Beginning in the winter of 1966, Meanjin published a new series of commentaries on the reality of present-day life and living in God’s Own Country.
Dr John Reid, Associate Professor of English at Auckland University, has told New Zealanders to be more like the Aussies. He described the Aussie as dynamic, forward-looking, self-critical, casual and shirt-sleeved, democratic and willing to take a chance. —Sydney Sun, 4 August, 1966.
Behold the man—the Australian man of today—on Sunday mornings in the suburbs, when the high-decibel drone of the motor-mower is calling the faithful to worship. A block of land, a brick veneer, and the motor-mower beside him in the wilderness—what more does he want to sustain him, except a Holden to polish, a beer with the boys, marital sex on Saturday nights, a few furtive adulteries, an occasional gamble on the horses or the lottery, the tribal rituals of football, the flickering shadows in his lounge-room of cops and robbers, goodies and baddies, guys and dolls?
He has never seriously considered the possibility of joint ownership of a motor-mower with, say, twenty of his neighbours. The pride of personal property is too strong. The motor-mower has become to him an assertion of democratic rights, an expression of power, an object of reverence. As he pulls the magic cord to start it up, its mesmeric monotony rises loud over the huckstering chimes of the ice-cream truck, louder still over the plaintive clanging of the church-bells, then joins with the noise of other motor-mowers to swell into a mechanized pagan chorus.
This is his obeisance to the spirit of the universe. He is a sentient being, but hardly rational or purposeful. Things merely happen to him or around him. His world is mass-produced and mass-manipulated, outside his own control. He is mortgaged to a full belly, to the petty pleasures of gadgetry, to second-hand sensations, to the dreams and nightmares which ‘they’ impose upon him. They give him a job and a pension, they make him struggle for superiority over his fellow-man, they send his sons to Vietnam, they bolster his illusion of freedom with the ballot-box, they soothe his anxieties with piped-music (especially as the plane descends or the elevator rises), they inspire his loyalty with advertising slogans and editorial catch-cries.
At the age of sixty-five, equipped with dashing sports coat, matched luggage, good wishes from the bowling club, and two P & O cruise tickets, he imagines that he is about to begin living, not knowing that he died many years before. He will leave few artifacts to identify his modes and customs: rusted spark plugs, twisted condensers, shattered picture-tubes, and perhaps the well-worn handles of poker-machines. His most enduring mark on life will be his gravestone.
Whatever happened, then, to that other Australian man, the one in the portrait attributed to Dr Reid? This rugged individualist and tough fibred adventurer is widely enough known: independent, enterprising and sardonic, he stood for a long time at the centre of our national mythology. His forbears opened up the dry, harsh outback, combated the difficult extremes of drought and flood, stormed the slopes of Gallipoli. His women, with sturdy self-reliance, learnt to cook over wood-fuel stoves, to manage without household help, to contrive and improvize. He called nobody his master, he had discarded servile European ways and forged a creed of mateship. After throwing off his country’s convict past, he tamed the bosses with radical labour action and created a worker’s paradise.
He was the Man from Snowy River, firm in the saddle, and the Man with the Donkey, carrying wounded mates through shot and shell; he was Clancy of the Overflow, driving the cattle over deserts and swirling streams, and the Wild Colonial Boy, fighting to maintain his natural freedom against the encroachments of authority; he was Ned Kelly, the rebel who died game, and Peter Lalor at the Eureka Stockade, defying Government troops and demands; he was Cazaly, reaching high for a mark, and Bradman, breaking the classical rules; he was the Digger at Anzac, one of those soldiers whom Masefield, in an outburst of typical hyperbole, hailed as ‘the finest body of young men ever brought together in modern times’.
These were the pre-Mrs Everage folk-figures who emerged from ballad, song, history and the national dreaming to contribute to the making of our self-image. And this old heroic version of Australian man has not yet been quite supplanted, is not yet quite gone. C.E.W. Bean foreshadowed its persistence when he wrote in 1911 that ‘the mysterious half-desert country where men have to live the lives of strong men…will always be there to help the Australian form his ideals’. Fundamentally, he was saying no more than that a primary influence on our social attitudes is the legend of the Pioneer.
However, pioneer-consciousness is not peculiarly Australian, for the Pioneer is an archetype, almost a stereotype, in all those colonies of the New World which have been culturally dominated by European settlers. In North America it was the Pioneer, buttressed by the Protestant ethic, who became the symbol of acquisitive expansionism as he rolled back the forests, harnessed the rivers, destroyed the Indians, pushed forward the frontier. In South Africa the Pioneer took his gun in one hand, his Bible in the other, and trekked towards the Transvaal, drawing out of this experience a devious doctrine of racial supremacy.
Acquisitiveness and racialism are characteristic of pioneering societies, and Australia is no exception. Our fear of the Yellow Peril—which has exorcized such a magnetic socio-psychological pull since it was first propounded about a century ago is an inverted manifestation of these tendencies. We, too, went through periods of audacious land-grabs. We, too, caused the callous decimation of a native people including one act of genocide, the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Is it any wonder that we foist our guilt-feelings on to other nations and pretend that we are surrounded by aggressors determined to rob us of our totem-poles and despoil our women?
But our drive towards conquest has been, for the most part, held in check by a third factor present in pioneering societies—the passion for sheer survival. The colony in New South Wales was not a tightly-knit unit with a single purpose, like the Calvinists in Massachusetts or the Dutch on the Cape. The First Fleeters were faced with starvation and so had to come to terms with an infertile soil. The military had to come to terms with the convicts, the free settlers with the emancipists, the squatters with governments. Despite an unshakeable Protestant ascendancy, the first Catholic masses were said in Sydney on 15 May, 1803. Survival meant compromise and we were quick to make uneasy bargains.
We have always lacked the American sense of being a Promised Land with a Manifest Destiny. All through America’s New England the place-names glow with the fervour of the New Israelites. New Canaan is not a joke but a town. This, though, was never our way. Even in terms of economic viability we are still largely a nation of shepherds (and half-ashamed, refer to it as ‘riding on the sheep’s back’). The woollen-mills of Bradford pounded us into submission long ago, and forced us to acknowledge, as an article of faith, the essential goodness of grazing. We think of the graziers as conquering their environment but, apart from the race murders and the rape of the North by Vestey’s et al., there was not much conquering. What they mostly did was to live off their environment without putting anything back into it.
Perhaps only the pastoral aristocracy, as Professor R. M. Crawford has called them, got anywhere near to adopting thoroughly pioneer values—the sorts of values to be found, in a rather degenerate form, among white settlers in Rhodesia today. To such gentry Australia was merely an outpost of the Mother Country; they were never in search of identity, only of an incongruous and unattainable continuity. And the pastoralists (or owners) were not as important, in the elaboration of a mythology, as the pastoral workers, the employees. The pioneering tradition, such as it is, has actually been handed down to us through drovers, stockmen, boundary-riders, shearers and station-hands, and to some extent through miners, swaggies and bushrangers. Their eloquent historian, Russel Ward, has described these semi-nomads as ‘a singular social group’ with ‘an ethos which, though similar to those of certain other communities distant in time and place, was in some ways unique.’
For out of the clash between possessors and deprived arose the legend of the Common Man, battling for liberty, equality and fraternity. Australia proved highly susceptible to the political ideas engendered by the three great 18th century revolutions—the American, the French and the Industrial. The radical potential among convicts and emancipists was stimulated by Irish immigrants escaping from famine and British landlordism. Look at some of the achievements: manhood suffrage and the secret ballot by the 1850s, an eight-hour day for certain trades in the same decade, compulsory primary secular education in most of the older States by the 1870s and 1880s, votes for women in 1902 (admittedly mainly as an administratively convenient concession following Federation), and a Commonwealth-wide basic wage in 1908. The list is not as marvellous as we sometimes suggest; even Denmark was doing better in welfare schemes for the sick and aged, and William Lane was disillusioned enough to found a New Australia in Paraguay. But by 1901 the trade unions were growing strong, a Labor Party had been launched, and egalitarianism seemed to be our theme.
The process of levelling-out has seldom, however, generated much steam, despite the socialist avowals of the Labor Party in 1921. It is probably still true, as Sir Keith Hancock argued some years later, that ‘the equality at which Australian democracy aims’ is primarily an ‘equality of enjoyment’. Not an equality of opportunity, or of income, rather an insistence that every man should receive a more or less equal share of leisure-time and, further, should take his leisure in ways that exhibit his likeness to other men. Consumption, even of leisure, should never be conspicuous. We allow no distinction between Gentlemen and Players. (Except perhaps in the golf clubs, which offer some quaint carryovers of the caste system: no Jews belong to the Royal Sydney, for example.) In the first ‘Godzone’ article Dr Turner made the point that sport, especially spectator sport, is a cross-class activity. Probably it is now our only one. We seem anxious to believe that a general devotion to Australian Rules football is the core of social cohesion and the answer to the mystery of human brotherhood.
For the pitiless fact, blazing through all the murk of national self-approbation, is that in probably no other country of the advanced capitalist world, outside South Africa and South America, has there been such a concentration of business ownership in so few hands. Where else do so few companies dominate such a broad spectrum of the commercial scene? Where else do so few individuals control such vast tracts of land? Yet we go on accepting this almost chronic condition so long as our appearance is egalitarian. In substance we are very far indeed from equality, but in manners, in modes of speech and behaviour, we insist on sameness. The boss must talk and look like a worker, he must appear to be one of the boys; then his superior wealth and status will not be resented. The worker, playing his allotted part in another of those uneasy bargains by which we make pro tempore social solutions, boasts that Jack is as good as his master, while at the same time being fully aware that he is fated to remain Jack. The master-servant relationship has never been dissolved, and we have settled for mere commonmanship.
Beyond the facade it is not difficult to detect caste marks signifying the existence of socio-economic hierarchies. Huge slabs of our daily and weekly newspapers continue to be given over to ‘social’ jottings, as though only the meanderings and maunderings of the rich and influential can determine the measure of what is or is not ‘social’. Education at so-called ‘Public’ and ‘Greater Public’ schools is still extensively sought and revered. Quite plainly, the pastoral aristocracy has succeeded in imposing colonial standards on many aspects of Australian life. For us the Pioneer was never superseded by the Common Man, instead the two figures merged—again rather uneasily, so that we are often unsure, when we look in the mirror, just which one we are seeing. The outline keeps changing, the shape wavers.
The industrial oligarchy, backed largely by British investment, is god-father to our provincialism. So that second-rate Englishmen, if they work for I.C.I. or Unilever, are often looked upon as first-rate Australians. Even hostility to the Crown, which was evident in Irish and radical circles up to about 1920, has now begun to fade. Indeed, we can often be nudged into pro-monarchical leanings. Stories about the Royal Family actually increase the sales of the Women’s Weekly and it could have been no great surprise to analysts of the popular mood when Australians contributed more money per capita to the Churchill Fund than the English. Anglophilia soared to its highest point recently in the words of Marcus Loane, when he was elected to the Archbishopric of Sydney. He told an interviewer he would be happy to serve ‘the colony’.
Mind you, it would be unwise to read too much into these drifts of sentiment. The prospect of England as Home no longer has the allure it once exercised (mainly in those cities, like Melbourne and Adelaide, without a convict background to help in the storing up of anti-British resentments). Our sudden sympathy for the Crown is likely to be merely an appearance of loyalty in the same way as our egalitarianism is merely an appearance of equality. Probably we are only trying to give the Crown a ‘fair go’—our term for the concept of the uneasy bargain. But as the Crown embodies the mystique of the authoritarian personality, its existence has perhaps made us too subservient in outlook, too willing to accept, for example, such orgiastic rituals of leader-worship as were whipped up for President Johnson’s visit.
Our original Australian radicalism, mixed as it was with the inchoate spirit of nationalism, went up a cul-de-sac in the first decade of this century, with the introduction of compulsory arbitration and the basic wage. These were very uneasy bargains. For while the basic wage guaranteed subsistence and leisure, it gave no assurances on employment; and compulsory arbitration, though it permitted the employee an outlet for grievances, also tended to shut him off from direct dealings with the employer. From this moment onwards even conciliation was often weighted down with formalities. The legalistic procedures of Australian industry hardened, and along with the bureaucratic practices fostered by our thirteen legislative chambers, seven hundred or so parliamentarians, eighty or more Cabinet ministers and high proportion of government servants, have brought on the ‘thrombosis’ so deplored by Mr Owen Webster in the second article of the ‘Godzone’ series. We are indeed over-governed, as both Webster and Donald Home before him have pointed out.
We live now in a paternalistic society, with built-in codes (like the vote, the basic wage, compulsory arbitration and hire-purchase) ensuring that all of us will be given a ‘fair go’ if we ‘don’t rock the boat’. Therefore we suspect any social element that seems likely to disrupt the pattern of cultural conformity. We once rationalized the White Australia policy by emphasizing that it was designed to prevent the exploitation of cheap Asian and Pacific Islands labour. But our latest justification for retaining it—under the guise of ‘restrictive immigration’—is that we would not be able to cope with the ethnic divisions arising from an influx of Asians, Melanesians or Polynesians. We even seem intent on keeping out the New Guineans, for whom we claim, with a fine display of sophistry in the councils of the United Nations, to be responsible. We remain perversely proud of our homogeneity, to the extent of imagining it to be a symptom of equality. Visitations from the outside world, whether from ‘Pommies’, ‘Dagoes’, ‘Reffos’, ‘Balts’ or ‘D.P.s’ disturb us.
Yet it was an Australian venture to the outside world that gave us our last and in strange, almost secretive ways, our greatest legend. In 1915, the Pioneer and the Common Man merged with the Warrior, and this mythological trinity was sanctified by the mass blood sacrifice of Gallipoli. Apart from the Eureka Stockade, our continent had always been free of wars or revolutions; even the slaughter of the Aborigines had been carried out discreetly, without that formal consecration of violence which is a characteristic feature in the development of Western civilization. The expeditions sent to the Sudan and South Africa pumped little vitality into our weak military tradition. Gallipoli rejuvenated it, even inspired it to a fresh beginning. The very fact that Gallipoli was ultimately a defeat assisted in enshrouding it with the mystical significance which Mr Webster has astutely noticed.
Anzac Day, in the manner of its observance, contains components of both religiosity and bacchanalianism. In 1965, because the twenty-fifth of April fell on a Sunday, some of the Sydney clergy proposed that the march, with its attendant prayers and ceremonies, should be postponed at least until after the morning church services or even until next day. When the New South Wales state president of the Returned Servicemen’s League, Sir William Yeo, retorted that ‘Anzac Day is bigger than the churches’, he spoke perhaps more profoundly than he intended. His phraseology seemed to suggest that the war morality which Anzac Day encourages—through its emphasis on heroism rather than on murder—was quite large enough to embrace any and all of the spiritual idiosyncrasies promulgated by the contending sects of Christendom. And this belief is probably at the heart of the commemorations on The One Day of the Year. The R.S.L. may be, in Mr Webster’s words, ‘a uniquely Godzonian phenomenon’, but the quasi-religious values of which the R.S.L. is at present custodian have been with mankind for several thousand years.
The story of Gallipoli, then, especially when taken in conjunction with ensuing sagas of military endurance and despite the surprising number of retreats and surrenders to which our armies have succumbed, retains a very powerful grip on our national self-esteem. Even those of us who consciously reject it must acknowledge its influence. Consider, for instance, George Johnston’s colourful description of the original Anzacs:
They were men of big physique, brown and carefree. They romped naked and bathed naked under shellfire along the beach; often they fought naked in their clifftop trenches. They were sardonic about patriotism, aggressively masculine; they respected the enemy more than they did their own leaders; they were ingenious and adventurous; they lived by simple codes of loyalty and mateship; and they had a mordant, self-denigrating humour which took the place of both heroics and histrionics.
This, in perfect essence, is the legend of the Pioneer-Common Man-Warrior. Yet Mr Johnston is very far from being a jingoist; he is, indeed, a pacifist who knows as much as anybody about the follies that have grown out of the Anzac myth. Was this then a romantic lapse on his part? Not really. Everyone is to some degree the captive of his country’s past, and anyone who lived through the same era or was touched by the same wars as Mr Johnston would probably respond with sympathy to his interpretation of the Anzacs. Obviously his intention was not to glorify war so much as to pay homage to the valour of men who suffered. But the moral standards functioning in a war are corrupt and distorted from the start: what can possibly be the meaning of valour, honesty, virtue, decency, friendship or laying down one’s life for a friend within a framework which endows with nobility the violation and destruction of the human person? We who began as a penal colony ought of all peoples to be able to see the irony of it. If the Anzacs ‘respected the enemy more than they did their own leaders’, they should have stopped fighting.
But they did not stop, perhaps partly because there is a sense in which Australians may be too existentialist even for Mr Webster’s taste. As Max Harris once remarked in an interesting piece of speculation, we tend to believe in both the absurdity of human purposiveness and the necessity for behaving as if there actually was some purpose in human endeavour. This ‘as if’ motivation might account for the aimlessness of much of Australian life, typified in our suburban sprawl. We carry on, with a casual kind of fatalism, refusing to spell out political ideals, satisfied (like beleaguered bourgeoisie) to support unexamined anti-creeds of one sort or another, willing to pay extortionate land prices for the sake of playing at capitalism, happy with our matriduxy so long as it does not look too much like a matriarchy, content with only the appearance of social equality, convinced that, to quote from a little known work by A. E. Mander, ‘one man is as good as another, but some men are luckier than others’.
Not for nothing did Mr Horne label Australia ‘The Lucky Country’. We have nearly always been inclined to regard life as a series of what Professor Douglas Pikes (a short time before publication of Mr Home’s book) called ‘lucky dips’—luck with land or convict labour, luck with gold or with the seasons, luck with immigration or the world market in wool. The difficulty is that our lack of commitment—seen as potentially fruitful by Mr Webster—has also meant a lack of planning. And this, it seems to me, was the gist of Dr Turner’s argument. He was saying that our resources, individual and economic, have not yet been mobilized. He was saying implicitly that we have allowed those resources to be plundered and depleted. He was not asking, in Mr Horne’s fashion, for an intelligentsia of highly educated managers and technocrats to march us into national greatness. He was asking, too, for more than a list of political priorities. He was asking for the kind of participatory democracy, untrammelled by either elitism, institutionalism or authoritarianism, of which Mr Webster would not, on the face of things, seem to disapprove.
For all Mr Webster’s vehemence, I can see no basic incompatability between his views and Dr Turner’s, and I write, as it were, in support of both (though certainly not of Mr Webster’s scorn for Dr Turner, who is a scholar of notable insights). Mr Webster stresses the need for intransigence, for the rock-like individual radicalism personified by Thoreau; Dr Turner stresses the need for social organization, for the use of reason in the conduct of human relationships. Both are right. A man is not ‘forever alone’, as Mr Webster claims; a man is born alone and dies alone, and to that extent is a solitary being. His birth and his death are always in his consciousness, so that his solitariness is a constant, inescapable fact. But immediately after birth a man is also a social being, dependent on other people, influenced by the way that life is arranged for him and around him. His problem is to reconcile individual freedom, arising out of human solitariness, with social responsibility, arising out of human interdependence. Surely this is a platitude, hardly worth restating?
Mr Webster is looking for Walden Pond, and so we all should be. Dr Turner is looking for a creative community in which cooperative ideals will thrive. And though Mr Webster thinks ideology dangerous, how do you find heaven unless you aim, first of all, at the stars? Ideology, as we know, can lead to exclusiveness, thence to fanaticism and finally to moral perversity. But then Mr Webster’s evolutionary existentialism can be just as dangerous: it can lead to pragmatism, thence to expediency, and finally also to moral perversity. Mr Webster speaks contemptuously of ‘millennial Marxism’, and in so doing seems to neglect, inferentially, the evolutionary teachings of Marx which have been seized upon by at least one staunch existentialist—Sartre. If Mr Webster is an evolutionist he should be prepared to be eclectic. It is very desirable to love your neighbour, but you cannot do it in the way Mr Webster advises—by letting him be. Love, as he himself suggested when lecturing Dr Turner (quite superfluously: Turner is adult) on the functions of the orgasm, is a shared experience.
In conditions of ‘corporate might and community weakness’—a phrase applied by Conor Cruise O’Brien to U.S. society—the very idea of sharing gets devalued. Anyone who confesses his adherence to it is bound to be accused of millennialism or utopianism. Our trouble in Australia is that we have attained social adhesion only through our big institutions—our ‘corporate might’. Out of this tentative sticking together springs our cultural conformity, which might be described as merely the appearance of true community. Obviously we have little faith in the present structure, otherwise we would not always be so afraid of it falling to bits under the impact of Asian immigration. But while our luck holds, while the earthquakes and convulsions happen elsewhere, it gives us a certain deceptive stability, at least a feeling though not much more than that—of security.
We should try to realize, however, that this structure is built on the concept of human isolation. Not just the isolation of Australia as a nation-state from countries which seem to be run by different standards, but the isolation of one person from another, of one group from another. For purposes of political rhetoric we speak of our ‘individualism’, but what we really have is isolationism. And this is precisely the illness which eventually destroys personality. Even the institutional links which supposedly bind us together have corroded our sense of personality, because we are now turning more and more to governmental and commercial institutions, with their managerial elite, for authoritative moral guidance. We participate in these institutions only by way of a master-servant relationship.
The power of the closed institution in this country was effectively demonstrated in the Orr case. Academic freedom, purportedly a higher form of freedom than that to which most of us are entitled, was shown to be no less subject to hierarchical whim and vengeance. The technique of the public lie in ‘the public interest’—an accepted device for institutional protection—was fulsomely practised. On the mainland as well as in Tasmania, other institutions, including many sections of the press, radio and television, gave remarkable evidence of solidarity with the University Council. What should have been a quest for truth was converted into a dance macabre of Establishment self-righteousness.
The Orr case revealed that the limits of our freedom are still defined by the patriarchs whom Mr Webster justly disdains. We are surrounded by institutions imposing standards of taste, judgment and conduct on our collective psyche. And since our main channels of information and comment are controlled by about half-a-dozen newspaper and television outfits, all possessing essentially similar status quo interests, the chances of breaking these constraints seem very slight. Admittedly the advent of The Australian, with its fairly flexible policies, has helped to loosen up editorial rigidities over the whole field of mass communications. During the last few years, too, journalists and broadcasters have grown increasingly sensitive to the professional importance of independence and integrity. In the schools and universities there is a new approach to science teaching which, if it does not become enmeshed in the utilitarian demands of technology, might make the intellectual atmosphere more conducive to adventurous thought. Such signs of hope cannot be ignored.
But the end of the Menzies era is not necessarily the end of the Menzies outlook. For Robert Gordon Menzies was the apotheosis of our petty bourgeois aspirations to high respectability. In his cynicism and philistinism, his racialism and attachment to British imperialism, he reflected national traits which we have often sought desperately to submerge. But with his cavalier, almost contemptuous manner, his well-rounded vowels deliberately flattened here and there as proof of his democratic origins, his complacent assumption that nothing ever happens for the worst in this wickedest of all possible worlds, his lazy consonants and energetic eyebrows, his orotund phrasing and sharp retorts, his majestic fleshiness and those eyes in which superb intelligence was clouded over with unknowing and unknowable ambition, he was the perfect scholarship boy and the projection of almost every suburban mother’s wish-fulfilment. From a back room in Jeparit to the wardenship of the Cinque Ports: this, I sometimes fear, is the Australian Dream.
If we would study ourselves, we must look carefully at Sir Robert Menzies. He was frequently considered an utterly untypical Australian, perhaps because he could not be fitted easily into our legend of the Common Man. But in some ways he accurately represented our culture. He was less a wit than a chyacker, and on the campaign platform he even showed traces of larrikinisrn. He behaved with an insolent imperturbability that could shift too quickly into complaisance when he was confronted by statesmen with wider domains and more resounding titles. (Witness his role of errand-boy in the Suez crisis and his rather similar willingness to stooge for the major Western powers in the 1960 U.N. General Assembly.) He had immense self-assurance but was not nearly as vain as is sometimes imagined. He always retained the scholarship boy psychology: aware of his brilliance but driven by a compulsion to prove it, especially in those circles to which he felt he had been admitted only by grace and favour. (It is no accident that, in his over-courtly deference to the Queen, he seemed to mimic the style of Disraeli, another outsider.) As a result he was hopelessly caught up in his skill as a political chess-player.
Even though he despised the anti-Communist fanatics in his own party, he would still whip up a Red scare on the slightest pretext and squeeze every possible electoral advantage out of it. Perhaps his sole ideal in politics was the Lockeian notion of toleration, and it is therefore ironical that 1949-66 were years of bitter intolerance, of factionalism and even of suppressed hysteria.
A newcomer of Mr Webster’s percipience, contemplating the pompous but crafty polemics of the Bulletin (the sharp businessman’s guide to things ‘intellectual’) the frenetic pure-whiteism of International News Review (a conspiracy in every cupboard), the eccentric pre-conciliar apologetics of News Weekly (take your pick from our amazing collection of genuine 15th century theological relics), and the subtle mysteries of the Association for Cultural Freedom (special absolution for ex-Communists, and no obligation, except to mention the passwords—totalitarianism and terror—at least once per article or speech), might very understandably feel intransigence to be our foremost need. A further trouble is, of course, that anti-Communist vigilantism is assumed into the respectable mainstream of opinion, and sometimes even emerges, without much transformation, in the utterances of Cabinet ministers. What this country has to contend with is something like a permanent New Guard, whose spells and incantations during the Menzies era forced many retreats, not only from reason but from truth, justice and courage.
Mr Webster drew attention to Nadine Jensen’s protest as an example of the courage which ought to be commonplace in a morally healthy society. More recently, there was the action of a 15-year-old schoolboy, Robert Michaelis, in refusing to complete his compulsory army cadet service at Sydney Grammar School. This was an outright challenge to the rules of a closed institution, a straight denial of its self-proclaimed right to teach the principle of legitimatized murder under the names of obedience, discipline and team spirit. His stand, too, called for courage of a high order, especially as he knew he would have to withdraw from school at a crucial moment in his educational career. He was in fact sacrificing careerism to conscience. Yet he had scarcely walked out of the school yard before reporters were tipped off that he was being ‘used’. Used for what? For political purposes. By whom? Well, you know …
Seemingly it had been discovered that his mother belongs to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a body founded at the Hague in 1915, which has consultative status with the United Nations, and which in Australia has a somewhat orthodox Christian complexion. Not only that; she was also on the committee of the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament. And so the old lies went out, along the corridors of power, to be parroted by Cabinet ministers. For the country of good mates is also the country of lackeys, flunkeys and bosses’ men. The country of outspoken fearlessness is also the country of supine facelessness.
But at least under the prime ministership of R.G. Menzies there seems to have been material progress. First, though, it should be remembered that much of this impetus for change actually came from the Chifley Government: the Snowy River scheme, European migration, involvement in the U.N., Commonwealth aid to tertiary education. Second, even if we have developed enormously, what has it been development towards? Merely, it would sometimes appear, towards faster and more complex convolutions of the consumption cycle, so that we finish up, as Dr Turner warns, with a proliferation of petrol bowsers (or motor-mowers)—all supposed to be giving us a higher standard of living by widening our range of choice. As we watch the petrol stations swallow more and more of our real estate we announce that our economy is becoming marvellously diversified; and so, we say with equal boldness as we assess the consequences of immigration, is our culture. But perhaps our cultural diversification comes to nothing more than an increase in the sales of ‘Continental’ foodstuffs. And this in itself is not necessarily a sign of enrichment, of growing human awareness.
What we are going through at the moment is a phase of profound social disintegration. Perhaps this is the implication of Mr Webster’s theory that we have an ‘uncommitted future’. For several generations Australian society has presented an outward uniformity. Our conflicts were absorbed, so to speak, into our myths—particularly the legend of the Common Man. There was no growth of easily identifiable class accents or manners, even regional accents or manners. There was no very dangerous eruption of class animosities, except during the depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s. Indeed cross-fertilization of social groups often occurred. As a Jew, Sir John Monash was originally black-balled by the Melbourne Club, but he was still appointed, in 1916, Commander-in-Chief of the Army. The inherited Protestant prejudice against Catholics did not stop the emergence of Catholic Prime Ministers, one of whom opposed the wishes of the King to make a Jew our first native-born Governor-General. This phenomenon was not just what the Americans call ‘social mobility’ (i.e., a more or less unrestricted movement from lower to upper income levels); it seems to have been an honest empirical attempt to prevent barriers from rising between men.
The problem now facing us is largely one of barriers, and of barriers that could turn into barricades. In the inner suburbs of Sydney the Greeks, the Italians and the Spaniards live apart from each other, and all live apart from the Aborigines. In the outer suburbs housing estates are being built for the so-called ‘executive’ class. No doubt it was ever thus. No doubt it is merely a resurgence of our tribal instincts. No doubt it is natural that a person should seek to live among his own kind. As the Mayor of Moree told me in 1957, about the Aborigines who were housed in a settlement on the outskirts of the town: The people in the town, the coloured people themselves, perfectly understand the situation.’ The presumption is, of course, that one’s own kind is somehow distinctive, different, maybe superior and certainly exclusive. But must we always gravitate to our own kind, believing that there alone we can be happy, safe from the threats of those belonging to another kind? Must we put up the walls, stock the armoury with weapons, and search for salvation in separateness? The inflow of American capital is remoulding our industrial techniques, our buying and selling habits: must it also bring with it the divisiveness, tension and crime that mar American life?
This is not a plea against group identity, but against the tendency of groups to become exclusive and inverted, to become places of retreat from society or points of explosive pressure on society. Any group—economic, religious, ethnic or intellectual—should be in society. In our public and political affairs we have been for too long ruled by closed institutions and subjected to authoritarian methods of social control, whether through government agencies or advertising agencies, through corporate wealth or bureaucratic privilege. And during the present period of disintegration, we will have to be careful to avoid situations where dissent is labelled disloyalty or where challenge is treated as traitorous. The danger is that Australian society, in trying to find a new operative basis, could divide against itself, and thus allow authoritarianism of the most repressive kind to flourish.
Earlier this year, at a Sydney public meeting on Vietnam, the self-styled leader of the Nazis in Australia, Arthur Smith, tried to break up proceedings by jumping on to the platform and haranguing the audience. His complaint was that the general tone of the main speaker questioned the wisdom of Australia’s involvement in the war. While he was stomping and gesticulating a bunch of Young Liberals rushed the electrical switchboard, in an attempt to put out the lights. The significant feature of the incident was that Smith received support not only from his own followers but from several separate groups in the audience, who all joined together in a spontaneous—as well as unholy—alliance. There were Young Liberals and members of the D.L.P., Croatian Nationalists and members of the Defend Australia League, along with the ubiquitous Friends of Freedom. I am not suggesting that their support for Smith was planned or deliberate. I suggest rather that they did not quite know whom they were supporting. But Smith seemed to be doing a mighty job of destroying the meeting, so they got behind him and cheered him on. This tale is important only as a parable. The time has come for us to begin recognizing one another, or else the barbarians may take over.
Of course the fact that a fracas of even these minor dimensions could take place in a normally apathetic North Shore suburb may be ground for optimism. We are slowly regaining a sense of democratic participation, becoming aware of how taboos and inhibitions have sapped our capacity for political action, awakening to the need for a more open society, shaking off the encumbrances of mythology and moving into the freer world of reality. This is bringing with it come strange new (for us) social phenomena: the Leagues’ Clubs of N.S.W., organizing the frenzied pursuit of leisure for its own sake (always an Australian malady); a youth sub-culture in revolt against the ‘oldies’, even while it is largely run by ‘oldies’ who own the record companies, discotheques and retail stores; way-out political groups hepped up for violence. Such manifestations of change are perhaps inevitable and could be used constructively. But so far not enough of us know what is happening or how it happens.
Our initial task should be to widen the concept of politics so that it is no longer merely the preserve of professional politicians. A triennial trudge to the ballot-box is not enough to rid us of those hacks who, in the words of the late Brian Penton, ‘have won their eminence as national patriots and wiseacres through their fulsome and adept use … of slogans, assumptions and judgements which have no meaning.’ Politics has to be taken out from behind shut doors, away from the manipulation of committees, and even, for a start, put back on to the streets—as it was by the protestors during LBJ’s visit. It may not look very dignified to throw one’s body before a car, but it is far more meaningful than making PR-inspired prostrations before images of power
For at the end of the Menzies era, we still tend to behave as though Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happened, as though there were not at present in the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. nuclear stockpiles equivalent to somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 megatons of TNT, as though Rand Corporation strategists were not calculating likely casualties from a thermonuclear war on the scale of ‘megadeaths’. We permit our politicians and their handmaidens, the editorial writers, to continue speaking to us in terms of military alliances and balances of power appropriate only to 19th century Europe. We indulge in the fancy that Australia can be protected by American (once, before Singapore, it was British) omnipotence. In other words, we are still imprisoned by too many illusions.
In his theory of the act of creation, Arthur Koestler puts great stress on what he calls ‘bisociation’—i.e., the intersection of two previously unconnected matrices of thought. Thus Archimedes, pondering the rise in the bath-water level as he lowered himself into the tub, suddenly saw that weight could be measured through displacement volume. He had bisociated the established way of thinking about volumes with the established way of thinking about weight. For us in Australia, the fact of our military presence in Vietnam may turn out to be a lowering into the tub. It may pitch our minds into unexplored areas.
Already the Vietnam issue has split the country along lines which have nothing to do with traditional class, religious or even party-political allegiances. Established ways of thinking about war, national security, aggression, Communism and the Pax Americana have proved restrictive and inadequate. According to Koestler, the process of creativity is set going ‘by data which do not fit, observations which contradict each other… experiences which create mental conflict, dissonance, perplexity.’ Vietnam could be such an experience in Australia’s evolution; and like all community experiences, its nature is ipso facto political, admitting only of political solutions. If we are to make the jump from conventional to creative politics, this is our chance. Otherwise we can only retreat into the cynicism which, from our beginnings as a colony of jailed and jailers, has always been our special curse.
Allan Ashbolt has had wide experience in mass-communications—in the theatre, adult education, newspapers, films, radio and television. For the A.B.C., where he is a senior executive, he has made many controversial programmes, including the Four Corners report on the R.S.L. He is the author of An American Experience (1966).
This is the third essay in the Godzone series. Dr Ian Turner’s essay, ‘The Retreat from Reason‘, was published in Meanjin Quarterly 2/1966, and was followed by Mr Owen Webster’s ‘The Need for Intransigence‘ in the Spring issue.