Young Australia: “Carry on our heritage”: Plea for democracy [by Herbert Gepp, 3 September 1938]

[Editor: This article by Herbert Gepp was published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle, NSW), 3 September 1938.]

Young Australia

“Carry on our heritage”

Plea for democracy

(By Sir Herbert Gepp)

Youth may be defined as elasticity, as resilience, as the capacity to adjust. Men and women and nations are young or mature, or old, according to their spiritual, mental, and physical resilience. We live in an age of rapid change. The finger of history passes over the pages of time at varying rates of speed and acceleration. We are living in a period of rapid and increasing acceleration. But do we realise that fact? I fear not.

On the contrary, we are still commanded by the mental processes of our immediate ancestors. At the same time we are the victims of an ever-growing mass of impressions, of uncorrelated news, of ideas, of happenings, the impact of which stuns us because we have not adjusted ourselves to the effects of this flood if impressions. We have not acquired the necessary balance and ability to sort out the vital from the immaterial. We try in a dull mechanical way to absorb all these impacts. We fancy that we are better educated thereby. it is probably a fact that we are less balanced than our forebears, because this bombardment of our minds leaves us no time to think and to differentiate between truth and propaganda.

Consequently, in an effort to adjust subconsciously we rush to the pictures, we read light relieving literature, we over-exercise physically in spasms, and under-exercise all the rest of the time. We worship “escapism” in our recreation because the overwhelming problems of our individual and national lives are greater and more difficult than we have been trained or have trained ourselves to attack and solve.

I suggest that we in Australia are growing old as a nation at a dangerously rapid rate. We are not carrying consciously, consistently and courageously the banner of pioneers of the last century in the vanguard of social and human reconstruction. We are not individually, and as units of what should be a progressive democracy, making our contributions to the study and solution of the problems of how to maintain a sound continuing democratic form of government. We are leaving too much to a few over-worked national leaders, who, for this and other reasons, have no time left to think.

I suggest that democracy as a form of government is applicable only to nations which are young. As nations become older, less resilient and less thoughtful, other forms of government — autocratic, or oligarchic, or Fascist, or openly dictatorial — are adopted with or without the approval of the majority.

Australia’s social lag

For many years Australia was in the vanguard of social sciences, but for some time it has lagged behind. A few of our leaders have recently done their best to push on with the adoption of necessary adjustments as instanced by the passing of the new National Insurance Bill. But there is need for more national study, determination and action if real democracy is to have a chance in Australia.

Are we doing our duty to those to whom we owe so much for the early development, and for the later protection of our national heritage? No Australian listening to the broadcast of the unveiling of the Australian War Memorial at Villers Bretonneux by the King could fail to be moved by the significance of the ceremony. As I listened the inspired lines of Rupert Brooke, written in 1914 shortly before he was killed on Gallipoli, came to my mind.

“Blow out your bugles over the rich dead,
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But dying has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy and that unhoped serene
That men call age; and those who would have been
Their sons, they gave their immortality.”

Are we appreciating those rarer gifts than gold by carrying on the fight for better things? Are we appreciating that in this age of increasing complexity and specialisation there is an ever-growing need for adjustments in our methods of Government? For years I have been urging the vital necessity of balancing the work of organisations, such as our Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, with work by a cognate body as well-equipped and financed, which should be investigating our social and economic problems. In this way we could adjust by legislation and otherwise upon facts, and not, as to-day, upon surmises and speculations.

Problems of civilisation

Let us look at some of the problems facing Australia, and let us remember the history and the rise and fall of other civilisations in Egypt, in Babylon, in Greece, and in Rome. The danger of birth control and of the declining birth rate, particularly among the better educated sections of the community; the higher birth rate among the improvident, our haphazard human breeding; our perpetuation of the unfit; our non-recognition of the fact that civilisation depends as much upon the quality as it does upon the quantity of its human units; our refusal to apply sterilisation to the unfit; our tremendous cost of maintaining the insane; the destructive mental effect of unemployment; the absence of any real national appreciation of the necessity for vocational training; the slowness of our appreciation of the facts of malnutrition and undernutrition in this country of plenty; the danger of the empty North; the absence of appreciation of the meaning to Australia of the collapse of technological prosperity in the United States.

Alexis Carrel has pointed out that certain forms of modern life lead directly to degeneration; that we can stand tyranny, revolution and war, but that we have not yet learnt to fight successfully against misery or prosperity; that the individual and the race are weakened by extreme poverty; that wealth is just as dangerous; that in former times power and money derived from the ownership of land necessitated continuous effort which prevented degeneration, but that to-day wealth does not bring so definitely in its train responsibility to the community; and that irresponsibility even in the absence of wealth is harmful.

There is a wonderful opportunity before the people of Australia. There is yet time for a great national movement to face facts and take necessary action. Democracy cannot be maintained without the leadership of its best brains, and without the willing and continuous support of all the citizens. As a contribution, I want to suggest that the basis for study of national problems leading to action must be the best thoughts of world thinkers. I quote the last paragraph from Alexis Carrel’s book, “Man the Unknown” —

For the first time in the history of humanity, a crumbling civilisation is capable of discerning the causes of its decay. For the first time it has at its disposal the gigantic strength of science. Will we utilise this knowledge and this power? It is our only hope of escaping the fate common to all great civilisations of the past. Our destiny is in our hands. On the new road, we must now go forward.

We owe much to our pioneering forebears. We owe much to those who gave their lives for us overseas. We must carry on and keep our nation young, strong, resilient, courageous, and disciplined. Individually we will grow older in body but not necessarily in mind. We can do much by remembering those to whom such touching reference was made at the unveiling of the Australian War Memorial.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle, NSW), 3 September 1938, p. 5

Editor’s notes:
Alexis Carrel = (1873-1944) a French biologist, surgeon and eugenicist; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research = the Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, a government-funded scientific research organisation, a forerunner of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

Herbert Gepp = Sir Herbert William Gepp (1877-1954), an Australian author, industrial chemist, businessman and public servant

the pictures = films, movies; movie cinema (the building, location)

Rupert Brooke = Rupert Chawner Brooke (1887-1915) an English author and poet, especially well-known for his war poetry written during the First World War; born in Rugby (Warwickshire) in 1887; whilst part of the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, he died at sea from pneumococcal sepsis in 1915

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