James Morrow looks at why so many of our intellectuals choose not to love Australia, but leave it
For a country of just on twenty million people, a huge number of Australians are famous the world over – and not just because of cultural icons like the Croc Hunter or media moguls like Rupert Murdoch. Unlike Americans, whose presence is felt around the world by sheer dint of the size of their culture – 300 million people and an $11 trillion G.D.P. tends to create a steamroller that is pretty much irresistible – on the world cultural stage Australians (as in so many other arenas) punch well above their weight. According to one recent survey of international country ‘brands’ conducted by Anholt-GMI, Australia was ranked most favourably in a wide range of categories, from investment potential to tourist appeal, despite their being plenty of other nations with longer histories, larger populations, and more favourable tax regimes. And surely a large part of this international goodwill stems from the informal individual ambassadorial work that millions of Australian travelers and ex-pats conduct in their daily lives, whether in the tourist resorts of Thailand and Turkey or the financial corridors of the City of London or Wall Street, New York. And as testament to the power of this Australian ‘brand’, the Howard government’s close association with America’s controversial liberation of Iraq has barely registered as a negative. No wonder the federal government has recently launched a campaign to get Australian workers to come back home; Aussies going overseas to make their fortune (after receiving taxpayer-subsidized educations, they are not subject to Australian tax once they move abroad) represents a brain and money drain that is hard to make up for.
But while Australia was found in the Anholt-GMI survey to be a big loveable bloke of a country, there were areas for concern. For one thing, the quality of our manufacturing base and exports was considered lacking (perhaps too many survey respondents think of our output more in terms of Foster’s than Grange). But for another, Australia scored poor ranks in the culture and heritage category – surprising, given the vast numbers of Aussies to make it big in the entertainment industries. As the survey itself noted, ‘Australia’s low scores on culture are something of a surprise, given the fact that some of Australia’s most notable ambassadors are media stars like Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, Nicole Kidman, Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett. Perhaps it is simply that these people are not widely recognised as Australians and suffer from the “Hollywood effect”’.
Some will surely sniff that the likes of ‘Our Kylie’ hardly represent high culture – fair enough – and it’s no surprise that France scored off the charts in the survey’s ‘culture and heritage’ stakes. (Tellingly, though, they also scored off the charts in the other direction when participants were asked what they thought of France’s people). But perhaps there’s another reason why our culture is seen in a negative light: so many of Australia’s most high-profile ex-pat intellectuals and creative types have risen to fame and fortune specifically by bashing the country and culture that nurtured and created them.
Take the case of John Pilger, for example. Pilger, a Sydney High School graduate who would parlay an early start in media at the Sunday and Daily Telegraphs into a career as a left-wing muckraking journalism and filmmaking, is a great example of this phenomenon.
Pilger, whose entire oeuvre is based around the notion that the West can do no right, is hysterically predictable in the causes he crusades for: he has even gone so far as to twice make films called Palestine is Still the Issue. (And no, according to Pilger, it is not still the issue because of the long Palestinian record of hijackings, murders, massacres, and bombings on behalf of the cause – his root causes are a little more simplistic).
Yes, occasionally he gets it right: he was one of the first journalists to shed light on atrocities committed by the Indonesian government in East Timor, though he refuses to believe that Australia’s aid in the liberation of that beleaguered Catholic-majority province in the middle of the world’s most populous Muslim nation had anything to do with provoking al Qa’ida into targeting Australians in Bali. (‘We can’t believe that. We can’t believe all the things we’re being told’, Pilger said, even after a statement to that effect was released by Osama bin Laden. This dismissal of contrary facts is a common Pilger strategy; in a recent interview with Investigate, Pilger waved away watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch’s criticisms of the Hugo Chavez thugocracy in power in Venezuela, saying, ‘you can’t believe everything that organisation says’.)
But in the main, Pilger is at his happiest when he is attacking the democracies of the West in general, and his home country of Australia in particular. To him and his acolytes – both at home and around the world – the ‘Lucky Country’ is a myth based on an indelible original sin of racism and ethnic cleansing. One has to wonder if Pilger would have preferred that the Axis have won in World War II: after all, he has famously written that ‘few whites appreciate the legacy and scale of genocide in Australia. While 10 percent of Jewry died in the Holocaust, the great majority of the first Australians died in the onslaught of white invasion and appropriation’. Strong stuff, and the sort of thing which requires readers to believe that, as historians such as Keith Windschuttle have pointed out, Australia was the one and only place in the entire history of empire where British settlers set out on a deliberate campaign of extermination. And, true to form, during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Pilger backed a ‘shaming campaign’ aimed at getting the foreign media to focus on the plight of Aborigines and the horridness of modern Australia. In this sense, Pilger is very much of a piece with Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce (recently returned from a dozen years in Hollywood), whose historically dubious heart-tugger Rabbit-Proof Fence made a matza off the proposition that white Australia is irredeemably racist.
And then of course there is ‘our’ Germaine Greer, whose career as an international feminist celebrity was launched with the publication in 1970 of The Female Eunich – though her C.V. includes support for almost every clichéd radical chic idea to come down the pike in the second half of the twentieth century. From calling for women’s liberation from the tyranny of the bra (while at Newnham College, England) to joining a collective of free-loving anarchists (the ‘Sydney Push’) to taking part in a Celebrity Big Brother, Greer has, in the words of at least one commentator, a tremendous knack for making a fool of herself.
Her relationships with her homeland have been no less controversial, either. After spending most of her career abroad, Greer announced that she had been inducted into an Aboriginal tribe, and in her book Whitefella Jump Up, she declared that all Australians need to forget their ‘sophisticated recreation lifestyle’ and instead learn to become, well, more indigenous, as happened to her twenty years ago when she claims she was ‘adopted’ by Kulin women: ‘Though I can claim no drop of Aboriginal blood, twenty years ago Kulin women from Fitzroy adopted me. There are whitefellas who insist that blackfellas don’t practise adoption; all I can say is that when I asked about the possibility of assuming Aboriginality, the Kulin women said at once, “we’ll adopt you.” “How do you do that?” I asked, hoping I wouldn’t be required to camp in some bleak spot for a month or two and be painted or smoked or cut about. “That’s it, “ they said. “It’s done. We’ve adopted you.”’ Taking things to their natural extreme, Greer believes that white Australians should embrace a Rousseauian state of nature, just like Aboriginals, and, oddly, teenagers: ‘Blackfellas are not and never were the problem. They were the solution, if only whitefellas had been able to see it…Untold numbers of Australian parents have become aware that their children have turned “feral”, that they have no ambition, covet no man’s goods, and are happy to follow wherever the waves are, living by and for the moment, and occasionally attending secret gatherings deep in national forests where strange things are done and said and strange substances ingested.’
Finally, no mention of ex-patriot Australians with, shall we say, bizarre ideas would be complete without a look at the ideas of Prof. Peter Singer. A one-time chair of the Philosophy Department at Monash University and unsuccessful Green Party candidate, Singer has lately fetched up at the prestigious Princeton University in the United States. While he has never taken up the subject of Australia in his professional work, much of his notoriety comes from being the sort of academic bomb-thrower who gets his jollies kicking over the assumed knowledge and culture of the past four thousand years – the very foundations of modern Australian and Western cultures. So why focus on this one particular post-modernist, when there are so many haunting the lecture halls of universities around the world? Perhaps it is because his ideas are just so…out there.
Singer is known for a lot of controversial positions; as a ‘preference utilitarian’ (a seemingly commonsensical proposition in which the best thing to do at any given time is that which produces the best consequences). This sounds attractive in the lecture hall and as a topic for undergraduate discussion – and is closely related to the intellectual foundations of anarchic free love that seduced Greer’s generation of Push-ers – but in practice leads to a materialism that is scary in its amorality: in this ethical code, given the choice of saving a healthy golden retriever and a disabled human child from a sinking boat, the slobbering pooch would make it to shore every time (and not just because he is bred to swim). Singer, who is credited with helping to launch the modern radical animal rights movement, once famously wrote that, ‘because people are human does not mean their lives are more valuable than animals’. He has also come out in defense of bestiality (in the infamous essay, ‘Heavy Petting’) and defended infanticide: ‘Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Often, it is not wrong at all’. Forget the first settlers; if any Australian is pushing an idea that could lead to genocide and mass-murder, this is it, as any decent reading of 20th Century history will attest.
So why do so many of these Australians go abroad with nothing good to say about the culture from whence they came – and wind up making great fortunes out of it? (One interesting analogy in American culture might be the case of African-American comedian Bill Cosby, who has spent the past several years lecturing black families on the virtues of a broad set of middle-class values – a well-meaning campaign that has led to a raft of criticism from black activists who accuse Cosby of turning his back on his culture). Being bored is the hallmark of restless and ambitious people everywhere, but not every such group of trailblazers seeks to do so by relentlessly criticizing their roots. Robert Hughes once said ‘frankly, I couldn’t wait to leave’ when asked about why he moved to the United States; Barry Humphries, meanwhile, told photographer Polly Borland – herself an ex-pat Aussie – ‘The reason I left Australia was I couldn’t stand it any longer’. The old explanation of the ‘cultural cringe’ (the old notion famously defined as seeing everything Australian or colonial as inferior to the British equivalent) doesn’t really hold water; for so many of this new breed of Aussie ex-pat intellectual, it is not just Australian, but Western, cultural life which is the target. A platform in London or New York is just, by definition, a bigger stage on which to strut.
And certainly, there are plenty of Australian ex-pats who go overseas and retain their engagement with Australia – Clive James, perhaps the country’s greatest export, is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as are many sportsmen, such as Greg Norman. But they don’t make the sort of routinely embarrassing splashes that the likes of Pilger and Greer are notorious for.
It’s not that Australian culture or products or ideas are considered inferior anymore, or that the place has any feel left of being an ‘outpost’ of civilization, lacking the sort of mod-cons that one might find in Western Europe or the United States. Instead, the problem for so many who have chosen to leave Australia and turn their backs on it in so many literal and figurative ways is the culture’s brasher, more bumptious, more garrulous aspects – the sort of self-confidence that is emblematic of settler societies everywhere. (The same conflict is emblematic within the United States, between those who trace their heritage to early, rural settlers and those who identify with the country’s later, urban, immigrant experience).
In intellectual settings, such characteristics are considered both gauche and exotic, and the reasonably clever can play on these two sides of the coin by exhibiting distaste for the very same thing that they have inborn to themselves and which, in small doses, excites their audience.