The Real Australia

  • Share
  • Read Later

Robert Hughes reflects on his native land: Australia.

The first thing to mistrust, should you be an American thinking of going to Australia for the first time, is your idea of the place and its people. Probably you think the 2000 Sydney Olympics is a vastly important event for all of us, a huge national rite that will "put us on the map" — the same map, presumably, on which the last Australian Olympics, in Melbourne in 1956, failed to inscribe us.

Actually, despite our traditional obsession with sports, despite the coercive drumming of pre-Olympics hype, some of us don't care that much about the Olympics. We think we matter for other reasons. We suspect we're on the map already, and that only American myopia would see us otherwise.

Ten-to-1, you think Australians are rather like Americans, and that we want to be more so. Dead wrong. No idealism attended the birth of Anglo-Australia. White colonization in America began as a religious venture; the Puritans thought they were, literally, creating God's country. Australia, by contrast, began as the continent of sin, the dump for English criminals. Australians, unlike Americans, have never felt they had a mission or a message for a fallen world. There is no doctrine of Australian exceptionalism. If this deprived us of the heights of American moral expectation, it spared us from the anguish of American disappointment. Not a bad trade-off.

Especially in Sydney, we still tend to embrace the disreputable. Organized religion doesn't play one-tenth the part in Australian life that it does in American; the churches have power, but compared with the U.S. our civilization is almost entirely secular. Our state-sponsored education is excellent, and we do not give a cent in subsidies to church schools. And we have fierce democratic commitments that hardly exist in America. It is, for example, a (lightly) punishable offense not to vote in a national election. As for campaign contributions, and all the corruption and perversion of democracy that the pursuit of them creates in the U.S., they don't exist in Australia; a whole national election costs less to stage than a California primary. You don't need to be rich or a plutocrat's pet to run for office here.

Better yet, we have no Fundamentalist Christian tradition, and the level of born-again tub thumping is mercifully low — though there are signs that as a result of American cultural influence, it is creeping up among the young. Any political candidate who declared that God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser (prude, intrusive bluenose).

So although Australians have their doctrinal and moral disputes, they don't swing as fiercely between extremes of private indulgence and public penance as Americans do. The idea that the whole nation and its media could be convulsed and obsessed by a Prime Minister's hole-in-the-corner affair with a pudgy little Canberra intern is, to say the least, implausible. We are realists, not idealists.

The truth is that Australians tend to be natural pagans. Everything favors this: the delicious climate of the coasts, where most of us live; the dramatic and seductive landscapes of pounding surf and golden sand; the tanned bodies strutting; the food (some of the finest and most inventive in the world); and the wines, which are superb.

In such a setting, Australians — Sydneysiders in particular — have evolved a natural ethos as pleasure seekers in all areas of life. As the writer David Malouf points out, we don't even think of ourselves as hedonists, because that would be too self-conscious. Australian culture is for the most part deeply democratic, and joyously so as well. It is no longer "provincial," a distant and nervous response to norms generated in imperial centers. It is the result of a bloodless and slow-developing social revolution conducted over 40 years as a small society grew larger and immeasurably more complex, shook off its sense of derivative Englishness and its fear of American domination and learned to trust its own talents.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. 5
  7. 6
  8. 7
  9. 8