Rabbit Syndrome

Rabbit Syndrome

Australia and America

Don Watson


In a dark, brooding, moody essay, Don Watson plays on the paradoxes of Australia's feeling about America and offers a scathing view of an Australian culture that is asking to be engulfed by its great and powerful friend because the mental process is already so advanced. This is a brilliant meditation round a set of paradoxes that are central to our long-term anxieties and hopes.

America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains, darkness strangles millions. Beneath her patient bombers, paradise is possible.

—John Updike, Rabbit Redux

From a certain angle the most terrifying thing in the world is your own life, the fact that it’s yours and nobody else’s.

—John Updike, Rabbit is Rich

In 1901 the city fathers of Bendigo, Victoria, purchased for their public gallery an oil by Albert Charles Taylor entitled “Gentlemen, the Queen”. Painted in 1894 it portrays, as one would expect, a bevy of whiskery British officers, resplendent in monocles and red uniforms, standing round a dinner table with their glasses raised in the royal toast. It is a portrait of the high Victorian Empire: the spirit is collective and triumphant – if to the jaundiced post-colonial eye also smug, effete and goatish. The ritual formality seems to say, as modern football coaches do, if you keep to the game plan nothing can defeat you. You will have setbacks, the occasional Rorke’s Drift, but if you keep to the fundamentals you will end up with an empire whose like has not been seen since time began. The officers immortalised in the painting are profoundly conscious of this.

Around a corner of the same gallery hangs a 1901 portrait by Hugh Ramsay of one “Charles Schneider Esq. Of Cincinnati USA”. Mr Schneider is clear-eyed and clean-shaven, impeccably groomed, unambiguously masculine, confident, whole. Ramsay captured in his subject that untrammelled look Americans give the world, as if to say, “I am of the republic. I do not know doubt. I am sufficient.” Mr Schneider could only come from the United States. “God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls …” Like the men in the first painting, he represents an empire: the American empire which, like the British one, saw itself as blessed by providence and fulfilling nothing less than its “Manifest Destiny”. Schneider and the British officers are all in a sense frontiersmen, people on the limits of imperial expansion. But the differences could not be more obvious. It is not just the contrast between Mr Schneider’s rugged individualism and the formal collectivity of the British: his “can do” opposed to their “must do”. It’s a matter of consciousness. The British know they are imperialists and they have uniforms, rituals, a vast literature, a queen, a “natural dogma” to speak for that fact; though his country has recently fought and won an expansionary war with Spain and is making a determined territory-swallowing drive into the Asia-Pacific, though it subscribes to an imperial doctrine and is indeed an imperial power, Mr Schneider knows only that he is an American.

The Americans of Charles Schneider’s Gilded Age were less inclined to talk about an American empire than an American marketplace. The distinction has proved a little confusing over the years, as it did for some of its early exemplars. Explaining the idea in 1899, Francis B. Thurber of the United States Export Association succeeded in sounding at once confused and very like a modern corporate boss or politician: “I do not believe in imperialism … but I do believe in a policy of expansion which will give us the control of some markets which will be a steppingstone to others in a wider zone of influence which such control would enable us to exercise.” Thurber’s was one voice in a chorus demanding that the United States elbow its way into suitable places for dumping the national surplus, but he shared the widely held view that imperialism, at least on the British model, was un-American. Its being British was one reason for not liking it. The possession of colonies was repellent to the republic. Yet there were economic imperatives and these inevitably became political imperatives, and from the union was born – or reborn – the peculiarly American idea that what was good for American commerce was good for human liberty and happiness, wherever the necessary critical mass of consumers happened to be gathered – in China and Japan, for instance. And what with the way of geopolitics, and the behaviour of natives, it sometimes proved necessary to follow Kipling’s advice to take up the white man’s burden and actually impose a bit of influence in some parts; like Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines and some of those islands out there in the Pacific. Even annexation might even be necessary in some cases, and if one truly believed in free commerce (and what true American did not?) one would not flinch from that prospect, especially as each and every means of commercial expansion meant extending the domain of US “National thought” as well. Furthermore, goddamnit, that same course would extend less evil and more progress to the natives of these countries according to the “principles of humanity” on which American commerce rests in the first place. If, in the pursuit of their legitimate interests (surplus dumping, for instance) American citizens or American trade or commerce were injured by some “unjust, cruel and despotic rule”, their government would “take a hand in the correction of the evil”. But there were to be no songs of empire. It was asserting a country’s right to take its produce to market, nothing more and nothing less. It was a God-given right, literally, under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

That doctrine has endured, though the name and the details have changed: the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Johnson Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine and Pax Americana. These were “only extensions of the Monroe Doctrine”, I.F. Stone, the radical Washington publicist, insisted in the days of Vietnam. “… [W]e have long been an imperialistic people,” he said and it was “poppycock” pretending Vietnam was an exception. Many have marched up to the US Embassy chanting slogans about US imperialism. But inside they wouldn’t hear of it. It has been the same for a century and a half. They “plague South America in the name of liberty”, Simon Bolivar complained.

In the hundred years since the painting of Schneider and the purchase of “Gentlemen …” Australia has floated between the two worlds of these paintings. Each of them receding and looming according to their interests and our desires. It was always hard to say which one we ought to paddle towards.

These days we are in no doubt about it: we are America’s deputy and trusty as they come. Ask not whether this is an honourable destiny and a fitting conclusion to a century of nationhood; it is a fait accompli, both sides of politics broadly agree upon it, the question is inadmissible. If we wish, we may attempt to tease out a little of the character of the sheriff; not with the intention of passing judgement on the relationship or on our mighty friend, but with the notion that looking at America might reflect some light on this country and on the options open to us. What is appropriate behaviour in the context of our relationship? We look at America as Gaul – or somewhere more far-flung – might have looked at Rome, as a cat might look at a king. The writer is no expert on American habits or history. He has made only brief visits to America and has never lived there. His knowledge of foreign policy is rudimentary. But for the apparent presumption of his writing this essay he begs to be excused. Like all other Australians he has lived with the Americans all his life. He also knows a few Americans who have lived here for many years and with the best possible will it cannot be said that they know much about Australia. It is true that Alexis de Tocqueville, who is quoted here several times and whose On Democracy in America is enjoying a remarkable revival as a source of almost transcendent wisdom on the subject, wrote from the experience of a nine-month whirlwind tour. It is also true that Mark Twain spent much more time in Australia than I have spent on any one journey to America and he concluded that South Australia was a workingman’s paradise. My case rests.


This is an extract from Don Watson's Quarterly Essay, Rabbit Syndrome: Australia and America. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Don Watson is the author of many acclaimed books, including Caledonia Australis, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, American Journeys and The Bush.


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