Section 33 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 33

The sheep and the goats

The situation, then, which requires thought, analysis, and some kind of remedial action is that Australia is in danger of becoming culturally inert through too much spoon-feeding of pap from Overseas. A nation thus culturally spoon-fed and productively inactive can do nothing but develop fat on the liver, become sluggish and dopey, like a goose penned and craw-crammed to make pâté-de-foie-gras. It should be evident that intellect needs exercise no less than body: ideas, like muscles, improve with use.

We have been handed our culture, done up in parcels, by manufacturers of this commodity who dwell overseas; anywhere except in Australia. It has been presumed that, being raw colonials, we could not possibly manufacture the stuff here; just as, some years ago, it was presumed that we could not manufacture shirts, collars, glass-eyes, or traction-engines. The Bad Australian has been with us always — the pessimist, the bellyaching decryer of Australia, the admirer of every country except his own. He is usually an importer of something. This person has been consistently defeated, in every arena of simple commerce, by casually-enterprising Australians who had no difficulty in proving him wrong.

Australians can produce anything; even a literature. This may be bad news for hypochondriacs, but it is none the less true. As this fact becomes generally realised in the Commonwealth, there will be a tremendous release of intellectual creativeness here.

First, it will be necessary to inform the English, the Americans, the Patagonians, and all their agents, ambassadors, spies, apostles and missionaries here, that the word Australia means something very special, excellent, and even sacred to us — not only for what it is, but also for what we know it can become. It will be necessary to state, with firm politeness, that we no longer need to be culturally garrisoned and policed by contingents representative of other countries.

The English, the American, and the Patagonian culture-garrisons may now go back “home”; or, if they remain here, can learn to salute our Flag of Stars — by way of a change. But first we must set up this flag and learn to salute it ourselves.

We ourselves must learn to take pride in the name of Australia as meaning something more than the designation of a land of convicts, cricketers, and kangaroos, and those ridiculous Vast Open Spaces. We shall have to learn to product something more, in the aforesaid V.O.S., than sheep — and sheepishness. We shall have to realise that the vast productivity of our soil is nothing for us to boast of — nothing for which we can take away any credit from the Almighty, who merely left it for aeons to lie fallow and await our coming hither.

Millions of bales of wool, millions of slaughtered beeves and muttons packed in ice, shiploads of gold, billions of bags of wheat we have ripped from our soil and dutifully sent home, home, home: out of the Commonwealth, and why should we take pride in that? Billions of trees destroyed, billions of acres of grass eaten down to the roots, and the roots also eaten, by herbivora, so that we, Australians, might send food to the European carnivora — can we be so proud of that now that the desert is encroaching over all the grass-denuded areas of our justly celebrated V.O.S.? Millions of our native rare and gentle animals ruthlessly slaughtered, poisoned, snared, wantonly destroyed to provide furs for the necks of women in the cold latitudes of Europe; millions of our rare and beautiful birds exterminated by bushfire, gunshot, poison, and the bane of the axe — can we boast of that? The Aboriginal human beings of the continent murdered, shot, poisoned; or enslaved, a human sacrifice to sheep, brutally exploited, demoralised, the women raped, the children starved or taught about God in missions — in all this can we take any pride?

The mad lust of primary production for export threatens to make Australia a desert from coast to coast: a desert like the Sahara (which in the days of the Roman Empire was a rich pastoral and wooded region, but became denuded of herbage and trees through too much pastoralism — and the sand crept in until it smothered even the great cities there, such as the city where Ozymandias reigned). And the bare hills of Palestine to-day, the dreadful heat-oven of the Jordan Valley, was not this the smiling land of Canaan, “flowing with milk and honey,” breeding so many sheep that, in Jerusalem, at the Passover Feast, each year, no less than two hundred thousand lambs, male and without blemish, were slaughtered by the priests in the Temple of Solomon?

Palestine and North Africa to-day, and the great dust-storms of Arizona and (nearer home!) of Bourke, should be a warning that unrestricted pastoralism may be easy and quick money, for a few people, for a few generations; but by the law of compensation it exacts a revenge upon the surface of the land itself.

Our big Sheep Men (a lovely name for them) imagine sheepishly that billions of bales of wool exported from Australia means Progress. But progress to what? To more exporting, presumably. These patriots have not hesitated to export stud Australian Merino and Corriedale rams to South Africa, Algiers, Japan, America, Russia, taking a few hundred guineas quick and easy money for themselves, and thus providing their sons with a problem of competition which the noble sheepish pioneers themselves did not have to face in marketing their fine wools.

I asked one of these patriots (who is, and looks, rammed with money) to help me, a year ago, in establishing a national Australian book-publishing house. His reply I am keeping for presentation to the Library of the Commonwealth in due course, as a valuable social document:

All my life has been devoted to my business of raising sheep, and I have no time or inclination for anything else. I cannot advise or help you in the matter of books, of which I know nothing.

I replied to my pastoralist friend in the following polite terms:

You came into this life endowed with an Immortal Soul. You have been warned, in the Bible, that the days of a man’s life are numbered, and that three score and ten is the allotted span. When you interview St. Peter, soon, I hope you will say to him what you have said to me, That all your life has been devoted to your business of raising sheep. He will draft you then with the sheep and not the goats.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 116-119

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