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QUARTERLY ESSAY 4 Rabbit Syndrome

 

Correspondence

Dennis Altman

America is everywhere. In the week I started writing this piece I went to a production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Birth of Youth followed, in a camp irony “Bird” might have appreciated, by an evening of Bugs Bunny on Broadway. One could see in both of these further proof of the steady Americanisation of Australian culture (even if the actors’ usage of southern accents was, to be generous, inconsistent). But if it is hard to imagine the reverse – an American audience attending, say, a performance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll followed by a musical evening based on Snugglepot and Cuddlepie – it is not necessarily the case that because we are caught up in American culture we thereby lose our sense of identity.

This fear is widely expressed in Australia; indeed, that same week Phillip Adams’s piece in the Weekend Australian was entitled “In thrall and proud of it”, and further echoed Don Watson’s fears. Yet I suspect the reality is more complex. I remember writing, after an evening spent in the gay area of Tokyo’s Shinjuku, that “the sneakers and baseball caps are the same, but their meaning to the wearer is not.” Perhaps the real question, to which I shall return, is whether it matters if we are being “americanised”.

Watson does a superb job of evoking the mythical power the United States holds in our imagination. I wish he’d ranged somewhat more widely, and thought more about the rest of the world: he would have found echoes of his own memoirs of growing up in the shadow of the US in literature from across the world. I think, for example, of Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart’s How To Read Donald Duck, one of the first analyses of the impact of American comic book culture on the south, or Manuel Puig’s evocatively titled novel Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. Cultural elites in Latin America clung to the high culture of Spain and France much as the Menzies generation invoked the superiority of British culture to balance the allure of Hollywood, jazz, and, later, rock’n’roll. But there is an élan and a polish to Watson’s prose that makes his account of his own particular “America” a joy to read.

At one point in Rabbit Syndrome Watson admits to his own limited knowledge of “America” (which we should, but rarely do, remember to call the United States for the sake of all those other Americans in Quebec, Chile and Honduras). Oddly, I suspect his take on the US is at times more accurate than his take on Australia, which is of course the real subject matter of this essay.

When Don Watson writes of Australia I am struck by a constant ambivalence between wanting to celebrate it and the sort of contempt for our mediocrity which is associated with the older generation of anglophiles from whom Watson wants to disassociate himself. Thus at one point he writes: “… Would that we had been so open and so civilised. Note that we are not asking for their rivers and plains, or other natural advantages – just small things, but reflections of a spirit that they have abundantly and we, along with most other countries, seem to lack.”

“Civilised” is an odd word given that a few pages later he is itemising those aspects of US culture he clearly feels are manifestly not civilised, such as the death penalty, the culture of guns and the role of religious fundamentalism. This ambivalence runs all the way through the essay: Watson is a wonderful raconteur, and like all such he won’t let logic or consistency get in the way of a good punch-line. And in a sense he is right: the United States is a country of infinite contradiction, in which one can find the extreme of almost anything.

At times Watson acknowledges that sheer scale make the comparison with Australia an unfair one, but this doesn’t stop him drawing comparisons which seem usually to favor the US. In a couple of cases I think he is just wrong. The clearest example is his invocation of “American” awareness of their history of the dispossession of Native Americans. (He might have quoted, but didn’t, Susan Sontag’s comment that America was founded on genocide.) He seems to argue that white Americans are more conscious of their history of conquest than are Australians, where “the national mind has never been so numb to the reality and the meaning of the frontier – or so uninterested.”

Americans, he argues, can turn to Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry or (some) films. Well, yes. Against this I would invoke the outpouring of support for reconciliation in recent years, including the very large marches in which even Treasurer and heir apparent Costello took part, or the very public words and actions of former Governor General Sir William Deane. Which US President has given the issue of indigenous Americans anything like this sort of attention? – and is the John Wayne film Cheyenne Autumn (which I admit I’ve never seen) really that superior to, say, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith? Another example: Watson praises Teddy Roosevelt for “welcoming a Negro to the White House and appointing a Jew to his Cabinet” at the same time as Australia was tightening the White Australia Policy (after World War I the US also clamped down on “undesirable” immigrants). It’s not quite clear what this is meant to demonstrate, but I think the appointment of Sir Isaac Isaacs as our first native-born Governor General by Scullin, against the wishes of the king, was a far bolder move.

Hard as it is to stay sanguine in the third age of Howard, whose small-mindedness makes Dan Quayle appear visionary, I would argue that Australia remains noticeably more tolerant and decent than the United States, and, moreover, that the constant fear lurking behind Watson’s writing, namely that we are being swallowed by the US, is misguided. Yes, we have regressed in certain areas, and Howard is not Keating. (On the other hand I know from personal experience that there are ministers in his government with a far greater sense of decency and understanding of Australia’s place in the world than Watson is willing to credit.) More significantly, I think the basic cultural differences between the two countries, which Watson discusses, are not easily shaken by US culture – indeed, globalisation runs in many unexpected directions, and even as we import American basketball and fast foods so too we are constantly remaking our sense of what it is to be Australian in ways which keep us clearly different.

At some level Don Watson knows this: “Lacking both their history and their myths as well as any satisfactory ‘sacred text’, we could do the sensible thing – we could make the guiding principles of Australia its diversity and pluralism, its inorganicness, the absence of oppressive and constraining symbols (the flag and monarchy for example are meaningless), and seize the chance to create a postmodern republic or a ‘republic of opportunity’ as Guy Rundle called it the last Quarterly Essay – and a very civilised society.” But having written this, Watson’s gloom about the current political landscape leads him to muse about becoming the fifty-first state (a staple of Canadian self-flagellation) and abandoning the republican cause.

I think Watson is wrong to throw in the towel at this point, and I do not think the United States is central to understanding the triumph of Howard man, which like him I abhor. He is right to point to the utter meaningless of our current constitutional arrangements, whereby our head of state is either a rigid Anglican Archbishop or a seventy-year-old British breeder of corgis (and experts seem unable to decide which it is: Gilbert and Sullivan could have done great things with the republican debate. Imagine Kerry Jones as Katisha). He doesn’t recognise that at some level Australians could accept the status quo precisely because it is meaningless: we know we are no less a real nation because we toast the Queen at formal dinners, and we can tolerate the presence of an Archbishop in Yarralumla precisely because we are so irreligious a society.

And, as is so often noted, a society that denigrates its politicians, while worshipping its sports champions and its medical scientists. Look for example at this year’s Australia Day honours: a tennis player becomes Australian of the Year, while five medical scientists appear on the accompanying commemorative stamps. Watson is right in writing (in a rather splenetic comment on his critics in the Age) that among Australian virtues is “the right of any minister of the crown to be deeply silly or offensive” – though the real virtue is perhaps that we take this for granted from most of our politicians. I think therefore he is wrong to fear, as he does in this same piece, “an alarming echo of America in Abbott’s zealotry”. Political zealotry withers quickly under the gaze of Australian cynicism, as the federal careers of Bjelke-Petersen, Bronwen Bishop and Pauline Hanson remind us. (Even loyal lieutenant Howard demurred from President Bush’s language about the three-legged “axis of evil”.) I suspect our politicians serve us better than we often credit them, but the saving grace of our constant put-downs is their lack of adulation. By contrast, Americans seek to lavish adulation on their presidents, as doomed to eternal disappointment as the aging romantic who still believes the twenty-year-old who loves him/her out of a deep respect for inner beauty

But ultimately I agree with Watson’s view that we have lost our national myths and inherited a vacuum. For a short time, and a time in which Watson played a significant role, Paul Keating seemed to offer an alternative vision, one of reconciliation with both indigenous Australians and with our place in Asia. But if George Bush Sr was defeated for his lack of vision, Keating was punished for his possession of one, and was replaced by a government without any clear view of where Australia might fit in the larger world. (Thus the bravado of the schoolyard bully with which Howard and Ruddock ignore “foreign” criticisms of their imprisonment of boat people.) I disagree with Watson’s fear that we are turning unreflectively to the United States to fill the vacuum.

I am far more optimistic about Australia than is Don Watson. In turn Howard, too, will pass, and a new generation in both parties will resume the search to find a way of better adapting to the contemporary world. In a globalising world, inevitably much of what influences us will emanate from the United States, but this is counterbalanced by the diversity of our population, our travels to and from Asia, and the complex patterns of cultural exchange in the modern world. As part of these processes, those of us who seek a more humane and just order will inevitably seize on aspects of the American experience either to emulate or to avoid. We will draw on the best of American ideas just as we deplore their excesses, much as Watson does in his polemic. And in so doing we will, in Carmen Lawrence’s words, “create and tell a story about the future of Australia which encompasses everyone and provides hope for our general betterment”.

This future need not be a nationalist one: indeed, our very cynicism about the trappings of nationalism might make Australians more able to adapt to an internationalist world. Howard’s rhetoric is certainly hostile to cosmopolitanism and the creation of global norms, but this hostility runs far more shallowly in Australia than it does in the United States. If the new story we want to build for ourselves can encompass the world rather than just the nation, our dreamings will be far more important and a far better antidote to the influence of “Americanisation” than a vision which remains solely centred on definitions of “the nation”.

 

Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University and President of the AIDS Society of Asia and the Pacific.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 4, Rabbit Syndrome. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 5, Girt By Sea.


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