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.