earlier forms of Greek philosophy within it and was the consummation of Greek philosophy and the greatest flowering of philosophy to the decline of the Roman Empire (Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6, vol. I, Trans., Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 202).

In my view, there are two ways of thinking dialectically, which are intertwined in The Enneads – using concepts consciously and intuitively, subconsciously (I used both ways of thinking towards this reply – hence the slight delay). Plotinus did not clearly distinguish them. Hegel, as a Neoplatonist, subscribed both to patriarchal and intuitive reason, and, living after a long history of development within Neoplatonism, took Neoplatonism to its consummation. 

Marx took only one half of this current further (that of conscious reason and conceptual analysis) standing it on its material feet. He rejected the other half (that of intuition and subconscious reason) as idealist mysticism. He did this both because he was not a Neoplatonist and because of the domination in the West of patriarchal reason (‘The Man of Reason’). This is why I emphasise that what Plotinus initiated was not just Neoplatonism, but more importantly, a continuum.

To recognise this continuum and the place of Marxism on it is, I think, crucial to a further development of that current in its entirety, now dialectical materialism.

With regard to ‘mind’: my understanding of all scientific studies regarding our thoughts, speech and actions is that they are directed towards those parts of the physical body responsible for them (brain, muscles etc.), not to a ‘mind’. I definitely do not accept that there is a ‘mind’ or are ‘minds’. As Lenin wrote ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.’

Best wishes, Philip

There are two ways to reason dialectically to a conclusion

Control: The Man of Reason (patriarchal) – words are used like bricks in a wall.

No control: Intuition (‘feminine’) – (from a movie the name of which I don’t remember) – a young American Indian policeman couldn’t make headway towards solving a crime, so he sought the advice of an Indian wise man living in a trailer park in the desert. The old man said ‘Let’s go for a drive’, so they drove along the highway into the desert. The old man said ‘Stop the car and get out.’ Puzzled, the young Indian did so. The old man asked ‘What do you see?’ to which the young man, slowly looking around him, replied ‘Nothing.’ The old man then asked ‘What about the grass there, moving in the breeze?’, ‘What about that bird up on high?’, ‘What about the shadows of the clouds moving slowly?’, ‘What about the shades of blue in the mountains?’…

The dictum of Democritus and M16

M16: Inside the Eagle Nebula

‘Certainly Democritus said that though the mind thought ill of the senses because in themselves they did not reflect reality, yet it took its evidence from them…(the dictum of Democritus was) that phenomena are a window on the unseen. Through them, if we do not stop there, we can become aware of the nature of the invisible realities.

A man that looks on glasse

On it may stay his eye,

Or if he pleaseth, through it passe

And then the heav’n espie’

(George Herbert)

W.K.C.Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 464.