If you have a kid in a group who thinks that he is exceptional – or worse, a kid who has been told by someone in authority that he is exceptional – you may very well have a problem on your hands. That kid may just think that he is superior. And a superiority complex may be as dangerous as it is annoying. We see the very worst of it in Donald Trump. We see an ugly shadow of it over the august university of which Jill Lepore is a member – Harvard. And might it be the case that just such a complex lays at the heart of the current decline of that curious entity that we know as the United States of America?
Near the death of this very moving book, Jill Lepore unloads some of the deep thoughts that perforate it.
A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquillity. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, will fight forever over the meaning of its history.
That’s not all that they have to fight about. The theme that runs through this book is that white people feel superior to black people. And that is to put it softly.
At first sight, some of those observations of the author may look a little large – to adopt a phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes. What about the first of them – nations born in revolution are doomed to deal with chaos? Well, just look at France, Russia, Israel, China, and most nations in Africa, Central or South America. We and Canada and New Zealand – and perhaps other former colonies – brush up OK in comparison to those born in violence.
Russia and China in particular are living disaster areas. But if you ask when the French Revolution ended, remember that smooth response of Chou En Lai, and watch out for the next outbreak of the gillets jaunes. Why on earth would you allow a right of rebellion in your constitution? The French suffered nearly a century of purgatory after the squat Corsican was finally stood down from his pursuit of glory. He left France a smoking ruin and Europe a charnel house of five million dead. Revolution followed revolution.
Any revolution comes with counter-revolution built in – as Shakespeare saw in Henry IV Part I, and the following plays. (The playwright must surely have chuckled when he wrote that fatuous line for a sometime rebel and now a king: ‘Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.’) When Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, he remarked: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately’. But they and those claiming under them would be taunted by the same inevitable question: ‘If we could do it to them, what’s to stop them doing the same to us?’ It’s like kids winning control of a magic tree-house –the first thing they do is to kick away the ladder and slam the door on any other bloody freeloaders trying to cash in on their free enterprise.
This is a very fine and timely book. It will cause me to do a note on These Untruths – all of which this author is aware of, and which this title wryly reflects. For now, I will just offer some views prompted by the book, and set them against some findings that I made in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.
The Americans come across in this book as slow learners and quick buyers. They won what they call the war of independence for many reasons – all of which were or are on show in the wars they lost so comprehensively in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In the year of Our Lord 2020, they still have not come to grips with the brave insight of Maximilien Robespierre that no one ever liked armed missionaries. (Messrs Bush and Blair and, yes, our man had not managed it either.) If a Russian peasant is being bayoneted or raped by some drooling mongrel, he or she is not concerned to inquire of the ideology of the ratbag who unleashed them. How did Goya record the response of the people of Spain to the gift of liberation that Bonaparte sought to confer on them? They reacted with what they and now we call guerrilla warfare. And it took the genius of Goya to catalogue the horrors.
Take another example. This book reminds me that Mr Clinton had four things in common with Mr Trump. He dodged the draft. He put a member of his family in high office. He lied big time. And he had trouble controlling his zipper. The first two would hardly be attempted, much less condoned, in Australia, but a majority of Americans were prepared to repeat the dose. With results that were dreadfully predictable. When discussing Clinton, the author quotes columnist Andrew Sullivan: ‘Clinton is a cancer on the culture, a cancer of cynicism, narcissism, and deceit.’ That is what I mean by repeating the dose. (I would like to tell you where the column appeared, but in the ocean of footnotes you get with North American scholarship, there is no dictionary of abbreviations. Apparently I should search for the first ‘(hereafter called …..)’. That, Mr Publisher, is a real bloody nuisance.)
Americans in this book look easy to sell a pup to – or a fraud. Just look at the daylight robbery they are accepting – with many applauding – right now. Just about every day, Trump is guilty of conduct that would get the CEO of a public company fired – point blank, straight out the door. Indeed, in a nation that valued its capital market, Trump would be under a life ban from directing any public company because of his association with known criminals. Yet America, once the bastion of capitalism, asks for and expects less from its president.
When President Obama was inaugurated, a friend and I got up to watch it. We had our first Bloody Mary at 4 am when he took the oath. We were tipsy at breakfast. When Trump was elected, I said that it was my worst day on earth. We knew it was going to be horrible, but no one predicted – no one – the speed of the moral and intellectual collapse of government that followed. The great republic now lies flat on its face in the gutter. Our best cartoonist showed Trump lying back in bed with that serene gross indifference of his while the Statue of Liberty lies on her side with her back to him with a face to the artist of the white eyed horror that Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness.
It is probably too early to diagnose the cause of this collapse, but its scope suggests that the flaws in the fabric identified by Jill Lepore run very deep – and dangerously so.
It now looks clear that we underestimated the impact of the successful attack by terrorist zealots on the twin towers and the sheer ineptitude of the U S government’s response. It’s as if the nation underwent a kind of slow nervous breakdown, with a huge loss of faith not just in government but in the whole American project. It’s hard to hold your head up when you keep picking bad fights and losing worse wars, and those of us outside the Union forget, if we ever knew, the throbbing pain of the grief and anger of those who loved the poor men who died for nothing. American ‘exceptionalism’ had become worse than a sick joke.
And we also underestimated the impact of the Great Financial Crisis – and the ineptitude of all our responses. Not only did we not lock up enough of the crooks and idiots responsible; we acquiesced in paying them shiploads of money that customarily attract the epithet ‘obscene.’ If capitalism is good, who are its winners? Those who missed out – which is most of us – felt a sense of unfairness and betrayal. The whole system looks crooked. That state of mind can be very dangerous. Stirrers like Marat and Farage thrive on it.
One by one the premises of the old regime are being discarded. Jonathan Sumption says: ‘Democracies operate on the implicit basis that, although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision making processes.’ That premise has gone clean out of the window in America and it started to quit the building no later than when the minority – fronted by people like Messrs McConnell and Nunes – determined to put a spoke in the wheel of a black president. Their reasoning was possibly correct and certainly vicious – if gridlock results, people will blame those in charge. The trouble is that if enough people cheat at a game, the game loses its purpose and becomes unplayable – just look at cycling then and athletics now.
Lawyers have a saying that has merit. The most important person in a courtroom is the loser. If at the end of the fight, the loser doesn’t think they got a fair run for their money, then you the judge have failed in your duty not just to be fair but manifestly be seen to have been fair. You could say the same for elections, and for the reason identified by Jonathan Sumption. The most important people when the vote is declared are the losers. The winner has to try to assure the losers that the government will not act against their interests. This President, a bankrupted property developer with a water-mouthed spaniel at his back, has hardly even pretended to do anything of the kind. His insecurity makes him innately selfish. He and McConnell and the like look to be incapable of positive construction. They take the easy way out – negative destruction. Their denials are so Manichaean that you might ask, following the text, whether a nation so dedicated can long endure. If you put a spoke in the wheel often enough, the whole contraption becomes unworkable.
The American record with their first nations is probably worse than ours – it is certainly more duplicitous, and our indigenous people enjoyed the protection of London for longer than the American Indians. (So did the Maoris in New Zealand – the mother country was always kinder to the locals than the colonists.) America had its version of our White Australia policy, but what the book keeps coming back to is the distaste if not contempt felt by so many white Americans for all black Americans.
We had our convicts, and their motley drunken keepers, but slavery is altogether different and more corrosive and corrupting. It is the ultimate contradiction of any reasonable definition of civilisation. It is also the reason why it is so disturbing to see seriously educated people describe ancient Athens or Rome as civilised – when each was premised on slavery and that variant of a protection racket called empire. Indeed, on a bleak day in Maine, you might now reflect that the United States as it stands comes off the Indians slaughtered in unequal wars of conquest or revenge and from what Lincoln called ‘the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years…and every drop of blood drawn with the lash.’
It is seriously hard to describe as Christian a nation that killed about three quarters of a million people in a civil war fought over what we now call white supremacy. And after that war – in which the Union was held together by the God given genius and strength of Abraham Lincoln – the Supreme Court tempered if not reversed the result by the infamy of the doctrine ‘equal but separate’; ordinary people showed that there is a little bit of Eichmann in all of us by lighting up the cross of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, for the Ku Klux Klan; home grown terrorist fanatics spent their lust on lynchings – and the crowd just loved it; the South aped apartheid with Jim Crow; Jackie Robinson, returned victorious from the war, was told to go to the back of the bus with the rest of the niggers, and warned that he could not answer back when spat on by fans of his own team if he turned out for the Majors; some of the best musicians in the world could not get a meal or drink in most of those places they played in; counsel told the Supreme Court that its unanimous decision in the school bussing case – a true prodigy of high justice –may not be obeyed; it was said of one of the greatest sopranos ever that when ‘she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave’; and when the current president shamelessly and inanely flirts with the sediments of all this venom. People outside America do not understand how vicious and pervasive this poison is.
Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the nation as a whole has not forgiven itself for putting a black man in the White House – the very language bespeaks its awfulness – and that the whole disease of and following the election of Trump is a kind of bilious act of rejection – just as I celebrated the end of exams by throwing up every time in full loud, cleansing volume. The twisted mania of Trump that drives him to seek to reverse anything that that black man did while in office even now extends to rejecting an intervention of the wife of that previous president to improve the diet of school children. That little bit of petty bitterness fairly recalls the mania of Joseph Stalin.
Some say that Churchill said that Atlee was very humble, but that he had a lot to be humble about. If that were meant as a put-down, its premise is at best doubtful. But I doubt that he did say it. The two men fought the war together and they remained close after it. But the sentiment comes to mind with American exceptionalism.
Like England before it and Israel now, many Americans believed that they were the chosen people of God. The white nation was started by religious fanatics called Puritans. They had been in a minority in England (and they had gone out of favour under that ultimate zealot Oliver Cromwell – some of the madder of them actually shut down pubs!) But in the Promised Land, the Puritans were the majority. And this majority had no place in their hearts for losers – winners were those on whom God smiled – and God was evidently not smiling on those creatures with black skins or red skins. He was certainly not smiling on losers with white skins – they had obviously failed before God and it would be impious in the extreme to question His judgment.
Religion has not been good for America – any part of it. Rome sanctioned rape by partition in South America. (You could say the same of England in India.) The Spanish just read the Papal version of the Riot Act to the natives and then went in for slaughter. There was of course venerable precedent for the extirpation of women and children unfortunate enough to live on land promised to others by God.
In North America, the Puritans never let God get between them and a dollar. But He did come between them and those who had not done so well. Here is the germ of the repeated and tragic rejection of universal health care in the U S. This is an issue like gun control – ideology prevails over humanity. The cementing of the rights of the righteous in the Bill of Rights sets the United States apart from all other western democracies. The resulting slaughter of children and the failure to look after the halt and infirm – the American health system is the most inefficient and expensive in the West – sets them apart from the rest of the West.
These failures of national governance preclude Americans from saying that the United States is a civilised nation – if such a nation is one where people treat each other with civility and with respect for the dignity or worth that each of us holds merely because we are human. And if the Declaration of Independence did not rest on that premise, just what on earth did it say?
So, to go back to Churchill and Atlee, if American exceptionalism was just preppy, chest-beating superiority – which is about what Alexis de Tocqueville saw – what do you do if you have nothing to be superior about?
These truths is a very fine and readable book that casts a fluid but bright light on the great issues of now. In a book called A Tale of Two Nations, Uncle Sam from Down Under (2014), I sought to look at some of those issues. I set out below the chapter on my findings. On reflection I think that I should have said that in my view both labour and primary industry are better off in Australia than in America because of intervention by the government here that would there be described as collectivist or, worse, socialist. That would be just another case of a silly ideological label trumping sense and decency. And it would be one more time that we might go back to that beautiful moment when a brave and canny Boston attorney stood up to that awful Joe McCarthy and said : ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’
However all that may be, it is now clear that the American model is utterly broken. For what it is worth, my view, which is partisan, is that most of the blame must fall on those Republicans in the government who have shown a sustained want of good faith in the past and are showing appalling venality and cowardice now. But it is also clear that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men are no longer there to put it all back together again. They have been gone a very long time. And the problem is the same for the U S as it for us and the U K. In a democracy, a government is only as good as its opposition.
God only knows where that leaves the rest of us.
History is the essence of innumerable biographies. (Carlyle.)
The world’s worse crimes have been committed by a kind of refusal to treat each man, woman and child for their intrinsic worth when people in power say that the nation or state is more important than you or me. There we have one issue with trying to make sense of the past. We speak of peoples who have become nations. Is it either possible or decent to ascribe general characterizations, or are they just moonshine, and nasty and dangerous moonshine at that?
There is of course another problem. What would we know? Very few people reading this will have faced starvation, arbitrary arrest, secret police, censorship, a fanatical cleric in charge, or a lord knocking on the door on the eve of a wedding to assert his seigneurial right; none will have experienced slavery, and few will have felt at first hand that they were being put down because of their colour or their faith. Compared to most of the subjects of this book, most of its readers are supremely privileged, living in one the freest, securest, and most plentiful nations on earth; and not many readers will know or practise a religious faith in the way that their ancestors did.
How would we know how a Puritan may have reacted to Massachusetts in 1620? How would we know how an English laborer transported for theft may have felt on reaching Sydney in 1810, or how a Negro slave emancipated may have felt in Savannah Georgia in 1864, or how a Russian refugee may have felt on arriving in New York in 1924, or how a Vietnamese refugee may have felt in arriving in Melbourne in 1974?
And then we see things differently to the way that our subjects saw them. We have both hindsight and our own baggage, and we find it hard to resist the thought that we may know better than our subjects.
Dr Christopher Hill was a distinguished and luminous English historian. He was also a Marxist (and sufficiently devout for that belief to survive years in Russia). Does that mean that we should ignore him, or just watch out and be ready to gloze when words like ‘class’ and ‘masses’ appear? Dr Hill wrote a book called The World Turned Upside Down. It is an illuminating account of radical ideas in England during the seventeenth century by a most distinguished scholar of that period.
Dr Hill reminds us that people then believed in magic. God and the Devil were all about. People went to witches, believed in fairies, and used charms. Thieves went to astrologers to see if they would be hanged. A ‘cunning man’, a white witch, was cheaper than a doctor or lawyer. Astrologers, mathematicians and conjurors were the same – like our economists. But scientists were the first to claim that science proved that God exists. Charles I said that ‘Religion is the only firm foundation of all power’, but the Reformation, although hostile to magic, stimulated prophecy. John Milton spoke of ‘free trading of truth’ and took it as a given that all men were born free. Roger Williams compared a church or company of worshippers to a corporation of Turkish merchants. A Baptist preacher called Mrs. Attaway called for objections after her sermons, like a judge does with counsel after charging a jury.
Assuming that it took a while for the stock of the Puritans in New England to reach that degree of sexual latitude described by John Updyke in his novels – which does appear to have been quite substantial, in one direction or another – what about sex? How hung up were Puritans about sex in the 17th century? Yes, ‘sin’ included sex for Puritans, but there was what Dr Hill calls the Puritan sexual revolution. This was, he says, an important part of the protestant ethic – replacing property marriage, with love outside it, with one based on mutual love. That was one part. Another part of the revolution was the downgrading or replacement of the celibate ideal with the abolition of monasteries and nunneries, and the introduction of married clergy.
If that sounds theoretical, here is a statistic that may not be generally known: we are told that at least one out of every three brides in seventeenth century England was pregnant when she was married. There is such a thing as nature. The sex drive remains constant, but there have been improvements in contraception. As Dr Hill remarks: ‘Sexual freedom in fact tended to be freedom for men only, so long as there was no effective birth control. This was the practical moral basis to the Puritan emphasis on monogamy. The fact that it has since lost this basis tends to make us forget how important it was in his time. Unless the seducer was a Don Juan rich enough to maintain a bastard and its mother (as Charles II and the court wits of the restoration could) sexual liberty was a hit-and-run affair. Many putative fathers must have taken to the road, leaving the mother and the parish authorities to carry the baby.’
That is one way we can go wrong in trying to follow the past – by forgetting how much has changed, and that people’s customs change. Another way is being one-eyed, as people tend to be with football. They watch the match from their point of view and are biased, generally hopelessly so; that is part of its charm. Waltzing Matilda was not written from the point of view of the squatter – it was written from the point of view of the shearer – who happened to be the thief. The squatters saw things very differently. One squatter named Mc Bean was so outraged by what he saw as lenient sentences handed down by magistrates against sheep stealers that he posted an advertisement addressed to the thieves, and doubtless the magistrates, in the newspapers.
In consequence of the decision of the magistrate in the Benalla Court, the undersigned would be obliged if sheep stealers would take only what mutton they require for private use.
Benalla would have been the court for the Quinn family of Ellen, the mother of Ned Kelly, and the Kellys with her. Thomas Keneally mentions the aggrieved squatter in introducing the Kellys. He says the Kelly boys ‘grew up as part of a group of wild locals known as the Greta Mob.’
The Quinns were a large bush clan, wanted a various times for horse theft, and characteristic of the small, alienated selector and farmer to whom stock theft came naturally and was, if Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter can be believed, in the case of the Irish in particular, seen as an extension of vengeance on the stock of landlords in Ireland.
Thomas Keneally is a writer of fiction and history in good standing, but might he be swayed or biased because he is of Irish extraction, or because he trained for the priesthood and was ordained as a deacon?
Mr Keneally says that the stratagems of the squatters were meant to frighten off selectors like Ellen Kelly (Quinn) and that the ‘demand that the police deal strenuously with all stock theft led ultimately to a relentless and vengeful bullying of the Kelly clan’. After Kelly murdered three policemen, we are told that there ‘are signs that Ned, who was not a killer by nature, became fatally haunted by the men murdered at Stringybark, and from then set about, however aggressively, seeking forgiveness before man and God.’
We are then told that the Euroa hold-up ‘like other of Ned’s acts of hostage-taking was in part a kindly affair.’ In the Jerilderie letter, his ‘denouncement of police competed with his plea for absolution for the Stringybark killings.’ When leaving, Ned gave his ‘normal and eloquent speech about what had turned him into an outlaw. His anxiety to justify himself is telling. No other bushranger sermonized to pubs full of citizens or went searching for someone else to publish his apologia….The Jerilderie letter…..seems to come directly from the language of Irish protestors and Irish transportees who saw themselves as victims of a system rather than, as the authorities would have it, criminals. There existed a pernicious system which had not let him live in peace, Ned claimed…..One aspect of Ned’s instinctive republicanism emerged in the universal Irish peasant hope that America would declare war on Britain…’
And so it goes on. Ned was so haunted by Stringybark, that it was unlikely that Ned had ‘passed over into a state of nihilism in which death dealing was the chief principle of his life’. He did not want to murder police at Glenrowan – he just wanted hostages to swap for his mother. Joe Byrne was sent to warn Sherritt, not to kill him, but Sherritt uttered words which ‘provided Joe Byrne with an absolute warrant for Sherritt’s death.’ But the train came from the other direction, and ‘Ned’s idea of taking those on the train hostage was stymied.’
So, what did it all mean?
When Ned died in 1880, the Melbourne establishment were beginning to develop financial structures which would operate so fraudulently that Ned’s raids on banks would be modest by comparison.
We may take it that Mr McBean would have had a very different view, and may well have been prepared to pay to express that view. So might other sheep owners or shepherds, or others of Scots descent or who are not of Irish descent. (The author makes a disclosure: his middle name is McPherson, spelt differently from the Christina Macpherson who played the tune of Waltzing Matilda for Banjo Paterson.) Mr McBean would certainly have drawn the line at the suggestion that the Protestant Ascendancy, and the squatters and the bankers, and the other members of the Melbourne Club, were guilty of worse crimes. There were not enough bodies. From the moment that Ned Kelly shot and killed three coppers in cold blood, that gangster story was only going to end with his death, and the only question was how many he would take down with him. The number of four might disappoint some of the poor and the oppressed – but not Ellen Kelly, since two of them were her sons too.
So, allowing for waffle, ignorance, and prejudice, are there any general propositions that we might hazard about these two peoples?
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 position turns on the English Constitution. The ‘fourth’ celebrates independence; Australia Day looks back to the day that the English declared their foreign jail open. Australians also look for another long weekend for the Queen’s Birthday. 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 embarrassing.
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 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. Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than people in 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?
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? To go back to our earlier discussion, 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, or alleged 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. If in some sense Americans have been more enterprising than Australians, then that distinction may well be being eroded at either end.
The impact of the frontier is much, much more 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. In any event, that rough and tough independence is not what it used to be. In the year of Our Lord 2014, the Marlboro Man is not what he was – he is now just a broken down case of slow suicide in public, and the directors of his manufacturer may in the future make new law on freedom of contract. 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 relics.
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 and ultimately is a state of mind. Its methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code. That is the kind of function that a constitutional court applies, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma. 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 lunatic would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the 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 in Australia, but the short answer is that there is nothing to suggest that a referendum might be passed to amend the Constitution.
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 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.
The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons, 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.
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 characteristic. Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does. Each side thinks that the other is mad.
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. It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians would count their comparative relaxation 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 – for which the church is not to blame. 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 way the ladder. This tragic failure of national fibre may well never be corrected. It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve.
A sense of independence and self-creation, a real revolution, the creeping frontier, real heroes, and mythical ones, and God have all 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 the President, but this patriotism can get syrupy in a way that got up the nose of Alexis de Tocqueville and 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 some 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 square with the tenets of the 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 the rest of the 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 they 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 leader of what used to be called the free world. Australia is a client state, 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 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. 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 the 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 skepticism of adventure, in both countries.
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; and more than thirty years ago they elected their first woman Prime Minister. Americans now have 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 women, working men and Jews.
In truth, the US 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 and Franklin – 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 a disparity in incomes and assets that appears to be growing.
Not one 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; 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 someone like David Lloyd George or Winston Churchill in 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 replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less and they in despair vote in real layabouts and charlatans.