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.
‘Abroad is bloody.’ ‘Hell is other people.’ These comments from highly un-Australian characters often fit the attitudes of Australians. But this is the case only some of the time. We are highly ambivalent in our reactions to other countries. We have a long tradition of objecting to the British on the ground that they snub us and try to exploit us, yet we go to Britain in tens of thousands—young people to show what they can make of an old society with the skills they have acquired in Australia, and old people on retirement to satisfy a long-deferred wish to see what Britain is all about. We often display a kind of group suspicion of Europeans, in spite of the large postwar immigration, but we go in large numbers to ‘the Continent’ and continue to dignify Europe with that usage, as if it were the only continent imaginable. We complain about the United States and the iniquities of its affluent society, yet we strive to make our own society more affluent in much the same ways. We often complain about cultural imports (or our local producers of culture do), but we have a gargantuan appetite for films, television programmes, books, magazines and fashions from abroad. We are, in fact, mixed-up nationalists, like the people of other countries, but with our particular nationalism stemming from our own experience.
The typical response of Australians to what is derived from other countries is that of immigrants who have hardly settled themselves but have burnt their boats, and see potential danger in fresh waves of influence from abroad while still finding attraction in them. Like Robinson Crusoe when he had established himself on his island, our custom is to peer at every approaching ship with anxiety, hoping it may contain friends but fearing it may harbour cannibals or pirates.
This sort of response is traditional in a number of fields. The success of postwar immigration has enabled us to forget that, when the beginnings of the programme were announced, it was an act quite at variance with the previous policy of the Australian Labor Party and the whole trade union movement, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. If we had had more Labor governments between 1901 and 1939, we should have had fewer immigrants. Moreover, we have forgotten the habit of cold shouldering immigrants in earlier decades, of making fun of their accents and their dress and customs; we now like to pride ourselves on the open door that we showed to British settlers, putting aside the poor welcome which they often got when they entered it. There is some justification for our doing so, since, if one confines oneself to the record of decisions made by governments, Australian policy in the inter-war years looks generous and familial. The governments of those days were largely composed of ex-officers who had fought in World War I, and of businessmen to whom immigration offered an expanding home market and an increasing labour force; it was in their interests to stress the British character of Australia, and to get the best terms they could from the British government for migration schemes. This was not, however, a land of open welcome when the migrants arrived. Many of them found it forbidding; and the effects of the depression made everything worse. Much the same had happened in the 1890s.
A similar response is apparent if one looks at traditional protectionist policy, which the Labor Party is only now beginning to revise and which has been axiomatic with Australian manufacturers since anyone can remember. Again, there was some distinction between what governments said between the wars and what general feeling embodied. Except for the Scullin ministry, no government was wholeheartedly protectionist; but the gradual increase of stabilisation for farm products, and industry-by-industry tariff arrangements in manufactures, meant that our practice was essentially protectionist even when our protestations were otherwise. The depression and the two wars greatly assisted this natural protectionism, by providing situations in which the only alternative to locally-made goods was to go without. But the temper of our governments, before and after World War II, has essentially been that of bodies which agree to free trade arrangements only when no organized group can be shown to lose. If anyone is likely to suffer, even in the face of a more widespread benefit on the consumer side, we do not play: current trade relations with New Zealand are only the most recent example.
In the cultural field we are mixed up, and it is hard to see how we could be otherwise. To a great extent our creative development has been a matter of the clash between imported methods and local subject-matter. We have not developed notable technique of our own, but we have used the techniques developed elsewhere to make local subjects significant. We have had our local impressionists, cubists, surrealists, eliotians, joyceites and what not; the clash is plainest in painting and literature, but it can be seen in drama and even in ballet. Young men are now striving with it in the amateur film. Like other aspects of art, it shows its worst face on television. The attempts of Australian producers to mimic the situation comedies and star-shows of the United States and Britain are best left without comment.
Often we manifest a clear belief that if only we could get an Australian-made article, it would be better than what we got from abroad, and certainly better for us. This sentiment is, for understandable reasons, more often voiced in the submerged arts such as film-making and strip cartooning than by novelists and poets. It is ironic, yet well in line with our general position, that much of the advance in Australian novel-writing in recent years has been achieved through the discovery of new authors by British publishing firms which, like British manufacturers, have found it profitable to ‘come in behind the tariff’ and publish in Australia itself. We are glad when our singers and actors do well overseas, but we still like to cut them down to size when they come back here. They often say that they sense an uneasy atmosphere when they meet their old friends in Sydney or Melbourne. They find themselves waiting for the question, ‘and when are you going back to London?’ We dislike the Piccadilly bushman (the denigration which Colin McInnes has received from so many Australian critics is an extreme case in point), and some of us have recently learnt to use the portentous word ‘expatriate’ about him. But we are also proud of him, often in a shamefaced way.
We are a pluralist people, in these as in other respects, and a single attitude is never characteristic of all Australians. We have, in fact, three sorts of response to contacts from abroad: fearing, fawning, and finally accepting. We fear what seems to endanger our economic position or our sense of uniqueness and virtue. We fawn on fashions and on whatever can be regarded as up to date, so long as it does–not induce too great a sense of uncertainty in us. We finally accept whatever becomes standard and significant, whether it is the refrigerator, the popular television programme, or the possibility that Ulysses might be allowed into the country.
THE BALANCE between these three sorts of response changes with time. In the 1930s and 40s we were going through a period of physical isolation induced by the depression, the halt in immigration, and the war; we feared change, relied to a great extent on our own resources, and nursed the more truculent side of our nationalism. There was some fawning, too, on British models by the authorities and on Russian by the radicals, but there was not much final acceptance because very little needed to be accepted. We took in little and gave out little. Since about 1950 we have been giving out a great deal more, showing much less fear, fawning to a lesser degree than we used to, and finally accepting a great many things very quickly. The tempo of our involvement with other countries has grown all the time. Such movements of people as the immigration programme, the flight of artists and young people to Britain, the growth of post-graduate study abroad, the departure of numerous technical experts to Asian countries, and the frequency with which academics have been able to visit Britain, the United States and Europe, have all given us a wider horizon. Fashions have got to us more quickly. The range of consumer goods which we could import with impunity has grown. We have had much less to fear.
Yet it is noticeable that some of our people, including a number of intellectuals, are still stuck in the 1930s. That period of misery and isolation was one in which the outside world seemed hostile and even more alien than ever. It refused to lend us money and demanded the repayment of what we had borrowed; it tried to send us migrants whom we did not want; it concocted wars and threats of wars which filled Australia with alarm. This experience must have affected a great many people’s later thinking. To some intellectuals the period seemed to dictate a glorification of isolation (as it did to P. R. Stephensen’s little group) or an escape into the dreamworld created by contemporary Communist propaganda. The latter was the wider and more significant response, but it had something in common with the former. Adopting the Soviet mythology involved the introduction into it of key Australian figures like Henry Lawson and William Lane, and even Higgins and Higinbotham. This fusion of Australian symbols with Marxist interpretation can be seen in the contemporary work of Lloyd Ross and in much of the writing of Brian Fitzpatrick. It was not an easy fusion, and it has not lasted. But the undercurrent of thought flowing from it has remained.
Twenty years ago in Meanjin P.H. Partridge and I examined M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow, an ambitious novel which tried to combine a picture of Australia in the 1930s and 40s with an anticipation of what it would be like in the near and distant future. The depression and the war were fairly well treated; the near future was absurd, but typical of what many intellectuals believed might be the case. The authors’ combination of social compassion and Marxist interpretation produced a vision in which the workers of Australia became revolutionary firebrands set alight by the inhumanity of their capitalist experience. There was a strong isolationist tone to the book: it was an ‘International Police Force’ that attacked Australia with the assistance of a ‘Right Minority’ here, and precipitated the revolution. Abroad was bloody indeed.
The current version of Robinson Crusoe’s eyes turned on the possibly piratical boats bound for his island shore is our uneasiness about American influences and our uncertainty about what contacts to make with our Asian neighbours. We have largely got over our suspicions of Britain, since it is a declining force in our lives. Except for Donald Horne’s shadowboxing with the monarchy, and the feeling of some of our policy-makers that ‘the Brits’ need to be put in their place, there is little outcry about British influence, especially from the Left. No-one can sustain the traditional cry that the City of London is exploiting us. This complaint is now transferred to the United States. The sort of thing Noel McLachlan had to say about the United States in his tailpiece in Meanjin (3/1966) is fairly standard. Allan Ashbolt is also clearly aware that, if God has his own country, it is not the United States. My own position is the opposite: the aspects of American life which trouble these two writers do not worry me unduly, and there are other aspects which seem to me more important and more hopeful. Here I do not want to argue the issue point by point, but to ask and answer some questions about Americans.
THE FIRST is whether it is really ‘Americanism’ that is upon us, or simply modern technology. Most of the complaints about the influence of the United States look to me like complaints about the twentieth century. It is disconcerting to have quick transport and rapid communications, to have new sources of entertainment, to see young people with money and old people living longer, to be aware that modern weapons are more deadly than old ones, to find art expressing itself in unexpected ways and students answering back; it is pitiful to see groups of people left behind in the onrush of technology and exposed to its side-effects upon racial connections, whether in India or Harlem. These things create enormous problems. But they would be upon us in any case. If the United States were not there to hurry them along, they would come from France or Britain or the Soviet Union some time later. in this country we are good at adapting technology but not, seemingly, very inventive. The main discoveries come to us from abroad. We seem to have left behind the era of the mallee roller and the stump-jump plough. We are still good at improvisation in small ways, but the thrust of modern industrialism is such that its major developments can hardly be expected to come from an economy as small and derivative as ours. Is this what we are complaining about? I think that, on the whole, it is. We find it more comprehensible to attack the United States for the obvious deficiencies of some new aspect of technology, and for the social problems which are caused by shifts in jobs, incomes, opportunities and the other aspects of society that move with technological change. So do the French; so, until they recently found that their public relations industry could build them a faddy modern image of their own, did the British. But are the Americans really to blame? To the extent that Sloan and Kettering and Edison and their followers discovered things and put things to work, yes; but to the extent that there is something inherently American about the problems which result, no.
The second question is whether we are justified in regarding only the dark side of American society as typically American. I know that both Ashbolt and McLachlan give some credit to the other side, but they are clearly impressed most by what is nastiest: the violence, the wilfulness, the vulgarity, the conformity, the arrogance and the vacuity. It is an old story. Mr Trollope and Charles Dickens found the United States like this. But others were more penetrating. De Tocqueville and Bryce knew that they were watching something more than a vulgar side-show. In our own time people like D.W. Brogan and James Morris have seen the same. All these recognize that the diversity of the United States multiplies every tendency, while its vastness enables every tendency to magnify itself. The United States is multiform. It is as contradictory as the Bible or the Communist scriptures. Anything can be demonstrated by taking examples from it. When it is vulgar, it is vulgar on a greater scale and in more variety than any other country in history. Yet the same applies to its more laudable tendencies. There has never been political freedom on such a vast scale as the United States displays, or such local variety of living, or such massive participation in government. Nowhere has politics been practised by so many people with such zest. Nothing like the resources allotted by the United States to education has occurred anywhere else; neither has the variety of educational and scientific effort. There have never been so many people living so well in a single country.
Above all, no country has advertised its own mistakes and blemishes with such disregard of the effect on opinion elsewhere. We are accustomed to equating the United States and the Soviet Union in many respects these days; but think of the difference between them in self-exposure—the difficulty of getting knowledge, even now, of how civil liberties are respected in the Soviet Union; the problem of finding out just how minorities, especially Jews, are treated; the indefinite postponement of any system of free and fundamental criticism; the absurdity of imagining that the government can be changed, except by arrangement from within at the highest level, or by coup d’etat. If we think of the good side of the Soviet Union, it is because this is all that the Soviet Union tells us about. If we think of the bad side of the United States, it is because the Americans themselves make it plain, and invite us to come and see it for ourselves. Their readiness to do so is the most American thing about them.
Thirdly, why should we continue to regard transfer of cultural influences from the United States to us as simply a one-way or bilateral affair? I have heard the Americanization of Britain denounced just as scathingly in Britain as the Americanization of Australia here; yet when I enter an American common room or its equivalent, I find Encounter and the New Statesman lying about, and when I open the New York Review of Books most of the articles are by Englishmen. During the 1964 Presidential elections I saw a car in Los Angeles bearing the sign RINGO FOR PRESIDENT. English actors on Broadway outnumber the Americans in West End theatres. All these things point to the fact that America is not making an unprovoked assault on other countries, but that, within the general ambit of contemporary technology and communications, a common English-speaking culture is being developed. In the nature of things, the biggest part will be taken by the United States because it has the most people, the most money, the most active interest in the arts and education. But there will be significant contributions from Britain, and even from such minor sources as Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria, Singapore and the Philippines. This common culture will be based on the movement of people, printed matter, film and television programmes and the like, but will rest finally on the increasing tendency of educational systems to take material and techniques from one another, instead of developing in a narrow national form as they used to. The growing internationalization of the English-speaking university systems is an obvious example. When I say that we are developing a common English-speaking culture, I do not mean that this will have no contact with cultures based on other languages; it is in the nature of modern communications that all cultures should affect one another. France and Germany will take from this culture and also contribute to it. But language is the foundation of a culture; and there is no inclination in the United States to shut out the influences that come from other English-speaking countries. Indeed, the tendency is the other way.
Yet the major thrust in the growth of an English-speaking culture does come from the United States. Consider the form which contemporary public criticism of the United States takes in Australia and Britain. When there is a demonstration against President Johnson or Vice-President Humphrey, it takes place along lines laid down by American protesters: the folk songs, the banners, the slogans and the methods of dealing with the police are all Made in America. MacBird is an American play. Protests about Vietnam in other countries are a pale reflection of the protests inside the United States itself. The arguments which one hears in Australia against Australian participation in the Vietnam war are usually worth consideration only when they are based upon American material; otherwise they are just a version of old-style Australian isolationism. The American-ness of present-day protest against America, shows the common culture we are developing, and the predominant role played in it by America; it also shows how open a society the United States is, how seriously politics is taken there, and how applicable to other peoples problems are many of the solutions Americans have worked out for themselves. It is not just that influences from the United States are hard to escape; it is also that, in a time when the United States has gone farther along the technological road than the rest of us, American solutions are often the best we can hope to find.
It is clear to me that we shall have increasing connections with the United States, and that there are many grounds for welcoming this, and for using the opportunities to influence America which its character as an open society affords us. They will not be many, but they will exist. In any case we shall retain our local variant of the English-speaking culture, no matter how strong the generalized aspect of it becomes. Each national variant of the Beatles or Elvis Presley is different. Localities always preserve some life, even though, like Punch, it is always said to be worse than it was. While the Americans are eating away at us, we, together with the British and others, will be eating away at them. I think the result will be good. But what about our future contacts with Asia?
HERE THE PROBLEM is more complex than that of American influences upon us. Asian economies do not march roughly in step with ours, though a bit ahead or behind, as those of the Western countries do; only Japan and Singapore, in contemporary Asia, bear this sort of relation to our economy. Elsewhere the economies of Asia fall farther and farther behind, even when they produce an increasing supply of local intellectuals. In countries such as India and Pakistan, those intellectuals often want to escape and put down their roots somewhere else. They are often repelled by the prospects which staying at home seems to hold out. As members of the top Europeanised layer of their societies, they are aware of the competition for jobs within that layer, the pressure from below from those who have not yet achieved the coveted Western-style education, and the way in which traditional methods of influence are used to prevent a reward going to talent. They are distressed by other aspects of traditionalism, yet often do not feel at home without it to fall back on. Their position is very different from that of Australian intellectuals, secure in their own expanding tradition with its close connection with those of the major English-speaking countries, and able to criticize it without being forced into any sort of final renunciation.
Asian life is not our life; only the top layer is susceptible to our contact. Traditional Asia has little to offer us. In any case, there is no homogeneity in Asia: while each country exhibits similar changes under the stress of modernisation, the pace and character of the changes differ so greatly from country to country that the peoples of Asia are not aware of what is happening to each other, and we cannot successfully apply to one country the norms which we have discovered in another. It is on some technical and professional basis that Australians and Asians are likely to meet with any prolonged success. Economists, meteorologists and other specialists can find things in common because they have an international meeting-ground which allows for local differences but contain common assumptions. There can also be meeting points where Asians have adopted Western styles in art, like the Indians in painting and the Japanese in music. But it is a mistake to think that Australians will take to traditional Japanese or Indian or Chinese customs in any more than a touristy way. Educated Asians are likely to find our basic habits easier to adopt than we shall ever find theirs. No matter how much our politicians and pundits may tell us we are now part of Asia, we are not likely to develop Asian characteristics. Instead, Asians will be attracted to those of our characteristics which are in line with movements formed in the world at large—with those, in fact, which we share with, or learn from, the Americans, the British and the Europeans. They are what Asian migrants to Australia will look for.
In fact there is little to be frightened about in future influences from abroad. Crusoe can console himself with the thoughts that the men in the boats are not cannibals or pirates, but people in situations something like his own. They may be able to help him or want to get help from him, but they are not going to despoil him. It is barbarism at home that we have to worry about, not the seductions of aliens. Americans do not ban books as we do; they show a friendlier approach to the man from abroad with professional qualifications; they are still highly protectionist, but they are not getting worse, as we seem to be. If Asians do these things as we do, rather than as the Americans do, it is usually because of traditionalist social assumptions which we should dislike if we were fully aware of them. We have things to pass on to Asians, but also things to gain from the United States and other advanced societies. It will do us no harm to take in some doubtful practices along with the good ones; we cannot avoid it, in any case. The force of our own inertia and our sense of self-importance will be sufficient to prevent us from being swept off our feet. No-one will stop us thinking this is GODZONE, no matter how heavy the outside pressure becomes.
Bruce Miller’s article is the fifth in the current series of commentaries on God’s Own Country since the end of the ‘Menzies era’. He is professor of International Relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, and author of (among other books) Australia, recently published by Thames and Hudson, and Britain and the Old Dominions (Chatto and Windus).