Monday, February 25, 2013

How Australians see themselves

My train reading at the moment is a book of readings, excerpts, about Australia published since Federation. I will talk about the book later. For the moment, I just wanted to ask you all a few questions.

What do you think are the key themes in the way Australians see themselves? Are they shared by external observers? Have views changed?

Postscript February 27

I deliberately kept this post short and open ended. Now for a little more information.

The book I have been reading is Robert Manne and Chis Feik (eds), The Words that made Australia: how a nation came to know itself (Black Inc.Agenda, 2012).

It's an interesting collection of excerpts dating from 1901 to 2008. The selection reflects, as it always does, the views of the authors as to importance. I might have selected differently. But then, as Neil Whitfield noted in a comment: Seriously, I find such questions very difficult to answer as I may be an Aussie but I am also me and furthermore from a particular background in a particular part of Oz (The Shire) at a particular time. background.

That's pretty right, for I have a part written piece that illustrates this. My point there is in part just that. But beyond that, in read my reading I read at different levels: what did the piece say in the context of the time; what did it say about the process of change in Australia, about the evolution of Australians' perceptions of themselves; what still read true or at least relevant today?

To take an example in the last category, the excerpt from W E H Stanner's After the Dreaming stands out for its clarity and its relevance. By contrast, Robert Menzie's The Forgotten People, Robin Boyd's Australian Ugliness, Miriam Dixon's The Real Matilda all seem polemical, dated. They were influential then and still exercise influence now, but they are very much documents of their time. It is also interesting just how strong the Australian frame is. There is little recognition of similar changes happening elsewhere.

Later, I will explore the book in more detail. For the moment, I want to pose a simple question to illustrate how reading a collection like this can lead to new questions.

By way of background, White Australia and Australian attitudes to race form one thread in the book. The earlier pieces take this for granted. The later pieces attack is strongly.

When you look at the earlier pieces they are very powerful. They combine every element necessary for a fully fledged fascist or at least racially exclusive political movement of great power. Interpreted through today's glasses, this must sound a great criticism. It's not. It's just a combination of things capable of being wrapped together in a way that even today would resonate across many parts of Australian society, combining the desire to do good with idealism, Australia's history and a very particular view of the Australian people.

Later I will explain this. For the moment I want to ask these questions. What caused the Australian people to reject this approach? How come we threw away central tenets - White Australia, a continent for a single people, our own perception of our exclusiveness - even though it was supported by every political movement and institution? That's surely an interesting question.

I have tried to answer it myself, focusing on the process of change. Yet reading this set made me wonder about my own explanations. There were a very particular set of circumstances at play to bring about such fundamental change in a such a short historical period. 

Postscript two 4 March

If you look at the comment thread here, you will see that Neil Whitfield introduced us to "The Awful Australian" by Valerie Desmond. That started quite an entertaining thread, now continued in two of Neil's posts: Valerie who? and then The Shrunken Morning Herald, and an eBook find. 


Michael O'Rourke, Canberra said...

Here's a piece by BBC on (UK) stereotypes of Aus:

Michael O'Rourke, Canberra said...


This too may prompt throught:

Aussies are "peaceful, hardworking and easily contented. They respect elders, love children and are patient with their fellows. Australians in general are reserved and humble. They believe in harmony and never look for confrontation." - Or are the Scots more like that?

"Australians self-stereotype themselves as having great style, elegance, being hard workers and lovers of life." Eh? Sounds like the Germans.

Or this -
Loudmouthed but generous? Optimistic but arrogant and ever ready to carry out military intervention?Hardworking but ignorant of history and tradition?Volunteerists, but environmentally unconscious? Materialists?, overconsumption? + extreme capitalists. Uneducated, ignorant, and gullible? Obese? Racist and racialist? Gun-loving and violent? (No of course not; this is surely the sterotype of . . . Japanese!! ;-))

Neil said...

I may get to this when I resume my reflections about 1957, as in that year we had an American teacher -- the first American we had ever met -- and went out of our way to demonstrate our Aussieness and his weirdness. Seriously, I find such questions very difficult to answer as I may be an Aussie but I am also me and furthermore from a particular background in a particular part of Oz (The Shire) at a particular time and from a particular background. So what generalisations really are of any use?

That said, I also feel it is obvious that in my seventy years we have changed what we mean by "Aussie" -- whatever that means. I certainly have changed my ideas and continue to do so.

You may be amused by a 1911 book "The Awful Australian" by Valerie Desmond.

"Of all the products of Australia, the politician is the least worthy and the least competent. Oratory in this land is in the same embryo condition as gem-cutting or the manufacture of scientific instruments. Generally speaking, there is not in the public life of Australia a speaker who reaches to the standard of mediocrity in England or America. And in speaking, so is it much in the other qualifications that make a politician. The present Prime Minister, Mr. Fisher, I heard in Melbourne just before he left for England. Knowing him to have been a miner, I was prepared. It would be unfair to compare Mr. Fisher with one of our cultured statesmen at home. But put him beside another miner—Mr. Keir Hardie—the comparison is ludicrous. I was told to wait until I heard Mr. Deakin, and, as luck would have it, I did get an opportunity of hearing Mr. Deakin at a social function at Toorak. Mr. Deakin was fluent, I'll say that for him, but to regard him as an orator or even an average public speaker is ridiculous to one accustomed to the polished delivery and deep thought of our English politicians.


"But I heard Mr. Holman and I heard Mr. Wade, and I heard Mr. Edden and Mr. Wood and Mr. Fitzpatrick, and several other funny little men whose names I cannot remember. Mr. Holman reminded me of the Polytechnic young man who apes the style of the Oxford Union. Mr. Wade was a lame and halting speaker, whose thoughts moved slowly, and whose diction was execrable. Mr. Edden reminded me of an old gardener we had at home. Mr. Wood was the colonial excelsis. He has the Australian accent strongly developed, he uses slang indiscriminately, and he is bumptious and aggressive. Mr. Fitzpatrick struck me as a mild man naturally trying hard to be like Mr. Wood. The others were colourless. In point of ability, it was ludicrous to think of these men controlling the destinies of a colony—even one of a paltry million and a-half people. I doubt very much if Mr. Holman or Mr. Wade would ever be elected to the London County Council or even one of the surrounding vestries. If they contrived to do so, they would certainly never go back at the ensuing election. Messrs. Holman and Wade in the London County Council would be simply overwhelmed. The inherent bluster of the Australian might prevent them being shamed to silence by the preponderating ability that surrounded them, but it would not be many days before they were forgotten, overlooked, and not even accorded the dignity of an "also spoke" by the press. To think of such politicians being in the Mother of Parliaments is enough to make the legislative angels weep."

Evan said...

David Malouf said that Australians see themselves in terms of landscape, I think this is true.

I do think things have changed in my lifetime (I'm soon 54). The big change I think culturally was in the 80's with the mainstreaming of gay (not entirely yet) due to the way Australia responded to AIDS.

The abolition of 'the job' from casualisation and needing two normal incomes to buy a house have brought different pressures too. Now people seem to have more sense that things are provisional. There is little sense of staying in a job or with an employer for life (which was still possible to think about when I left school).

Anonymous said...

Why am I only slightly mollified by the apparent fact that 'Valerie Desmond' does not have a wiki page; and why wasn't he introduced to A.B. Paterson?

For mine, I vote for Neil's "I am also me and furthermore from a particular background in a particular part of Oz (The Shire) at a particular time and from a particular background."


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi all. Will come back tomorrow with comments. I deliberately left this as open ended as I could!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, all for your comments. I will respond individually and then add a postscript just to explain a little more why I asked that question.

Jim Belshaw said...

Michael, interesting BBC piece. We always respond to the ways that others see us! I laughed at your descriptions.

Jim Belshaw said...

Valerie Desmond had a turn of phrase, Neil. I tried to find out about him, I assume that it is a him, but other than quotes from this book or the book itself found nothing. Anybody know anything?

Your point that kvd quotes is well taken. I have a part completed part autobiographical post on Charmian Clift and her husband that goes to this point.

I think that you are right on AIDS, Evan. The second does influence some of the changes in the way we see ourselves.

Neil said...

Valerie Desmond is a she,and her book was published by E W Cole of Coles Book Arcade fame.

Neil said...

Charmian Clift: now there is an Illawarra person.

This post from the Kiama local history blog is very good.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. Do you know anything about her, Valerie's history? The Clift link is great.

Anonymous said...

So the pompous old stoat was a woman! How perfectly dreadful for them :)


Neil said...

More about Valerie Desmond. See reactions from the time in the newspapers thanks to Trove.

The SMH: "Some years ago one T. W. H. Crosland discovered a new way of advertising himself, and filling his pockets, in his trilogy-"Lovely
Woman," "The Unspeakable Scot," and "The Egregious English." The method is a trifle out of date, but Miss Valerie Desmond (a spiritual daughter of Crosland) has seen fit to adopt it In "The Awful Australian." Miss Desmond is a past mistress in the art of vituperation and invective, and is equal lo the task she has set herself. Her book will probably have a considerable circulation, and she will have no reason to complain of Its reception."

Jim Belshaw said...

I really have enjoyed our discussion on Valerie. Her turn of phase and the responses she incited make interesting reading.

Winton Bates said...

The discussion of Valerie was enjoyable, but I would like to come back to your comment on the book:

"When you look at the earlier pieces they are very powerful. They combine every element necessary for a fully fledged fascist or at least racially exclusive political movement of great power. Interpreted through today's glasses, this must sound a great criticism. It's not."

I beg to differ. It seems to me that it is a very great criticism. The popular views at the time offended greatly against the Australia ideal that everyone deserves a 'fair go'.

Anonymous said...

A couple of further thoughts to add; hope that's ok.

On Ms Desmond, I was thinking about this before sleep last night (yes, it is a poor life I lead :) and came to the conclusion that VD was probably a pen name, and possibly a male, although I've read sufficient of the link to accept what Neil says on that; but more importantly, her publisher Cole was possibly the turn of century equivalent of The Onion - i.e. not above tugging at mis/preconceptions with gleeful joy. Therefore she's maybe a 'fake' old stoat. At least I hope so.

On Winton's point, I was once accused of 'unconscious white male privilege' in another time and place - and there was an element of truth in that criticism. But this makes me think that it is very hard to place onesself 'back' into the mindset of the people whose writings Jim mentions.

I therefore don't see anything contradictary or exceptional in holding on the one hand such views, and at the same time holding to the view that Winton describes as the genuine Aussie love of 'a fair go'. It really depends who you include in the term 'everyone' - and I think that has changed over the years.


Jim Belshaw said...

You are getting close to it, kvd, in two ways.

First, there were different threads and they were interconnected. One of the reasons that historians of the left persuasion in particular struggled so hard at times in writing about Australian history is that some of their greatest hero's were also devout exponents of white Australia.

Second, you do have to see views in the frame of the time. Whether you personally accept or reject views is irrelevant if you are trying to explain or interpret the past. And we have a problem here because present distaste of certain views actually creates a huge barrier to understanding. It distorts.

To rephrase my questions. How come a society with such apparently entrenched central views totally changed direction in the space of twenty or at most thirty years? How come that society did not embrace an alternative vision when all the elements were there to make that attractive?

I think that these are important questions that actually challenge the framework that many opinion makers today hold. They are important, too, because many in the community hold to elements of the old view.

This gives rise to a difficulty in writing. If I were to write a lucid, rational, presentation of those past views expressed in modern language and context, I suspect that it would have powerful appeal, an appeal not limited to that strange modern agglomeration called the Anglo-Celtic majority.

Jim Belshaw said...

By the way, I'm wondering if you are right on Valerie. Is she actually a man?!

Neil said...

I think Valerie was female, English and a journalist. Apparently she published in the Sydney Sun, which began in 1910. She gets a mention the the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature.

And I so hate Blogspot's silly bloody captchas!

Anonymous said...


Neil has a very good post on this book: and I've put a comment over there instead of clogging up your blog any further.

I've had a very enjoyable wander round early 20thC history today, thanks to you both!