Do we share the same values as the US?

Aug 5, 2020

No, we most certainly do not


Values play a significant role in the forging of national identity. We become the people we think we are. Tuning in to the ABC these days, one cannot miss hearing “I am, you are, we are Australian”. What the dickens does that mean? Nothing if it simply remains a little ditty.

The stories we tell, the poems we write, the history we recount, the songs we sing, give expression to the values we hold dear, and the meaning we are prepared to own. That history, and those songs, must continue to be revisited. Their evolution over the last 200+ years has of necessity been immense. There is still a long distance to travel especially in listening to the history and songs of the indigenous people whose rights have been trampled and culture cleansed, causing their generational pain, and loss to all subsequent Australians. This significant matter aside, what it means to be an American and what it means to be an Australian are two different realities.

We are people of the verandah, the edge. Americans are people of the hearth, the centre.

We live in a string of archipelagos around the edge of our continent. We have a capital city that few take seriously, preferring loyalty to state capitals or even provincial towns. We meet in the open, on the beach, perched on verandahs, around campfires, having a BBQ. We are suspicious of ‘centre’, of hierarchy, institutions and elitism. We value egalitarianism. Title or position does not carry authority, it resides only in the inner integrity a person might bring to the office. Living on the edge we travel and connect. At any given time, Australians will be found in every nook and cranny of the planet. Americans are taught to believe they are the centre, not simply that they have a centre. This centeredness has produced insularity. Americans assume knowledge of other peoples and presume to know what might be best for others, leading to countless disastrous interventions in every corner of the planet. It is quite shameful that we have been invited (commanded) to participate in some of these catastrophic interventions.

We are a people of association. Americans are people of rights.

Around 30 percent of Australians were born overseas with a far greater percentage enjoying at least one overseas born parent. We are bonded to each other through our common migration and through cherishing the unique giftedness provided by our continent home. We cherish fundamental freedoms, but consider them privileges for which we must continue to sacrifice, rather than believing they are endowed as rights. The ANZAC tradition is part of this narrative. Despite Senator David Leyonhjelm’s short tenure, and the flitting around of the maverick Mark Latham, libertarianism is not a force that is attractive to Australia, while it lies barely under the surface for American Republicans. American obsession with rights, most obviously expressed in gun ownership, is incomprehensible to most Australians, indeed repugnant to most. American culture is nothing if it not a culture of rights. Rights dominate over social contract and responsibility as illustrated in the absence of universal health care. COVID 19 has made abundantly clear how destructive this culture is, paradoxically even of the very rights so cherished. It is almost inconceivable that level four lockdown now in place in Victoria could occur anywhere in the US. There, common good cannot prevail over individual rights.

We are a spiritual people. Americans are a religious people.

Religion has been influential in Australian history, political power plays, and wealth accumulation. But it has sat uneasily in the hearts and minds of ordinary Australians. In early days of white colonisation most confessed allegiance to a religious institution, but this had little to do with dogma, but more with culture, and ethnic identity – ancestry. While there has been recent phenomenal growth in dogma, through Pentecostal/Evangelical churches, religious dogma is very unattractive to most Australians, not least personalised ethics drawn from that dogma. For this reason, a campaign to abolish abortion, demonise active palliative care, or stigmatise the rights of the LGBTQI community will not carry weight amongst Australians, as witnessed by the equal rights plebiscite. On the other hand, in the United States of America a politician cannot be carried into office without championing religious affiliation, even bigotry. In the last decade, Australian conservative politics has championed the values of the Australian Christian Lobby, a body unapologetically modelled on American fundamentalism and personalised religion, but recent setbacks have made this alliance embarrassing and its champions suspect to most Australians.

Australians are pragmatists. Americans are ideologues

Australians live on a continent described by Dorothea Mackellar as a place of contrasts, of droughts and flooding rains. Her poem symbolises the contrasts, the diversities, which make a nonsense of ideological certainties. The ideological certainties which have characterised both sides of Australian politics in recent years are the main reason for the disjuncture between Australian political life and the Australian people.

Ideology is intolerant of other views, confident that truth lies with everything complimentary to one’s own dogma. Evidence that is contrary is disallowed and labelled ‘fake news’. Much ideology has a religious base. The percentage of Americans who claim to believe in a short view of history, that Adam and Eve were literally the first human beings approximately 7,000 years ago, is staggering. A false binary between science and faith has developed that has spilled beyond its own boundaries to reduce commitment to science-based policy, replacing it with ideology, or self-interest. Ideology thrives on a divisive, black and white view of the world so beloved of the current president. Ideology permits no place for nuance or paradox.

Australians are globalists. Americans have increasingly become isolationists.

Because of our migrant origins, our dependence upon trade, and our love of travel, Australian interests are tied to a rules-based global community. The last decade has seen successive Australian conservative governments side with the US in devaluing international obligations, commitment to the United Nations, and especially international efforts to combat global warming. This has not been in Australia’s interests and at last we are seeing signs that the present government wants to distance itself from positions so beloved of the American president. America clearly still believes in its own dominance. Australia knows its future lies in alliances.

Australians and Americans speak the same language, share European origins, have fought on the same side in many wars, and ‘enjoy’ democratic government. But our values are not the same, they are increasingly divergent. It has been to Australia’s detriment that Australia’s political elite have for too long acted out of a view that the values are the same.

George Browning was the Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn 1993 -2008

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