Advance Australia where?
Politics be damned, a new story is the answer.
Australia is the delinquent adolescent in the family of Western nations. If the United States is our stepfather and Great Britain is our mother (perhaps the Church in all its iterations is the absent father), then we have had what most of our analogical school teachers and psychologists would call a ‘difficult upbringing.’ This delinquency is compounded by the hypocritical insistence of both the Left and the Right to make our national identity into an issue of race, colonialism and watered down cultural heritage, among other things. Many Australians have no time for this variety of paradoxically old-fashioned, new-wave rubbish, and those who do have contributed very little culturally.
The problem in this country is an inadequate appreciation of our good fortune. Quality of life in Australia is excellent, the biggest threat to which is incompetence. The root of this incompetence is not necessarily the decisions we make (which are ultimately collective, as voting is compulsory and preferential) but our ability to pick up the ball and run with it. There is an entrenched idea that we do not have to exert ourselves to do the right thing, or at least to carry out a politically controversial plan well. Doing so is not dependent on a particular policy choice, which could be regarded as arbitrary (for example, more or less immigration), but on the execution of any given course of action that is chosen by our elected ‘leaders’ in Parliament. Our greatest failure is not what has been done wrong in the past, but the unwillingness to try and do a good job of whatever it is we are doing today. Virtually any course of action that is not entirely insane can be made tolerable by competence and adherence to basic principles of ethical behaviour. Even offshore detention (a favourite topic of argument) would return to the realm of rational debate if it were conducted in the manner of an organisational masterpiece. As is evident to even the least astute, this mastery is not within the capability of modern Australia. The unfortunate tradition of she’ll be right mate has permeated every aspect of Australian society, which is not even capable of producing a decent, politically correct Australia day lamb advertisement.
The typical solution to these problems is usually some kind of nostalgic suggestion that Australia should return to the ‘traditional’ society of the post-war generation. Irrespective of whether or not this is a good idea, it cannot and should not happen. The social engineering required would be akin to a Stalinist five-year plan. The best we can do is to encourage a culture of competence and self-determination, that promotes the traits of functioning adults, and the option for the individual to be part of the whole, or to opt-out quietly. This imbues the necessary self-respect that enables individuals, as part of larger organisations and in turn, society as a whole, to see competence as a matter of pride. I am an Australian. Therefore, Australia must succeed.
The lack of individuality in Australian culture is a principal factor in the political buffoonery since the last stable government. Australians are not open or direct about representing their self-interest and then taking responsibility for it. The Australian Left is so focused on minority groups that they’re dumbfounded that they cannot win a majority election, and the so-called political Right only needs to show up with anybody available as party boss-man, because they’ll get voted in as the only alternative.
A topical example of underrepresented self-interest is the absence of cannabis legalisation advocacy. People in this country have been smoking grass and growing plants as a tasteful accompaniment to their homebrew for at least three generations, yet none of these smokers or supporters of legalisation seem to be voting for it, let alone actually ‘serving’ in Parliament. As a side note, even the Greens don’t have a legalisation bill (which is baffling), their supporters seem to be ignorant fashionable socialists with master’s degrees and minority voters, who along with business owners, are perhaps the only self-conscious political groups in this country, which is an unfortunate predicament for everyone else. Despite our widespread cannabis use, there is no serious push for cannabis legalisation and none on the horizon. Again, we are not only behind globally, but we are not even participating. I will leave it to the reader to notice similar examples which they find relevant.
Australia needs a new, optimistic narrative focused on the individual, which is our only hope of useful cultural reform. Lack of a national identity that is cohesive with the broad character of this country is because we have no didactic and believable stories of the ‘ordinary Australian.’ While we are monotonously reminded of how different we all are, it is possible to produce a wide-reaching narrative without the cowardly postmodernist approach of the faceless, raceless and brainless. For example, the Irish have James Joyce and his body of work. Joyce’s characters are not a reflection of everyone in Ireland then or now, and not to everyone’s taste. However, his writing formed a significant work of art that makes a brave attempt at developing a national character, which is not corrupted by the ignorance and laziness of most propagandist nationalist narratives.
The works of Joyce, it is reasonable to say, are culturally inclusive through their cultural exclusivity. Hence the density and wordplay — it is possible for the reader to reflect differently and playfully on what it is to be Irish, at the level of the individual. Australia needs characters like Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (we’ll use HCE to summarise the kaleidoscope in Finnegans Wake), who are plausible Irishman (Australians) not representative of all, but representative of one realistic and reasonable possibility. Through this, there is a starting point. It gives the individual licence to go about their life their way, and live in a manner that promotes their own prosperity under the condition that they do not inhibit that of others (as it then follows, that what is suitable for myself must in the least not harm another, as I would expect the same). The privilege of self-determination is balanced with the responsibility to the whole through a sense of pride in oneself, which comes from recognising the fact that members of any given society are different, which can only be represented by individualism, not collectivism.
The fault lies in that we do not know what this plausible individual Australian is. The closest we have come is a smattering of achievers in sport, the arts and some innovators in science and engineering (which unfortunately we seldom celebrate). However, there is hope. Martin Amis, in his introduction to Saul Bellow’s novel The Adventures Of Augie March comments “…it is entirely intelligible that there should be some cautious talk about the Great Australian Novel” — while we might be close, we’re not there yet (as Amis has pointed out via classic British word-mincing)! Brett Whitely and his brand of Australiana is an example of a strong start without a follow through. It is possible that his work could form a visual foundation of Australian consciousness that represents the differing perception of individuals, but we have failed to integrate this idea into our national identity. This was, at least in part, made difficult by his premature expiry in a Thirroul motel room, due to a self-administered mixture of scotch, orange juice and heroin. It is little wonder there are few clamouring to pick up the torch. This might be what happens when you give too much of yourself in the effort to represent what it is to Be.
The concept that the current generation has failed to imbibe, and its parents have failed to instil, is that these stories, in the form of art, won’t be delivered by the Americans or perhaps an eccentric deity. The artists must emerge from within our fragmented culture. The nauseating musical phrase “we are one, but we are many/And from all the lands on earth we come” is useless. While one can argue that it is accurate, none of the components of the one, many, or culturally varietal has produced an intrinsically valuable work of transcendent art, because what we have from our past has been discarded when it should be built upon, which is necessary for any civilisation to progress. We do not even teach our few great poets in our schools, nor have we developed the sense of whimsy that used to be present in our culture, and would be useful now (for example, Waltzing Matilda). Australians must break away from relying on the spoon-feeding, termite-like media and form their own opinions and a robust story that can be re-read reinterpreted and retold — like The Odyssey, then Ulysses and the zenith of the cultural legend, Finnegans Wake.
Through a new optimistic, egocentric narrative, Australian culture can move forward into the new millennium. It is easy to forget that we’re witnessing the dawn of a new age, one where our post-colonial society will become ancient. What will be the character of this culture? What will our descendants and adopters of our culture be like, and what will they think of us, the forerunners of greatness or despair?
One should take a moment and be inspired by one of the Australian classics, The Man From The Snowy River. He isn’t like most of us today, nor is he a picture of cultural diversity or political correctness, but at least he and his surprising little horse are worthy of our contemplation.