Thursday, May 16, 2013

Talking about Australia

Up until recently, I used to make comments in this blog—often of a critical nature—on various aspects of my land of birth, Australia. But I've always realized that it's preferable, for several reasons, to avoid this bad habit. These days, I find it harder and harder to even know what's happening in Australia, because my two principal sources of information—the online web versions of The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald—have implemented paywalls. And since I have no intention of patronizing such low-quality newspapers, I no longer necessarily know what's happening Down Under.
NOTE: Method for getting around paywalls. Copy the title of the desired article. Paste it into Google as an argument. This usually works. [Don't tell anybody I told you.]
Here in France, funnily enough, I constantly run into situations that have encouraged me to remain abreast, as best I can, of current events in Australia. You see, every time I open my mouth, French people realize that I speak with a curious accent (my Franco-Australian daughter and son have always disagreed), and they often ask me where I come from. And, as soon as I say Australia, French people inevitably wonder out loud why on earth any sane individual (?) with an Australian passport would have left his native Antipodean paradise for a harsh land such as France... where taxes are astronomical, the economic climate is disastrous, young folk can't find jobs, the sky is constantly overcast, people are arrogant, mustached males eat smelly cheeses and frogs' legs smothered in garlic, nobody speaks English, etc... It would be ridiculous to suggest (even if it were true) that I was attracted to France, long ago, because of all the wonderful women. These days, thanks to the Internet and YouTube,  French people know that Australia, too, has superb female creatures such as Jesinta Campbell.

Besides, it's a known fact that, here in France, flamboyant females sit around lazily in cafés getting pissed on coarse red wine... which is hardly a man's idea of nice womanhood.

When French people ask me why I moved here from a fabulous land of milk and honey such as Australia, I make an attempt to reply truthfully... which is possibly a personal weakness, indeed a stupid mistake. Maybe it would be simpler if I were to tell a few white lies, and concoct a standard explanation capable of satisfying everybody. For example, I've already noticed that, as soon as I speak of owning farm animals (merely a couple of donkeys today, but there used to be sheep and goats), most people seem to see that as a plausible reason for my staying put, stoically and permanently, in rural France. French folk who hear such an "explanation" must imagine that, if the Aussie fellow's so stupid as to have purchased French farm animals, then he surely doesn't deserve to return to his native wonderland in the southern hemisphere. After all, not even a French farmer and his wife, booking in for a Mediterranean cruise, would expect to be able to bring their dog along with them.

The basic problem, I believe, is that the Australian tourist authorities have done such a splendid job of presenting Australia to foreign audiences (through TV documentaries, above all) that French people imagine sincerely that my native land is something like a mythical Switzerland transported into the tropics, surrounded by white sands and warm turquoise waters, where countless ordinary citizens have become immensely wealthy simply by digging up precious minerals in the backyards of their suburban homes and selling the stuff to less lucky lands (such as France).

My personal evaluation of Australian society has been dominated, over the years, by three major negative themes:

1. The absence of a profound political culture in Australia (as opposed to politics as a lucrative career) means that the nation's wealth has never been distributed justly to the people. Consequently, Australia's infrastructure and lifestyle (apart from an abundance of good weather) are deplorable.

2. Contrary to what Australians themselves seem to imagine, their land is relatively uninteresting, indeed boring, from a touristic point of view. While there's a lot of empty scenery (which can be interesting at times), there is no visible culture, history or non-superficial social atmosphere.

3. As my Francophile friend Geoff once put it, there are no traditions of written culture in Australia. Among other things, there is no role in Australia for individuals who would be designated in France as intellectual observers.

Concerning that final remark, I was most intrigued to come upon a short critical article written by a young Australian lady named Alecia Simmonds, who's a journalist, an adjunct lecturer of law at the University of New South Wales, and a Merewether Fellow at the prestigious Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Click here to find Alecia's article, entitled Why Australia hates thinkers.

To whet your appetite, I'm appending a few lengthy excerpts of Alecia's excellent article. Certain specimens of colloquial language and parochial allusions might puzzle the non-Australian readers of my Antipodes blog. While insisting upon the fact that I do not necessarily share the strong opinions of Alecia Simmonds, I refrain from commenting upon the detailed substance of her paper.
[...] in Straya, we don't give a dead dingo's donger about academics. Universities make a perfect target because, like few other Western countries, Australia hates thinkers. In contrast to France, where philosophers often grace the covers of Le Monde, and England where Slavoj Zizek writes regular columns in The Guardian Weekly. In Australia, we have Peter Hartcher on anti-Gillard autopilot and the bile-flecked bleating of shock-jocks like Alan Jones.

[...] The problem is that as a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: "chattering classes", "latte-sipping libertarians", "intellectual elites" and now Nick Cater's most unlovely term "bunyip elite". If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue "is not just academic". Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down.

[...] There's no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag. The question is why. It's certainly not for want of thinkers.

[...] Perhaps there's a link between the myth of Australian egalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. Australian history is popularly told as a story of democracy, equality and classlessness that broke from England's stuffy, poncy, aristocratic elitism. We're a place where hard yakka, not birth, will earn you success and by hard yakka we don't mean intellectual labour. Although, of course, equality is a great goal, we've interpreted it to mean cultural conformity rather than a redistribution of wealth and power. The lowest common denominator exerts a tyrannical sway and tall poppies are lopped with blood-soaked scythes. Children learn from an early age that being clever is a source of shame. Ignorance is cool.

[...] There's also no room for cleverness in our models of masculinity or femininity. For women, intelligence equates with a dangerous independence that doesn't sit well with your role as a docile adoring fan to the boys at the pub. It's equated with sexual unattractiveness. And for men, carrying a book and using words longer than one syllable is a form of gender treason. It's as good as wearing bumless chaps to a suburban barbecue. Real blokes have practical wisdom expressed through grunts and murmurs. Real Aussie chicks just giggle.
Getting back to the personal question of why I reside in France rather than in my native Australia, the most honest and meaningful answer is, of course, that the three members of my family live here (in Paris and Brittany).

BREAKING NEWS: As proof of my resolution to refrain from criticizing my native land, I do not intend to comment unduly and at length upon an astonishing news flash in the latest online issue of The Daily Examiner [here]:
E coli bacteria in the Lower Clarence water supply system
On the other hand, I wish to criticize their ill-informed journalist who wrote the following statement:
E. coli itself is generally not harmful but its presence in drinking water indicates that the water may be contaminated with organisms that may cause disease.
The presence of Escherichia coli indicates, almost certainly, that the municipal water supply has been contaminated by sewage: possibly human fecal matter. The journalist writes as if this bacteria were a mere indicator: some kind of biological litmus paper. He/she doesn't seem to understand, or doesn't wish to say explicitly, that it's the E coli bacterium itself that "may cause disease". A more serious article would have indicated the actual levels of E coli that have been detected.

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