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?

Giving thanks

So today is a big ole USian holiday where at some point you’re all supposed to give thanks for all the stuff that’s making you thankful. It’s called—wait for it—Thanksgiving. We have no equivalent in Australia. Though we do have, Australia Day, where we commemorate the successful invasion of Australia by white people. As you can imagine the indigenous population consider it to be a day of mourning.1 The USian Thanksgiving has an equally complicated history.

But all that aside, I love the idea of a day given over to thankfulness. Here’s what I’m thankful for:2

  • That paper cuts heal quickly.
  • My iphone. I kisses it!
  • That the cold of this evil Northern hemisphere winter won’t actually kill me if I stick to my cunning plan of staying indoors.
  • That cricket exists and is being played right now even if I don’t get to see it.
  • The fingerless mittens with hoods that Cassie gave me. Another tiny defense in the face of this rampaging malign Winter. Yay!
  • The talking Elvis pen that Libba gave me because, hey, it’s ELVIS! and also because it’s so much cooler than Maureen’s lame High School Musical toothbrush. I win!
  • That there are two Australians in the house (yay, Lili and Sarah!) to lessen my homesickness and so we can all follow the election back home together.

What silly little things are you all grateful for?

  1. I’m one of those weird people who thinks there are things to mourn and celebrate about that day. As in, yes, Australia was invaded and taken over from the people who were already living there. And, yes, the early settlers of Australia were also brave and resilient making new lives for themselves a billion miles from home in a very inhospitable place. And, yes, the indigenous population were astoundingly brave resisting them against such overwhelming odds. My country bares the scars to this day. []
  2. Settle!—I’m not going to get too wet about this. []

Easy Rawlins

Internet access at last! And, sadly, I have to use it to work. While Scott is off entertaining littlies in schools all over Chicago to celebrate the official publication day of Extras I’m stuck in our hotel room slaving away. Le sigh.

The tour has been brilliant thus far. I’ve met many fabulous booksellers, authors, and sales reps—hey, Michelle & Anne!—and generally had a grand time. Running into John Scalzi & Liz Gilbert was a definite highlight. Liz is in Chicago too. Right now she’s at Oprah’s studios. That’s right, she’ll be on Oprah on Friday! Liz is one of my favourite people in the universe so if you get a chance do watch her on Friday’s Oprah. The whole hour is devoted to Liz. How incredible is that?

In addition to hanging out with book people and gossiping I’ve also snaffled up some pretty awesome freebie books, including the latest Easy Rawlins by Walter Mosley, Blonde Faith. So far I loves it:

“What are you reading?” I asked.

“Catcher in the Rye,” she said, a little frown on the corner of her pillow lips.

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s okay. I mean it’s good. But I just think about a little black child or Mexican kid readin’ this in school. They look at Caufield’s life an’ think, ‘Damn, this kid got it good. What’s he so upset about?'”

I laughed.

“Yeah,” I said. “So much we know that they ever even think about and so much they think about without a thought about us.”

I didn’t have to tell Gara who they and us were. We lived in a they-and-us world while they lived, for all appearances, alone.

Wow, huh?

And now I have some writing of my own to do. Here’s hoping it will be half as good as what Mosley writes.