Flashback USA or Hello Australia

Voting for self

First published in LiketheDew | Oct 19, 2010
Under first the Howard government and now – and more so – the one led by Abbott, much of the national attitude described here is true of Australia

I watched a so-called teevee debate between a couple of aspirants to political office a couple of nights ago, and my reaction was akin to nothing so much as that of your archetypal stunned mullet. So you can blame the teevee, the candidates, the university and the panel for what you are about to receive – or not, depending on your attention span.

First up, I’d like to lay my cards on the table. My opinions are born of life experiences outside the ken of many Australians – especially those born in the boom years, and later in those gray decades of gray conservatism where nostalgia for an imaginary past and place colours political thought at the expense of progress – so it follows they are also outside the ken of many Americans.

These opinions are further colored by being born and raised in a country that, even today, is to much of the wider world as foreign as another planet. It’s an old viewpoint. The majority of the first official European settlers were convinced that as the rest of the world had been created by their god, then Australia must be the work of their devil.

It’s worth noting, too, that Aussies generally speaking have always considered Australia a Christian country in name only. The establishment of course thinks otherwise, especially recent administrations, but the ordinary bloke and sheila on the street, the staunchly religious aside, may have ticked the “Christian” box on the Census form, but would never think of fronting a god-botherer for anything other than culturally ingrained Christianised ceremonial occasions: namely weddings, funerals and babies’ headwettings.

There are historical reasons for this, also. Not least among them I’d guess is that it must have been hard to accept the message of a god’s love  rammed down your throat – attendance at Chapel compulsory – by the same bloke who ordered you receive 100 lashes for talking at meals in the prison mess.

Okay, so there are my biases out on the table; and I am biased, I’ll admit it, but I just had to write this. I know some may consider it rude, I’m a guest of sorts after all, but ah, what the heck. At a time when right is the new left and ostentatious the new subtle, it’s no better or worse than a lot of stuff out there. Agree or disagree as you will, I blame my frustration at the present state of what passes for political debate and patriotic aspirations for the mood I find myself in.

I’ve been interested in the USA for a long time; so long that I can’t remember what sparked it. Was it reading Twain, Longfellow, Stowe and the Pocomoto stories as a youngster? Was it learning of the politico-cultural interchanges (I made that up) sparked by goldrushes on two continents and America’s early realisation of the Home Rule so longed for by my forebears in Australia and their Old Countries? I don’t know, but it certainly began long before I discovered Steinbeck, Thurber or Guthrie; or before I found the Southern music, both black and white, that has influenced my musical tastes for more than half a lifetime.

Whatever my inspiration may have been, I’ve long had a great admiration for the idea of the USA, for what it is. I firmly believe, and have often publicly said so, that Australia needs to rewrite its constitution – at present hardly worth the paper it’s written on – to include some of the great aspirations embodied in yours, and to look at drafting its own Bill of Rights, though with both new documents tempered by the knowledge that the world has changed since the US Constitution was adopted and will continue to do so, and an acceptance that founding fathers everywhere, no matter how wise, were only human beings.

However, living outside this country it’s easy to get frustrated by the often rash decisions made by your governments at various times and by the insular view of the wider world adopted by the US’s political, military and business institutions  and adopted by a lot of its inhabitants. Now that I’m living in the USA, I can see more of the why – not that it makes some of these past actions any more excusable.

Living here also makes me truly understand why this country prospered – in the Western sense anyway – from the time it was first occupied by northern Europeans. It was just so bountiful that even the tattered remnants that remain are awe-inspiring to someone from a country where a farmer will plant thousands of acres of wheat on half an inch of rain.

But again, as an outsider now living on the inside, one can see that the happy circumstance of a bountiful continent has its bad side. It has made Americans – generally speaking – spoiled. They cannot seem to accept that everything they see as the good life is not theirs by birthright; that you can’t just leave it to Beaver and everything will be okay.

Australia has its faults, and plenty of them, though probably neither less nor more than most other nations on average, but a belief in some sort of munificent providence is not one of them. We learned early in the piece that a year of bumper harvests can be followed by five of drought then one of floods followed by another of devastating fires. We knew what Robbie Burns was getting at when he wrote:

The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men,
Gang aft a-gley,
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy.

Australian society sprang from a system in which undesirables were ruled by an elite who used their legal institutions to harness their labour in order to rid a country of its poor and to forestall the same sort of revolution that had engulfed France and later the US. It was this convict-bred society, forced to exist in a land that was the antithesis of everything European, that saw develop the Australian concept of mateship, an ethos that, when Australians were given suffrage, developed into the benign socialism under which the country is ruled today. You could be a rugged individualist all you liked, but as the Aboriginals had known for 60,000 years, when it came to flourishing in an unforgiving continent, then you needed social cohesion and cooperation. America the beautiful was so rich that its people no doubt saw little need of such measures in society. But there is dire need of it now. I think that your country has for a long time been living off the interest accumulated over millennia but now that interest has been spent and it is making huge inroads into the original capital.

And this brings me, I suppose, to my point. In all this seemingly endless season of political debate – and again I use the term loosely – funded to such an extent that the moneys splurged could probably settle the mortgage of every needy citizen in this beautiful country, in all this debate there has been not one mention of America the nation, the idea, the us, the entity, the ideal, the great aspiration made flesh that united this nation from sea to shining sea. Instead it’s a monotonous, carping mantra of selfishness: my country and my state and my religious beliefs and my kids and my job and my party and my flag and my bible and why should I pay taxes.

Where’s the clarion call to unite; to stand shoulder to shoulder for the common good? America is a great idea, always has been, so why believe in the myth of a conservative gloryland, a heaven based on “that’s the way it’s always been” and chase something that never existed? John Wayne did not win WWII, he just made a heap of cash pretending he did; cowboys did not wear rhinestones or clean shirts and trick their horses out in red leather; the little house on the prairie didn’t have indoor plumbing – you shat in a hole in the ground – Custer lost at Little Big Horn and teevee wrestling is rigged. Hollywood is not the truth but neither does Christianity have all the answers – though like Hollywood it also dislikes being questioned.

Ray Bearfield wrote: It doesn’t matter that we were never as pure and strong as we’d like to imagine.” He’s right. We have to stop believing that we were and that we can stand alone and win the West. We need to lend a hand to help our mates up. Forget the snide bastards backing the so-called purists, the trick-me freedom fighters, for their own grubby ends; think of the country, the great idea. America is ailing and in need of treatment – does it really matter who supplies the medicine?

On the other hand, if Gordon Gecko were to run for President…

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