An open letter to an old colleague
(With apologies to E.P. Thompson and Leszek Kolokowski)
I was a bit startled a few months back when your name and your then forthcoming book, The Imaginary Australian, were invoked by Paul Sheehan and several other right-wing journalists to validate their hostility to migration, multiculturalism and so-called “black armband history”. This populist Janissary tabloid pack is riding high at the moment in the print media.
A number of them should know better, considering the cultural background suggested by their Irish names. They are my current pet hate. I was troubled and my curiosity was aroused by their enthusiasm for your work and the obvious fact that it had been made available to them before publication. Could this be the same Miriam with whom I rubbed shoulders in the small Sydney Trotskyist group presided over by Chairman Nick.
After some delays the book was released last week. Reading it led me to again read The Real Matilda and, to my mind, your most important book, your first, Greater than Lenin, the ground-breaking text about the Sydney Trades Hall Reds of the 1920s, to locate this new work The Imaginary Australian in the context of your past intellectual activity.
I have fond and still vivid memories of that small but significant Sydney socialist group in the early 1960s, and your and my presence in it. I remember clearly an earlier conference of the dissident Communist magazine Outlook, where I first met you, and you had recently completed the traumas of leaving the Communist Party and departure from a marriage to a Jewish left winger, Bernie, and your romantic entry into a new relationship with another comrade, Allan, taking two of the three kids along.
I remember those kids well: intelligent, confident and bright as tacks, and responding to family changes very resiliently. When you moved to Sydney and set up house with Allan, as you will remember, our small Trotskyist embryo party of 30 people or so, met at your house at Ashfield for quite a while. We were, as I remember it, a pretty colourful, talented and diverse group, and we went on to do all sorts of different things. We met there because yours was the biggest loungeroom. A traumatic split in the group began to develop right there, in that loungeroom.
Some of the features of those meetings will remain etched on my mind forever. Nick ponderously and stubbornly chairing the meetings, and occasionally boring us almost beyond endurance, with myself and others arguing intensely with him about emerging political disagreements. I remember you impartially criticising us all in the framework of your personal struggle to carve out a space for yourself as a youngish mother, moving against all odds back into academic life, completing a degree, a project and a thesis.
Some of my colleagues in the faction on my side of the group, used to afterwards caricature the meetings a bit, and your role in them, where you would demolish Nick for his almost magnificent sexism, and tick off the younger ones like myself for what you called our irresponsibility. (You seemed, in those days, to particularly disapprove of me.)
Almost by clockwork, you would get a migraine around 9pm, after criticising the lot of us, and go to bed in another room as the meeting carried on in the loungeroom.
In retrospect, considering the circumstances, you were pretty smart in proceeding in this way, although possibly a bit irritating to the rest of us. I remember it vividly now, in the context of the very real and important personal project in which you were then engaged, that of defining a territory for a female academic with a young family, and a right to political activity, balancing all those things together, and in that respect, you were a magnificent pioneer of your kind, who were to become a much larger cohort later in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Incidentally, have you read Hall Greenland’s useful biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot, and Susanna Short’s excellent biography of her father, Laurie Short, A Political Life, in which Nick figures so largely.
I imagine, in retrospect, that you share my view that, despite his many and obvious human flaws, Nick taught us all much more than anyone else could at the time and that we were all rather privileged and lucky to have come under his influence for significant periods in our lives.
The reason I introduce this little memoir of our common life and times is partly to establish a bit of context, but also partly to raise a very important methodological point about your latest book. In this book you embrace totally the currently fashionable “new class” theory, without either detailed description or careful explanation.
The context, however, and the favourable reference to Katharine Betts, suggests that you accept her version. I have just recently completed a thorough and, I believe unanswerable demolition of this “new class” theory, The real story about the “new class”, to which I refer you.
I find your espousal of this theory astounding. (The same point applies to Betts, herself a female academic, but I don’t know Betts, and I do know you, and I saw you close up, righteously clawing your way into academe, and the best of Irish luck to you!)
The following point is the central defect of the “intelligentsia-new class” theory, as applied to Australia by Betts, P.P. McGuiness, Michael Thompson, Bill Hayden and now, Miriam Dixson. (I find Hayden and the “new class” a bit rich. I wonder, does that born-again monarchist locate Her Majesty, the Queen, or himself, in the “new class”.)
The number of people with a recognisable university degree is now more than 17 per cent of the adult population and approaching 20 per cent. To describe this group as a homogenous “new class” is ludicrous.
It is, in fact, a nasty, conservative, political construct devised to attack these people’s perceived “progressive” views supporting migration and multiculturalism and their lack of “traditional family values”. The usual aim of conservatives who wave around “new class” rhetoric is to divert attention and animosity from the tiny minority who are the real ruling class in capitalist society, to the relatively less powerful social layer who work in education, health, the arts, communications, etc.
You wax eloquent about the “new class” theory in your last chapter, Conclusion: Understanding the Apostles. So does Bill Hayden, in his review of Katharine Betts’ book, The Great Divide, in a recent Weekend Australian. Both your last chapter and Hayden’s curious review sharpen the basic points about this theory.
Responding, it seems to me, to the analysis that I have been distributing widely, Hayden now qualifies the notion of the “new class” to only those who work in such areas as the media, and disagree with him. You also play around with the notion considerably in your last chapter, and both these versions highlight the obvious humbug associated with the theory.
Is this theory real political sociology or reactionary ideology? Who are the “new class”? Do they include all those with university degrees? For instance, are the several hundred thousand women teachers with degrees, members of the “new class”? Are the 54.8 per cent of women with degrees, of the 357,800 in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) category Society and Culture members of the “new class”?
In practice, all the “new class” theorists like yourself, Hayden, Sheehan, McGuiness, Betts and Thompson create a real moveable feast, in which you switch, as convenient, backwards and forwards from descriptive sociology to reactionary ideology in a totally eclectic way whenever it suits your argument.
In passing you make liberal use of the tendentious postmodernist category called “intellectual capital”. In practice, in the writings of the right-wing populist school on these matters, people with degrees become members of the “new class” if they hold, and campaign for, a range of ideological views in support of high migration, celebratory multiculturalism etc, of which you disapprove.
They often snap back into being normal human beings, “ordinary Australians”, if they agree with you on something. As serious political sociology, the “new class” theory, whether in your conservative populist form, or the Bourdieuan postmodernist form, is in practice, serious political humbug, usually used for totally reactionary purposes.
From the point of view of the status of women — the issue around which The Real Matilda is constructed — the “new class” theory is absolutely poisonous. When you were one of the wonderful first swallows of the approaching Feminist Spring, in the early 1960s, you were part of a tiny and brave minority of 15 per cent women, of the still comparatively small number of Australians with university degrees (then only about 3 per cent of the adult population).
Now that the number of Australians with degrees is nudging 20 per cent, women are about half, although they are still concentrated in education and health, etc, at the lower end of the income scale. To create an artificial construct of people with degrees as forming a “new class”, which Betts does, is to include the massive new cohort of women with degrees, including Betts and yourself, in this “new class”.
This is obviously absurd, and politically very dangerous to the interests of women, particularly when it is associated, by people like Michael Thompson, Michael Duffy and McGuiness, with a ferocious attack on the free university education of the Whitlam period, with the implied support for up-front university fees that goes with this attack. Have you really thought through the global political implications of so easily adopting this essentially conservative, but currently widely touted “new class” theory?
I assert that it is much more accurate and also, as it happens, more politically useful, to look upon the explosion of educational access for working class and lower middle class people, particularly women, during the last 30 years, as a righteous revolution, rather than the emergence of some artificially defined “new class”.
Does Australia have what can be properly described as an “Anglo-Celtic core culture”?
The assertion of the vital nature of what you call the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”, and its “holding” quality for Australian life, is your central preoccupation in the new book. I also am preoccupied with the question of national identity, and have written a number of essays on this question. I agree with you that Australia has a national culture, and a distinct national identity.
Like you, I reject the fancy postmodernist rhetoric ditching all notions of national identity and I launched a polemic asserting the existance of a distinct Australian national identity, particularly in opposition to the postmodernist Ghassan Hage.
I disagree sharply, however, with your intellectually quite forced celebration of what you call “Anglo-Celtic Australia” as the basis of a “core culture”, and your consignment of the Irish component of the Australian culture to a kind of tolerated side culture of a “clannish, pre-modern” Papist sort, to be absorbed by this British Australian “core culture”. I also reject the proposition that all the other elements in the Australian mosaic can be usefully conflated into this notion of an Anglo-Celtic “core culture” effectively dominated by the “British” aspect.
My reading of Australian history, particularly of the 19th century, in which I have soaked myself for the last couple of years, is radically different to yours. I can see why, with your tendency to celebrate the “civilising influence” of bourgeois British Australia, you are a bit crooked on the historians Manning Clark and Russell Ward.
The striking thing about both their narratives is this celebration of the dramatically oppositional Irish Catholic other, the “hard” other, to British Imperial Australia. Any objective reading of the 19th century demonstrates wave after wave of conflict of this sort.
In relation to the development of Australian nationalism in opposition to British Imperialism, I would rely on and refer you to the relatively recent, excellent and compact overview of this question, the book British imperialism and Australian nationalism, by Luke Trainor, Cambridge University Press, 1994. I would also rely heavily on Michael Roe’s important and ground-breaking work, published in 1965 by Melbourne University Press, Quest for authority in eastern Australia 1835-1851. Roe’s book, which arose out of his thesis, supervised by Manning Clark, included the first major inquiry into the contrasting roles of the two major religious groups in Australian society, the Catholic group mainly on the leftist and democratic side, and the Protestant group mainly reinforcing the deep-rooted conservative aims of the squatting interests.
Conflicts of the oppressed with the rulers of British Australia
These conflicts started with the Aboriginal military resistance, led by Pemulwuy of the Eora people, around Sydney from 1790-1802. They continued with the Castle Hill Irish rebellion. They were embodied in the many outbreaks of bushranging. They continued further with the Aboriginal war of resistance in Tasmania.
The Australian colonies then experienced the struggle against transportation, for self-government, and against proposals for a “Bunyip Aristocracy”. Then came Eureka, followed by the struggle for “free selection” of land in most of the colonies, the Kelly outbreak in Victoria, and the Aboriginal war of resistance of the Kalkadoon in Queensland, then the great strikes of the 1890s.
We also had the “blackbirding” slave trade of the Kanaka of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to these shores, followed 30 years later by their ruthless expulsion from Australia, etc. All through the 19th century, from convict times on, my Irish ancestors and the secular working class of non-Irish background and indigenous Australians were in constant conflict with British Imperial Australia. Why am I telling you this? You know it already from your early work in labour history.
In my reading of these matters, the distinct Australian national identity, which we both agree exists in some form, was hammered out at every stage in opposition to imperial British Australia. How can that constitute an “Anglo-Celtic core culture”.
For all the right-wing populists, like Paul Sheehan, Katharine Betts, Michael Thompson, etc, that kind of formulation is code for all the old reactionary rubbish that was used against the emerging labour movement and my Irish ancestors and also against indigenous Australians, non-British Australians, Chinese Australians and other Australians of colour. There is, indeed, a real Australian national identity, but it is a product of all those struggles and many later, against the brutal power and the pretensions of the British ruling class in colonial Australia.
I and many thousands of others are deeply hostile to your condescending British Australian notion of an “Anglo-Celtic core culture”! These days a comfortable majority of Australians have a distinct idea of a national Australian identity to which they lay claim and contribute, but we of the current majority would not describe that identity in terms of your “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. That formulation is unpleasant nostalgia for an Australia that is now, happily, in rapid decline.
What constitutes this “Anglo Celtic core culture”?
One of the difficult aspects of your new book is that you don’t really spell out what are for you the key aspects of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. You make a series of throwaway references to various features of Australian life and leave us to draw the inferences for ourselves. This is just a little unfair, really.
On page six you make what is, in fact, one of your key formulations:
- At least over a period of consolidation, the core culture needs to keep on imparting its steadying sameness and cohesion to institutional patterns and broad values. It needs to continue providing enough of that sameness to give Australians as a whole not the desire — for that we clearly have — but the ability to live with enriching diversity over the long term.
Further down on page six, you say: “social cohesion is badly fudged in current identity debate”, and on page seven you raise the awful spectre: “In today’s world, the dangers of social unravelling — in Russia, in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Indonesia — are there for all to see.” On page 44, you approvingly resurrect Henry James in this memorable paragraph:
- In 1907 the American novelist Henry James aired related concerns about his own country. Between 1881 and 1910, 15 million migrants entered America, and according to the 1910 census, over 22 per cent of the population said they could not speak English. During decades overseas, James had developed his own kind of “obsession” about the impact of what he called “the great ‘ethnic’ question” on “the ‘American’ identity”. So in 1907 he went back to find out what changes the ethnic “ghost had made in his supposedly safe old house”. He discovered the “lapse” of some spontaneous “element of communication” that enabled the “play of mutual recognition” which then operated in European countries. “Founded on old familiarities”, this spontaneity had involved a kind of “impalpable exchange”. In the United States such exchange was now not only “absent” but unthinkable. The result was a “sterility” of communication, indeed a “staring silence”. With a great artist’s insight, James perceived that for the United States, “nothing is more characteristic … than the development of … machinery … [through which] the idea of intimacy of relation may be … freely cherished”. He partly suspected and partly hoped that in the end the old identity would assert itself. After “the business of slow co-minglings and makings-over” had finally worked itself through, old-identity “qualities ingrained in generations”, might “rise again to the surface”.
Again on page 157, you promiscuously invoke the Francophile views of the postmodernist, Julia Kristeva, to reinforce your position:
- On immigration and on the nation, Kristeva’s criticism of the French Left, with which she identifies, repays careful attention. In France, she writes, “ridicule kills, nationalism is in bad taste and patriotism [is] downright trashy”. Kristeva declares herself “grieved to have heard on many occasions, left-wing intellectuals, for the sake of a misunderstood cosmopolitanism, sell off French national values”. The Left, she contends “demagogically flatters the immigrants and runs down the national reality into which they hope to become integrated”. The resultant underestimation of the “national imaginary” could bring the most dire results.
In this context, it doesn’t matter at all whether Kristeva is a Bulgarian or a Brazilian, in the same way that it didn’t matter whether the Anglophile, the late Frank Knopfelmacher was a Czech or a Chechen. Their reactionary views are examples of the phenomenon of some migrants becoming more super-assimilationist and ultra-”patriotic” (in the interests of the host imperialist power) than anybody else. The great example of this in the 20th century is the brutal great Russian chauvinist, the vicious Comrade Stalin, who actually came from Georgia, a Russian colony not unlike Ireland as a colony of England.
Many of these extracts from your book are examples where you infer right-wing populist views on contentious current questions from the mouths of prestigeous authorities without quite sticking your neck out to the extent of saying that you totally agree with them. It seems quite clear to me that you do largely agree with them on the matters referred to in the extracts that you choose to quote.
Your lament at the breakup of “social cohesion” in “Russia, Yugoslavia and Indonesia” is extraordinarily revealing. In each of those cases the break-up was in large part caused by the spectacular revolt of the subject nationalities in those three empires against the Russians who oppressed the other nationalities in the Soviet Union, the Serbs who oppressed the other nationalities in Yugoslavia, and the Javanese elite and military who oppressed and oppress the other nationalities in Indonesia.
The “social cohesion” in these states was the social cohesion produced by a brutal imperial oppressor nationality suppressing the national rights of other nationalities. Your use of this analogy is unintentionally very illuminating about your attitude to the national question in Australia. You obviously regard the domination of Australian society by the Anglo elite of the last century as necessary to “social cohesion”. That “social cohesion” is just as unpalatable to most Australians now as the former “social cohesion” was to the other nationalities in the three states mentioned above.
Paragraphs like the ones I have quoted recur throughout your book, and they are usually associated with the proposition that you are not really opposed to ethnic diversity, but that you desire that this ethnic diversity should go through the sieve of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”, which seems to me to be a mealymouthed and fancy way of reasserting the old, unpleasant and discredited policy of total assimilation of all minorities into the “British Australian” way of life.
In addition to this, the whole build-up of these paragraphs is obviously designed to create a fear that the extent of ethnic and cultural diversity in some way threatens the “holding quality” of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”.
Well, it is quite clear that the ethnic diversity is one of the factors that has thrown Tory British imperial Australia into full retreat. Personally, I celebrate this dramatically increasing ethnic diversity and the irreversible retreat of Tory British imperial Australia to which this increasingly complex and vibrant Australian multiculture is a major contributor.
Anzac Day and wars in Australian history
You join, in a very deliberate way, the current attempt to revive militarism by the orgy of sentimentality about Anzac Day, the Vietnam veterans etc, that has become one of the key motifs in recent times of the tabloid press. You are not quite as crude as your fan, the best-selling journalist, Paul Sheehan, who proclaims that Anzac united Australia, but you get quite close to this notion, as you often do in the book, through the voices of others.
On page 150 you say:
- Within the allegedly secular Australian national identity, Anzac embodies a reflection of Kantorowicz’s universal “sacrificial moment”. The historian Ken Inglis tells us that after 1918 Anzac Day became our “national day”, and its “ceremonies, monuments and rhetoric” constituted something like a “civic religion”. Others, such as Alistair Thomson, have underlined the idea that the Australian nation was born in blood above the cliffs of Anzac Cove. Anzac thereby furnishes an Australian example of Anderson’s idea of an integral link between religion and the national imaginary. Anzac provides just such a bridge between the nation and identity concerns like death, suffering, and immortality — concerns managed by pre-modern dynastic imagined communities and bequeathed to the imaginary of the modern nation.
There is no doubt at all that the construction of Anzac Day is a central part of the celebration of imperial bourgeois British Australian identity. The fact that it incorporates and commemorates the very real pain, anguish, tragedy and heroism of a number of generations of Australians, mainly men but some women, who fought and died in a series of wars, is what gives Anzac Day its real potency as a national symbol, which is unfortunately used by the ruling class in capitalist Australia for the most reactionary purposes.
I have a rather different attitude to Anzac Day and the wars in which Australia has been involved. No one in my family has ever been a pacifist. My adult relatives and ancestors have fought in several of those wars as volunteers and, indeed, I campaigned in a civilian way in relation to the Vietnam War, against it. I would commence a narrative about Australians and wars with the first Australian war, the one between indigenous Australians and British imperialism, which went on in quite a sharp way on the frontier, from the time of Pemulway, the great Aboriginal guerilla leader, for the next 150 years, and in which thousands of unfortunate people were killed. (Obviously there were many more Aboriginals killed than whites.) In that war I mainly celebrate the indigenous Australian resistance, although I feel sadness for the whites killed as well.
I celebrate also military acts of resistance by the underclass of colonial Australia against British Imperialism, such as the Castle Hill rebellion of the Irish in 1804, the Eureka Stockade and the Kelly outbreak. I celebrate the vigorous Australian opposition to the sending of an Australian contingent to the war of British imperialism in the Sudan. I also celebrate the widespread Australian opposition to Australian participation in the war of British imperialism against the Boers in South Africa. My own Irish grandfather was arrested and did three months in Grafton Jail over a small local incident of opposition to the Boer War. None of those wars were at all popular with the Australian labour movement at the time, particularly with Irish Australians.
Nevertheless, when the First World War broke out, my father, that Irish grandfather’s son, joined up, mainly as he put it later, to see the world. He survived Gallipoli, but was blown up in 1918 by a shell and survived less his left arm, with one leg shorter than the other, and with five pieces of shrapnel still in his body. He went on to live to 80, and became a school teacher and an activist in the labour movement.
My father was quite emotional about his First World War experiences. The main things he celebrated about this war were the mutinies of the Australian soldiers on the Western Front, in which he participated, the famous fraternisation with the Germans at Christmas in the early years of the war, and the vote of the frontline soldiers against conscription in the two referendums.
He was particularly proud of the fact that the British were not game to shoot any of the Australian mutineers, although many were shot in the British and French armies. He identified deeply and profoundly with the decisive event of the First World War at home in Australia, the defeat by the combination of the secular working class, the Irish Catholics and the farmers, of Billy Hughes’ conscription proposals in the referendums.
The sum of his First World War experiences left him with a great aversion to imperialist wars. He had a complex attitude to Anzac Day. He wore the returned soldiers badge all his life, because he said he had a right to it. He had been maimed and his mates had died for that right. Nevertheless, he rarely went to the Anzac Day march because, as he put it, he was repelled by the sight of the base officers who sent his mates out to get killed, up at the front.
He was expelled from the Labor Party during the Second World War, along with his leader J.T. Lang and the Victorian parliamentarian Maurice Blackburn, for opposing conscription for overseas service. These proposals by the Curtin government were also opposed more cautiously from within the Labor cabinet by Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell. My dad lived long enough to lend vigorous support to our campaigns against the Australian participation in the imperialist war in Vietnam in the 1960s and the 1970s.
In the lead-up to the Second World War a contingent of Australians, including nurses, went to fight on the side of the Republicans in Spain, against Fascism, in the International Brigades, and a number were killed in this utterly righteous cause. One young Sydney Catholic, Nugent Bull, went off on a lone misguided sortie to fight on the Franco side. Paradoxically, after fighting on the fascist side, he went to England at the end of the Spanish Civil War and joined the British Air Force to fight Hitler. He was killed in action in 1941. Such were the contradictions of the times.
The Second World War
Despite all the above, eligible male relatives of mine volunteered to fight in the Second World War. From the point of view of most Australians, including the labour movement and the working class, the Second World War against German Fascism and Japanese aggression, involving a military threat to Australia, was the “good” war, as Studs Terkel, the American writer, calls it. It was particularly good locally, in one sense, that the number of Australians killed and injured was much less than in the First World War.
Even the Australian Trotskyists, Nick Origlass, Laurie Short and others, who led significant industrial struggles for basic workers’ rights during the war, supported military defence against the possibility of Japanese invasion, while at the same time demanding the democratisation of the Army and the organisation of workers militias. (The only letter Trotsky ever wrote to the Australian Trotskyists revolved around that point. Trotsky said the fact that the Australian working class would resist any invasion by Japanese Fascism militarily, was justifiable and should be supported. This letter of Trotsky’s is the famous letter that was baked when hidden in an oven during a raid on Nick Origlass’s house by police in 1940. It mostly survived, rather crisp and brown.)
A major feature of Australia’s involvement in the Second World War was its complexity and the ambiguities that emerged during this conflict. The battle between the Curtin government and Churchill over the conflict of interest between the defence of Australia and Britain’s military interests, has been widely discussed in all the literature.
The conflict over the reckless sacrifice of Australian soldiers in the Malay Peninsula by the British, was particularly sharp. There is a whole school of British military “history” that attempts to ascribe the collapse of Singapore to the alleged insurrectionary indiscipline of the Australian troops, who did not take at all kindly to being sacrificed to the Japanese Army.
There are several very tendentious recent British books on this subject. The most extreme example of this unpleasant “blame-the-Aussies” genre of British “military history” is Singapore, The Pregnable Fortress by Peter Elphick (Hodder and Stoughton, 1995). For me, the great hero of the Second World War is Mick Gibbins, the inventive and lively Aussie sergeant who, after his British commanding officers surrendered, managed to lead his platoon of young volunteers from Gippsland out of up-country Malaya, through the jungle, partly with the aid of Chinese communist guerillas. They crossed over to Sumatra in a small boat and then walked across Sumatra.
They finally got on to another ship, one of the last away, back to Fremantle. These resourceful Aussies, the “Malayan harriers” only just escaped court martial. The military brass were embarrassed by their initiative. Only generals were supposed to escape.
My mother’s brother volunteered when Darwin was bombed, ending up in the Air Force in Britain as part of the Australian air crew who were sacrificed by the mad Bomber Harris, many of whom were killed in Harris’s crazy and barbarous daylight bombing raids on Germany. My uncle was lucky, and survived.
By far the most popular piece of literature that came out of the Second World War, among men who actually fought in that war, was the wonderful novel about the Aussies at Tobruk, The Twenty Thousand Thieves, by the communist novelist, Eric Lambert, who himself fought at Tobruk. This was a constant best seller for several years in the late 1940s. The main feature of this novel was that, while in a general way it supported the righteousness of the war, it also celebrated the rebelliousness, indiscipline and plebian self identity of the soldiers, as the title of the book suggests.
Frank Thompson and Australians
I got the idea for writing this letter to you from the quite famous open letter written by the redoubtable E.P. Thompson, whom I am sure we both revere as the real founder of modern labour history, to Leszek Kolokowski, disagreeing with him about his renunciation of Marxism. Well, there are only “six degrees of separation” in intellectual life, as in other aspects of life.
You will be aware of the sadness associated with the recent death of the novelist Iris Murdoch, after a period of Alzheimers Disease, and the moving coverage of her husband, John Bailey’s battle with this human problem. Well, when young before the Second World War, and an enthusiastic communist, Iris Murdoch recruited E.P. Thompson’s elder brother, Frank, to the Communist Party. After this, they split up as lovers, although he still tried to woo her back from afar at the war.
Frank Thompson became involved in British Special Operations Executive military and intelligence operations in the Balkans, in which he ultimately lost his life heroically in a botched guerilla march from Yugoslavia into Bulgaria. He had opposed this military adventure as madness but, nevertheless, loyally carried it out in a disciplined way, after pressure both from British military headquarters in London and Russian and Bulgarian communist leaders in Moscow. He was shot by the Nazis, along with other guerillas, after capture.
The story of this military screw-up became caught up in the Cold War and Frank Thompson’s ghost was variously denounced by Eastern European Stalinists as a British agent and by MI5 military historians as a dangerous agent of the Comintern. In 1981, E.P. Thompson gave a wonderful lecture unravelling this strange historical story in a tribute to his heroic brother’s memory, and wrote a little book, one of his last, about these events, celebrating his brother’s life.
A part of this book consists of Frank Thompson’s moving and interesting love letters to Iris Murdoch. This whole small anecdote of people’s lives is a wonderful vignette of modernity. What pops out from this story is a view expressed by Frank Thompson about Australians. On page 65 of Beyond the Frontier we read the following letter from Cairo in August 1942, from Thompson to Iris Murdoch.
- There is something epic about this “Middle East”, if only one could get a frame for it. We have an assortment of nationalities that would make Caesar’s legions look like a team from the Home Counties. The Russians, driving north through Hamadan, close-cropped, berry-brown, in dark blue breeches with knee-boots, grinning fit to bust and giving the V-sign to every one they pass; the diminutive Iraquis in khaki breeches and puttees mounting guard among the white hollyhocks on the Persian frontier; the Arab legion and the French meharistes, slender and almost girlish in their red-and-white kefiyehs and long brown cassocks, camps like old Tamurlane on the green steppe-land, swaying round the fire in dances that might have come from Sanders of the River; Indians everywhere, the neatest, cleanest and most dignified soldiers in our army — fat bearded Sikhs, MPs with their pointed puggarees, and Gurkhas (are those Gurkhas with their almost Malayan features?) travelling impassively on the backs of trucks; coons everywhere, squatting round brush-fires, driving down main roads like a wind out of hell, grinning in road-gangs, but never, that I could see, working (on the Phoenician sea coast a camp with a large crocodile mosaicked out in white pebbles with the word BASUTOLAND); elegant Greek and Yugoslav officers preening themselves on the streets of Alex; Fighting French, Poles, Canucks, Yanks in jeeps, huge South Africans almost childlike in their docility, New Zealanders, rough-hewn and intelligent, Aussies, rough-hewn and undoubtedly villainous. And Englishmen? Yes, there are quite a few Englishmen — nearly always to be recognised by their utter civilianity, the complete lack of martial fire or any other eccentricity with which they stroll down streets and stare wistfully into shop windows. And glimpses, not always without humour, of the Wops and Dutchies. This war is demonstrating, beyond any hope of refutation, the Unity of Man. No one, at least, who’s been in the Middle East will want to deny it.
This Frank Thompson story, although intrinsically very interesting, may seem like going a long way round in a discussion of Australia and wars. But the point is, if an intelligent and courageous young middle class English communist could have such a view of Australians in 1942, it was obviously based on the immediate conflicts of interests between Britain and Australia and an already developed hostility towards Australians of the English middle classes, going back to the First World War and much further. How much fiercer must have been the hostility of the British ruling class to Australians and Australia? So much for the British-Australia patriotism celebrated and memorialised through Anzac Day.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was my war in the sense that, as a mature young adult, my life was dominated for seven or eight years by the utterly righteous and justified campaign against this rotten war. (Earlier on, I had escaped national service (nasho) in the 1950s because of enormous bunions.) The overwhelming majority of those who campaigned against the Vietnam War had no personal animosity towards the national service conscripts and peacetime regular soldiers who were sent by our vicious political masters to wage war against the people of Vietnam.
Certainly, the militant and effective group of which I was the initiator and secretary, the Vietnam Action Committee, had, as its central slogan, “Bring Australian troops home now” and we placed a lot of our agitational emphasis on this being in the interests of the Australian soldiers as well as the Vietnamese.
There were some Vietnam antiwar protesters who vilified the soldiers, but they were a tiny minority of the opponents of the war. With the complex and diverse nature of my family background in relation to wars, I was personally very conscious of the fact that young men are drawn into wars by a multitude of circumstances and, in the case of those sent to Vietnam, often against their will.
In the case of others who went off to the Vietnam War willingly, their views were sometimes changed by their experiences of the war. When the war ended, the Australian troops had come home, and many Vietnamese who had fought on the losing side ended up in Australia, I felt no personal animosity towards any of them. One of the paradoxes of the Vietnam experience is that I now have friends amongst Vietnam veterans, particularly among those veterans who have been campaigning for their natural right to compensation for their exposure to agent orange.
I also have a number of friends among Vietnamese migrants to Australia. I was greatly heartened in the vigorous marches against Pauline Hanson’s racism a couple of years ago, by the wonderful diversity of those marches, which included the largely Anglo or Celtic young members of slightly exotic socialist groups, and also large contingents of Vietnamese migrants marshalled in a rather military way by old officers from the South Vietnamese Army.
I am utterly repelled by the modern right-wing populists, like your fan Paul Sheehan, who make a meal of alleged Vietnamese ghettoes in Cabramatta. After all, the 300,000 Aussies from Indochina wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Vietnam War.
The bourgeois historical revisionism in relation to the 1960s and the 1970s and the struggle against the Vietnam War does not intimidate me one bit. We were right in our opposition to the war and many of those who fought in it, or even initiated it, such as former US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, now realise this.
I am in favour of reconciliation between all the participants in that conflict, but that is a different question, and those of us who opposed the war from day one have nothing at all to apologise for.
There is a further question in relation to the upheavals of the 1960s and the 1970s, which were crystallised in the campaign against the vicious war in Vietnam. They brought to a head a number of developing contradictions in Western society and they unleashed social forces that are quite socially and culturally irreversible.
The reactionary populist attack on this whole period is rubbish. You say, on page 96:
- Yet when we examine aspects of our history that are both unique and formative — for Europeans, a location far from Europe and long seen as intractably alien; a core culture ethnically split from the start, partly over issues born of colonialism going back to the 12th century; the brutal extended displacement of the indigenous people; and a stigmatised convict beginning — the fact is that Australia’s imagined community actually “held” us with surprising firmness until the 1970s.
You are here inferring the general right-wing populist rhetoric about how the disintegration of so-called “civilisation” started in the 1960s and 1970s. This kind of rhetoric is self-interested, conservative nonsense designed to try to roll back the very considerable leaps in human consciousness and understanding, and the resulting changes in social practices, that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s.
On the more immediate question of the significance of Anzac Day and war nostalgia as a “holding force”, I summarise my viewpoint in the following way. My ancestors and relatives, including way back one possible Aboriginal ancestor, have fought or otherwise been involved in a number of the wars that have taken place in Australia or affected Australia.
I celebrate the lives and heroism of all those who have fought in all those wars on whatever side. I am quite incapable, however, of abdicating my realistic political understanding of those military events. I am very proud, for instance, of the defeat of conscription in the referendums in 1916 and 1917, and the opposition of many Australians to the First World War, and I am proud of the effective and ultimately successful campaign against the Vietnam War.
I celebrate and mourn the pain and death of those who fought and were killed in those wars, even if, as in the case of the Australian soldiers in Vietnam, they were on the wrong side. I believe the war memorials should be respected properly. I am greatly taken with acts of reconciliation such as Terry Burstall’s books, particularly the one in which he goes back to Vietnam and meets up with the Vietnamese soldiers who fought on the other side to him at Long Tan.
I note the great respect with which the people of Vietnam, including the Vietnamese Army, treat the graves and memorials to the soldiers that fought against them during the war. That war was my war, in a sense, and I am greatly interested in reconciliation between all those who were affected by and involved in that war, both Australians and Vietnamese, on both sides.
One thing I have no intention at all of ever doing (even if I live to be 100), is join the utterly reactionary general celebration of the Anzac events by imperial British Australia, in the current tabloid way that is so obviously just a crude political device to create a counter-revolution in Australian historiography.
I fully understand, support and celebrate the aspect of Anzac Day in which men and women who fought in all those wars go along to commemorate their own younger lives and the lives of those who have already passed on and their common experiences in those events, and to see old friends. I often watch the march on television as a cultural event and a passing commentary on the lives of other Australians.
In no way do I oppose or begrudge the ordinary Australians who fought in those wars those movingly human celebrations. Nevertheless, I do not regard the First World War and Australia’s participation in it or the utterly unrighteous war of imperialist intervention in Vietnam, and our participation in that war, as being a culturally useful primary focus for Australian national identity.
Celebrating these wars is a rather obvious device for reasserting a reactionary “British Australia” cultural hegemony, which I have been fighting all my life. What I primarily celebrate about those two wars is the great wisdom displayed by the Australian people in defeating conscription in the First World War, and eventually opposing the Vietnam War and withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam.
Celebrating Anzac and the memories of Charlie Mance (born December 3, 1900)
In relation to Anzac Day and wars, I would draw your attention to the fact that most of the last few surviving contemporaries of my father who actually fought in the First World War, when interviewed on television, say very firmly that war is hell, and that war, in particular, was very bad indeed. I have a number of times in recent years been greatly impressed by the stubborn way that a couple of these old diggers have got that basic point over on television in the few seconds of air time that you get in a televisoin grab. They are great men indeed, those still surviving First World War diggers.
It is worth reprinting in this context part of an interview with one of them, Charlie Mance, by Gina Leros and Deborah McIntosh in Sunday Life, in the Sun Herald (August 15, 1999):
- “I’ve lived through quite a few wars,” says Charlie Mance, shaking his head. “I was born in a war — the Boer War of 1900. I was six during the Zulu Rebellion, 14 when the Great War happened, 39 during the Second World War and then, of course, there were Korea and Vietnam. But the First World War was definitely the worst, considering the conditions under which we served.”In 1917, Charlie abandoned his job as a blacksmith’s striker in a metal foundry in Brunswick, Victoria, and joined the war by lying about his age — he was only 16 — and scraped in at a mere 160 centimetres. But he was bolstered by a combination of ambition — “I wanted to do something for my country because the Anzacs were losing” — and teenage invincibility. “We were all young and silly as rabbits, I suppose, but I was thrilled to pieces to do it. I was tough and strong and wanted to serve to the best of my ability.”Charlie enlisted at a time when reinforcements were urgently needed on the Western Front. “When I joined up, things were pretty tough for the Anzacs. They’d already evacuated Gallipoli and volunteers were getting scarce. The pick of the Australian nation had already gone. So, they created what they called a Sportsman’s Thousand — the 22nd battalion — where they reduced the required weight and height from 172 centimetres and I put up my age to make it through. I knew I was doing the wrong thing because I was underage; I even lied to my mum to get her to sign the papers.”The new recruits spent a few months training in Victoria: “We were poorly equipped. The guns got so scarce that we had to train with a log of wood to represent a rifle.”
They disembarked in England in December 1917 and arrived in France in April 1918, where Private Mance, No. 763A, fought with the 22nd in Amiens, Ville-sur-Ancre, Villers-Bretonneux and Mont St Quentin. A determined youth, Charlie recovered from a gas attack that left him blinded and voiceless for six weeks, then resumed his frontline attack on Herleville on 18 August 1918.
Charlie recalls one gruesome battle: “In France, they had a life-size crucifix, they had machine guns behind it and blew us out. They got 14 of us, I got wounded and there were three dead. The stretcher-bearers yelled out, ‘Can you walk?’ and being a young kid, I said, ‘yes’, because there was still lots of hard work to do, see?
“A 60-pounder would fire and frighten the hell out of you; there’d be flying shrapnel and artillery everywhere. Lots of our fellows got killed so I’m lucky to still be here.”
By the end of 1918, only 130 of the 1000 men were left. Charlie was wounded in the chest by a shell. “And the conditions were shocking,” he adds. We were lousy as a bandicoot as I say, and we wouldn’t have a bath for four months. We’d be living in trenches of mud and slush and we were half-starved.”
His last battle was the capture of Montbrehain near Beaurevoir on the Hindenburg Line on October 5, 1918.
Charlie was discharged in 1920. In that year, he also married Bessie Luckwell in Warminster, England. “Bessie was 18 and I was 18 and five months,” says Charlie, eyes glistening. “I literally met her walking down the street! We were only young blokes, kicking around in mobs, as you do. And the English girls wanted adventure, wanted to fall in love or go to Australia with an Australian soldier — which she did.”
Charlie tried to prevent his own son, Lionel, from being conscripted in WWII “because I didn’t want him to be gun fodder”. Military service isn’t the only answer, he says, for teaching young people discipline, obedience or patriotism.
One of the 60 pounders mentioned by Charlie Mance was the shell that maimed my father in 1918. It is interesting that my father, all his life, used almost exactly the same form of words as Charlie Mance does here about joining up: “We were all young and silly as rabbits.” The powerful testimony of those like my father and Charlie Mance who, if his luck continues as it has so far, will live to see the new century, should be very forcefully taken into account.
In view of the war experiences of First World War diggers, it is not at all appropriate that mindless militaristic celebration of Winston Churchill’s costly Anzac Cove military disaster, in which so many young Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and Turks died needlessly, should be taken as the defining centre of Australian national identity.
Lenin and national identity
I am rather amazed that you can write a whole book about the national question in Australia without some reference to Lenin’s very well-known work on the subject, which I regard as the basic introduction to the question in the modern world. As you well know, Lenin had a fairly well-developed notion of nationality and what the fundamental characteristics of a real nation are, which he associated with factors such as language, religion and ethnicity but with which he also associated such questions as nationalities being tied in with the economic framework in which they exist. His view was quite complex.
He regarded such nationalities as the Irish, the Poles, and also the Russians and the Ukrainians and the English, as very real entities. In relation to nationalism, however, he made a sharp distinction about the nationalism of oppressed colonial peoples, in which he included the Irish and the Poles, and which he regarded as a progressive force, in the limited sense that they tended to break up the imperialist hegemony in the world.
On the other hand he regarded such things as Imperial British, Russian and German nationalism as thoroughly reactionary, although he quite clearly recognised the existence of Russia, Germany and England as real nationalities with real national identities. After the Russian Revolution he celebrated a number of aspects of Russian culture and identity.
He was after all, a Russian himself, and longed for the wide spaces of Russia while in exile. Nevertheless, in the latter part of his life, he fought bitterly against Stalin over the developing tendency of the new Soviet state to reproduce reactionary Russian nationalism in relation to the previously subject peoples. He described the reassertion of Russian nationalism in this way as “the old reactionary Russian rubbish”.
In approaching the question of national identity in Australia, I regard Lenin’s views on the question as very useful indeed. I believe Australia started as a colonial settler state of British imperialism. The British ruling class of colonial Australia, which was imposed on the indigenous Aboriginal Australians, on the already colonised Irish, Scots and Welsh, and also on the proletarian and plebian underclass brought from Britain itself, was thoroughly reactionary.
The struggle of the diverse underclass of Australia against this British imperial Australia triumphalism imposed on them, is at the core of the whole history of Australia in the 19th century and the early 20th century. Along with many Australians now, my origins are in this underclass of Australia.
I have no inclination at all to celebrate the “core holding quality” of British imperial Australia. Most Australians like me have been fighting that reactionary ideology for 210 years!
On page 12, you wax eloquent:
- Cut from English diffidence and spliced with Irish ambivalence, Australian patriotism has never been as explicitly self-affirming as that of, say, the USA or France. But there is a real sense in which, warts and all, Australian patriotism is a work of popular art, a piece of high creativity by the common imagination.
On page 95, you say:
- [O'Farrell] writes, for example, that the Australian Irish “had no philosophic notion of an open pluralistic society. It might even be argued that their preferences were ideally the opposite”. In what other ways might such tension have expressed itself? I suggest its acid bite and tenor significantly helped to fashion the characteristic old-identity ambiguity about attachment to country. The ambiguity has certainly been intensified in recent decades by currents within the intellectual culture and by multicultural policies. But it was not created by them. An historical, often profound, contrast between the two major original European ethnic actors contributed foundationally to the forces that are discouraging expression of attachment to country today — right down to the unique shy-violet profile of the national flag.In a word, that historical contrast contributes to an ultimate Australian mystery: why are we so lukewarm in articulating patriotisms? Recognition that through all this the Irish play a role, perhaps a key role, will not stop us appreciating Irish Australia’s central part in fashioning our rich national tapestry. Rather, aired as fundamental to an integrating identity debate, such recognition will encourage fuller awareness of what is now so astonishingly muted: the truly remarkable strengths Australia possesses.
Your clear inference is that the past patriotism of British ruling class Australia is a wonderful thing to be celebrated, and that it is a pity that the hostility of Irish Australians like myself has muted that celebration, and has even interfered with the proper reverence required for the national flag.
In addition to this the Irish were not keen on an “open pluralistic society” presumably, in this context, the one imposed on them by the English with superior, more industrialised and modern military organisation and weaponry. From where I sit, your British patriotism is the “last refuge of scoundrels”. From the point of view of working class Anglo-Australians, Irish Australians, indigenous and non-British Australians, including Australians of colour, there is, indeed, a popular plebian multicultural Australian national identity to be celebrated, but that is quite different and in total opposition to the rabidly racist “patriotism” of upper-class “British” Australia.
When I was a kid at a Christian Brothers school in the 1950s we used to sing Advance Australia Fair in “clannish Celtic” defiance of British Australia, which of course, sang God Save the Queen. Now, when I see on television John Howard and Pauline Hanson, whose immediate ideological predecessors sang God Save the Queen with such fervour, wrapping themselves in Advance Australia Fair, I am forcibly struck by the way symbols can be transformed, and this fact tends to make me even a little bit uneasy about Advance Australia Fair as a national symbol.
The real new Australia of the year 2000. Race, religion (or lack of it) and ethnicity. Why I celebrate, and don’t lament, like you do, the decline of Protestant religion and freemasonry
I was a bit amazed at your pain and nostalgia at the decline of freemasonry and the drop in religious adherence as part of the decline of what is now described by many as “civil society”. Well, from where I sit the collapse of freemasonry is a totally healthy development. Freemasonry started out as a revolutionary force in the early modern world. It degenerated rapidly throughout the 19th century and became, in the latter part of the period when it had significance in the English speaking world, a brutal cultural device for preserving Anglo-British ruling classes and their interests against outsiders such as the Irish Catholics.
The sooner the now archaic institution of freemasonry disappears forever, the better, from my point of view. The Catholic Church may now allow Catholics to become Freemasons in a fit of misguided ecumenism, but that doesn’t impress me one little bit.
I vividly remember in the 1950s when my anti-communist left-wing Catholic father left forever the Industrial Group in the Teachers Federation. The breaking point for him was when the Industrial Group admitted Mrs Preston Stanley Vaughan, who was a member of the Liberal Party and a lady Mason. That was altogether too much for my old man, and he broke decisively with the Santamaria group over that question and never went back to them.
The same applies to “the decline of religion”. This is a complex question. In Australia it is not really a decline of religion in general, but a decline in formal Protestant religious adherence. I have, from where I sit, a bit like Charles Price, from his different angle, an inordinate interest in things like ethnicity, religion and non-religion, as revealed in the very detailed and useful material that progressively emerges after each census from that wonderful secular Australian institution, the Bureau of Census and Statistics.
I am still, at the age of 63, a fairly stubborn agnostic in terms of personal religious belief, although I have acquired in later life more respect for the variety and complexity of the religious beliefs of others, and I no longer have any sort of atheist triumphalism in these matters. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, I regard the decline of Protestant religious allegiance in the census as a very healthy thing.
The actual situation is that the number of Catholics is now nudging 30 per cent, the highest ever, the number of non-believers is nudging 25 per cent, the highest ever, the number of non-Protestant religions is nudging 10 per cent, the highest ever, and the number of notional Protestants has nosedived to about 35 per cent from the 70 per cent of 50 years ago. What has actually happened is that the 10 per cent of the 25 per cent of non-believers who are ex-Catholics like me, have been replaced in the Catholic column by newer migrants from a wide spectrum of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
In my shorthand version of Australian society, I have two sides. On the one side are the majority of the 35 per cent who still identify themselves as Protestants, the majority of whom, incidentally, usually vote Liberal. On the other side of my scales are the Catholics, the non-believers, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Orthodox, who, incidentally, mostly vote Labor. On my progressive side of that division are also located the more progressive elements of Anglo-Australian background, many of whom no longer identify with the Protestant religion because of its profound identification in Australian history with reaction and the ruling class.
Protestant religion in Australia has been mainly identified historically and culturally with the most reactionary aspects of Australian experience, from convict times until very recently. The convicts were totally alienated by such people as Marsden, the flogging clergyman-magistrate, and the imposition of official Protestantism on them as a form of “correction”.
Marsden’s major conflict with Governor Macquarie stemmed from Macquarie appointing an emancipast, ie, an ex convict, as a magistrate. The evangelical “Christian” Marsden point-blank refused to serve as a magistrate on the same bench as an ex-convict. So much for Christian redemption!
Subsequently the native born “currency” working class continued their convict parents’ estrangement from the Anglican religion of their rulers. Later on, Protestantism was associated with such things as the imposition of “British Australia” on the Irish and the destruction of “pagan” Aboriginal cultural practices.
In a very important article in Labour History (No. 7, 1964) the late Rupert Lockwood, in his well-known thorough and inventive way, published a summary of a major 20,000-word research project, titled, British imperial influences in the foundation of the White Australia Policy. In this article he has a most illuminating collection of material drawing on British government documents from the Colonial Office relating to the first 70 years of white settlement.
He satisfactorily establishes that the whole ideology of British colonisation included an evangelical Protestant, racist arrogance about stamping out paganism in Australasia and the Pacific, and preserving Australia and New Zealand for “British race” white settlement. He particularly draws on the Colonial Office private papers of the major figure, Sir James Stephen, the permanent head who ran the Colonial Office in the decisive empire-shaping years for Australia of 1813 to 1847.
Stephen was an extremely influential, sophisticated, Bible-thumping member of the powerful Clapham Sect of Evangelicals, which had such enormous influence on the development of the British Empire and Australia. Sir James Stephen was also a leading figure in the foundation of the Church Missionary Society, which was the religious arm of British imperialism in the South Pacific.
Stephen’s personal papers reveal that he was obsessed with the interests of Protestant evangelical religion, which he identified messianically with the “divine global mission of the British race”. Stephen is quoted in Charles Price’s important book, The Great White Walls are Built (Australian National University Press 1974), thus:
- In 1841 he stated that Australia would be a land “where the English race shall be spread from sea to sea unmixed with any lower caste. As we now regret the folly of our ancestors in colonising North America from Africa, so should our posterity have to censure us if we should colonise Australia from India”; likewise in 1843 he opposed the proposal to use public funds to assist Indian coolies to NSW on the grounds that they would “debase by their intermixture the noble European race … introduce caste with all its evils … bring with them the idolatry and debasing habits of their country . . . [and] cut off the resource for many of our own distressed people”. Stephen used his powerful position in the Colonial Office, and his enormous bureaucratic skills, to vigorously and in large part successfully, oppose Chinese and southern European migration to the Australian colonies, to preserve these colonies for the “divine British mission”.
The first Anglican Primate of Australia, Bishop Broughton
The first Anglican Primate of Australia, Bishop Broughton, was in Anglican Church affairs, a high churchman. He was, however, a rabid anti-Papist, and he agitated throughout his religious career against Irish Catholics coming to the Colony of NSW. He was the initiator of the first committee of the Sydney establishment campaigning against Chinese and Asian immigration to the colony, and he was the chairman and dominant personality in this racist committee for nearly 15 years.
He also played a role in the attempted extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. I quote here from the book by American anthropologist, Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Vintage, 1992) page 252:
- Government-sponsored groups called roving parties, and consisting of convicts led by police, hunted down and killed Tasmanians. With the declaration of matrial law in November 1828, soldiers were authorised to kill on sight any Tasmanian in the settled areas. Next, a bounty was declared on the natives: five British pounds for each adult, two pounds for each child, caught alive. “Black catching”, as it was called because of the Tasmanians’ dark skins, became big business pursued by private as well as official roving parties. At the same time a commission headed by William Broughton, the Anglican archdeacon of Australia, was set up to recommend an overall policy towards the natives. After considering proposals to capture them for sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs, the commission settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted police.
Later in the 19th century, by and large, the various Protestant sects and the predominantly Protestant upper-class vigorously opposed the development of the labour movement. In the early 20th century, up to the end of the 1930s, under the rubric of opposition to “rum, Romanism, socialism and gambling” there continued to be a constant Protestant upper class and middle class mobilisation against the labour movement.
The most exotic representative of this reactionary Protestant mobilisation was the crazy, Bible-bashing Liberal politician and NSW cabinet minister, T.J.Ley, in the 1920s, later a convicted murderer. The generally anti-popular role of Protestant religion in Australian history makes an enthusiastic celebration of past Protestant religion as part of our “national imaginary” a very problematic thing indeed.
Alongside the demographic changes in formal religious allegiance, there have also been significant changes in the ideological, cultural and political character of different Australian religious groups. It should be noted that Australia is a kind of intermediate example in religious matters.
The decline of organised religion has not gone as far in Australia as it has in Britain or most of Europe. On the other hand, it has gone substantially farther in Australia than it has in the United States. If you look at the US, a rather moralising, anti-modern Protestant “religious” revival, with such aspects as banning the teaching of teaching evolution in schools, has become a very feature of American life in recent years.
This has gone on at precisely the same time as the US prison population has increased to proportionately three or four times the size of prison populations anywhere else in OECD countries. This “religious” revival in the US is an extremely barbarous cultural phenomenon and is one of the reasons why I am opposed to any retrospective celebration of the role of Protestant religion in past Australian history.
Past middle class and upper class Protestant religion in Australia had a great resemblance to the grossly mutated current American form of Protestant “religious” revival. Viewed through the prism of the history of Protestant religion in Australia, or the prism of the current American “religious” revival, that particular past religious culture is hardly a thing to be celebrated by civilised modern human beings.
Moore Theological College
Happily, numerically reduced Australian Protestant religion does not generally take the bizarre forms often characteristic of North America. We have had far fewer vicious witchhunts here, looking for non-existent “Satanic ritual child murderers”. The “Toronto blessing” (speaking in tongues and writhing on the ground) and other charismatic religion, while it has acquired a certain popularity in Australia, hasn’t spread in anything like the way that it has mushroomed in the midwest and the south of the United States.
The two largest mainstream Protestant sects, the broad church and high church current, dominant in the Anglican Church in Australasia, and the Uniting Church drawn from the old Presbyterians and Methodists, have both shifted somewhat to the left culturally and politically, and quite a few of their adherents these days are on the left of politics, and many of them even vote Labor rather than being entrenched Tories like their ancestors.
For this reason, the fact that I heard recently that you have become active in the Anglican Church in Armidale does not seem to me to be necessarily a decisive element in your evolution to the right. With your ethnic and cultural background, it’s quite natural that if you develop religious concerns, which is not unusual in human beings later in life, you should explore the religious framework dominant in your own cultural background.
In the politics of the Anglican communion, there have been changes of a significant sort culturally, even in the evangelical wing, which I gather is the dominant force in the Armidale diocese — one of the few Evangelical Anglican dioceses outside Sydney. For the last 12 years, due to a pure accident of geography, my bookshop has been opposite Moore Theological College, the intellectual powerhouse of the rather dynamic evangelical faction dominant in the Sydney Anglican Church, which continues to conduct its rigorous and determined agitation in stubborn opposition to the broad church and high church mood predominant in Anglicanism elsewhere in Australia.
In the past, if asked to locate myself anywhere in the intellectual universe, I’d usually have located myself as far opposite as you can get from Moore College evangelicalism. After all, their Cromwellian ancestors drove my Irish Catholic ancestors to “Hell or Connaught”, and those kinds of battles persisted in Australia in the 19th century, when Protestant evangelicals were at the cutting edge of British-Australian political reaction of the sort that you now tend to retrospectively celebrate.
Moore College and the Sydney evangelical faction were actually founded by a wave of unemployed Calvinist-oriented Irish Anglican ministers, displaced suddenly due to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland in the 19th century, who carried with them to Australia a strong brew of anti-Papism, given bitter material force by their loss of status and employment due to the act of the British Parliament disestablishing the Church of Ireland (to placate the Catholic majority who were sick of paying tithes to the church of the English oppressor).
The other influences present at the foundation of Moore College were Welsh pietism and enthusiasm, and the English evangelical revivalism that culminated early in the 20th century in the Keswick movement.
In Australia in the 19th century Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and other Protestants were ferocious wowsers. They fought vigorously against alcohol, gambling, the theatre, public dancing, divorce, mixed bathing, many public sports and against anything at all being open on Sundays, with, unfortunately, a good deal of success.
On these matters there was a massive cultural divide between the Protestant middle class and upper class, on the one hand, and the secular working class and the Irish Catholics on the other. This conflict is described comprehensively in Keith Dunstan’s book, Wowsers and Bill Lawton’s book A Better Time to Be. They were also rabid “British-Australia” racists. This kind of thing culminated culturally in Sydney, at the time of the First World War, when many of the staff and students of Moore College volunteered early in the war, in a euphoria of British Australia patriotism with a religious edge.
Unfortunately, many of these zealous young men were subsequently killed in the awful universal carnage of that horrible war. (The book Sydney Anglicans by Stephen Judd and Ken Cable has a useful account of the origins of Moore College.)
Manning Clark, Anglicanism and Moore College
An interesting part of Australian intellectual history is the preoccupation of our greatest Australian historian, Manning Clark, with such matters as the Enlightenment, the Anglican Church, and the Catholic Church in Australian life, and the tension and conflict between these three important influences.
Part of the explanation for this important historical preoccupation of Clark’s lies in his own personal and family background and connections. Clark was a direct lineal descendant of the flogging parson/magistrate, the evangelical Samuel Marsden and of several other significant establishment figures.
His mother, a member of the Hope family, was the sister of the well known Father Hope, the longtime rector of the oppositional High Church stronghold in the strongly evangelical Sydney diocese, Christ Church St Lawrence, near Central Railway. Paradoxically, Clark’s mother herself was a determined and well-formed Calvinist Anglican, entrenched in the low church Sydney tradition.
Her husband, Clark’s father, was an Anglican clergyman who studied at Moore College in the early years of the century, but moved away from evangelical beliefs to a more latitudinarian Anglican viewpoint, and ended up as an Anglican minister in the Melbourne diocese. Clark’s father also was involved in an unfortunate personal scandal, fathering an illegitimate child while the Anglican minister at Kempsey.
This interesting and complex personal family history obviously was a great stimulus to Clark’s considerable interest in the religious and philosophical matters encapsulated in the great dramatic interplay between Catholics, Protestants and the Enlightenment in Australian history.
Moore College today
Given the complex history that I’ve just outlined and the reactionary Tory influences in the past of the evangelical current in Australian life, I’ve been fascinated by the obvious cultural changes in the Moore College community that I have observed in the 12 years they have been my neighbours. I’ve got to know them quite well through a process of intellectual dialogue with many of the students and staff, often sitting behind my till in the shop, or in the Green Iguana Cafe just up the road, which many of us who spend a lot of time in the area, share for breakfast.
The “new” Moore College still draws many of its students training for the Anglican ministry from the traditional lower middle class Bible belt around Epping and Ryde, or in the outer suburbs like Sutherland and Baulkham Hills (they don’t seem to get many from the real upper classes). The other striking feature of the student body these days is that a quarter or a fifth of the students seem to be Asians: Chinese or Koreans. This phenomenon is partly a product of the fact that one of their ideological leaders, Phillip Jensen, was the Anglican Chaplain of the University of NSW, and his outreach work with his rather intense Bible-based Calvinist Anglicanism seems to have struck a chord with Asian students.
A curious feature about the Asian faces that seem to worry you and Charles Price as you walk through the streets of downtown Sydney is that some of them probably belong to evangelical Anglicans. Maybe you should glance under their arms and look for the New Testament before you allow yourself the “prickle of uneasiness” at their Asian faces. Associated with this is a certain amount of exogamy, some Moore College students are married to people of other ethnic groups. I find the total disappearance of anti-Asian racism in the Moore College community very striking and rather moving, conscious as I am of the fiercely British racist outlook of their immediate religious ancestors.
As part of their teaching system, Moore College places considerable emphasis on the students and staff being a small, discrete community. Most of the staff live in staff quarters in the college and by the second or third year, most of both the single and married students live in quarters in the college or college houses nearby. The effect of this is to create a compact intellectual and social community. Some other theological colleges question or reject this model, but my external impression is that it works very well for Moore College and contributes to the development of their internal esprit de corps and distinctive outlook.
Anglicans I know tell me that the Sydney evangelicals are the only group of Anglicans who are actually growing, and that they are engaged in an energetic program of colonisation of other dioceses. I find this success a bit puzzling ideologically, given their spare, rigorous, Calvinist theology. My impression from the students and the staff of the college is that these days quite a few of them quietly vote Labor.
They also are located in a reasonably compatible way in Newtown, cheek by jowel with one of the largest gay communities in the southern hemisphere, and in a typical Sydney way all of these discrete Newtown communities seem to get on fine at a day-to-day level, despite all the overt differences between them. Three cheers for Sydney!
Moore College Bible literalism
I have several times acquired copies of the Moore College syllabus in the bottom of boxes of books sold to me by departing students. I find it fascinating. The ideological bent of Moore College is still a very recognisable Calvinist, election and personal conversion based Bible Christianity. The syllabus is rather narrowly focused around the Bible, Biblical interpretation and ancient Greek and Hebrew.
There is only a limited emphasis on philosophy, general history or natural theology. Within its narrow framework, however, the college syllabus is impressively thorough and the student workload is obviously considerable. College students are required to state on oath that they have read a certain number of pages of Calvin’s Institutes over the holidays, a commitment that impresses me mightily.
The two major ideological leaders of the faction, Peter Jensen, the principal of Moore College, and his brother, Phillip Jensen, both underwent conversion experiences at Billy Graham rallies in their young manhood, and their theology places a great emphasis on conversion experiences.
Moore College is said to have the largest, most diverse and comprehensive theological and biblical library in the southern hemisphere. The staff I have met are serious-minded, careful, well-educated men, extremely committed to the ideological framework of their beliefs, and the students as a whole impress me as taking these beliefs very seriously.
They have occasional theological disputes. In recent times, one of the staff, Bill Lawton, changed his views on some religious matters, in a non-evangelical direction and he ultimately left the college. They are particularly hostile to evangelical renegades or heretics like Barbara Thiering, for obvious reasons.
Their opposition to Barbara Thiering is clearly heightened by her obviously enormous erudition in matters Biblical, stemming from her early religious grounding as an evangelical, which she now uses in a complex and imaginative historical construction, locating the New and Old Testaments in the context of all the other Near Eastern religious influences within which they evolved.
This kind of scholarship, to which Thiering brings her immense knowledge of the Bible, tends to operate against the evangelical notion of the Bible as totally inspired, and the unique and sole revelation of an all powerful god, from Genesis to Revelation. Thiering’s exercise of locating the Bible, reasonably reverently, in its comparative context, tends to undermine the fixated Evangelical preoccupation with the Good Book as the sole source of God’s revelation.
Evangelicals often try to justify their animosity to Thiering by ridiculing her scholarship. (They assert that no other Bible scholars, by which they mainly mean other evangelicals, agree with her.) Their anger against her clearly has its deepest origins in the threat that her analytic approach presents to their whole world view.
What I find absolutely striking about Moore College and its community, which is a very distinctive sub-section of the general Newtown community of which I, too, am a part, is not so much the obvious continuity they have with past evangelical Christianity in Australia, but the subtle changes that have equally obviously taken place.
For instance, as a matter of policy, the college decided to stay in Newtown rather than move to a possibly more congenial suburban area somewhere in the Bible belt. By staying in Newtown, they obviously aim to have their students engaging with the complexities of the modern world, and this seems to me to work very well for them.
They are still believing Bible Christians, but the rabid racism has vanished and their large Asian component are full citizens of their small community. Despite the fact that they would disapprove of quite a few of the things in my shop, they have never expressed the view that anything in my shop should be censored, and a number of them are quite good customers.
They seem to have quietly changed their attitudes to things like extremes of Sunday observance, dancing, the theatre and alcohol, although they are still strongly opposed to gambling and considering the rather anti-social modern orgy of gambling in Australia, they may have a certain point there. They took vigorous and successful action to prevent a legal brothel being located opposite the college, and despite the fact that I believe that the current legalisation of prostitution is sensible I supported the college fully in its opposition to this completely inappropriate location of a brothel immediately opposite religious premises.
I get on with my Moore College neighbours extremely well and I like a lot of the individuals I know personally, despite our religious and cultural differences. The interesting point about Moore College and the Sydney Evangelicals is that they are still a significant and potent ideological and religious force.
Their modernised evangelical religious set-up is a distinctive Sydney phenomenon. To some extent they have quietly come to terms with modernity, and this has equipped them quite well to operate in the current world. They seem to me to be one of the religious groups likely to survive and grow. Personally, I reject their sophisticated Calvinist theology, which, in fact, brings into sharp focus my own fundamental philosophical problem with theism, and reason for religious disbelief, which focuses on the problem of evil.
Calvinist predestination. No salvation through good works. Damnation for the overwhelming majority of the human race who don’t explicitly accept Jesus Christ as their saviour
While Moore College has changed dramatically in many matters, the underlying Calvinist theology and Biblical literalism is still a substantial part of the ideological ethos of the institution. Pleasant people although many of them are, they have three or four underlying religious preoccupations that are in the sharpest conflict with rational modernity.
They believe profoundly in Augustinian predestination, which involves the notion that God knows from the moment of creation whether each individual soul he creates will be saved or damned, and that it is possible for a saved soul to know, by an experience of Christ, whether they are saved or not. (I’ve never actually struck a Calvinist who thought that they were one of the damned. All those I’ve ever met seem to me to be convinced of their own salvation, by way of a conversion experience at some time in their lives.)
From this point of view, they make a big point of condemning any Arminian theology, which involves humans achieving salvation by good works, and that kind of theology is subject to their worst anathemas. They are extreme Bible literalists, and they seem to me to take the Bible, as translated in the 16th century, by Martin Luther and William Tyndale and the other great reformers, as the document to which, in practice, they ascribe God’s direct inspiration, and therefore the source of all real religious knowledge.
For me, Richard Marius’s very important and magisterial life of Martin Luther establishes quite effectively the eclectic way in which Luther selectively developed Bible literalism to bolster his already existing views on many questions, and Moore College theology seems to me to proceed in much the same way as Martin Luther did in relation to the Bible. In discussion with some of the staff and students recently, I was startled when it dawned on me that many of them, possibly the majority, reject notions of Darwinian physical evolution in favour of reationism.
Christians who accept Darwinian physical evolution, while ascribing it to god’s direct intervention, are regarded by many Moore College evangelicals as being on the extreme radical outer wing of their Christian community.
The recent Anglican Church ideological explosion, spearheaded from Moore College, over the quite moderate religious views of the new Anglican Primate of Australia, Peter Carnley, throws their basic Calvinist evangelical theology into bold relief.
Two aspects of Carnley’s views figure most sharply in their expressions of outrage. First of all, his very careful and limited qualification of the notion of a physical ressurection by Christ. Secondly, his statement that conscientiously believing adherents of other religions could possibly be saved. The angry Sydney evangelical response to this proposition is based on the fundamental Calvinist notion that no one can be saved except people who recognise Christ as their saviour, as the Moore College people do.
This is obviously pretty tough on the three or four billion people in the world who have never heard of the Christian revelation, but the muscular Calvinist theology isn’t deterred by this problem, and asserts tough cheddar for those not selected for salvation by God, as salvation is a free gift from the deity, as we all deserve damnation anyway because Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, etc. Their theology is pretty brutally constructed, and is obviously only psychologically acceptable to those who are convinced of their own salvation.
This theology inevitably tends to confine “salvation” to a suitably small and select proportion of the human population, consigning the vast majority of us to the flames down below. It’s fairly understandable that evangelical Calvinist theology had great appeal to the Dutch and English entrepreneurial capitalists when they were embarked in the 17th and 18th centuries on the great adventure of carving up the world into empires.
This kind of Calvinism was also very strong among the Boer farmers in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, as they conveniently associated their privileged position in relation to the conquered blacks, with God’s municifent favour to his chosen people and to the saved, which was, of course, them.
The fierce cultural arrogance of this deeply held underlying evangelical view has given rise to angry and amusing journalism, like Mike Carlton’s Sydney Morning Herald article in which he compares the evangelicals to the repellant evangelical Canon Slope in Barchester Towers and says that he would not like to be in the same heaven with Sydney evangelicals.
An imaginative satirist describes St Peter taking a group of tourists around heaven. He shows them the locations for all the different groups like the Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims etc. When he gets to a little corner, St Peter shows them a cordoned off area, where he says: “we keep the Sydney evangelicals here, and try to maintain the illusion in their minds that they are the only ones here, for the sake of their mental stability”.
Their fundamental Calvinist theology and network of beliefs collides sharply with the modern world in a number of ways. Nevertheless, their agressive prosetelysing, and their appearance of religious certainty gives the Moore College Evangelicals a certain appeal to people out of the Protestant tradition who are cut adrift by the dramatic and fairly constant decline of the official Protestant religious ethos.
For this reason, the modern Sydney Evangelicals are a significant part of the complex skein of Sydney cultural life, quite capable of looking after themselves within the stimulating, complex and contradictory mosaic of Sydney cultural and religious life.
As the graduates of the “new” Moore College come more and more to staff the Anglican Church in the Sydney Diocese, and in the other dioceses where they are engaged in their energetic colonisation, it will be fascinating to see what changes take place in the Anglican communion.
It seems very clear to me that, while the current staff and students of Moore College have deep and enduring roots in the Calvinist Protestant Evangelical tradition from which they come, that, nevertheless, they are different in a number of important ways to the totally politically and socially reactionary old Tory conservatism that used to be associated with the evangelical current in the Anglican church. The exact form that the changes within Anglicanism will take are not yet entirely clear, but it is quite clear that Moore College will be a force in these changes.
In modern Australia the interface between religion and politics has changed significantly. For instance, the Moore College evangelicals are, these days, carefully removed a bit from the public political sphere, although obviously many of their North Shore upper crust allies in the broad evangelical faction dominant in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney are still a major influential force in Liberal Party politics.
Nowadays there is quite a significant Catholic presence in the Liberal Party, which was absolutely unthinkable even 30 years ago. One curiosity of this is that the Opus Dei ultra-clerical Catholic secret society is well represented in the leadership of the right wing faction, which is currently challenging the left liberals for control of the Liberal Party in NSW. Another significant presence in this Liberal right wing faction is members of the Mormon Church, the fastest growing religion on earth, whose origins in the “special angelic revelation” of Joseph Smith in the 19th century, are such an instructive caricature of the far more historically remote and obscure origins of Christianity and Islam.
Despite these shifts in the model of developing progressive Australian national identity that will emerge for the 21st century, the main components will come, I believe, from my right-hand column, the column with the Jews, Catholics, Anglo non-believers, Orthodox and Muslims etc, in my scales, though an increasing number will also come, as well, from continuing Protestant religious believers who have shed the past reactionary triumphalism of British Australia.
All ABS statistics and emerging demographics suggests that my progressive side of the scales are now comfortably in front and will continue to draw ahead, which bodes badly for your sad notion of the “core holding quality” of Anglo-British Australia.
It seems to me wrong historically to attempt to rehabilitate the reactionary past of Australian Protestant religion, as part of your “core holding quality” of “Anglo-Celtic Australia”. In the 19th century, despite the reactionary Medieval ideology of the Catholic Church, the oppressed class position of the Irish Catholics propelled them into the progressive, democratic, reform-minded, rebellious side of Australian society.
On the other hand, the class position of Protestantism, as the religion particularly of the oppressing upper class and their middle class clients, located Protestant religion firmly on the side of reaction. The more civilszed position of many modern Australian Protestants, produced by changed social circumstances, is a very good thing, but it can’t be used to rewrite the historical record.
David Marr’s book, The High Cost of Heaven
The eloquent and elegant opponent of censorship, David Marr, has just had published a book dissecting the influence of the Christian sects on Australian life, particularly in relation to censorship. Marr is a beautiful and powerful writer, and this book is both brilliant polemic, and emotional testimony, informed by the experience of a gay man who grew up in an Anglican religious environment, and for a considerable period in his life tried to balance his Anglican religious beliefs and his emerging homosexual sexuality.
His angry book is a realistic corrective to being too soft on some of the negative features of the influence of all the Christian religions, both the Protestants and the Catholics, on Australian life. His acid but reasonably fair and amusing pen sketches of such people as Brian Harradine and Phillip Jensen raise a number of serious questions about the pressures exerted by organised Christianity, to impose, for instance, censorship standards that they favour, on the rest of us who have different values.
David Marr is absolutely right to warn against the wide extension of official government censorship. That is a much bigger danger than the difficulties involved in a more relaxed attitude to censorship. The recent extraordinary banning of a French film including non-violent explicit heterosexual sex scenes underlines the danger of broadly expanded official censorship.
In general I am strongly opposed to censorship. Some alleged artistic productions, such as the Virgin in the Condom, the Piss Christ, and the recent elephant dung Virgin, ought not to be displayed, because of the obvious attack involved on the deeply held religious symbols of many people, but it’s better to achieve the withdrawal of such offensive artifacts by public pressure than by outright censorship.
The problem with official censorship, once it gathers momentum, is that the would-be censors, who are often driven by an underlying fundamentalist religious impulse, really have the intention of outlawing all public artistic representation of explicit sexuality. Happily, most of the population doesn’t agree with them. Why should the minority views of some Christians on such matters be imposed on the rest of us?
A similar problem arises in relation to the rights of homosexuals. All Christian sects regard homosexual activity as what the Catholics would call a “mortal sin”, despite the fact that, to a certain percentage of the population, their homosexual desire is as primal as the sexual drive of heterosexual people.
This is one of the features of the natural universe that sharpens my personal rejection of Christianity. Most religious believers have created a cosmology in their minds that contains an all-powerful God, who is good in all respects, and has created and sustains the universe at every moment in time. On the face of it, according to this set of beliefs, he has created a certain proportion of the population whose sex drives (the most primal of drives) will, if practiced, condemn them to damnation.
The Calvinist or Jansenist resolution of this problem, that if homosexuals are part of the elect, they will resist these primal sexual urges, seems totally ridiculous to me on the basis of all my observations of the world. This is another aspect of the “problem of evil”, which is my ultimate philosophical reason for rejecting Christianity.
Marr writes in the most moving way about homosexuality and religion, and his very real pain and anguish highlights the great problems involved in reconciling, in society at large, the interests of all, including homosexuals and Christians, when many fundamentalist Christians regard homosexual activity as such a grievous sin that it ought to be stamped out, by almost any means available.
Hints, inferences and inuendos
I must say I found your new book a bit on the difficult side. In it you have well and truly made the leap from history into almost pure cultural theory despite your ostensible disagreement with other cultural theorists and post modernists.
I have a problem with an apparent historical discourse that remains almost entirely on a very abstract theoretical plane, except when you use the odd well-chosen illustration to buttress your theoretical position.
With a considerable degree of effort, I believe I get the general drift of your argument. I am infuriated by constant asides in which you infer an often thoroughly reactionary stance on current contested political questions, but do it in such a way as to leave yourself the out that you may have been misunderstood. As an example of what I mean, on page 42, you write:
- Mourning and moving onWe end this first chapter where we began. Charles Price, a pioneering opponent of White Australia, observed in 1990 that people object to novelty if they fear “the whole character of the nation [is] changing too fast”. For “ordinary people”, it’s a question of how many Asian-looking people there will be as you walk down the street. Living in rural Australia for over 30 years, on visits to the city I can detect in myself prickles of shock, even traces of fear alongside real pleasure at the diversity brought by newer ethnic groups. So I understand what Price was getting at. The problem is that an intermediate process has been discouraged, not by those newer groups themselves of course, but by the Australian intellectual culture and by officialdom. Part of the Australian “obsession” with identity turns on the relation between the “core culture” and the ethnic groups represented in post-1970s mass immigration. For some of that obsessiveness is a displaced grief that is forbidden to mourn and has nowhere to go.
And again, on page 33:
- But should we sit back and conclude it is an inevitable and sufficiently strong process? Anglo-Celtic Australians are to a degree handing on an existing social imaginary to non-Anglo-Celts. That “mixture” itself forms the bridge by which, with all their drawbacks, old-identity values and attitudes may both cement and maintain the emerging whole. While ethnic characteristics must always flourish as desired, the absorption of sufficient old-identity values — especially political values — into this “mixed” section will do much to ensure Australia’s prospects for workable coherence in the long term. And therefore the more diversity will feel safe to flourish. Yet in today’s world we can hardly sit back complacently. If Price’s “fastest-growing”, “mixed” section of Anglo-Celts and non-Anglo-Celts are adopting aspects of the pre-existing Australian imaginary, his statistics make it clear that this take-up is broad enough. But to what extent does it strike deeply enough to ensure sufficiently powerful continuity of civic and other values?
And again, on page 46:
- Yet in Australia, as throughout the West, the nation’s reputation — never high in many circles — deteriorated during the late 1970s and 1980s. In the intellectual culture, attachment to the nation is widely seen “as a … folkloric harbinger of an abiding series of dark possibilities — from racial vilification … to ethnic cleansing”. Indeed so dense is “the thicket of negatives now associated with the phenomenon of nationalism”, according to the Monash University sociologist Robert Birrell, that anti-nationalism has become “a marker of intelligentsia standing”.
There are many other similar passages throughout the book, organised in much the same way, with a very dense theoretical construction, and an implicit political conclusion, but expressed through the voices of others, particularly in this case, Charles Price, who is a very good demographer but gets blamed for many strange things nowadays.
I particularly dislike the totally demagogic mantra with which I am already familiar, from Katharine Betts, Paul Sheehan, Robert Birrell and others, in which the “cosmomulticultural” views of the alleged “new class” are counterposed to the allegedely chauvinistic views of “ordinary Australians”. This construction has become, in the migration, ethnicity and multiculturalism debate, a bit like the clouds of ink released by squids when threatened.
It seems to me, Miriam, old colleague, that you are quite aware of all the current controversies on levels of migration, the racial composition of migration, multiculturalism and other questions, and it seems obvious that your views have moved fairly sharply in a right-wing, Anglophile, “British” direction. If that is indeed the case, why not come out and say so more explicitly? Participate in the debate. Let’s have an argument on these matters.
Keeping it all on this lofty ultra-theoretical plane seems to me to be an attempt to join the debate while not joining the debate, and intellectually dishonest. As an example of what I mean, the business about seeing too many oriental faces in the streets of Sydney. You don’t know the half of it. You should walk from Central Railway down Broadway to the old Grace Brothers. If Asian faces make you a little uneasy, you’ll be scared stiff after you get to Grace Brothers.
Sydney is like that these days, and it’s a more interesting and exciting and prosperous place because of it. Most of us who live here are almost oblivious to the faces of the people we see (We see them every day.) Sydneysiders are mostly invigorated and even excited by the cultural diversity obvious in the streets. Most of us realistically associate that cultural diversity with Sydney’s relative prosperity compared to some other parts of Australia.
The Irish in Australia
In my re-reading of The Real Matilda I was, on this occasion, rather electrified by your treatment of the Irish question and of women convicts. I remember being troubled by this analysis when I first read it back in the 1970s but pushing it aside in mild embarrassment, giving you the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe you might have known more than I did on the subject due to some special individual research.
But now that I see that analysis in the context of the further development of your construction of Australia, and now that there is a vast amount of new material and real research available on these questions, I’m driven to challenge your analysis rather sharply. You say, on page 155 in the old Penguin edition, at the start of the chapter on the Irish:
- “Purity, Purity, was the everlasting cry …” (Herbert M. Moran)In the 19th century between one-third and one-quarter of Australia’s population was Irish, the percentage of single female immigrants sometimes running far higher. The Irish clustered most markedly on the lowest rungs of the status hierarchy. Russel Ward has argued that the Irish influence on early Australian working-class attitudes was disproportionately strong and consequently “Irish working-class attitudes formed another important ingredient in the distinctive Australian ethos which was developing”. Although I agree with his appraisal of the strength of Irish influence, I suggest we substitute “lower-class” for “working-class” and more important, adopt a view of the Irish as not-quite-Western, and as primitive in the sense of pre-modern. This was a view commonly held by the English at the time: “The men of the establishment in Sydney thought the Irish Catholics so benighted . . . that, in their eyes, there was nothing but the shade of a Catholic’s skin to distinguish him from an aborigine.” In this was the Irish male, like the black, became a “victim” of English colonial arrogance and he passed on to his woman the humiliation and blighted self-image which imperialism enforced on the colonized Irish male. The humble, quasi-Western status of Irish women, Irish rigid sex-role stereotyping and Irish fear of sexuality have done a good deal to shape the curiously low standing and impoverished self-identity of Australian women.Irish males were the victims of long centuries of English colonial cruelty, despoliation, contempt and arrogance. By coming to Australia, the Irish did not shake off their past heritage, neither its treasures, its dreams nor its nightmares. The Irish were classed as “victims”, and as masters are prone to do, the English defined their victims as wretchedly unworthy beings. Even if, and as, a victim, passionately rejects his master’s definition, a deep and treacherous corner of the heart accepts it and turns it inward in self-hate and self-denigration. Survival demands he turns it back, outwards, as much as he can. Usually, a victim achieves only limited success in this; changing early versions of the self is hard going. But nothing stops him trying. Part of their self-hate, thus, Irish males turned outwards on to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant master; part, alas, on to Irish women.
You develop this position further on in The Real Matilda and you return to it at length in The Imaginary Australian. I believe that this construction is a totally flawed Anglophone British imperialist view of Australian social development, and also of Irish social development. The Manning Clark, Russell Ward, Allan Patience, Michael Roe, Don Baker, James G. Murtagh, Rupert Lockwood and Eris O’Brien treatment of this question is a far more accurate and truthful representation of the general Irish influence on Australian life, culture and politics.
The Whiggish, Protestant cant about the Irish being “pre-modern” is a particularly offensive and distorted view of this question. I base myself here on the above writers in relation to Australia, and on particularly E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, T.A. Jackson’s Ireland Her Own and John Prebble’s important work on Scottish history and particularly on the Scottish clearances. I would also refer you to Theodore W. Allan’s recent book on the construction of British Race ideology on the back of the colonisation of Ireland. As Thompson points out in The Making of the English Working Class, a big slice of the whole of the British Isles, including England, was pre-modern in the 19th century.
The persistence of the clan collectivism in Ireland and, indeed, in Scotland and Wales, was a powerful force of political and social resistance that carried over almost immediately into the construction of a working class in Britain and the development of a labour movement. Witness the enormous Irish presence in Chartism, for instance. What Trotsky, in particular, described as combined and uneven development came into play very sharply here. The unfulfilled national aspirations of the Irish and, indeed, the Scots and the Welsh, impacted directly into the making of the English working class as described by Thompson, and more so into the construction of the labour movement. This was even more the case in Australia.
The Irish may well have been illiterate, as you say, but so were many of the English and the Scots. But in rapidly developing Australia they all learned to read pretty fast. The “clannish Gaelic” oral history that you appear to fear actually did exist and it poured into the new literary culture of the Irish as they learned to read. It was a very handy, lively and useful thing, the “clannish pre-modern” oral culture, and it permeated the whole of Australian life, somewhat threateningly, perhaps, to your newly emerging straightlaced, Whiggish inclination, but a wonderful basis for rebellion, struggles for democracy, battles against the arrogant ruling class of “British Australia”, etc.
The wonderful role of this “pre-modern” Irish oral culture in Australia was beautifully described in John Manifold’s important book, Who Wrote the Ballads and also in the lifelong work on Australian folklore by John Meredith, particularly his important work on Frank the Poet.
As Allan Patience said, in his response a few years ago to your fellow Anglophile, Frank Knopfelmacher:
- The early history of Australian Catholicism robs Dr Knopfelmacher’s quaint doctrine of Anglomorphism of any substance. Many Irish and other Celtic convicts and their families experienced the quasi-racist cruelty of the English officials and soldiers in the early part of this country’s history. It was partly a response to this that the Australian colonies in the latter half of the 19th century rapidly formulated some of the most radically democratic political institutions for their times. The democratic strains that grew so healthily then later informed and helped shape similar developments in democratic government in England. In short, it is ridiculous to assert that some mythical anglomorphism radiates out from England to shine civilisation upon us all. The English have been relatively slow, though promiscuous, learners, borrowing from other cultural traditions, not the least being the Celtic traditions upon which they imposed themselves over 400 years ago. Knopfelmacher’s position is dismissive of the integrity and richness of non-Anglomorphic Celtic traditions and is seemingly ignorant of the democratic history of Australia’s political development.
I can’t better Patience’s statement of the position. That’s my position too, and in different ways it is the outlook of liberal leftist historians like Manning Clark, Russel Ward, Keith Amos and Michael Roe, Marxists like Don Baker, and Catholic historians like James Murtagh, Tom Keneally, Eris O’Brien and Colm Kiernan. Patrick O’Farrell, on whom you particularly rely for your jaundiced interpretation of Irish Australian history, is a very industrious and useful chronicler, but a rather conservative interpreter of the ethnic and cultural politics of Irish Australia.
Women convicts, Irish women convicts, and Irish women
Your interpretation of women’s history, and particularly convict and Irish women’s history, seems to me to be, on mature reflection, just plain wrong. It suffers badly from the Damned Whores and God’s Police syndrome made famous by Anne Summers in her groundbreaking book on Australian women. In the last 20 years feminist historians and many other historians have been researching both Irish women in Australia and convict women in Australia.
Portia Robinson, in particular, has done an enormous amount of work on convict women. Her work shows that many convict women made “good” in Australia in quite a spectacular way and improved their status significantly, including many Irish convict women. While convict women certainly were oppressed, even doubly oppressed, nevertheless, the sheer shortage of women gave them a distinct social advantage and even some power in the situation, which enabled many of them to advance and improve their lives.
Incidentaly, about half the convict women were Irish Catholics, a fairly recent discovery. The improvement of the status of women in Australia did not only, or even mainly, come from the women of the leisured upper classes, as you imply. It came in quite a dramatic way, from below, from the sheer life affirmation of the women of the “lower orders”, particularly the Irish, with their rebellious outlook and “clan collectivism”.
All the recent literature shows this. (An interesting small question in Australian intellectual history might be: did your views in The Real Matilda about convict women spark off Portia Robinson’s interest in the question, which led her to produce the massive evidence that refutes your thesis, and to produce the major and effective critical article she wrote later about The Real Matilda.)
The Irish women in particular
There is now a considerable literature on this question, and you ought to change your position in the light of this work. I refer you particularly to the books, Barefoot and Pregnant, by Trevor McClaughlin, also Irish Women in Colonial Australia, edited by T. McClaughlin, Allen and Unwin 1998, the chapters on women in The Irish Emigrant Experience in Australia, edited by J. O’Brien and P. Travers, 1991, the extremely important work by Shirley Fitzgerald on Irish women in Sydney in Rising Damp, Grace Karskens’ recent books on Millers Point, which include a major section on the Irish women there, an the rich literature about the history of various nuns and communities of nuns in Australia.
The picture that emerges from this literature is quite different to your gloomy picture of total oppression and total sexual oppression of Irish women. The sexual repression in Ireland was a relatively recent phenomenon of the 17th and 18th centuries, imposed on Ireland by a curious combination of British Imperialism and the repressive Jansenist influence within Irish Catholicism that started in the 17th century, due to the training of Irish priests in French seminaries, where Jansenism was dominant.
This was a rather insecure overlay on the wonderful robust Rabelaisian Brehon Irish Celtic culture which was sexually anything but repressed and in which women had a very high status. Brehon culture kept breaking out among the “clannish Irish”, particularly led by the women, in opposition to all of the forces trying to stamp it out. This is one of the explanations for the practical persistence of the “Irish clan culture” to which you refer frequently, without too much real understanding, and explains the quite powerful social influence that Irish women continued to exercise despite their ostensible subjection.
No one who has any serious familiarity with Ireland, the Irish or Irish Australians, including Irish Australian women, really believes that those women were any more repressed than other women, and in fact they often appeared in a number of significant ways to be more independent and liberated.
When the Irish national struggle erupted in its most decisive form in the early years of this century in Ireland, women were in the forefront. Sixty women actually fought in the GPO in the Easter Rising. Constance Markievicz was a Republican General in the Rising.
So potent and vigorous a political force were women in the Irish national revolution of 1916 to 1922 that the Cumman Na mBann, the nationalist women’s movement founded by Constance Markievicz was an absolutely decisive political force. For instance, the fact that the women’s organisation rejected the Treaty by 419 to 63 votes at its convention on 5th February 1922 was the decisive event that precipitated Ireland towards the civil war over the Treaty.
It is worth quoting (from Conor Kostick’s book Revolution in Ireland) the following:
- The Cumman Na mBann believed that by opposing the Treaty they had … “regained for the women of Ireland the rights that belonged to them under the old Gaelic civilisation [the Brehon laws], where sex was no bar to citizenship, and where women were free to devote to the service of their country every talent and capacity with which they were endowed; which rights were stolen from them under English rule, but were guaranteed to them in the Republican Proclamation of Easter week”.
Even the sexual repressiveness in the Catholic education system in Australia was an exaggerated version of the sexual repressiveness of the whole of British Australian bourgeois society at that time, and in fact, Catholics have thrown off that repressiveness in modern times, both in Ireland and Australia, in some ways more dramatically than other social groups. If you take the phenomenon of nuns amongst Irish Catholics, taken as a whole, their social impact, including their social impact on women, was useful in the context of the times and it certainly helped improve the status of women, despite traditional Whiggish Protestant legends about nuns.
Many Catholic women became nuns partly for reasons of economics, status and recognition, combined with the urge to serve and religious impulses. History is whole cloth in these matters. Nuns were very powerful role models, in particular, for working class Catholic girls, and their educational activities were a major factor in facilitating the movement of the Irish Catholic population from the very bottom of society, steadily further upward in employment, education and status. The notion that nuns contributed to the oppression of women in Australia in a general way is unmitigated nonsense.
I have come to the firm view that, despite contradictions and defects, the Irish Catholic contribution to Australian society, particularly its major contribution to the undermining of imperial British Protestant upper class Australia, has been generally progressive. On these grounds alone, I believe the historical aspects of your new narrative are fundamentally flawed.
I have considerable difficulty with your treatment of the first question in Australian history, the Aboriginal question. You only seriously refer to Henry Reynolds, for instance, in relation to his latest book, The whispering in their hearts, out of his whole body of work, his seven or eight books.
That book discusses, in an appropriate and extremely useful way, the work of liberal whites, and some evangelical Christians, who attempted to defend Aboriginal rights in the period of British colonial invasion and attempted extermination. You use this last Reynolds book as an implicit argument for softening the historical narrative about Aboriginal oppression in Australia, and you clearly infer this is necessary for reconciliation.
Like you, I am concerned about the Aboriginal question, both in Australian history and in immediate day-to-day Australian life. I am particularly concerned that the conflicts between white Australians and Aboriginal Australians that stem from this history of oppression be negotiated in such a way that neither Aboriginal Australians nor ordinary white Australians are scapegoated, and that we get a civilised outcome satisfactory for all.
Nevertheless, in this area, I find your approach fatally flawed. You join the conservative populist attack on “black armband history”. I regard “black armband history”, so-called, particularly in relation to the Aboriginal question, as a necessary prerequisite to any proper Australian historiography, and to the development of any viable political practice in Aboriginal affairs.
Henry Reynolds is my number-one hero in this area. You unctuously dwell on his latest book, the one about the minority of British white Australians who defended the Aboriginals, but this does not stop you making a sweeping general attack on the so-called “black armband history”, of which you must know Henry Reynolds has to be the most senior, prolific and respected practitioner.
Can’t you see the element of hypocrisy in your approach to this matter? Henry Reynolds started his work with a detailed and scholarly celebration of the indigenous Australian resistance to white conquest in his first couple of books. He continued with an equally scholarly project of inquiry into the brutal nature of British imperialist intrusion into Australia, and the attempted destruction of Aboriginal life and culture, in his next books.
Only after this necessary work had been done did he quite properly turn to the question of those civilised white people who had played a role in the defence of Aboriginal interests. I absolutely support Henry Reynolds’ priorities in relation to these matters. The pious way that you elevate Reynolds’ recent book, inferentially rather than explicitly, to create a picture that white Australia wasn’t really so bad in relation to the Aboriginal question, infuriates me beyond belief.
You should note that I do not say that ordinary white Australians now should apologise forever in a maudlin way about these matters, and I do regard conflicts of interest between ordinary white Australians and Aboriginal people as real conflicts that have to be negotiated and resolved, taking into account the interests of all parties.
But, nevertheless, the starting point for this process has to be a thorough knowledge of the enormity of the past assault by white British Australia on Aboriginal culture and interests. To some extent all we white Australians have to internalise the magniture of that enormity.
From this point of view, “black armband history” is entirely commendable and the campaign against it, which you implicitly endorse, is totally reactionary. I particularly refer you to the wonderful little book of recent journalism in this area by Dick Hall, Black armband days.
Miriam Dixson’s work on labour history.
As part of this exercise, I have reread Greater Than Lenin and all of your early journal articles that I could find. This has jogged my memory of how excited I was when I first read them in the 1960s and the 1970s. I was unsure about the psychoanalytic angle of Greater Than Lenin but, despite this reservation your early work seemed useful and important to me then, and it still does.
This was sharpened by a personal interest, obviously, in a lot of the material because of my Langite father. (Every copy of Greater Than Lenin that has ever passed through my hands as a bookseller, including my own copy, has fallen to pieces. Those old university monographs were useful in their time, but academic book production techniques in those days was pretty primitive.)
I’ve just re-read, in particular, your chapter Stubborn resistance, the Northern NSW miners’ lockout of 1929-30” in the Labour History collection, Strikes, your article Rothbury in the Labour History collection The Great Depression and your article on the 1929 timber strike in the May 1963 issue of Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, and I was forcibly struck by how relevant your analysis in that article is for today’s problems in the labour movement.
While history never repeats itself exactly, your early work in labour history seems to me to be of considerable enduring importance. Have you thought of getting NSW University Press to reprint Greater Than Lenin and your major journal articles, as one volume? Despite the fact that labour history is currently rather out of fashion, they would still sell well, as they are of enormous intrinsic interest.
In this context I am reminded of the extract from the essay, Making History by Manning Clark, which caught the atmosphere of that time when you started out in labour history. Clark says:
- We were all very young. There was Miriam Dixson, who told me once in the Melbourne Public Library that she sometimes dreamed of how wonderful it would be to be in Australia when there was a socialist society.
I think you did yourself a bit of a retrospective injustice at the Gleebooks event when, trying to reinforce your theory about the “new class” you said that, as a zealous young middle class Stalinist in the 1940s, you would have avoided classifying yourself in class terms if questioned about your class location, which made you even then an embryonic member of the “new class”. I think your memory is playing tricks with you a bit and bending somewhat to your new construction.
Even most middle class Stalinists of that era, like any other breed of Marxist, would have acknowledged their middle class or upper class origins readily, and then proclaimed their ideological conversion to the cause of the working class. I doubt if you were really particularly different in that respect.
The great leap into high cultural theory
I am rather astounded by the implacably “high theory” character of your book. While you attack poststructuralism and postmodernism, your book is every bit as dense and forbidding as many other pieces of academic cultural theory that I have encountered.
Your book is at least as dense as, say the magazines Telos and Arena Journal and more dense than New Left Review, which is saying an awful lot. I’m not convinced that pure cultural or psychoanalytic theory tours de force are the most effective way of addressing current immediate political questions.
They tend to suffer from the problem that I referred to earlier: that they infer opinions on major questions, rather than spelling them out. I’m conscious, however, that this new piece of work is of great importance to you personally, and, from your point of view, is the culmination of a lifetime of inquiry, and I find it very interesting in that context.
After studying it, I’m certain that you and I disagree fundamentally these days on a wide range of major questions. I’m fascinated by the speed with which conservative, populist, right wing journalists have cottoned on, even, to the idea of your new work, although I doubt whether some of them have attempted to read you very seriously. Rather, they tend to seize on your occupation of the theoretical high ground, so to speak, to give some intellectual reinforcement to their already existing views.
These populist, right wing journalists are my real enemies in the current culture wars, and as I write this I have been trying to curb a tendency in myself to load on to your book my personal reactions to all their current political diatribes. From my point of view, your enthusiastic fan, Paul Sheehan, in particular, is the most potent populist journalist because he is such an effective, although tabloid, writer. His thoroughly reactionary book got great momentum from the way he was taken up by the talkback journalists and the tabloid press.
His message, which he obviously believes is similar to yours, got a great deal further than any book of serious political or social theory can possibly get, because of the catchy journalistic way he presents basically similar material.
One reason I am examining your book critically is because it is so obvious to me that you will be used by all these populists as a substantial authority for their raging right wing agitation. For instance, I confidently predict that News Weekly, the modest but fairly widely read magazine of the National Civil Council, will favourably review your book, and may even promote it in their mail order book service as part of their implacable and apocalyptic agitation against all aspects of modernity.
They are quite a significant force still, because they clearly have the ear of the new boss of the Catholic Church in Melbourne, Archbishop Pell. George Pell is a very intelligent man but, unfortunately, he is a forceful social conservative, and also, it seems to me, a political conservative, which is rather sad.
His Grace Archbishop Mannix, who is one of my Australian cultural heroes, was, in his time, a social conservative, but a political and economic radical, and often exerted a little gentle ecclesiastical pressure on Bob Santamaria from the left on political matters. Unfortunately the leadership of the Catholic church in Melbourne, given the current chemistry between News Weekly and Archbishop Pell, is shifting steadily to the right on all fronts, and your book will be taken up enthusiastically in those circles, even despite your obvious animosity, historically, to the cultural role of the Irish in Australia.
They even use Bob Menzies as one of their cultural icons these days, and constantly quote him in News Weekly and their fundraising appeals.
These days, the conservative News Weekly Catholics in Melbourne are much less concerned about matters of Irish ethnicity in Australian history than they are about pushing an ultra-conservative social agenda. Incidentally, in relation to the current conservative push for a right wing social agenda, have you been following the unpleasant witch-hunt of the past week or so by Miranda Devine and other journalists in the The Telegraph against the Teachers Federation and the Parents and Citizens Association.
I’m not in favour of the postmodernist tone of some of the views of the P&Cs, but all my most powerful instincts drive me to defend them in general, against this bizarre tabloid witch-hunt.
I can’t avoid considering your important book in the context of intellectual developments on the world stage. I am, like you, I imagine, very glad that the monstrous 20th century phenomenon of Stalinism has largely been demolished by popular revolt in many countries, and finally collapsed because of its own internal contradictions. My own preoccupation is with re-establishing an authentic socialist practice and theory, taking into account the awful chaos that those of us who still consider ourselves socialists have inherited after the necessary overthrow of Stalinism.
I understand that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe (the other Thomas Wolfe, the better writer) said in the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. The new socialist politics and practice that we construct will obviously not be the same as that of the past, but it must incorporate all the lessons of past experiences.
In the midst of all this ideological movement and confusion, I am conscious of the dramatic shift to the far right, of some overseas historians, who, in the past have made major contributions, from the Marxist point of view, to history and theory. I am thinking, for instance, of Paul Picone, the editor of the US magazine Telos, who has become an extreme right-wing populist, and Eugene Genovese, the important American Marxist historian of the South and slavery, who has been converted to the most Tridentine conservative right wing version of the Catholic Church.
In Australia quite a few intellectuals who have been on the left in the past have in recent years swung over rather sharply to the right. I’m thinking of Max Teichmann, who has extraordinary articles denouncing all forms of “leftism” in about every second issue of News Weekly; the onetime anarchist and distinguished anthropologist, Ken Maddock, who now lends his considerable prestige to the Quadrant project in relation to Aboriginal affairs, etc.
Even some people whose intellectual activity is still in some respects useful, such as Allan Barcan in education, and Keith Windschuttle in philosophy, have shifted dramatically to the right in their general political beliefs. This is a period of sharp and contradictory political movement in Australian intellectual circles, which makes a struggle for clarity on big political questions extremely important.
I’m not implying that your shift is as dramatic as some of the above but, nevertheless, this is inevitably the context, along with the current local right wing journalistic populism, in which I am looking at your book.
I don’t feel equipped yet, to fully consider all your complex and deeply personalised opinions on the psychoanalytic theory that you discuss. That’s not my strong point. I’m busily dusting off my Winnicott and Melanie Klein, for a future serious inquiry into these questions.
I’ve even dug out of my book collection a fairly major biography of Klein that I bought at a book fair a while back, (Melanie Klein, Her World and her Work, by Phyllis Grosskurth, 1986) and it’s sitting on my table to be re-read presently.
One of the things I am most concerned about in your book is to try and tease out what its implications are for many current important political questions. I have not changed all that much in some respects. I am still an old agitator, and in these culture wars I am concerned to start a third camp in relation to questions of history, asserting a populist class-based Australian historiography, which incorporates the class analysis of Ian Turner, Bob Gollan, Russell Ward and Connell and Irving, the populist narrative of Manning Clark and Brian Fitzpatrick, and celebrates all the elements of opposition to the old imperialist British-Australian ruling class.
I desire to reinforce that kind of historical construct with everything that comes from the Aboriginal struggle, the Irish Catholic tradition and each successive wave of migration. I view this kind of historical narrative as an alternative to the fashionable right-wing populist historical revisionism and also to the currently more or less dominant, mind-rotting postmodernism in the historical and social sciences.
In these culture wars I’m preoccupied by questions of migration, multiculturalism and ethnicity as they relate to Australian history. I have myself developed a view on a lot of these matters that sharply conflicts with the recent right wing populism of which you are clearly now a part. As an Australian autodidact, I am unashamedly in favour of high migration, non-British migration, Asian migration and multiculturalism.
Despite all the puffed-up, indignant demagogery of the right wing populists about the “new class”, I am quite enthusiastic about the possibility of establishing a day-to-day tactical alliance on these matters even with such generally politically right wing figures as Gerard Henderson, Anne Henderson and even Malcolm Fraser. I’m rather amused by the rage of Katharine Betts against her fellow patrician Tory Malcolm Fraser, on migration matters.
The primary question in my interrogation of your book is the implications of it for current political practice. I am alarmed, in your book, particularly, by this paragraph on page 28:
- Enzensberger’s “molecular civil war” overlaps with the unsettling term “slow riot”, by which European liberals and conservatives alike currently refer to signs of what some see as a new Dark Ages. “Slow riot” betokens unorganised, sporadic but burgeoning responses to social decay. It represents the exacerbation of the latter’s symptoms by vandalism, looting and virtual street war. We may see terrorist activity as part of “slow riot”. Foregrounding events such as the resumption of IRA activity in Britain, the Lockerbie and Atlanta incidents, scholarly studies detect a marked increase in terrorist activities after about 1970.
Wow. I believe that the capitalist system is in a fairly deep crisis currently, but my view of it is not as apocalyptic or bleak as this. What worries me about your view here, through the voice of your chosen interlocutor, is the thoroughly reactionary implication of much of it.
The very complex question of the family
A very significant dividing point on many political questions focuses on views and political practices in relation to the family. I was rather forcibly struck by what seems to me to be a very curious formulation, on page 133. In discussing Lacan’s rather perverse psychology:
- But for Winnicott, the experience of the mother’s face does not launch the child on a path of basic alienation. Rather, it offers hope against a future when the child will no longer suffer the anguish of infantile helplessness. Winnicott’s version of the mirror stage leaves Lacan’s looking mechanistic and cold, constructed around the kind of narrow masculinism which feminists and male-gender theorists have amply charted: Lacan’s chilly mirror stage concerns what is in fact the warmest encounter humans ever experience.
On balance, I’m much more sympathetic to your view than to Lacan’s slightly inhuman view, but nevertheless, maybe because I may have been over-influenced by Wilhelm Reich when I was young in the 1960s, and his notion of orgiastic potency, I’m a bit cautious about a total emphasis on the mother-child relationship, which in some readings of human affairs downgrades or even excludes sexuality.
I would have thought that adult romantic genital sexuality would possibly rate at least equally in the sphere of “warmest human encounters” between human beings, and even have a certain primacy in relation to encounters between adults. This apparently pedantic point has a considerable bearing on the current debates about the family.
The most reactionary people, who wish to push all women back into the home, buttress their attempted counter-revolution by a desexualised appeal to “family values”, which is, in their version, a very reactionary proposition indeed.
On the other hand, a happily declining group amongst some feminists and other theorists, talk absolute nonsense about “smashing the family” as an immediate political objective. In many countries the question of the family is, indeed, a very pressing and complex immediate political question. I believe that negotiating in a civilised way the divergent and sometimes contradictory interests of people in all kinds of family situations, ranging from the most unusual, untraditional and complex non-family circumstances, over to the most tightly organised traditional family arrangements, is one of the primary practical day-to-day questions.
I don’t believe that the family is going to wither away any time soon for the many significant cultural groups for whom it is a defence, a shelter and a still protective social network. On the other hand, the many modern humans who no longer live in a traditional family framework are not going to be forced back into a nuclear family set-up by reactionary rhetoric, and nor should they be.
The practical question in relation to this matter is the proper recognition of the rights and interests of the many varieties of family and non-family arrangements that now exist. In this kind of immediate political negotiation, the question of sexuality is really quite important. Those who have more conservative views on sexuality must not be coerced by others, but, on the other hand, people who want to practice a free and uninhibited sexuality, within civilised limits, should not be coerced either.
The matter of the family is the cockpit of many current conflicts and has to be discussed and treated and acted upon in the most responsible, tolerant and understanding way. On the face of it, your book seems to come down far more forcibly on the side of conservative “family values” than I think is useful to this necessary, civilised settlement.
There is a raging, vicious and censorious agitation both in Australia and the USA, in favour of conservative “family values” being imposed on people who don’t want them. This pogrom against modernity makes most progressive humans very sensitive to the use of this reactionary rhetoric, about “family values”.
If you don’t want to be treated intellectually as a member of the Festival of Light or the Moral Majority, you will have to spell out exactly what you mean by your very extensive emphasis on the “holding quality” of the family and overcome your reluctance to explaining what your general theoretical statements actually mean for current public policy.
The drug question
There is a fierce political debate going on over what action to take in relation to addictive and non-addictive drugs, and to the plague of drug addiction that is affecting many countries, including Australia. This is another very important question of pressing public policy. For my part, I support the immediate legalisation of non-addictive drugs such as marijuana, and I am strongly in favour of treating the vicious and intractable problem of heroin addiction as a medical rather than a police problem.
These are very immediate practical questions. Even the NSW government has just timidly, but quite deliberately, decided to test one method of reducing the harm of heroin, initially with the assistance of the Catholic Sisters of Charity. The Sisters have just been forced out of this entirely laudable experiment by an edict from Rome, obviously solicited by the conservative Bishop of Melbourne, George Pell, who is a member of the Congregation that issued the edict.
Predictably, right wing populists of the press and talkback radio hosts have launched a witchhunt against this initiative. A Liberal politician, Stephen O’Doherty, is, trying to whip up a backwoods revolt against this initiative, particularly in the perceived Vendee of country NSW. While all my personal experience, including quite a few past urban social encounters with heroin and junkies, gives me a considerable hatred of heroin addiction (although not of the unfortunate addicts themselves) nevertheless, I support the government’s initiative for supervised injecting rooms very strongly.
I am interested in what you believe the implications of your book are for this kind of immediate political problem. I must press you on this question to give some sort of fairly specific answer. Your book remains throughout at the level of theory, and political and social philosophy. For others to have any real way of judging what your arguments really mean, it is necessary for you to express their implications on some matters of immediate public policy, and this vexed question of drugs and addiction seems to me like an excellent area to use as some kind of yardstick as to where the thrust of your thinking is taking you, and whether it’s of any use for the rest of us.
I haven’t quite exhausted all the questions that I want to raise with you, but I will sign off now, more or less for reasons of exhaustion. I’ve just heard that you are speaking in a symposium with Ghassan Hage at the Melbourne Writers Festival. That information tickles my fancy somewhat. Two or three months ago I wrote a detailed and careful critique of his latest books, and I’ve recently seen him for the first time and witnessed one of his performances.
He is a classic disciple of Pierre Bourdieu. His narrative, although ostensibly opposed to yours, actually agrees with you on your major point. He, too, thinks there is an Anglo-Celtic core culture (“white nation”) but, in contrast to you, he is against it, as the self-appointed talking head or literary representative of “non-white”.
You and he may have a lot of fun engaging in erudite discussions of “cultural capital”, as he also has his own version of the “new class” theory. He is a pretty hard act to follow, really. He is a short man, with a pronounced accent, and he is slightly deaf, although he doesn’t wear a hearing aid.
He insists that all questioners hand up their questions in written form, and this gives him a wonderful debating advantage, as he can just ignore those parts of interventions from the floor that don’t suit him, although he seems to me to hear what he wants to hear.
The combination of all these factors make him a very powerful theatrical presence. I’d love to be a fly on the wall, or a voice from the chorus at your Melbourne encounter. (Do you remember how Nick, who was severely deaf after 20 years at the Morts Dock shipyard, used to turn off his hearing aid when he was sick of listening to us.)
Hoping that this epistle isn’t too personal or overwhelming. Your one-time colleague, Bob Gould, Bookseller, Newtown.
August 9, 1999
Interrogating Miriam Dixson
I am writing this after distributing Section One at your book reading at Gleebooks, and participating in the discussion there. I have read your book once more since then, so this piece represents my developed overview.
The favourable quotes on the back of your book indicate some possible developing divisions in Australian intellectual life. It is praised by Judith Brett, Barry Jones, Peter Carey, Alan Atkinson, David Williamson and Stuart MacIntyre. None of these people are at all stupid. They have obviously read your book, despite its forbidding abstractness and density, and the flattering nature of their comments suggests that they all approve of some part of your thesis.
Peter Carey’s enthusiasm has quite significant literary implications, as he’s quite a talented, fashionable and prize-winning novelist. It will be very interesting to see what kind of themes might emerge in his future creative writing from the influence of your ideological construction.
David Williamson has clearly been moving in a similar direction to you for a while, sadly at the same time as a certain decline in his previously unerring ability to catch and modulate almost exactly the right chord in Australian life. Dogs Head Bay is a fairly dramatic comedown from the optimistic and, in its time, decisive critical eye for Australian character and circumstances, displayed in Don’s Party, which so strikingly expressed some major changes in Australian national identity and self-perception in the 1970s. As Williamson has moved over towards your views, in my opinion his vision has become increasingly bleak and trivial, and just a little bit inhuman.
The developing counter-revolution in historiography
Stuart MacIntyre’s enthusiasm is quite significant in the field of historiography. Both MacIntyre and yourself at an earlier, and in my view more useful, stage in your intellectual development, showed a considerable interest in such things as the proletarian autodidacts who founded the British and Australian Communist Parties: MacIntyre in his wonderful book Proletarian Science and you in Greater Than Lenin.
Well, since then, you’ve both become established in academe and your views have clearly evolved fairly dramatically away from those you once held, and your core interests have changed somewhat. I note that in The Imaginary Australians you refer, with careful reverence, to the Anglophone, elitist and difficult to access Oxford Companion to Australian History in which Stuart MacIntyre’s editorial hand is obviously the dominant one.
As Stuart MacIntyre is now the dominant figure in Australian leftist historiography, his enthusiasm for your construct seems to me to underline the importance of subjecting it to careful critical scrutiny. I wish to open a kind of second front against your attempted reconstruction of Australian history, in favour of a modern critical populist and Marxist Australian historiography more appropriate to the Australia in which we now live.
While your book has moved from history into heavy-duty social theory, I believe its impact in the field of history may be considerable. I would here introduce a bookseller’s digression. Inquiring around, I hear that your book, Michael Thompson’s book, and Katharine Betts’ book are only selling moderately well in those bookshops that specialise in serious academic titles, and that they have been outsold in Sydney by a factor of four or five to one, by Ghassan Hage’s oddball postmodernist tour de force, White Nation.
I’d be curious to know whether this is just a Sydney phenomenon. Hage’s book is just as dense as yours and, on the face of it, should have a smaller audience, although this may be the only argument I know that actually assists your “new class” rhetoric in a superficial kind of way. Maybe the several hundred entrenched Sydney academic postmodernists all buy books (from Gleebooks). The knowledge that Ghassan Hage’s book is a kind of modest bestseller is a bit hard to absorb and interpret, even for me!
Despite the above piece of eccentric information, I believe that your book and the other two righ-wing populist books I’ve mentioned are likely to have greater real influence than Ghassan Hage, as I point out repeatedly elsewhere, your book and those books will be used by the journalistic right-wing populists in their quite effective public propaganda.
Your book splashes into an Australian historiographical pool made very muddy by some past and some recent controversies. For instance, that old acquaintance of both of us, onetime Maoid and Marxoyant enfant terrible, Humphrey McQueen, has, looking back on it, an awful lot to answer for.
His scattergun historical and literary journalism and his wholesale attempt, with others, to imitate Althusser in the Australian historical sciences, ultimately gave rise, further down the track, to the incoherent academic upheaval described by MacIntyre in the Oxford Companion, as “the debate on class”. This dispute was kicked off by Humphrey’s young man’s tour de force, A New Britania, which dismissed the early Australian labour movement so totally and cavalierly because of its ostensibly backward aspects, and combined with Bede Nairn’s equally one-sided total celebration of those backward aspects to obscure the outlines of many solid, progressive and important aspects of the development of the early Australian labour movement.
McQueen’s argument was that there was no proletariat in Australia in the 19th century because the existing working class of that time had an inherently “petty bourgeois” ideology. The more traditional Marxist labour historians, like Turner, Gollan and Russell Ward, took the view that, in objective class terms, there was a proletariat in development, despite the petty bourgeois nature of its ideology.
Turner and company were, in my view, much more correct than McQueen, who did not take any cognisance of what Trotsky calls “uneven and combined development”. A very significant aspect of this “uneven and combined development” in Australian class formation in the 19th century was the specific role of the Irish Catholic population, with their deep hatred of British imperialism based on their violated national sentiments and interests, carried with them into the new country.
While the developing working class in Australia had many middle-class aspirations, as described by McQueen, a constant discordant factor sharpening conflict in Australia was the antagonism of the Irish to British imperialism, which contributed to the sharpening of the class antagonism between the emerging Australian working class and the British Australian ruling class.
This process of sharp class and social conflict proceeded despite the upward social mobility of many members of the working class, including the Irish. The evolution of Australian society in the 19th century, including “the debate on class” can’t be understood, and the “debate” can’t be adequately resolved without incorporating an understanding of the role of the Irish Catholics in Australia in the framework of combined and uneven development.
I have just been rereading the late Ian Turner’s dignified and intelligent refutation of McQueen in the last edition of his important Industrial Labor and Politics, and I am struck by how much more sensible he was on most of the questions in dispute than McQueen.
And again, the recent widespread quite extraordinary, vicious and unintelligent assault on the intellectual achievement and reputation of Manning Clark almost defies comprehension considering the amazing sweep of Clark’s achievement as a historian.
In terms of Australian intellectual life we badly need someone of the polemical calibre and historical erudition of E.P. Thompson to deal with a lot of these questions in the sweeping and effective way that Thompson dealt, in The Poverty of Theory, with the mechanical materialism presented as Marxism by Althusser.
In my view, the reconstruction of a humanist, radical, leftist, Marxist, populist and Catholic history of Australia is of the greatest importance. In this sphere you are certainly on to something in your fairly original notion of the “National Imaginary”. There is certainly scope for a real Australian “Imaginary” in the sphere of history, which will be, of necessity, something rather more than just the crude chronicling of the ostensibly simple facts.
Such a history must, of course, be scrupulously factual but, without making too big a concession to the postmodernist notion that all narratives are equal, nevertheless, the narrative you construct does depend, to a degree, on your emotional and philosophical, and even cultural and tribal, starting point.
In that framework, I don’t like the Anglophile construction, for instance, of MacIntyre/s Oxford Companion at all, and I generally reject the framework into which you try to push the historical record of what you call the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. The real task is to construct an Australian history in a somewhat different way.
I started my own project three or four years ago by writing a journalistic response and amendment to a turgid Anglophone list of the 100 greatest Australians published in the Sydney Morning Herald. I believe a good start to an Australian radical history would be the great initiators,who I would classify as Manning Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, Russell Ward, Ian Turner, Robin Gollan, Eris O’Brien and Barnard Eldershaw.
I would then add to that such effective popularisers as Michael Cannon, Cyril Pearl, J.N. Rawling, James Murtagh, Rupert Lockwood and Robert Hughes. In recent times humanist and radical and socialist historians have been working in all kinds of areas of Australian history quietly and without fuss. Shirley Fitzgerald, Stuart Svensen, Ross Fitzgerald, Keith Amos, Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, Thomas Keneally, Grace Karskens and many many others.
The task is to build on the work of the pioneers, and draw all these newer people into a plebian, populist, socialist, Irish Catholic, indigenous Australian, migrant historiography. This kind of historical construction will take something from the civilisd aspects that can be extracted from your “Anglo-eltic core culture” but how can it possibly be pushed into the framework of a dominant role for your “Anglo-Celtic core culture”? Why should it be? The dominant parts of that culture were the culture of our oppressors.
The question of Sydney. Sodom and Gomorrah on the Pacific Rim
Consistent with your developing conservative populism is a sharp antagonism to Sydney, which you share with Betts and Birrell, and many other right-wing populists. In conversation after the end of the formal discussion at Gleebooks, you remarked rather loudly to someone that you don’t like Sydney much and are not keen on coming here.
You note in your book the prickle of uneasiness you sometimes feel walking the streets of Sydney, which you associate in that extract with the Asian appearance of some of the people you see. In your usual fashion, on page 110, you express your view of Sydney by quoting someone else, in this case, Colin Friels.
- The Australian actor Colin Friels associates his deep unease about Sydney with its beginnings and with convicts. Sydney, he lamented in 1996, is “a very greedy, very superficial” city, a city “in deep shit. There are some startling revelations in Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore … I often feel we inherited the worst things from the English culture”.
Poor Colin Friels! What looks like a bit of a throwaway remark has been turned by you into a major political statement. You do with this Friels quote what you do with many of your other quotes. You pick it up and polish it, so to speak, and use it as a kind of club to drive home what are clearly your own views, but leaving yourself the escape hatch that it is only a quotation from someone else.
Apparently Friels has been so traumatised by some burglaries in the rather affluent street he lives in, Louisa Road, Birchgrove, that, along with some other Sydney high fliers who live there, he is contributing $50 a week to help pay for a private security guard to police the area.
Anyway, your considerable uneasiness about Sydney brings to quite a high point some of the issues between us. I am deeply attached to Sydney. I’m soaked in it. I’ve lived here all my life. I love the place, but I’m more aware than most people of the cruelties and contradictions in Sydney life. A discussion of the nature of Sydney is one way of exploring the real character of the differences between us.
My bible in relation to cities and urban affairs is the work of Jane Jacobs, the American sociologist. I would refer you, in particular, to her indispensable book, The Economy of Cities. In Jane Jacobs’ terms, Sydney is in a modest way, one of the classic world cities. For a start, it is useful to see Sydney in the context of its immediate hinterland.
Sydney is, in fact, the focus of a broader urban conglomeration which, properly understood, includes the Illawarra area, the Southern Highlands, Canberra, the Blue Mountains and the Central Coast. This broader Sydney urban region including a significant immediate rural hinterland, is the financial and governmental hub of Australasia, and also a major centre of industry. It is Australasia’s major world city.
It has a number of specific historical aspects that carry over into its current complex identity. It is the urban region in Australia that contains the sharpest contradictions, the greatest extremes of wealth and poverty, the richest capitalists such as Kerry Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, and the poorest illegal migrants working somewhere in a sweatshop.
It has always had the highest proportion of Catholics in the population and still does. For the past 40 years, it has had and still does, a very high proportion of non-British migrants. In more recent times it has an extremely high proportion of recent Asian migrants, much much more so than any other part of Australia, and they are, indeed, a decisive element in the population of inner Sydney.
It also has more Muslims than anywhere else in Australia. It has the largest indigenous population of any city in Australia. Sydney has a very high percentage also of non religious people. It also has the highest proportion of university graduates (other than Canberra) who, on one of your bad days, you will classify as all members of the “new class”.
Paradoxically, taken as a whole, this broad urban Sydney-Canberra region is at the higher end for economic activity of all sorts for Australasia, and has lower unemployment, despite a more rapid influx of overseas migration, both legal and illegal, than most other regions in Australasia.
A further paradox is that, despite greater racial and cultural diversity than any other part of Australasia, urban or rural, this region has less overt racism or tension betwen racial and cultural groups than any other area in Australasia. Try to explain that in terms of the threatened aspect of the “holding quality” of your “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. In those terms, Sydney is quite inexplicable. I can see why you don’t like the place much.
The class struggle between the ruling class and the rest of the population proceeds in Sydney as it does everywhere else, and in that struggle I side with the working class and the poor and the oppressed. But even in that sphere the fact that Sydney is an extremely prosperous, cosmopolitan, lively, global city — the dominant city of this sort in Australasia — provides a profound objective basis for the possibility of working-class struggle and agitation. Anyone who dislikes Sydney, in my view, displays a lack of any real creative imagination and has, in a way, abdicated from the complex reality of modern urban life.
Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras
One interesting feature of contemporary Sydney is the cultural phenomenon, the Gay Mardi Gras. Sydney is a mainly heterosexual city, with many communities of new migrants from cultures in which homosexuality is rather frowned upon. Sydney’s gay population is also pretty large, partly because gay men, in particular, often move to Sydney to escape from more hostile environments to a city in which they find greater respect and acceptance, and there are a number of suburbs with a visible gay element in the population.
Nevertheless, Sydney is still an overwhelmingly heterosexual city. Twenty-two years ago some gay activists held a march as a statement of gay pride and identity. This march has, over the years, grown into an enormous festival, the Gay Mardi Gras. It has retained the major aspects of gay cultural identity, but it has also become a gigantic commercialised public festival, which attracts gay tourists and, indeed, other tourists, from all over the region, in the warm autumn months of February and March.
It has become a substantial economic boon to Sydney. The interesting aspect of it is that the concluding Mardi Gras street parade is now usually attended by more than half a million people, the overwhelming majority of whom are heterosexual and are drawn from all the diverse cultural groups that inhabit Sydney. It has become one of the defining annual cultural events, much larger, even, than the City to Surf marathon race, which is pretty big itself.
The Mardi Gras parade can hardly get much bigger, for sheer logistic reasons. In this Mardi Gras cultural event, a large part of the adult heterosexual population of Sydney participate in some way, such as watching it in the streets, and many more watch it on television. This does not appear to lead to any significant increase in homosexual sexual activity.
Human sexual practices are in fact, defined by much more primary and complex factors than any festival. Despite the rage of certain relics of a past age like Fred Nile and others, the Mardi Gras has become a totally entrenched part of Sydney life and, in a way, that very cultural phenomenon defines the complex, contradictory place that Sydney has become. Sydney people, in the same way that they hardly notice Asian faces in the street, are very little concerned about the specific sexual practices of their fellow citizens. What is generated in Sydney, by its very nature, is a constantly emerging practical day-to-day acceptance of and respect for an immense variety of races, religions, cultural and sexual minorities.
The notion of the “imaginary”. Miriam Dixson’s “imaginary” and Bob Gould’s!
Book design, particularly cover design, is improving dramatically these days. The cover of your book is a rather spectacular example of the modern designer’s art, and is richly evocative. You have one of your Anglo-Celtic core culture representatives peeping out at us through a kind of natural porthole in an exotic rock formation in some arid part of Central Australia. A very powerful image indeed, and quite in keeping with the construction of your book.
I find your notion of the “imaginary” in relation to national identity and cultural development a useful, rather exciting, idea, despite my sharp disagreements with you in other spheres. The only problem is that I have a radically different notion to you, of what this real “imaginary” in Australian national identity is, and what are its future cultural possibilities.
I also have some sympathy with your celebration of the “local” as opposed to the difficult to comprehend “global”. As your development of this notion in the book is mainly theoretical, I try to imagine what our alternative ideas might mean for further developments of the “cultural imaginary”. One very major concrete example you give in the book is the celebration of Anzac as a major point of departure for this “imaginary”.
I’ve already outlined my view of the cultural significance of Anzac Day and wars, and my notion of the cultural expressions that might come from that — stories, novels, pieces of historical writing, films, etc — stem from this understanding. In my reading of the “imaginary”, as creative Australians work on all the wars of Australia’s past, the films made in the future are more likely to be like the wonderful old antiwar film Paths of Glory than some heroic celebration of the “glory” of wars. For instance, I would like to see a film of Eric Wilmott’s Pemulwuy, recounting the first Aboriginal war against invasion.
I would like to see a fiction film of the First World War based on my father’s and Charlie Mance’s memories, rather than some unreal pseudo-heroic “epic”. I would like to see a film about the Malayan Harriers escaping back to Australia. That would be quite a movie, with plenty of excitement and wonderful locations. I’d like to see a stark film about the Aussie pilots in Europe, without the phoney histrionics of Twelve O’Clock High. I would like to see a film based on the Battle of Long Tan, seen from the Australian and the Vietnamese sides at the same time, with perhaps a postscript of a meeting between Terry Burstall and a Viet Cong leader. I would like to see an ambitious, say, four-part television series about the conscription battle in Australia during the First World War, with his Eminence Archbishop Mannix as the hero. I would like to see a warts-and-all movie of Lambert’s novel, The Twenty Thousand Thieves. I would like to see a couple of reconstructed history docos on such subjects as the battle between Curtin and Churchill over the withdrawel of Australian troops from the Middle East for the defence of Australia, and another one, say, on the public lying, and the behind-the-scenes manoeuvering between the US and Australian governments to drag Australian troops into the Vietnam conflict, and the consequences.
As you can see, in relation to Anzac Day and wars, my Australian “national imaginary” and yours are likely to be dramatically different. I would like to know what kind of films you would suggest in this area of Anzac and wars, which you believe is so central to our national consciousness.
There have already been some artistic attempts at coming to terms with the Vietnam War. I’m thinking particularly of the Kennedy Miller television drama and of the rather elegant book Vietnam,produced a few years ago by Weldon Syme, which listed the names of the 500 Australians killed in Vietnam, and of those who fought there.
In the case of both the television drama and the book, the producers made a serious effort to give proper coverage and do justice to all involved: the Australian soldiers, the Viet Cong guerillas, the protesters at home and the Vietnamese who came to Australia as refugees.
Handled artistically and tastefully, in these cases, these cultural productions and works of television art proved extremely popular. The point is, however, that they were widely accepted because they covered all the issues and points of view involved, rather than adopting some mad “British-Australia” ultra-”patriotic” standpoint. Any cultural production about the Vietnam War from a celebratory, jingoistic “British-Australia” angle would be accepted by very few people, and not even understood or comprehended by most, so decisively has the real course of events in Vietnam become part of the assumed historical fabric of Australian life.
This cultural situation in regard to the Vietnam War is not the product of any “new class” domination of the creative arts, but of the real history of the war and Australia and Vietnam’s involvement in it. Not much joy there for any “integration project”.
I think my Australian “national imaginary” in relation to Anzac Day and wars will, over time, prove to be the source of much more creativity in the Australia of the 21st century, in part because those people you misname the “new class” and sinister cosmo-multicultural backward-looking Celtic types like myself are in fact rather well entrenched in the production level of cultural activity.
More importantly, however, our views are likely to dominate the future “national imaginary” in relation to past wars, because we have by far the better stories, the ones that are more securely grounded in an honest narrative of real life and history about Australia’s involvement in those wars.
The Australian “national imaginary” and the visual arts
I’m no particular expert on the visual arts, but I have a reasonable layman’s working knowledge, and some interest. I’ve looked at some pictures and exhibitions, and I’ve read a few of the basic books on Australian and world art.
The visual arts interest me a bit and I have some opinions on them. I imagine that a thing we possibly have in common is that neither of us are overly excited by the post-post-postmodernism that is currently so dominant in the world of high art. I tend to agree with the sceptical and critical outlook on modern art expressed by people such as Robert Hughes and Tom Wolfe, and also, from other angles, by Peter Fuller and John Berger.
My greatest personal artistic interest and taste lies with the more traditional Australian modernism. It seems to me, from my knowledge of Australian art and art history, that your notion of the “flat imaginary” collapses completely in relation to the visual arts in Australia. It would be more reasonable, in relation to Australian art to talk of a “lumpy imaginary” or a “chunky imaginary” or even a “vertical imaginary”.
The Australian visual arts are really anything but flat. I would commend to you a series of major works. Robert Hughes’ book on Australian art, Humphrey McQueen’s The Black Swan of Trespass and the major works of Bernard Smith. Some Australian painters in the 19th century were a bit on the bland side, but these 19th century painters had an enormous and influential interaction with the landscape.
The most striking feature of Australian art in the 20th century has been a powerful and diverse collection of artists and cartoonists who express various aspects of modernism in an extraordinary and distinctive Australian way. I’d mention Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Noel Counihan, Albert Tucker, Danila Vassilief, Ivor Hele, Kenneth Macqueen, Colin Colohan, Elioth Gruner, Margaret Preston, Arthur Boyd, William Dobell, Joy Hester, John Perceval, Ian Fairweather, John Olssen, John Brack, Albert Namitjara, George Finey, Michael Leunig, Bruce Petty, Stanislav Rapotec, Nancy Borlase, Fred Cress, Keith Looby and many others.
These Australian visual artists of enormous interpretive power in relation to Australian landscape and Australian life violate any easy incorporation into a self-satisfied “integration project” because they have such a harsh and critical eye for the idiosyncrasies and cruelties of Australian life and also for the pretensions and power of the ruling classes.
There can be no doubt about their effective and significant interpretation of Australian life and yet they don’t fit at all into any idea of celebrating in a bland way your “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. Australian modernism was and is lumpy, chunky and vertical — anything but flat.
Even a politically conservative artist like Norman Lindsay doesn’t help your project at all. His wonderful sexy, baroque, witty females and his rampant fantasised phallic males, which captured the imagination of civilised Australians beginning to throw off British-Australian puritanism at the start of the 20th century, hardly fit any notion of “family values”, and they scandalised bourgeois Australia no end.
Even his expressions of mad-dog patriotism during the First World War aren’t much use to you either, because his cartoons of the “Monstrous Boche” are so bizarre that to any civilised modern eye they appear like lunatic caricatures of the British-Australian chauvinism that they expressed and for which they were so seriously intended.
It is worth noting that puritanical Calvinist Protestant British Australia spent an inordinate amount of time trying to censor the visual arts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So much for the “core holding quality”.
To get a flavour of what I mean you should have a good look at Charles Merewether’s catalogue-book Art and Social Commitment. An end to the City of Dreams 1931-1948. This wonderful catalogue and interpretation of a major exhibition of Australian modernism and social realism, gathered from around Australia in the 1980s, is a powerful expression of what I mean.
Another, similar object is the catalogue-book of the recent exhibition about the Vietnam War, ex-servicemen, protest and Vietnamese in Australia, held a couple of years ago at the Casula Power House Museum.
Both these important catalogues give some idea of the complex and contradictory and exciting nature of traditional Australian modernism in the visual arts. The real high points of Australian art as a serious exercise in interpreting Australia, as expressed in all the artistic developments I’ve discussed above, have contributed greatly to the modern Australian national identity, but fit far more into my Australian “national imaginary” of the underclasses arising to influence cultural identity and in that process liberating and incorporating those cultural elements that can be drawn from the more civilised among the ruling classes.
The Australian visual arts, by any reasonable view or reading, don’t in any way assist your banal “integrating project” carried out to celebrate the civilising mission of your artificially reconstructed “Anglo-Celtic Australia”.
Obviously the visual arts in Australia are marking time right now, as they are overseas, with the temporary dominance of all the rather odd aspects of the post-post-postmodernism that currently swamps the art universe. Personally, I believe this will prove to be a fairly temporary phenomenon, mainly because of the problem of the vanishing audience for much of the post-post-postmodern art that is temporarily dominant.
When the current miasma is dissipated, and the visual arts begin to re-emerge it seems very likely to me that, while in art as in every other sphere of cultural life things never repeat themselves totally, the past robust Australian modernism and realism will continue to exercise a powerful influence on future painting and photography, as expressions of the “national imaginary”.
The Australian “national imaginary” in literature, film and history
The “national imaginary” is something about which I know a bit, both professionally as a bookseller for 30 years, as a consumer of books and movies, and like quite a few other adult human beings, as a bit of a frustrated writer with a number of long-cherished ideas in the back of my head for novels, scripts and movies.
For my first book, I had the intention of putting in a little sub-chapter on books I’d like to write and even mention a couple of works in progress. I will introduce those ideas here, as part of a discussion of the “national imaginary”.
As a bookseller, I’ve been struck for many years by the popular durability of the Vivian Stuart novels about pioneer Australia. They are always in demand. They have a slightly romanticised version of the struggle of people, from convict days on, to make a life for themselves in Australia. They incorporate an element of opposition to injustice and authority, which is part of their charm, and the main reason why they are so popular.
I am a bit of a fan also of the James Michener, Leon Uris, Sarum type of “layered novel” from overseas. These epics are not too highly regarded in the high culture, but they sell and sell and sell because they present the lives and struggle of many generations of people in different countries, locations and environments, to make a life for themselves. They also usually incorporate great chunks of humanism and opposition to authority and eventual defeat of aristocratic elements dominating different societies.
I have quite a number of notions for Michener/Uris type layered novels that might be written about various aspects of the Australian experience. All my layered novel ideas start with the original inhabitants getting here in canoes or on rafts across the Wallace Line 60,000 years ago and the development of Australasian indigenous culture up to white invasion. They then go on to describe convictism and all the struggles of the oppressed in Australia at every stage of the country’s development, full of characters drawn from those experiences. When they get to modern Australia, they incorporate all the upheavals of the period, and they also include the experiences of all the new waves of migration to these shores. I can construct easily the plots of three or four novels like this, drawn from my reading of Australian history, and from the personal histories of people in my family, and the families of others I know, as well as from the lives of significant contemporaries.
The problem is that, in almost all my literary imaginary, characters drawn from Imperial British Australia tend to be cast in the worst roles, although a few can be cast in good roles. Within the framework of my very reasonable national imaginary, such plots emerge without artificially forcing the material at all.
It is worth noting in this context that in recent times, for instance, almost all television epics or docos, or even Australian films that have achieved popular success, have been very much within the framework of my “national imaginary”. In this framework, I’d refer you to Ride on Stranger and Power Without Glory, a few years ago The Dismissal, Scales of Justice, Brides of Christ, various movies about Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade, etc.
The all-time best-selling novel of Australian life is Power Without Glory. What a wonderful Power Without Glory could be written about Sydney life of the last 20 years or so.
I won’t go too much further about the multitude of ideas for creative projects that flow from my version of the national imaginary. I don’t want to give away too many of my plots before I experiment with them a bit myself, but if you’re a bit imaginative you can extrapolate them from my reading of Australian history.
The books already written about Australian experience that excite me, and in my view express best Australian history and experience, don’t fit too well with your “national imaginary”. My favourite books and writers about Australia include Power Without Glory and The Dead Are Many by Frank Hardy; Ride on Stranger and Foveaux by Kylie Tennant, as well as her wonderful autobiography, The Missing Heir; Jonah by Louis Stone; Capricornia by Xavier Herbert; Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Barnard Eldershaw; I‘m Dying Laughing by Christina Stead; Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett and Wild Card, her autobiography.
Another major source of extraordinary anecdote about Australian history, political life and the labour movement, and the many crimes and curious activities of the ruling class, are J.T. Lang’s two books of ostensible autobiography, I Remember and The Great Bust, republished by McNamara Books in 1980. These two books, actually mostly ghost-written by Harold McCauley, one of Lang’s henchmen (who happened to be a journalist by trade), are an extraordinary source of material for anyone wishing to write novels or make films about Australia in the early 20th century.
It’s when I try to imagine what your version of the Anglo-Celtic national imaginary might mean for you in terms of possible creative projects for cultural producers that I have some difficulty. Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I can’t really think of too many stories that give a celebratory middle class Australian “Anglo-Celtic” angle to cultural production that would capture anyone’s imagination.
I can think of two or three, but they tend, in fact, to verge on caricature and I can’t think of much beyond the two or three that spring to mind. One could write a biopic about the compulsive and neurotic inner life of Alfred Deakin, the founder of the Commonwealth, one of the architects of White Australia, who was, in his internal psychic existence, a red-hot table-rapping spiritualist, but any serious attempt to treat his public and private life as a movie or literature would verge so closely on the bizarre as to be almost unbelievable.
Obvious possibilities for films would be the life of Henry Parkes, rags to riches, buccaneering, humbug, hypocrisy and opportunism. A good story, but again, hard to write in any way celebratory of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. One of my favourite books of Australian history has always been Cyril Pearl’s Wild Men of Sydney.
That book is crawling with stories of Anglo-Celtic Australia, but stories more easily told by opponents of British imperialism than celebrators of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. Another of my favourite books has been The Land Boomers by Michael Cannon and his other books about the opening up of Victoria.
Once again, these books teem with stories of Anglo cultural hegemony, expansion and piracy, but stories more easily told by its opponents. What major, moving and important novels and feature films could be developed from the agonising Aboriginal experience of the stolen children? What a bleak and black novel or feature film could be built around the life of the extraordinary fantasist, Daisy Bates, who invented the unpleasant urban myth about Aboriginal women eating babies, and whose allegedly philanthropic preoccupation with the so-called “passing of the Aborigines” dominated public attitudes to the Aboriginal question for so long.
You could possibly have an “epic” about the massacre of the “savage” Kalkadoons by the butcher Kennedy and the repellant Urquhart. You might have a “celebration” of Urquhart’s barbaric Native Police. You might have a celebratory “epic” about the clearing of Tasmania of its Aboriginal “vermin” by the “brave settlers”, but I doubt whether such epics would be at all popular with a civilized modern audience.
I can also think of movies based on the life of Samuel Marsden, or W.C. Wentworth, or T.J. Ley, but as I reel them off they all end up slotting far more easily into my national imaginary, rather than yours. This is because the subjects were such self-righteous, self-serving, hypocritical imperialist personalities, and films about them would either be black comedy or bleak tragedy.
I would be genuinely interested if you would try to think of literary, cinematic, television or cultural projects that might fit your notion of celebrating the heroic role of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture” in a way that you would consider appropriate. I feel that an encounter between your notion of the possibilities of the Australian national imaginary for creative endeavour, and mine, might be of some genuine value.
As I’ve been getting into my stride on this topic, I’ve been considering why I feel so strongly about it. I can’t think of any historians, either academic or popular, even conservative ones like your friend Atkinson, who manage to tell the historical story, even if they approve of the civilising role of “Anglo-British” Australia, without this telling necessarily including factual events that can only be described in an unflattering way to the ruling class.
As an example, there have been three or four very successful popularisers of Australian history: Bill Beatty, Keith Dunstan, Ion Idriess and William Joy. These men have produced many books of historical anecdotes, all of which mix stories of survival and achievement with stories of pain, tragedy and conflict. Taken as a whole, however, when you read their books, you get a picture of a brutal, class-divided, although optimistic and expanding society.
It’s because of the very texture of Australian history that I have such an advantage over you in relation to the creative imaginary. For any modern sensibility it’s far more stimulating and exciting to recount the stories of struggle and survival than to try to celebrate the complacencies or “holding quality” of a very brutal colonial ruling class, or what was in reality a very feeble colonial middle class.
The very fabric of Australian history works against your thesis, particularly in the sphere of the “national imaginary”. The negative attitude of modern Australian intellectuals towards “Anglo-Celtic British” Australia, as you describe it, is in fact based on a realistic overview of Australian history, rather than on your eccentric construction about their having some so-called “new class” prejudice.
When I think about Idriess, Joy, Dunstan and Beatty, I can imagine some stories that you and I might have in common, but I can imagine many more stories that I would enjoy and celebrate and have fun with, but they are not stories that would excite you as giving a positive view of the “core holding quality” of “Anglo-Celtic British” Australia.
A basic summary of the arguments advanced by Miriam Dixson in The Imaginary Australian
The first three chapters are: Australia and Identity, The Nation: Elite Plot? Intellectual Invention? Demotic Insurance? and Civil Society and the Nation. Your essential argument here is that the Australian nation has what you describe as an “Anglo-Celtic core culture” and that Australia developed as an extension, a “fragmented” piece of British civilisation.
You make a point of “ethnic unity” being one of the main features of your concept of the nation. In this context you explicitly give the English the dominant role in this ethnic unity, which you claim has developed in the “Anglo-Celtic core culture” over the Irish, which you regard as backward-looking and troublesome. You attack the “negativity” of a variety of historians and Australian intellectuals displayed at various times towards this “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. You develop the idea of your “integration project”, which involves exorcising all the negativity and bitterness stemming from the Irish and the convicts, and psychically reorganising the Australian historical record into a version that satisfies you, in which, implicitly, the British ruling class in colonial Australia was the primary civilising influence.
In the course of this “integration project” you explore and celebrate English and British nationalism applied to Australia. You further argue that ethnic diversity, unless subserving itself (in reality assimilating, although you don’t use that word) to this English-dominated “Anglo-Celtic core culture” is negative for the development of an appropriate Australian national identity.
You assert that “ordinary Australians” feel uneasy about ethnic diversity, and that the “new class” of intellectuals, which you introduce at this stage, are the main source of negativity towards the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. You buttress this argument with a psychoanalytic theoretical construct in which you place the main emphasis on the “holding” aspect and civilising function of the family, as understood through the works of Erik Erikson, David Winnicott and Melanie Klein.
The next three chapters are: Australian Identity Interrogated, The Imaginary: Forgetting and Remembering, The Nation and the Imaginary, and you have a conclusion: Understanding the Apostles.
In this section you launch an attack on intellectuals and historians who engage in what right-wing populist journalists call “black armband history”, although you present this attack more elegantly as “interrogation”. You register your opposition to historians who you allege overdo the bleakness and cruelty of the convict experience in historical and cultural analysis.
You criticise what you imply is the overstatement of British Australia’s barbarism towards Aboriginal Australia. You say that, after all, British Australia wasn’t so bad compared with other countries, and you take as your point of departure the need to celebrate, in relation to the Aboriginal question, mainly the role of those civilised “British Australians” who defended the Aboriginals.
You say this is necessary to reconciliation. You launch an assault on the “negativity” of the Irish towards British-Australian patriotism, taking off from the attack you made on the Irish in relation to women in The Real Matilda. This point of view is particularly clearly spelt out in the chapter, The Imaginary, in which you make an extraordinary and tendentious connection between the brutality of convict Australia and racism perpetrated on the Aborigines. In your construction here, clearly the “brutal convicts” are the bad guys, including the “brutal Irish convicts”, and the clear implication is that only the gentle restraining hand of the “civilised” British upper and middle class prevented worse atrocities against the Aborigines, which in any case you say weren’t as bad as in other countries.
In the conclusion, you wax eloquent about the alleged “new class” of intellectuals being the main modern source of all these negativities, which are hurting and damaging what is to you the essential “holding” role of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”.
You introduce the twin notions of the “weak identity” thesis and the “flat imaginary”. In both notions, you indict the “new class” intelligentsia for allegedly claiming that Australia has a weak identity, and for not having a rich enough creative imagination about your Australian “national imaginary”. You wax lyrical about the “imaginary” in relation to national identity and cultural development, by which you clearly mean national myths, beliefs, books and films, religious beliefs and practices and other cultural expressions of national identity. In this context you make a substantial point about the importance of the “local” compared with the “global” in matters of the Australian “national imaginary” and cultural identity.
In my view, three short extracts sum up the whole ethos of your book. From page 3 (Introduction):
- There is no evading either the role of the Anglo-Celtic core or of the ethnic issues it raises.
Historically, the nation as a worldwide phenomenon (chapter 2 explores this) was in part the result of an effort to accommodate the passions of ethnicity. Fortunately, Australia is one of the clearer cases where, though often dismissed as irrelevant, an old, complex ethnic model — in our case, the Anglo-Celtic core culture — can still continue to sustain social coherence over transitional years.
And again, on page 63:
- While now richly diverse in ethnic terms, “fragment” societies such as the USA, Canada or Australia took shape around a core culture formed by Western European settlers and, in Australia, by British settlers. In our case, among the latter, the role of the English was paramount. Civil society is foundational to the Western nation as such and achieved its earliest and strongest form in England, as Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx and, most recently, Habermas have testified.
You conclude your book with this extraordinarily dense and difficult paragraph:
- As that synthesis embraces the imaginary areas of identity, currently polarised attitudes will become more flexible and encompassing. The synthesis will link what is sound in the “weak identity” and “flat” imaginary cases with issues of history (among them, convicts, race, gender, class, frontier). It will thus offer insight beyond the imperatives of new-class agendas, into why we are unable to authentically valorise what must remain, and to mourn what must pass, of the old core identity, the old Australia. We will thereby become less reluctant to let the old identity do its essential work, to go on playing the cohesive role it has discharged since 1788. And so become more able to play its part in building a 21st-century Australia that is as securely viable as it is richly diverse.
A summary of Bob Gould’s objections to and criticism of Miriam Dixson’s reconstruction of Australian history
Firstly, your basic reconstruction of Australian history is inaccurate and flawed. There was never an “Anglo-Celtic core culture”. Rather, from day one of British invasion there was a sharp conflict between the ruling class of British colonial Australia on the one hand and indigenous Australians, the convicts, the Irish Catholics and the working class, on the other.
The arrogant and powerful racist British upper class of colonial Australia were the natural enemies of all the other groups, including the developing secular working class of British origin. As an Australian national identity developed, that conflict was at the core of the development of this Australian identity.
This conflict between the diverse underclass of colonial Australia of whom the Irish Australians and indigenous Australians were at the cutting edge, and the British ruling class, was far sharper and more brutal than can possibly be encompassed in your notion of the “holding quality” of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”.
The whole of Australian history in the 19th century is dominated by the developing conflict between the two nations of Australasia. In particular, your ingenious construction in which the barbarous convicts are the main murderers of Aboriginal Australia, is a vicious caricature of the actual reality.
The British ruling class influence, expressed through the Colonial Office, the military machine, the British banks, the squattocracy and the Protestant churches, was rabidly racist, and conquistadorial at its very core, in relation to indigenous peoples, the Irish, the convicts, the Chinese, the Kanaks and the emerging Australasian working class.
The negativity you discern among the current civilised Australian intelligentsia towards the “core holding quality” of British Australian culture is based on the actual and rather obvious realities of 19th century Australian history, not on the “badges of identity” of any “new class”. “Black armband history”, as you conservative populists call it, is actually an objective and accurate account of past Australian developments.
Your use of complex psychological constructions is tendentious in the extreme. You attribute the rebellious and angry psychology of Irish Australians to some inherent Celtic mental weakness, which can be solved by appropriate family-centred Klienian psychoanalysis, overcoming a split that you discern in the Celtic psyche. These psychological constructions seem to me to be contrived, implicitly racist nonsense.
It is much more reasonable to ascribe the cynicism, anger and rebellion of displaced Irish peasants to their tangible and obvious grievances than to some elaborate psychological reconstruction, in which you attribute the central role to British culture, civilising these “psychically warped Celtic barbarians”.
Your fast and loose psychological assault on my Celtic ancestors angers me quite a bit, and is no use at all to any version of the “national imaginary” that would appeal to anyone except the small minority who identify with the British-Australian ruling class of the 19th century.
Your use of the “new class” theory is consistent with your sententious use of retrospective psychiatry. The “new class” thesis is a totally unscientific right-wing political construct that can’t be taken at all seriously as political sociology. When one examines the so called “new class” in detail, it breaks down into a variety of different groups, if you use any method of objective class analysis based on the means of production or of income distribution.
Like other conservative users of the “new class” thesis, you don’t attempt to explain who the “new class” are in any comprehensive way. You just move promiscuously between “objective” hints and psychological descriptions as it suits your argument. Like others who use this construct, its essential function in your narrative is to arbitrarily stigmatise such intellectuals as dare to disagree with you, and to indict them for disagreeing with “ordinary Australians”, who you appropriate to your argument equally arbitrarily (incidentally, without their consent or even knowledge).
The three paragraphs that I quote at the end of my summary of your views encapsulate the whole ethos of your book. At its very heart, your book is an elegant celebration of the brutal ethnocentric English racism of the British ruling class in their conquest of Australia and their conflict with all the lower orders in colonial Australia.
Your “integration project” is essentially the same kind of “integration project” as the similar projects of John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey, both of whom you only mention once, to throw in a disclaimer that your project is not the same as theirs. But it is obviously similar, with bells on.
A curious idiosyncracy is that the reference to John Howard, does not make it into the index, although Geoffrey Blainey does. Maybe you were a bit shamefaced about Howard.
At every stage in the book you throw in softening disclaimers, but the whole thrust of your argument is towards your celebration of the British Australian ruling class, and the disclaimers seem to me to be meant to soften the impact of this basic thrust for more tender-minded leftist or liberal readers. Your deliberate and considered emphasis on English ethnicity and the importance of ethnic nationalism makes this all quite clear.
The whole of this elaborate intellectual construction has a current and immediate political purpose. Although you rather insouciantly try to insist that no immediate conclusions can be drawn from your book, it seems to me that your intention is to construct an imposing intellectual edifice from which journalistic conservative populists can draw in their day-to-day agitation against high migration, for a more restrictive range of migration, against multiculturalism, against “black armband history” and against the cosmopolitan “new class” of unbelievers and Irish Catholics who are perceived by them to be the source of these “anti-national” trends.
I find particularly irritating this stance of majestic cultural construction, which you place at one remove from the day-to-day hurly burly, but which you may well intend to be used for more pedestrian purposes of a rather atavistic sort.
There is no question that your book is of considerable intellectual significance. There are quite clearly some currents among Australian intellectuals with whom your construction will strike a chord and give them intellectual ammunition for a mood that they already feel.
There are quite a few people of Anglo background who in some way wish to celebrate their cultural heritage as they understand it and feel that it has been neglected or slighted. The most extreme recent example of this phenomenon is Stuart Macintyre’s new putative history text book, A Concise History of Australia, in which he virtually abolishes the Irish Catholics and all religious conflict from the narrative.
This fairly human response is a rather complex question, because it is often associated with a celebration of things which, to other Australians, for instance, Irish Australians like me, Chinese Australians, indigenous Australians, etc, are deeply offensive, and as I like to remind people like you, we are now the majority, and you should pay proper respect to our sensibilities. Alongside this normal human response by some Anglo-Australians, is a powerful politically conservative backlash from right-wingers who wish to use the celebration of “British Australia” as part of a major political offensive to roll back many political changes to which they are opposed.
Associated with this conservative backlash is what I might call the Janissary phenomenon. The Janissaries were the warrior and administrative caste of the Ottoman Empire, forcibly recruited in childhood from the children of the Christian underclasses, who became fanatical Muslims as part of their rite of passage into the ruling class of the Empire. Two rather exotic examples of the Janissary phenomenon are Padraigh Pearce McGuinness and Bill Hayden.
McGuiness, Sydney’s foremost journalistic conservative who now shows such enormous concern for the proper upkeep of the War Memorial in Balmain, acquired his piquantly exotic Christian names from fiercely Irish nationalist and labourist parents. Hayden, who now favours zero net immigration, with the consequent ruthless exclusion of illegal migrants, and wants to keep Her Majesty the Queen, is the son of an American member of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) who jumped ship in Australia and settled here as an illegal immigrant.
Why the Miriam Dixson, Paul Sheehan, Geoffrey Blainey point of view won’t win in modern Australian society
Your point of view on all the above matters strikes a chord with many more conservative Australians of Anglo origins, particularly in some rural areas and provincial cities, where recent migration has not had as much impact as in the major cities. Nevertheless, the chance of your point of view becoming predominant is not very great despite the vocal support for it in some sections of the tabloid press and on talkback radio.
The demographics of modern Australia are working spectacularly against your point of view. Despite optimistic Anglo ethnic prognoses by Doug Cocks (a vehement opponent of large-scale further immigration) in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Weekend of January 1, 2000, raw demographics are changing Australia irreversibly, even as we write. In The Good Weekend Doug Cocks asserts that in the year 2025 Anglo Celts will still be more than 60 per cent of the Australian ethnic gene pool. Well, he is optimistic even there, and he merges the Irish Catholics with the Anglos, which is a mystification, for these purposes.
This kind of eugenic analysis obviously ignores the extraordinarily rapid rate of intermarriage between groups. Any serious investigations of the demographics will show that even if the English and Scots are 40 per cent of the gene pool by about 2025, which is at the extreme top end by my reading of the statistics, the present extraordinary rate of intermarriage between groups in Australia will produce a situation where at least half that group will be married to members of some other group.
In addition to this, more recent migrants, including the more recent migrants who marry Anglo-Australians, tend to have a higher birth rate than longer established Anglo-Australians. The indefatigable Charles Price, and his redoubtable computer, have kept pace with this development up to a point. An article published by Price today (January 7, 2000) in People and Place reported in many newspapers, gives Price’s latest breakdown of current and future ethnic statistics.
By Price’s standard benchmark of ethnic origins, 30 per cent of Australian ethnicity is now non-”Anglo-Celtic” and, if you allow for about 20 per cent of the 70 per cent being of Irish origin, by Price’s criteria, British and Scottish origin is now only about 50 per cent.
Price is a scrupulous and careful demographer, and his ingenious estimates have to be taken seriously. He has a distinct mindset, which is to overstate a bit the weight of the Anglo-Celtic element, and his research technique of precise ethnic proportionalism, which he uses constantly in his analysis, tends to reinforce an overstatement of the weight of Anglo ethnicity in Australian society.
For instance, in discussing the Aboriginal population, he says the real ethnic Aboriginal contribution is only about half the numerical number of people who identify themselves as Aboriginal in the census. His estimates in these things are probably about the best available, but the point of course about people identifying as Aboriginal is that that is what they do. They, and society at large, both tend to identify mixed-race Aboriginal Australians as Aboriginal.
Much the same thing applies in every case where physical difference is obvious, such as Melanesian people, Asians, etc. Mixed-origin people tend to be identified with immigrant communities. Pretty much the same applied in the 19th century to the Irish Catholics, despite there being no great obvious physical difference between them and the English. The children of mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants often identified with the rebellious underdog Irish Catholic side of Australian society.
In his new study, Price very properly draws attention to the demographic importance of ethnic mixing in Australia now and for the future, but in my view he tends to underestimate the enormous speed with which this ethnic mixing undermines the grip of what you call the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”.
On page 7 of the Daily Telegraph of January 3, 2000, there is a photo of the first four happy “millenium mums” and their new babies. The first mother is a Chinese Australian, the second is a Jewish Australian, the third is a Polynesian Australian and the fourth is an Anglo-Australian. Given the racist history of the dominance of the “Anglo-Celtic core culture” and despite the desperate attempt of the tabloid media to persuade us all to be “good Anglo-Australians”, nevertheless, the inevitable trend is that intermarriage produces people who no longer mainly identify culturally with the so called “Anglo-Celtic core culture”, mainly because of the long history of racism by that culture towards them and their relative exclusion from it. The raw demographic realities of developing Australian society make your polemic in defence of the “Anglo=Celtic core culture” a desperate cry from the past.
The Gleebooks discussion
The discussion on your book at Gleebooks was of considerable interest. For a start, the stubborn and obviously internalised way you belted out the “new class” theory that is, in fact, so tendentious, underlined your obvious and pronounced conversion to the new conservatism.
I am saddened by the fact that someone who was once my political comrade, even despite the fact that we may not have liked each other that much, has passed over in the firmest possible way into a very conservative camp. That’s life and politics, but nevertheless, the struggle continues.
The very animation with which you particularly attacked the “new class” people who, you assert, present themselves as advocates of the oppressed, underlined to me the degree to which you have become entrenched in the conservative camp. That sort of rhetoric is the hallmark of most Australian intellectual conservatives. You sounded just like Paddy McGuiness and Quadrant on these matters.
Even more fascinating was your determined refusal to express a point of view on the republic debate when questioned from several angles how you would vote on a republic. The republic is hardly the question of all questions, but anyone who refuses to express a point of view on it is usually against the republic.
Witness the extraordinary current spectacle of many ultra-conservative monarchists trying to save the Queen by rhetoric about “direct election”. One of your questioners on the republic topic, another historian, remarked to me later about the fascinating way you answered that question. You said the republic issue had not been addressed in the literature you were familiar with in recent times about the “identity question”, which is why you couldn’t express an opinion.
This surprised the other historian I was talking to, who mentioned all the recent Australian discussion of the republic but then went on to comment that you gave the pronounced impression that you drew your construction from a very carefully chosen and limited set of conservative texts in relation to nationality and ethnicity, and refuse to address any other texts outside that framework. When I glance back through your book, this is a valid point. You’ve constructed an extremely right-wing theory on the basis of very carefully selected texts to buttress that theory, and you refuse to engage with any other approach or line of argument.
It seems obvious to me that your refusal to draw specific conclusions from your theoretical construction is a deliberate political device. You have, in part, constructed this edifice for the journalistic populists to quote you as their major authority and you are playing this ideological role in an important defensive campaign by Australian cultural conservatism.
To me, you seem to aspire to be the Geoffrey Blainey of the late 1990s, without making his tactical mistake of going down too far into the polemical ruck, which you possibly expect to leave to others.
To use your language, I mourn the transformation of an old political associate into an energetic and resourceful cultural and political conservative, but that’s life and politics, and you and I will no doubt cross swords on these matters in the future. I hope that the vigorous argument between us may provide illumination to others, along, perhaps with a little bit of the heat that serious arguments inevitably produce.
January 9, 2000