Australia's ongoing cultural cringe

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Australia's inferiority complex is alive and well and needs to change before we lose our best and brightest, writes Timoshenko Aslanides.

WHY DO SO MANY Australians still disdain and disparage Australian culture?

And why have some Australian politicians deemed preference for anything made in Australia “protectionism”?

The problem actually predates Australia. Here is Roman philosopher, Cicero, writing in 45 BC:

'I can never cease wondering what can be the origin of the exaggerated contempt for home products that is now fashionable.' (De Finibus, I, iii, 10, Loeb Translation.)

My Canberra thinks like Cicero’s Rome and for much the same reason: cultural immaturity. Rome, in Cicero’s day, was dominated by Greek culture. Even Julius Caesar’s last words, as he bled to death beneath those daggers in 44 BC, were Greek (according to Suetonius). Indeed, much of the literature that would later serve in the Age of Augustus to define what it was to be a Roman citizen, describe their place in the world and explore their aspirations in it, had yet to be written.

Canberra, similarly – indeed, Australia generally – is still very much in the thrall of foreign cultures: of things English, thoughts American and travels European. I have met highly educated Canberrans who actually believe that Australia has no culture.

They do not read Australian novels, attend performances of Australian plays, buy books of Australian poetry or listen to Australian music. Their ignorance, portrayed as our lack of culture, becomes a justification of their disdain for Australia — something one flies over on the way to a foodie tour of Tuscany. (Our Yarra Valley arguably has better wines and Milawa better cheeses.) That done, they would never consider living anywhere other than Australia; they may be ignorant but they are not stupid!

Why do we still think like this? Is it because so little Australian history and Australian literature is taught in our schools and universities? Is it the result of the demographics flowing from programs of unrelenting immigration and the cultural baggage that comes with it? Is it because our arts bureaucracies discriminate against, rather than actively support, our best writers? Is it because so many academic gatekeepers instinctively slap down any originality they detect in the manuscripts they read for publishers? And why do we embrace systems of “peer assessment” that perpetuate the reign of the mediocrities who produce and wallow in the malaise infecting Australian literary culture? Why, indeed and does it matter?

Well, yes — it does matter. Literature enriches our conversation, parallels our productivity, enhances our understanding of our follies and foibles and helps us to project, with a dry humour and nuanced optimism, an entertaining vision of who we are and what we hope to do with our lives.

Multiply this by hundreds of novels and thousands of poems and there would be innumerable Australians emotionally attached to landscapes in which their favourite novels and poems are set and plays located. Once connections like that are established, Australian literature in all its forms will take on a significance additional to the pleasures that reading provides.

Environments containing such deep-seated cultural connections have a much better chance of being preserved because development proposals which compromise or threaten their destruction and thus their cultural connections, have less chance of being approved. So, just as the land produces the literature, the literature can then protect the land. It is a renewable symbiotic relationship.

If we take more interest in what appears on our local stage we will have fewer qualms about taking our place on the world stage. If we read masterpieces of modern Australian literature like Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang, we’d have more pride in ourselves and spend a lot less money importing different (and indifferent) novels. And if we read more of our best poetry, we would not only feel better about ourselves, but also know why.

Above all, we’d be better able to stare down the patronising bluster of those who try to put us down and be more confident in saying no (or insisting on better terms), to trade treaties which compromise our freedoms or surrender our national interests. Nor would we worry about requiring foreign companies operating in Australia, to buy local. If we knew our own mind on this matter, they would too and not dare to do otherwise. By cultivating our own culture, we indirectly cultivate our own commerce.                  

If our cringing disdain for Australian culture continues and government policies preferencing adolescent economic theory over the health and wealth of Australians remain unchanged, then by the year 2050, we will have completely destroyed our manufacturing capability. We will also have exhausted viable reserves of coal, iron-ore and oil and, by unrestricted hydraulic fracturing, ruined our most productive farmland in the search for coal seam gas — besides rendering undrinkable huge aquifers like the Great Artesian Basin in the process. 

Our negatively-geared social fabric will be in ruins and our best and brightest will have migrated elsewhere. Before they leave, though, they will have written some illuminating accounts of what Australia was like around the year 2000.

Sales will be huge, for we will read with amazement about this incredible place that Australia once was and ask,

“How did it all go so wrong?”

Timoshenko Aslanides is an Australian poet. His most recent book is Letterature: Verse letters from Australian women (Hybrid Publishers). You can read more from Timoshenko on his website.

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