[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 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
We might state some conclusions from what we have looked at as follows.
Well, it would seem safe to say that the U S at least feels more independent than Australia, and that its people feel that they and their nation are standing on their own two feet in a way that Australians cannot claim while they continue to import their head of state whose credentials turn on the English Constitution. The ‘Fourth’ celebrates independence; Thanksgiving in part looks back to the Puritans having a good harvest at Plymouth; Australia Day looks back to the day that the English declared their foreign jail open. Australians also look for another holiday for the Queen’s Birthday in the Land of the Long Weekend. Anyone who has celebrated the fourth or fourteenth of July in the nations that do so will know just how flat and empty Australia Day may be. It can be downright depressing for some.
Next, it would be surprising if there were no differences in the outlooks on life of the two peoples looking at the very different ways that their settlers and migrants arrived. For the most part the Americans did it on their own, while the Australians did so at the cost of or with the help of government. People in America, and their politicians, are not as quick as Australians are to look to government for help in life. Put differently, Australians seem to depend on government more for welfare than Americans do. The razzmatazz heart of capitalism can put a value on frugality and see a virtue in simplicity that would dismay southern Europe – and Australians.
Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than England, France, and Germany do. How many Americans see their side as a plus is an interesting question, but is this also one ground for suggesting that people in Australia, as opposed to the people of Australia, may be less independent than their American counterparts? The Americans seem to have been primed to seek independence from Britain by their earlier acceptance of settlers and migrants who were not British, and by their greater spread of wealth among the landed gentry and the middle classes in the cities – and by their greater and longer accumulation of wealth.
Has this distinction led to a greater emphasis on what is called free enterprise or the role of the entrepreneur in America than in Australia? Do people in America rely more on what they can negotiate for themselves and are they less dependent on their classification with the government than Australians? Is the old difference between contract and status still relevant?
These are hazy areas, but Australians going to the U S are frequently impressed immediately by the eagerness of people to do business with them on a one on one basis. The Americans tend to look and sound more business-like – and it is first person singular: it is what ‘I’ have or can do, not what ‘we’ have got or can do. ‘What are you offering cash for on your first drink? Can’t you see that I am running a business behind in this bar?’ And, if a tip is part of the deal, don’t be surprised to be told that you have not kept up your end of it. But if in some sense Americans have been more enterprising than Australians, then that distinction may well be being eroded now at either end.
The impact of the frontier is much, much more evident and extensive in America than in Australia. There was a kind of battle or series of wars going on for territory for hundreds of years. If this led to some rough and tough sense of independence, as it did with the Boers in South Africa, it also has led to an appalling tolerance of guns and violence that so disturbs friends of America.
The macho man is on the wane, and men at large can no longer pretend that women just do not exist. The whole idea of a man’s world is now just bullshit, although the grosser aspects of American football and ice hockey are some fairly stern reminders of the deep love of violence in the American psyche.
There is something of a contradiction close to the heart of American politics. For all the popular participation in or celebration of the American system, there is a deep streak of aversion to or suspicion of government or the state in America, as some kind of bogey man whose only function is to rob real people of their purpose – and their money. Australians do not like or trust politicians. That is not a prejudice, but a reasoned conclusion from evidence that is all too obvious and painful. But do you see there the same kind of suspicion of the very basis of government? Australians have been wrapped up in government from their beginning, and have not been as exposed as the Americans to the isolating effects of the frontier. The North Queensland separatism is not of the Texan order. There may well be a big distinction in basic attitudes to government in the two countries. A seizing up of the American machine, even if self-induced, may amplify any difference.
What most Australians and other outsiders see as the continuing murderous triumph of the gun lobby in the States is partly down to money – which does seem to carry more weight in America than in other parts of the West – and partly down to what might be called a doctrinaire streak in American public life. The English Constitution derives from the common law and is set out in many old acts and texts. Ultimately, it is a state of mind. Its empirical methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code. The common law discourages large pronouncements on doctrine. A constitutional court applies a much more rationalist approach from a large and irrefutable predicate, the constitution, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma as a result.
This is where the great power – liberal or conservative – arises with the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court. The right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights is still part of the law in England and the Australian states, but not as part of an unalterable tablet of the law. The difference is immense – only a very loose cannon in England or Australia would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the U S Supreme Court.
Almost no American would want to give up their Bill of Rights, although all sides would dearly like to see a great change in some or other of its manifestations from time to time. You find people on both sides of the divide in Australia, but the short answer is that there is nothing to suggest that a referendum might be passed to amend its Constitution to entrench a Bill of Rights.
As against that, the Americans do have a commitment to their ‘rights’ as an article of faith which is admirable. If that leads to a kind of legalism, and readiness to resort to law that most in Europe or Asia would find vulgar, or something that only Americans could afford, so be it.
Both countries are parliamentary democracies. The states have more power and substance in America. (That is a plus there – it would not be in Australia, where there is far too much government already.) The U S gave the President more power on paper, but Australians would not want their nominal leader not to be answerable in the parliament. The Australians have by attrition just about ditched an independent civil service, and ministers no longer resign for the sins of their department. Australia is abandoning the Westminster System by default.
An independent judiciary is available to and essential for both nations. They have inherited this facility from the English, but it is a major difference between these nations and others from the common law tradition and just about the rest of the world. Lawyers had a formative role in building the constitution in both England and America, and in fighting for that constitution and for people’s rights. The judges and juries and lawyers have provided a check on power and a release for dissent that have been indispensable to continuity in government and freeing the nation from the violent political friction that is seen almost everywhere else in the world. Lawyers, or at least legally qualified statesmen, like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison (the Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights), Marshall (the first Chief Justice), Adams, and Lincoln were true political giants and not just for Americans. We see there concentrations of intellectual firepower that might make the Florentine Renaissance look knock-kneed and which might also give their successors reason to pause.
The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons in each country, but to an equally worrying degree. Money is huge in American politics, and that fact is not good for the image of America. It resembles a capitalist feudal structure, a hierarchy of power and patronage built on capital rather than land. It looks to outsiders as if too many people are in the pockets of too few other people and as if money has too much clout. The world looks on nervously to see when Wall Street might invite us to look into a black hole of its own devising.
God only knows what Jefferson or Hamilton might have made of our deathless embrace of the dollar. The conservative columnist George Will wrote that there was ‘an elegant memorial in Washington to Jefferson, but none to Hamilton. However, if you seek Hamilton’s monument, look around. You are living in it. We honour Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country.’ At the end of his recent work, Jefferson and Hamilton, Professor John Ferling of the University of West Georgia said:
Today’s America is more Hamilton’s America. Jefferson may never have fully understood Hamilton’s funding and banking systems, but better than most he gleaned the potential dangers that awaited the future generations living in the nation state that Hamilton wished to bring into being. Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been. Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced. In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’ The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.
To what extent do Trump supporters abhor that world? While Australia remains wedded to English legal procedures, and you can see and feel a horse-hair wig in many state courts, the American court system has developed on its own with benefits to others including Australia. We should all be grateful that the Americans are continuing to champion the role and place of the jury.
Here is just one example of the differences in government between the two countries, and one that is very characteristic. Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does. Each side thinks that the other is mad. The Americans rely on doctrine about liberty; the Australians rely on results. They think that their system works and that the American does not. This is another example of doctrine or dogma triumphing over experience in America – at least that is how it appears to Australians.
Religion got off to a strong start in America. It got off to a bad start in Australia – the Reverend Marsden was a flogging parson, and the Anglican Church was and is as establishment as you can get – the monarch of the nation, its Head of State, has to be a member of it; its bishops were lords of the realm, and members of the House of Lords. It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians tend to count their comparative relaxation if not liberation as an unqualified plus.
The churches in Australia played a far greater role in the development of independent schools. The churches now have very little part to play in these schools, but the failure of governments in Australia to see that its schools keep up with the private schools – called, after the English model, ‘public schools’ – is a part of the biggest failure of government in Australia – and a failure for which the church is not to blame. There is a frightful inequality among Australian schools, a kind of educational apartheid. Many parents who can afford to reject the schools offered for their children by their government. This may be Australia’s biggest failure.
Although education is not a Commonwealth function under the Constitution, it is in fact their responsibility. Generations of ineptitude and buck-passing at all levels had led to a disgraceful failure to provide an equal opportunity for the young people of Australia to get the kind of good education that they deserve and that the nation needs. We now see a parliament composed in large part of those who had a free university education legislating to deny that right to others. The products of the age of entitlement are kicking away the ladder. This tragic failure of national fibre may never be corrected. It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve. Australia’s politicians have neither.
A sense of independence and self-creation, a real revolution, the creeping frontier, real heroes, and mythical ones, and God – all these have made patriotism much more visible in the U S than elsewhere. Americans look to get more involved in national affairs than Australians, and to show more reverence for their flag and at least for the office of President, but this patriotism can get syrupy in a way that got up the nose of Alexis de Tocqueville, and it can lead to a kind of moral blindness – in places in the world where that kind of thing might ultimately be noticed.
Each nation got to where it by means that many would prefer to forget. Both relied at the start on the free labour of imported convicts – they were Australia’s raison d’être – but before they could do that, they had to wrest the land from its native occupiers. They did so in a way that caused immeasurable misery and loss and by means that most people cannot now square with the tenets of religion of the invaders.
There is not much to be gained from getting hung up on labels, as the Turks want to do with the Armenians. The label of ‘genocide’ may or may not be contentious. What matters are not labels, but the evidence of what happened, and the moral or political conclusions that can be drawn from that evidence.
These are issues as much for Britain as they are for America and Australia, and that may not be a bad thing, because the British may not get so skittish about a subject that they may know a lot about because of their shame in Ireland and because of their experience in the rest of their Empire.
In reviewing a book by Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Bernard Porter said:
The lesson the Holocaust should be used to teach – if it’s proper for history to be used in this way at all – is that any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right. It wasn’t just the Germans. In different circumstances the British might have behaved as badly. In certain circumstances – and the Tasmanian case is an example – they did.
‘Any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right’ is you might think a self-evident truth. It is surprising how many people either do not acknowledge it, or do not accept that it applies to them, and they do so on the footing of the foundation of the whole bloody problem, the state of mind called ‘racism’, the belief that we are better than they are.
The main difference between the two nations lies in their standing in the world. America is the biggest economy and the leader of what used to be called the free world. America’s leading role was achieved by industry and invention working on its resources, and intellectual property laws have helped to secure its world primacy.
Australia is a client state of the U S. It is not as troublesome as Israel, but not as close either. Australia loyally followed its patron and protector into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in order to honour and secure the alliance, but not one Australian government has felt able to acknowledge that fact. There is what is now called ‘a disconnect’ between the governors and the governed in Australia on the subject of honouring the U S alliance in much the same way that there is a disconnect in America on the subject of tax – they are, if you like, the elephants in the room. While Australians were objecting that all their politicians were the same, those politicians stood firm in favour of the Afghan War when most Australians wanted to get out of it.
But against that is the tendency to hubris that we saw, and the brittleness of Americans noticed by de Tocqueville – and now their obvious lack of appetite for any ventures overseas, for which they receive no offer of help beforehand or vote of thanks afterwards, and which is predicated on a failure of the U N for which the U S is not responsible.
Finally, and for whatever reason, there is a deep streak of orthodoxy and conservatism, or, if you prefer, an aversion to risk and scepticism of novelty or adventure, in both countries. At least in the case of America, that comes as a surprise.
More than one hundred years ago, the English nation elected as their Prime Minister a grandson of an Italian Jew, who went on to become the closest confidante of the most powerful monarch in history. More than eighty years ago, the English elected as their Prime Minister a man of Scottish descent who represented the labouring class. More than thirty years ago, they elected their first woman Prime Minister. Americans now have had their first black President, but it took them nearly two hundred years to elect a Catholic as President, and they are yet to elect to that office a woman, a working man, or a Jew. All three of those omissions are extraordinary – to speak softly – in light of the contribution to American life made by those who have not made it.
In truth, the U S does have the appearance of a conservative and hidebound republic. To this day no one could reasonably run for the office of President of the United States while claiming to stand for working men and women or to profess openly the views on religion that we believe were held by Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Lincoln – none of whom stands low in the American pantheon. The inability to move appears worse with a political engine where the gears are clashing, and with a disparity in incomes and assets that appears to be both growing and insidious.
Hardly any of the criminals behind the 2008 crash ever looked like going behind bars; the great citadels of business look to be beyond, or immune to, the criminal law that otherwise maintains an ever growing prison population that is massively black; the big corporates just do cosy deals in private with the lawyers and civil servants called regulators; an agreed amount of boodle goes to the state as a bribe; the company adjusts its books in an accounting exercise; the shareholders get a reduced dividend; the real crooks keep their jobs and their unimaginable bonuses; and your average Joe winds up in the slammer for much lower levels of crime.
Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people. The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor. There is almost no chance of anyone seeing anything like the vision, drive or guts of David Lloyd George or Winston Churchill when they fought for the People’s Budget. By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people. Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves.
In truth, if you look at the giant steps that the English took leading up to the settlement of 1689, and the explosion in France in 1789, most of the work of laying down the fabric of government in America and Australia was done for them by more purposeful people elsewhere, and they have proceeded quite doggedly to hold the line and preserve the status quo. The day of the indigenous peoples has long since passed; the day of people of colour may or may not be at hand; only God knows if women will ever win anything like equality.
The suggestion that America and Australia are both innately conservative might come as a surprise to those in either country who like to see each as progressive if not radical. It will not come as a surprise to those at the bottom of the pile in either America or Australia. Those poor people will see their country as anything but progressive, or open to people of all types.
This conservatism might show itself in different ways. We saw that Benjamin Franklin said that America was a land ‘where a general happy mediocrity prevails.’ That condition has not been sustained in a way that has produced any real kind of social equality in America – at the very least, American society does not look nearly as egalitarian as Australia’s. Trump got elected on inequality.
The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics. The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians. How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful?
Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country. The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic. Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:
Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations.
Robin Boyd’s book The Australian Ugliness was just as insightful, but it did not have the same measure of success. In touching on the shallowness of Australian public life, Boyd said of the Australian that ‘He has a high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of assurance in anything he thinks.’
At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble. Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not. I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’
A similar observation might have been made to Americans at the time. Were Americans or Australians too comfortable to take so much trouble? Has each of them settled for a general happy mediocrity?
[That is the final extract from Us and the U S. Nest week, we will begin instalments, unaltered, from ‘Top Shelf – Or What Used to be called a Liberal Education’ – a review of great books or books that reflect how we live.]