Australia’s timid heart

It wasn’t until I’d lived outside Australia for awhile that I realised just how anti-intellectual my homeland is. One of the worst things you can be back home is a “wanker” which more times than not is used to refer to someone who thinks too much. Oh, the horror!

At most of the schools I attended it was far better to be good at sports than at schoolwork and no one ever admitted to studying hard. “Oh this? I only started it ten minutes before it was due. Don’t know what the teacher was thinking giving me such a good mark.” Roll of eyes.

I’m still not sure what we were afraid of. Well, yes, the scorn of the other students—no one wanted to be seen as a swot. But why? Why was a love of ideas and learning scorned? What’s wrong with being smart?

At the time, I never questioned it. I barely even noticed it. It was just the air I breathed. Hiding that you were smart, underplaying your intellectual achievements, that was just what you did. Or tried to do. Some of us were crap at it. We were the wankers.

During John Howard’s eleven-and-a-half-year reign the anti-intellectualism grew. When I went through school we were taught about the dispossession of the original inhabitants of Australia by the English invaders; I keep meeting people much younger than me who were not. I keep meeting Australians who cannot comprehend that admitting Australia was invaded does not wipe out the achievements of those invaders, those early settlers. You can be an invader and you can be a brave settler. At the same time.

In The Guardian Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian novelist, reflects on the Howard legacy:

In the wake of his defeat the attacks on Howard’s legacy will turn ferocious, but at their heart will be an unease, a ritual exorcism of something deeper that Australians would perhaps rather not admit. For a decade Howard’s power had resided in his ability to speak directly and powerfully to the great negativity at the core of the Australian soul—its timidity, its conformity, its fear of other people and new ideas, its colonial desire to ape rather than lead, its shame that sometimes seems close to a terror of the uniqueness of its land and people.

Its conviction that real life is going on somewhere else.

What Flanagan says is true. And it’s also not true. The tension between the two is a lot of what it means to be Australian. I think of how proud I was when Paul Keating gave the Redfern speech so many years ago. My pride, too, in John Howard’s immediate introduction of gun control laws following the Port Arthur massacre back in 1996. The horror I felt as the babies-overboard scandal was unfolding. Not to mention Tampa. And, of course, Howard’s continuing promotion of racism and intolerance: in the last days before the election he declared that the two things he was most proud of were the undoing of political correctness in Australia and renewing Australia’s pride in its Anglo-Celtic heritage. What of those Australians who do not have an Anglo-Irish background? What of the indigenous peoples of Australia? The immigrants from all over the world? What of their extraordinary contributions to Australia?

I don’t believe that each nation has a particular character. Or that all Australians are the same. Yet I cannot deny what Flanagan says about the Australian soul (whatever that is). We are a nation deeply suspicious of education and learning, who have produced an astounding number of prominent intellectuals, scholars, scientists and writers. Who, more often than not, go elsewhere to pursue their careers and contributions to learning and knowledge.

I am extraordinarily relieved and happy that John Howard is gone. I can’t imagine that Kevin Rudd will continue Howard’s legacy of anti-intellectualism, racism and intolerance. I could be wrong though. Those things existed before Howard took up the Prime Ministership and they’ll continue to exist long after him. It remains to be seen whether the new government will be as dedicated to improving the intellectual and moral climate of Australia as Howard’s government was to destroying it. The promise to say sorry is a good start.

But governments have come in before promising much and then delivering little. We’ll see, won’t we?