Ken has already linked to Possum’s post on Australian Exceptionalism, but I have a distinct point I want to make about it. In a great part I agree with the sentiment, although I’d espouse most of the past 220 years rather than just the past three decades. It’s far less the “Three Cheers school” of history than the “holy shit school” of history. That we became Australia rather than Argentina or the US South is astonishing, yet constantly overlooked in favour of petty events distinguished only by white on white violence.
A few years ago I had this missive printed on The Interpreter.
As much as I am wary of discussions of national character, there’s another aspect of cricket that I think relates to Australian character. This is the fretting that comes from unfavourable comparison with the unattainable.
There is a permanent dialogue about the fall of sportsmanship in cricket, the end of walking, players celebrating excessively etc. and an endless stream of scorn on players who are not saints. It never seems to be mentioned that no other sport would have an expectation that a player should disagree with the officials when he is favoured by them. What other sport would even conceive that the officials are a contingency plan against the teams’ disagreement rather than the first authority?
Likewise, following the generation after white settlement, Australia has consistently had among the highest standards of living and consistently been preoccupied with the weakness thereof, along with any other metric of national quality.
Who cares that the revealed preference of the world, expressed through net migration (people vote with their feet, after all) is overwhelmingly positive, nor that we have replaced Fair Verona as a literary fantasyland. Our kids aren’t learning! Our buildings are ugly! No one likes our films! We didn’t invent the computer! Our workers work less hours than the Koreans, are shorter than the Dutch, have fewer football skills than the Brazillians, do maths worse than the Chinese, make crappier cars than the Germans!
The deep insecurity about being less than perfect may be the greatest strength of both sport and country.
I really like the insecurity that obscures Australian achievement. I think it is a boon. It’s The Lucky Country Syndrome. Krugman once started a review of a Tom Friedman book with “Every few years a book comes along that perfectly expresses the moment’s conventional wisdom–that says pretty much what everybody else in the chattering classes is saying, but does it in a way that manages to sound fresh and profound.”.
That’s how I feel about Donald Horne. It’s so strange that even today references to the book are always accompanied with boilerplate about how people misunderstood the title. I find it hard to think of a thesis so universally accepted in Australia, nor one so which is so universally believed to be not widely accepted.
Which is great. If you have wraps on yourself, you’ll never wish to improve yourself. If you have pride in your way of doing things, you become resistant to change. Imposter syndrome has a far better payoff than the Dunning Kruger effect.
There are downsides of course.
One is the middle class whingeing that is the main subject of Possum’s wrath, which is an almighty blight. Another is the way our search for explanations of luck rather than virtue can grant power to the wrong people, most recently mining barons who how stewardship of resources wrongly credited with prosperity. These are small prices. Another is that one can sometimes be too insecure. If Australia feared becoming the “poor whitetrash of Asia”, then New Zealand feared becoming the ghost town left after a gold rush had moved on. Hence Rogernomics, a few steps too far and a widening divergence from her peers.
Already on Ken’s post commenters are lining up to say “Sure in the 80s reforms were good, but this current lot don’t have the ticker for it”. I have two responses
A) There is so much exciting things going on. The rejigging of the income tex thresholds and EMTR smuggled in via the carbon tax compensation package, the move towards taxation of profits rather than revenue, superannuation reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Lots of little things that should pay of well over the long term (but are ignored when contested things like the MRRT, Carbon Price and NBN are disfigured).
B) Keep saying what you’re saying. The country needs it.
After all, I’m fairly sure that at the time the 1980s reform period was not nearly as hallowed as it is now. Probably it was seen as a government leisurely bailing out a sinking tanker with a teacup whilst the swift ships of New Zealand and Japan moved over the horizon.
So in answer to the title. No, not “Australia, F*** Yeah!”. Maybe “Australia, We’re Not The S***”.