Fatal shame: Can Australia seize the anchor of history?

Mar 30, 2024
Australian flag in Australia map isolated on grey background.

Australia, with its brief white history, once had an opportunity to be positively exemplary among nations, conscious and remedying of its colonial and penal acts and origins. It had fewer mistakes to wipe, and more physical riches to value and to share. Yet in a very short time that opportunity and those resources have been squandered and abused. Adrift, en masse, alone, the opportunity to effect change recedes. Can we seize the anchor of history in time?

Two months before he was murdered in November 1975, Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini demanded that the Christian Democrat Italian government be put on trial for: “unworthiness, contempt for citizens, manipulation of public money, intrigue with the oil companies, with industrialists, bankers, connivance with the mafia, high treason in favour of a foreign country, collaboration with the CIA, illicit use of organisms like … SID (secret services), responsibility in … massacres …… responsibility for the destruction of Italy’s urban and rural environment … state of schools, hospitals and every basic public service.”

For this plea, the creative genius, (watch The Gospel According to St Matthew, [1964]), Pasolini paid with his life – he was after all a homosexual. Today his work is publicly revered by Italian authorities.

In 2005, three years before he died, UK playwright, Harold Pinter became the Nobel Laureate for Literature. In his excoriating acceptance speech, Art, Truth and Politics, Pinter stated that we live in a ‘vast tapestry of lies’ and wondered ‘what has happened to our moral sensibility’ demanding that ‘determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation … mandatory’.

Over the years many have rumbled yet the polis refuses to be shamed. Have the great ‘mistakes’ of the past resigned us citizens to flawed lives, societies and cultures – a profoundly base level. Ironically, the contemporary call for transparency is as ugly, as Justin Clemens, acknowledging Milan Kundera, observes (Microserfs, 2013): ‘total transparency is … a totalitarian dream – not a democratic one’. Surveillance burgeons and as Kundera warned, transparency is for the populace, opacity for elites in their enclaves.

Australia, with its brief white history, once had an opportunity to be positively exemplary among nations, conscious and remedying of its colonial and penal acts and origins. It had fewer mistakes to wipe, and more physical riches to value and to share – yet in a very short time that opportunity and those resources have been squandered and abused, not accidentally in a quest for a sensitive and noble vision in collaboration with First Australians but repeatedly in a scramble for political and financial opportunism. Australians have delivered destruction in record time.

A visitor can often offer clearer insights than a local and one roving commentator had this to say almost a quarter of a century ago: ‘I see people disconnecting themselves from the political process altogether, leaving the hard moral considerations for others to take up. And secondly, I see an arrant display of consumption and consumerism and lack of aesthetic sensibility. I have been coming to Australia for years and have never been so aware of Australia’s materialism. There is such a pervasive sense of a lack of purpose and meaning, and I think people are trying to fill that void with things’ (Samuels, On tour in an unconscious civilisation, 2001).

Australia is a land of strange events and contradictions: a place where a senior political journalist described the government as ‘fools’; a place where in 1967 a Prime Minister just ‘disappeared’; in 2010 a place where a crucial political debate was rescheduled in deference to a cooking show; a place where presently there is a suspension of morality among the majority of constituents, such that allows the Prime Minister to lecture the world on Australia’s ‘gold standard’ of border protection, (sadly a response taken up by other anglophones) and his government refuses to blush at $55 million spent on ‘resettling’ three refugees in Cambodia. Australian indigenous youth suicide is second only, across the world, to that of Inuit young. The University of Sydney sees fit to confer an honorary PhD on a former Prime Minister despite one hundred of that university’s academics describing such action as ‘deeply scandalous and inappropriate’. Australia – so unruly that the two senior legal authorities of the land, Attorney and Solicitor Generals, fall out irreconcilably; recently the prime minister secretly seized numerous departmental portfolios as his own. Unless you focus on what is left of the virgin landscape, it is very hard to be Australian.

In 2005, the year he died, writer and academic, Donald Horne had a broadcast conversation with Phillip Adams, of the ABC Radio’s Late Night Live, Horne admitted to anticipating a ‘crappy end to (his) life’. His disappointment had much to do with what he perceived as Australia’s failure in the area of foreign policy, and he referred listeners to his treatise Living with Asia, (1959). Horne was firmly of the view that Australia, to put it colloquially, had better ‘get real’ about Asia, drop its superior tone and prepare for significant racial change ‘that will be undertaken either by Australians, or by someone else’. (The White Australia policy was still in effect as Horne wrote The Lucky Country, [1964]). The physical change Horne anticipated has been effected in half a century, but the thinking, cultural and communication skills, that might be hoped to be associated with this change, lag. Australia remains, as Horne complained, ‘self-centred, frivolous, blind’, while self-congratulatory about its multicultural credentials it appears arrogantly ignorant of the cultural spirit and resources in its midst.

Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, observed (2014), that ‘while our Asian-ness is visible on our city’s streets, it remains invisible in those parts of our cities where the big decisions are being made. With some notable exceptions, Asian-Australians are not in the room when it matters’ and venaly ‘we have fallen into the habit of making a monetary fetish out of our relationships with Asia, seeing … value only in terms of dollar signs’. Asia is complex and challenging, the more so as global empires mark it out for strategic domination or co-option. While Australia continues to duck and weave in this complexity, rather than hold an independent, dignified and informed local course, its slithering manner sets this country up as a demeaned and sycophantic ‘player’, much as Horne predicted. Australia neglects its physical place in the world at its peril.

Horne was not alone in roiling at the increasingly precipitous decline of his country, politically, socially, culturally. His ironical warning had been preceded by Robin Boyd’s Australian Ugliness, (1960), blunt in its title and observations about the impetus behind man-made Australia. Tellingly it is impossible to imagine such honest, heartfelt, criticisms today. The element at the core of Boyd’s analysis is Featurism, which he defines as: ‘the subordination of the essential whole’.

Prior to Horne and Boyd’s efforts to stimulate a national spirit of instructive and practical self-criticism, Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year (1958), initially struggled to have an airing – questioning the memorialisation war and its place in the national psyche, as it did, the inaugural performance was banned from the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960. Coincident with Seymour’s play, other battles were being uncovered, the extent of violence and conflict in the colonisation of Australia – Henry Reynolds’ (editor) Aborigines and Settlers: the Australian Experience, 1788–1939 (1972), was the first publication of his ongoing research and writing in this area.

There is a history here – ancient, and recent, and the latter we should particularly know – our seniors offering their warnings, cautions and love of this place, white though they may be. Prime Minister John Howard and his mean virus of political correctness sought to shame and silence this dissention, this excitement, this dangerous curiosity. The ‘strugglers’ should not know of this. History should be aborted. And there began the deliberate erasure of culture, effecting an unsettling absence that has nurtured anxiety, disquiet, lack of vigorous enquiry – the populace should instead be ‘comfortable and relaxed’, read ‘complacent’, about their history, present and future, (1996).

Education is a long silent haul and relies on the sensibility of the culture it cradles, which paradoxically cradles it. Where there is this ‘cradle’ or ‘cosmos’, sensibility grows, which is perhaps why in Australia the significant contributors, call them intellectuals, so often come from a rural or religious background, places where there is already ‘a cosmos’, not a scrabbling for locus, rather a sense of place, where thoughts and behaviour have a rhyme, seasons, a firmament, a pattern and a sensibility, a practical grounding unafraid of intelligent reaction, even rejection. As religions and the regions are emptied and denigrated and the churn of the city and online worlds dominates, the armatures that nurtured this challenge crumble, locus and contingent responsibility and sentiment is lost.

Is it possible to imagine Australians in the grip of a grief such as Thais experienced at the loss of their beloved king, Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 – a man who did not wish them ‘comfortable and relaxed’ but disciplined and aware of their responsibilities.

Fearful struggles are raining down upon us. Australia needs leaders and an informing past, discussion and debate, not soundbites and the sop of further enquiries, but morally prioritised action. Blissful ignorance, silence and cowardly conformity are the traits of a selfish and unintelligent society. ‘The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing’ (Freiman, 2016), as Stanley Milgram (The Perils of Obedience, 1973) demonstrated over forty years ago. Under pressure of social media this desire for conformity, looking good rather than acting rightly, use of emojis etc, is seeing ‘our oldest human skills atrophy’, our souls wither. Guided by GPS we no longer see where we are, we are ‘living in an epidemic of distraction’ (Sullivan, 2016), ‘alone together’ (Turkle, 2011), beyond society. Each of us, one of Twain’s ‘discreet sheep’, always moving on, the August Landmesser among us harder and harder to find. Adrift, en masse, alone, the opportunity to effect change recedes and this makes seizing the anchor of history even more urgent.

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