Essay - Shortsighted Seers

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Australians love a fright. Horror films that bomb elsewhere are guaranteed at least a break-even run in Australian cinemas or video stores. Children desperate to wear spooky clothes have taken up wandering from house to house on Halloween. Australia's unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, includes mention of a talking ghost. Got a scary story to tell? Australia wants to hear it.

In recent years, the specter of the Olympic Games has given rise to a collection of chilling tales. Sydney-or so conventional wisdom had it-would become a gridlocked helltown. Businesses would be bankrupted. Bloody-fanged landlords, hungry for rich foreign tenants, would cast the poor into the streets, there to shelter beneath the corpses of forgetful pedestrian tourists crushed by cars driving on the left-hand side of the road. Opponents of the beach volleyball stadium at Bondi warned of shark attacks. Rumor spread that John Farnham had been booked to perform at the opening ceremony.

Few of these fears have come true. Traffic problems? A self-correcting prophecy: all the people worried by it have left the city, clearing the roads. One estimate has traffic in the central business district speeding along 30% faster than usual. Business is humming. Poor people are still poor, but remain housed. Most tourists have survived. The only Finns sighted at Bondi were in the stands watching beach volleyball.

Why disaster should be so often predicted in modern Australia is a puzzle. Perhaps the nation suffers from crisis deprivation-only natural in a place so calm and prosperous that the most urgent political issue is whether the Prime Minister should apologize for something he didn't do 50 years ago. Whatever the reason, catastrophes do nothing more in Australia than loom.

Then they vanish. Earlier this year, fingernails were bitten to the forearm as a panicked citizenry braced for the introduction of a goods and services tax. It's easy to understand the fear-after all, the GST was going to make some things marginally more expensive, while other things would become slightly cheaper. The inhumanity of it!

Before the GST came Y2K, which is the reason this essay is written in ox blood on a dog pelt. Australians embraced Y2K end-of-civilization fables with a zeal that would shame a Montana militiaman. This Christmas, hundreds of children will find themselves unwrapping gas burners, tins of beans and portable electric generators, the bounty of Y2K survivalist buying frenzies. The children of suddenly wealthy Y2K consultants, meanwhile, will receive a Ducati and the keys to a Paris apartment.

The Big Fear of '99 was the republic vote. If it was lost, Australians were lectured, their sense of nationhood would be crushed forever. Despite this awful prospect, the electorate voted down the proposal. Were the doomsayers right? Are Australians now a divided people? A clue may be found in the thousands of national flags tied to car antennas and waving from balconies around Sydney. Australia, never before given to mass flag-flying, has fulfilled the republicans' nationalistic dream without the costly restructuring needed to become a republic.

Biggest of all recent terror stories was Pauline Hanson, whose popularity was buoyed by hysterical fears of multiculturalism and globalization. Those fears are now all but forgotten-at least among those who can read. But fear of anti-globalists survives. Many in Sydney were concerned that the dreadlocked demonstrators who blocked civilian traffic and put their heads in the path of police batons in Melbourne during the recent World Economic Forum might descend on the Olympic city to protest against capitalist influence over the Games. They've been a no-show, possibly because the Olympics are so wholly won over by capitalism that protesting about it would be like protesting against gravity.

Indeed, things were going so well in Sydney it was a relief when French sprinter Marie-José Perec, displaying a keen understanding of local culture, took fright at an alleged assailant and fled Australia. Some have accused Perec of imagining the whole episode (security cameras in her hotel reveal no intruder)-which only increased her host nation's admiration. Australia bows to her.

With the end of the Olympics in sight, another looming horror must soon be found. Given the late rush for tickets, it's unlikely to take the form of economic disaster. There is potential in the White Elephant scenario: How to fill the monster Olympic complex when everyone leaves?

If that isn't a big enough concern, there are plenty of sages poised to invent another one. Fretting is the Australian way. Perhaps the headlight-stricken rabbit and the 'fraidy cat should replace the kangaroo and emu on the nation's coat of arms. Trouble is, after the success of these Games, Australians may have nothing left to fear but the lack of fear itself.