[Editor: This is a chapter from Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige (1951) by Rex Ingamells.]
§ 5. The uncertainty of Australian prestige
Australia achieved a nominal united nationhood with Federation, on 1st January, 1901. Since that day — while the people have progressed in the material manifestations of modern life, and caused the world to mark them as a courageous if minor power, and one strategically to be reckoned with — we have passed through half a century of obvious mental servitude to British policies and fashions. In asserting this, I do not regret Australia’s endorsement of British policy and faith at important crises in the international arena; but, with an increasing body of Australian opinion, I deplore the jealous pseudo-British surveillance of Australian life, in every social and educational aspect, and the implication that championship of an Australian culture is subversive of Australian interests. That is as false a doctrine as ever was fostered in misconceived causes. If the slogan that “Britons never, never will be slaves” means anything at all in Australia, it certainly means that those of British blood and institutions who have achieved a patriotic love for Australia will not be prevented from developing Australian standards in life and art, and that pretences must go. Let us have the realities of British kinship, not the sycophantic, subversive makebelief.
Australia has not been recognizable to the world as a nation with its own assured character. It has evinced characteristics only, mixed characteristics. The situation has, to some extent, been a natural and normal one in a new national development; but Australia has been particularly vulnerable to labelling, because of her long subservience to the unfavourable judgments of British opinion, and her own incidental and self-conscious concurrence in such judgments. The result is that, despite the sudden enormous increase in Australia’s prestige following the Second World War, disparaging labels have not all been rubbed away. Egon Varro, an Australian correspondent of European newspapers, instancing the first-class news value of Australia these days, adds: “Sometimes you feel, though, as if the old conception of Australia as a slightly animated desert is hard to destroy.”
The very recent suddenness of Australia’s rise into the world news picture, at the level of “first-class matter,” is evidence of the extended life of Australian disparagement. The Australian Colonies, during last century, were, even as they progressed from disreputability to thriving democracies, disparaged into reputed insignificance. The reality of convictism being long dead, the ghost was there to jeer at or twit at; but the convict ghost provided progressively less convincing derogatory grounds. The fashion of disparagement found its greatest longevity in tilts at the country itself, where nature was reversed, and where the people were benightedly uncultured. In this overseas conception of Australia and Australians, earnestly concurred in by Australian sycophants, Australia’s twentieth century reputation has suffered most. This attitude has been, in Australia itself, sufficiently fashionable and obese to prejudice and attempt to smother genuine Australian cultural impulses. The most serious obstacles to popular appreciation of what Australian writers and artists have done and are doing are provided by the sycophantic mentality as it still informs certain sections of the Australian community. Australian writers are working in the best traditions of English Literature, with special and proper reference to Australian conditions; but they receive precious little appreciation for doing so. It is not suggested that writers should be molly-coddled into public attention; but, in spite of a limited Government subsidy to one writer here and there out of many, the cause of a national literature is severely prejudiced by the disposition, still fostered in certain influential quarters, that the local product ought to be particularly suspect. While such a state of affairs continues in the Australian community, our culture must remain a hole-in-the-corner affair, except to enthusiasts, and our national character be inhibited.
The Great Australian Inferiority Complex and the uncertainty of Australian prestige abide, alike, in the inhibition of our national character. Perceiving little evidence of assured national character, overseas communities must depend for their opinions of Australia upon what they can observe of our conduct as a people, coupled with impressions of the country and inhabitants that have currency. Today, on the strength of characteristic vigor and effectiveness during the war, Australian prestige is high; today, because the world must realize this country’s importance as a granary, and as a paradise for the dispossessed and superfluous of other lands, Australian prestige is high. Yet the basic situation is not much changed. If new Australians are encouraged, as in the past, to believe that Australia is not fashionable as an object of primary loyalties, Australian prestige will again — despite the continued strengthening of that thin but sturdy current of unique Australian tradition in our midst — be soon at a discount. The question is whether Australia is to be regarded as a stanchion of world progress and democracy or a convenience for overseas interests to exploit in peace and war. The only safeguard for Australian prestige is Australian character, strong in the people, and comprehensible, frank and generous to the world.
It is regrettable that Wing-Commander Peter Isaacson, D.F.C., A.F.C., D.F.M., one of Australia’s famous war pilots, should have made the public statement that “It is not, for instance, important at this stage in our development whether Australia has a national dish, or whether she has created a particular style of architecture. These things, together with a national culture, will come later. They cannot be rushed.” Anyone in his senses will agree with the Wing-Commander that the question of a national dish, in the matter of food, is not at all urgent. That he should so nonchalantly dismiss all urgency in the matter of national culture, by a subordinate parenthetical reference, is, however, a serious symptom of loose and unintentionally unpatriotic thinking. An Australian culture cannot be rushed. If there is, at times, what the Wing-Commander might conceivably call “a great flap” made about it by Australian writers, this is because, for well over a century, Australian writers have been trying to build up the basis of a genuine national thought and consciousness. There has been little “rush” about it; there have been striving and progress for well over a century; and the cultural agitators call for appreciation of what has already been achieved, and a consequent faith in the future. This is the spiritual aspect of that necessary realization of national resource to which the Wing-Commander refers in a material sense, when he urges that we “set about opening up the land, exploring its resources and directing our national advantages to the widest common benefit.” The frank and smiling countenance of the young Wing-Commander, reproduced on a page of the Melbourne Sun, together with his statements, would indicate a disposition to appreciate a weakness in his own argument if such were pointed out. Among our national “resources” and “advantages,” surely, not the least important must consist of our cultural achievements.
There is an Achilles heel to Australia’s present high prestige, and that is the disposition of Australians to under-rate the importance of their own culture. In this situation, we cannot but view Australian prestige as something uncertain. I believe, however, that our distinctive national experience and environment, as discernible in our historical development and certain community and individual expressions, cannot be defeated; that it must ultimately find wide appreciation in the Australian community and before the world.
Rex Ingamells, Because Men Went Hungry: An Essay on the Uncertainty of Australian Prestige, Jindyworobak, Melbourne, 1951, pages 26-30
makebelief = make believe, a pretence, to make a belief in something that is not real
[Editor: Corrected “sympton” to “symptom”.]