Australian culture: servile and shame-based

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The Sydney Morning Herald 18.02.15

‘Gallipoli’s ratings fail highlights Australia’s inferiority complex’ Craig Mathieson

The concluding paragraphs of an article about an eight-part television series ‘Gallipoli’:

‘Australians have been eager adopters of the prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bow down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian program some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.

One of Gallipoli‘s story strands is how the Australian military was a misused tool of wasteful British generals, and while we bowed down to the British a century ago our empire of choice now is American. Gallipoli‘s falling ratings tells us that Australia’s sense of cultural inferiority is as strong as ever.’

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Reply to Tach

Tach,

Your music went very well with your video for ‘Artist of the Month’. I particularly remember how you closed your fingers and bent your wrist to convey your meaning in your video on your blog when you discussed your work. It was very expressive and effective.

My Sydney uni association is that I am completing a thesis there which will be due next week. I will not have it done on time and have opted to be failed (rather than withdraw). It concerns a matter for which I have lived the last 32 years of my life – to understand and have recognised the impact of mysticism on Western culture and its relation to a materialist perspective (my blog is an offshoot of this) and I will consider being failed as solely reflecting on a deeply sick, anti-intellectual and servile culture. I will be taking this matter up with the university after I complete my thesis and publish it on my blog.

The influence of convict culture (with its shame, cynicism, inferiority, guilt and religion of the ordinary) is as much present in Australian culture (in which the events at Gallipoli in the first capitalist world war – a military disaster following an attack on a foreign country on behalf of a dominant power – are held to embody what it is to be ‘Australian’) as that of the words of the Puritan John Winthrop – that their community would be ‘as a city upon a hill’ (words virtually copied by Chifley and recently aped by Abbott), watched by the world – is on American culture.

Despite all the criticisms that can and should be made of the United States and what has been and is being done on behalf of US capitalism, the recognition of the importance of vision has always been at the heart of that culture. It is on the basis of this that they constantly search the world to take to them ‘the best and brightest’ and they recognise the centrality of education to this.

When the GFC hit the US, one of the first things Obama did was to give a massive injection of funding to the US education system. What has happened in this regard in Australia, which, with its coal and minerals to dig up and flog to China, virtually escaped the GFC? It is an emblematic disgrace.

In his book The Lucky Country (every time an Australian refers to this country as ‘the lucky country’, an expression intended to be ironic, they expose their failure to think about and critique their culture and how little, in essence, it has progressed from that of Horne’s reflections) Donald Horne beautifully captured the Australian attitude to vision, paraphrasing a diary entry by Mrs. Marcel Dekyvere, chairperson of the Black and White Ball Committee (in 1964) in response to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on 28.08.63 – ‘We must all keep our dreams, even if sometimes they don’t come true. Don’t you agree?’

Till the day I die, I will salute Utzon for leaving this country and refusing to ever be drawn back by the incessant attempts of Australians embarrassed and exposed not by his sudden departure (that could be excused by and contained to his differences with the Minister for Public Works) but by the international reputation his design for the Opera House won and desperate to cover over (not learn and progress from, despite all their subsequent hype and blather to the opposite – which can be seen every semester, as an example, when Australian universities compete to attract enrolments) their anti-intellectual littleness of spirit.

‘Intellect’ and ‘culture’ at heart do not refer to an accumulation of past achievements and their reinforcement, they are living concepts which embody an eager view to the future, towards what has yet to be discovered and achieved. To embrace them is to embrace difference, change and uncertainty – all of which are deeply threatening to dozy Australian conformism – as Keating said, at the arse end of the world.

My regret with regard to Utzon is that he was too much the Nordic gentleman to ‘break his silence’ on this most important matter.

Phil

Tach’s blog

The Lucky Country – Part Seven: the sickness at the heart of Australian culture

‘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.

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Recommended: Robert Poposki, ‘Why Australians Aren’t as Friendly as You Think’

The Lucky Country: Part Four

Donald Horne, The Lucky Country – Australia in the Sixties, Angus and Robertson, 1965 (first published in 1964)

p. 194 ‘It is of interest that intellectuals – who almost universally oppose censorship of the kind of books that they themselves want to read – hardly ever deplore the censorship of ordinary people’s reading matter, and sometimes even support it.’

‘Although Australia is one of the most prosperous countries in the world it runs only fifteenth in percentage of G.N.P. spent on education.’

209 ‘in Australia, as a strong and publicly influential type of person. “intellectuals” do not exist…People who might be described as intellectuals are assuming enormous importance almost everywhere in the world except in Australia. It seems unlikely that such a situation will last in Australia. In fact it is now changing.’

210 Horne wrote of ‘creative intelligences’ with ‘new visions’ who have been frustrated in a society whose structure does not allow for the concept of originality’

Horne wrote that where Australia has been weak in matters of intellect has been in a lack of serious consideration of human destiny and in prolonged consideration of the Australian condition.

213 ‘What is lacking among Australians is a real feel for the history of the human race, and a sense of belonging to a long-lasting intellectual community that reaches its great moments when it seeks out in wonder towards the mysteries of its environment, that has concerned itself with more momentous problems than the nature of Australia but whose present members could well take this question up in the light of the history of human knowledge.’

‘it is Australians’ failure to understand the tragic (or the comic) in life that may place them at a disadvantage in a world in which happiness is largely still hard to achieve. It is as if a ‘cultured’ Australian rejects the Australian concept of happiness because it is not in the culture he has ‘learned’; at the same time he is still sufficiently a ‘happy’ Australian not to absorb the reality of horror and tragedy in the culture he has ‘learned’. He is declasse, unable to talk to other Australians of the culture he has ‘learned’ because he lacks a real feel for both it and his own society.’
Australians know how fragile their concept of ‘happiness’ is, how easily it could be lost, as it has been before (in the Depressions of the 1890s and 1930s and the two world wars). This knowledge gives their ‘innocence’ a mean and determined edge (e.g. in their response to asylum seekers and particularly to the sinking of SIEV X – 353 people drowned on the fluctuating borders of Australia. If you arrive here, quietly and without ‘drama’, as a refugee on a plane – as do the great majority – that won’t be noticed, but if you arrive desperate and dishevelled on an open, sinking boat, that is too clearly a reminder of the suffering in the world and to be opposed, rejected. The outcry in Australia over inhumane behaviour in the immediate region has been greater regarding the manner of slaughtering ‘our’ cattle in Indonesia – a nation both Asian and predominantly Islamic). Horne is correct when he wrote that ‘happiness’ is an addiction – one is addicted to it because one refuses to deal with the relentless challenges of global reality and change and because one lives in an isolated nation with the overall affluence to do so. Intellectual vision is another threat to this affluent, ‘innocent’ happiness – structured on authoritarian, unquestioning conformism. 

214 Horne writes of the Australian intellectual’s ‘addiction to happiness’

The Lucky Country: living on our luck
‘Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise. A nation more concerned with styles of life than with achievement has managed to achieve what may be the most evenly prosperous society in the world. It has done this in a social climate largely inimical to originality and the desire for excellence (except in sport) and in which there is less and less acclamation of hard work. According to the rules Australia has not deserved its good fortune.’

219 The two fields where reliance on luck are not going to work:
– Australia’s strategic environment
– the demands of technology (Australia must profoundly change its life patterns – if this does not happen, ‘the present kind of Australia will go under’)

220 ‘Will (Australia) rid itself of the belief that…nothing happens to it, that it is safe from the unpleasantness of history? Perhaps Australians are…too concerned with happiness to understand the possibilities of tragedy, projecting their illusions onto others. The possibility haunts one like a bad dream that Australians may go on being silly…’

222 ‘In most industrialised countries cleverness and skill are part of the national ethos, even if they share it with contradictory elements. In Australia they play no part in it…When most Australians think of their economic growth they think that people should work harder…a revolutionary change in attitudes towards life is needed’

‘the obsessive desire to define Australian characteristics in terms of the upsurge of the 1890’s instead of as a dynamic process…(To admit that generations can change would be to admit that a static concept of an ‘Australian’, based on the writings of the 1890’s, is false.) And the continuing dominance of old ideas..’
Excellent point – the obsessive desire to define Australia against the (loss, failure and defeats of the) past rather than as a dynamic process continues – not only with regard to Gallipoli but also the military victory of Kokoda. Australians continue to define themselves against the past instead of dynamically, in relation to the future.

224 ‘the pretence of sameness’

228 ‘the shock (when it comes) of declaring Australia a republic’

230 ‘Australia’s population problem will be solved in what may be the only way it can finally be solved – by large-scale Asian migration.’

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