Are we ashamed of Australian culture?

Date

Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

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Summer is drawing to a close. And as the last of our international visitors do the annual skip back from a sunburnt South to a pearly-skied North, we can finally breathe in the calm, put on a cuppa… and bitch.

Not about the guests, but about peoples’ reactions to the guests. That simpering, servile bleat on the part of too many Australians that goes something like: ‘Oh! You’re living in Eurrope! How MARVELLOUS! Vacuous Partner and I were just recently there. In fact, we like to go every year to get our dose of culture.’ Variations on this loathsome theme can include: ‘Oh, you must just LOVE the cheeses in Frawnce. It’s so difficult in Australia to get decent fromage’. Or they may add in a cheeky ‘n’est-ce pas’ to the most banal observations: “It’s hot, n’est-ce pas?’ or ‘I’m a tosser, n’est-ce pas?’

 It may seem odd to complain about colonial cringes in the aftermath of patriotic Australia Day booziness, but elite self-loathing is impervious to time. On a perfect summer day they could be sitting on a crystalline beach wishing that they were holed up in an apartment that resembles a telephone booth on a bleak muddy island in the northern hemisphere.

When people complain about Australia relative to New York, London or Paris what they want to say is: ‘I AM SOCIALLY SUPERIOR TO MY COUNTRYFOLK.’ But blurting out a comment like this is socially unacceptable. It can create social awkwardness and may sometimes lead to depression. So people find other ways to advertise their bourgeois status. One of the most time-honoured means of doing this here is to measure Australia against a mythical Old World and find it grievously lacking. If Europe is the natural homeland of philosophy, culture and art then Australia is a place of brash materialism and vulgar stupidity. If Europe has a long and complex history populated by Great Men with Great Ideas then Australia’s history is a story of fly-pestered philistines stuck on a desert island.

By identifying themselves with the Old World, these people assert a kind of social power through cultural distinction. They may not have as much money as ‘cashed up bogans’ but they know a language and a set of codes that guarantees their entry into a cultural elite whose ranks they guard with sneering pomposity. Rather than taking Australian creativity on its own terms they place it in an imagined hierarchy of nations and declare it bankrupt for the simple fact that it’s Australian.

 I would understand this if we were still living under Menzies or Howard. If we were 19th Century ladies flung to a convict dumping heap on the other side of the earth then of course Europe would look sophisticated by comparison. But we’re not. We’re a country with a breathtaking line-up of artistic events this year (Anish Kapoor and Francis Bacon to name but two) restaurants that would make any Parisian die of pleasure, universities with world-leading Professors and a fantastic history of feminist activism, democratic reform and workers’ rights. We were the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament on a national basis. We also invented the idea of the eight-hour day. Not to be sniffed at even by those who sniff!

Europe is just not that great either. I mean, if Europe was so terribly thoughtful then why would 17% of people in Holland or 15% in Denmark vote for the far right? Why were Parisian streets recently flooded by an estimated 800,000 people protesting AGAINST gay and lesbian marriage and adoption rights? Sure, Italians make good buffalo mozzarella. But how did they continue to elect Berlusconi for all those years? And have you seen European comedies? Not. Very. Funny. At. All.

If the colonial cringe was limited to irritating people at dinner parties then we could just engage in fierce eye-rolling. But it has much more serious consequences. It results in an over-valuing of anything that comes from Europe or America and an undervaluing of anything home-grown. Take the decision by the Liberal Queensland Premier last year to slash arts funding by 12 million, at the same time as establishing a 3 million dollar ‘superstar fund’. What this means is that local talent is starved while superstars from overseas are nourished. Or take the University of Western Sydney’s decision last year to only advertise for new academic posts internationally. No-one in Australia knew they were hiring. And good luck advancing in the legal profession without a Masters from Oxbridge.

I’m all for us being an outward-looking, cosmopolitan society that draws talent from around the globe. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of people here. And it shouldn’t mean a slavish adoption of all things European or American. Why is speaking French or Italian any better than speaking Walpiri or Indonesian? Why do we lament not being able to find a good croissant outside of France but say nothing of the difficulties of finding tagine outside of Morocco?

The sun set on European Empires years ago. We need to stop the cringing, end the sycophantism and soak up the sunshine right here.

151 comments

  • Well wrote, cobber

    Commenter
    Shorty
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 7:47AM
    • +1

      And can me mention our culture is over 50,000 years old, not some piddling 2 or 3,000?

      Commenter
      no_subject
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 1:08PM
    • Our culture is not 50,000 years old. I doubt any international visitors wander around our cities staring at our Maccas, Subways, American pop music, McMansions, meat pies, kebab shops, surfboards & wetsuits, 9 - 5 office jobs, pub fights, redbrick unit blocks and Coke signs saying to themselves ' Wow, this culture is ancient! The 50,000 years of history is palpable.'
      Whether we like it or not we clearly live an American/British derivative of western culture here in Australia.

      As for the article, I think it is the grass is greener types who bang on about the food/culture being better over there. Australia has some great food, wine & galleries, they are just more hidden away than in Europe.

      Commenter
      mont_y
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 4:45PM
  • It doesn't help that we are reminded of Europe everytime we look at our flag.

    Commenter
    Wal
    Location
    Bush
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 8:37AM
    • As a 6th generation Anglo Aussie Im proud of my heritage but totally agree that we need a new flag. The current flag is formulaic, not uniquely Australian and resembles SOOOO many other flags.

      Give me a green flag with a big yellow map of Australia on it - simple.

      Commenter
      jg
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 9:53AM
    • agree. any new flag will do.

      Commenter
      let's move on
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 10:59AM
    • 7th - I trump you all! And yes, change the b#$%y flag!

      What irks me is that the Kiwis are going to beat us to it.

      Commenter
      john
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 12:10PM
    • It's a great flag, most migrants have come here because of opportunity. The social structure that allows people to flourish and have opportunity comes from our institutions, we have this model and consequently this opportunity because of the British founders. Look at all the other fertile beautiful places around the world that are run on different principles and are awful places to live run by despots. I think that people coming from far and wide should remember the everyday things that we take for granted that make life in Australia so good and how that comes to be.

      Commenter
      Baz
      Location
      Manly
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 12:39PM
    • I vote for our new flag to have a picture of Rodney Rude on it.

      Commenter
      HighlyDubious
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 1:29PM
    • The flag is what you think it is - if you have a chip on your shoulder because you hate the UK then yes the flag will remind you of that. If you recognise the flag as Australian and that the canton is simply something that you inherited, embraced and made your own then you shouldn't have a problem with it. The UK gave us our flag and we don't hear Britons saying things like "look! those bogans put silly stars on our flag".

      Inheriting culture is something that we should be more receptive to. The next time you can be bothered have a look at the flag of the state of Hawaii - do you hear the current president of the USA (he's Hawaiian) whinging about the canton?

      Commenter
      Dullsville
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 7:15PM

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