Us and the US – Chapter 5

 

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Race; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]

5

Frontiers

The word frontier means that part of a country that ‘fronts, faces, or borders on another country.’  The Oxford English Dictionary offers a U S variation: ‘That part of a country which forms the border of its settled or inhabited regions.’  A frontiersman is ‘one who lives on the frontier, or in the outlying districts of civilisation’.  The areas inside of the frontier are described in one definition as ‘settled’ or ‘inhabited’ and in the other as ‘civilisation’ – the subjects of our story regarded the three terms as identical.  Both America and Australia were huge expanses of land that were occupied by natives and then settled by white people, and people in both countries had a sense of moving frontiers, but the whole notion of ‘frontier’, of being a pioneer, looms much larger in the American consciousness.

The issue is linked in America to the notion of the pioneer, someone who goes before to prepare the way, someone who starts an enterprise.  In business, we speak of the entrepreneur, but both of the terms pioneer and enterprise are more prominent in the life of America.  Pilgrims are by definition wanderers.  The passengers on the Mayflower were called Pilgrims and from the moment that they stepped ashore, they were facing a frontier.

It was life and death stuff.  The savages, as they were called, were savage in a fight.  They were adept with a bow and arrow or a tomahawk – part of the emblem of –the Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey team – and they taught the white man the art of scalping.  (Scalping is not encouraged in ice hockey, which gratifies those who cannot imagine a more violent form of sport – apart from American football.)  The wars fought by and against the Indians were fought off and on for three centuries.  They were nothing like European wars.  They were more like what we now call guerrilla wars, and they are the most savage wars of all – just ask any American who made it back from Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

For much of its history, therefore, the Americans were frequently exposed to the violence of war in its most acute form.  Did Americans become addicted to violence?  The survival of the Indians depended upon their skill in bushcraft, and hunting, and killing – quite apart from the wars between Indian peoples.  They believed in massacre and torture in war, so that to Cotton Mather, the Indians were ‘unkennell’d wolves’.  The white men responded in kind.  And early on, there was always the threat of invasion by the French, Dutch, or Spanish.  The American colonists therefore learned to make major improvements to the rifle.  So began the American romance of the gun that so dismays and appals the rest of the western world.

Hunting in Europe was a jealously regarded privilege of the better people.  But the American gun was not for sport – it was for sustenance and protection.  The need for food and self-defence made ownership of and expertise with guns an inevitable fact of life.  So, the wagon trains of the pioneers went on under cover of the gun.  The bloody violence has been endlessly celebrated, glossed, and mythologised by Hollywood, Walt Disney and television.  It was in the West that the marriage of God and the dollar reached its apotheosis in the Mormons in Utah.

The English common law had not encouraged the duel, the logical climax of so many westerns.  The Americans have always preferred to answer fire with fire.  The violent phase in the West lasted about four generations.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that in Texas ‘a man is not born to run away.’  Paul Johnson said that the ruling was ‘to put it mildly, robust’.  Mr Johnson may not have been aware that his Honour stopped three bullets during the Civil War, but the gunfighting – the violence of self-help – did have some kind of legal underlay that distinguishes the U S from the U K and Australia to this day.

The lawless violence of the West would be sustained by such charmers as Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Godfather.  Europeans think that a primitive frontier streak of violence can be seen behind even the most urbane contemporary American.  This is a part of the frontier that just will not die, and it is an altar on which groups of schoolchildren are shot and killed each year.

***

The experience of Australian settlers in opening up the land for farming is described by Patrick White in The Tree of Man, and the story of the deep outback – the ‘Never Never’ – is told in Voss, but Australia has nothing like the history of the frontier that the U S has.  Nor does it have an affinity for the gun or the celebration of lawless violence that others fear in America.

Australians associate the names of Burke and Wills with the annihilation of frontiers by being the first to cross the country from south to north, and dying on the way back.  This was tragedy mixed with farce – something that Australians are rather good at.

America offered a lot more rich country to farmers than did Australia.  The soil and climate and water and plant-life were all so much more amenable.  Once you get out of the coastal fringe there, the going is hard.  The landscape can be threatening, and lethal, in summer or winter.  Sensible Australians maintained a healthy fear of the real outback.  It is just too easy for white people to die out there.  Some Australians have a kind of nostalgia for the mythical ‘bush’, but they are serious and sane about guns and violence.

A large part of the history of rural Australia involved trying to ‘unlock the land’ seized by squatters.  They became unloved in Australia in a way that distinguishes them from American pioneers.  The shearers were ruthlessly exploited by squatters and publicans.  They said they believed in ‘mateship’, a very dicey word in AustraliaGood mates were good haters.  They formed unions that fought battles, close to civil war, against the pastoralists, mine owners, and ship owners.  They were defeated by money, police, scabs, and the mantra of ‘freedom of contract’.  The shearers’ strikes contributed a lot to class warfare in Australia.  They were also part of the history of the Labor Party.  It would espouse a doctrine that is the purest heresy for a majority of Americans today – socialism – but an essential part of the Australian way of life.  No Australian politician would dare interfere with our health care laws.

An American observer said that the U S frontier was ‘productive of individualism,’ that ‘the tax gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression’, that there was ‘antipathy to control’, and that ‘the tendency is anti-social’.  An Australian observer conceded that ‘the most discreditable and dangerous component of the [Australian] legend is its racism’, but he took concluding comfort from the view that ‘nothing could be more thoroughly within the tradition than to give it a go.’  To both, we might give the answer of the American general at Bastogne – ‘Nuts’.

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