Just finished reading an interesting essay by David Malouf called Made in England. It was published in 2003 as a Quarterly Essay, examining our relationship with Britain and how it’s changed throughout history. Malouf’s thesis is that Australia was created as a second England left to follow its own direction, and that’s why he believes that without facing our own Britishness first, any republic based on the desire to make a “final break” with Britain will inevitably fail.
It’s an interesting essay, brilliantly written and still current given Amanda Vanstone’s recent Under Southern Stars and the republic debate leading into the next election. But I can’t help thinking that a lot of what you take from the essay depends on your generational views. Much of the essay reminded me of someone remembering Australia’s past and transcribing those same feelings to a changing Australia. Where some people might see the changing of street names and restaurants in the 50s as a sign of growing American influence, my generation would see that more as an example of the Small World theory. And someone from the 70s might see it differently again.
Though it’s an essay primarily dealing with the changing cultures of Australia and Britain, it features America often as well. Malouf began writing the essay in Washington, at the beginning of the Iraq war, and parts of the essay focus on the differences in language between Australia, England and America. Malouf suggests that the American colonies were founded on a different kind of English than that in Australia or Britain; more passionately evangelical, “deeply imbued with the religious fanaticism and radical violence of the time”. The result of this, mixed with feelings over slavery, still echoes today in America’s rhetoric and world-view. Malouf is probably right (as we can see with the Axis of Evil, etc), but it doesn’t feel entirely correct to me either. Language is an expression of consciousness, not the cause of it; so while America’s language may still echo that feeling, to me it comes more from those beliefs inherent in society. In a country where belief is dominant, it’s much more likely (perhaps even predetermined) that a populace and its leaders would develop a world-view based on their moral center. I think that’s what we see with the US.
In fact, it was the sections on language that I found the most difficult to understand. Malouf says (p 44) “language is the history and experience of the men and women who, in their complex dealings with the world, made it; but it is itself one of the makers of that history… it is also said and changed by what is said in it.” Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t agree with that. Language comes from a person’s history and experience, as I said above – but the idea that language itself shapes history or plays a role in forming a nation’s consciousness doesn’t make sense to me. Language evolves; we see that with pidgins and creoles, languages slowly changing as they are exposed to outside influences. Or with general shortenings; names being abbreviated, New York City becoming (more commonly) New York, etc. That’s language evolving; but it takes an idea, event or theology to actually create something new in a language. Without 9/11, for instance, there’d be no concept of the War on Terror or the Axis of Evil, no coalition of the willing (as Malouf often mentions). It’s the event that shapes the language, not the other way round.
But again this comes back to generational views. Each generation sees society differently based on the themes and ideas of that time. I’ve often said that I see Australia as more of a land of second chances than anything else, and I think I’m aware of the stolen generation and other issues. I’ve been brought up in an age of technology which has brought the world closer together, and with the distance of time I look back on Australia’s past and see things slightly differently. That’s why I see a lot of what Malouf considers cultural changes as effects of the Small World theory. In the 50s what Malouf saw as streets and restaurants changing to reflect more American influence, to me reflects that it was after World War II and Australia was suddenly aware of a world outside of British influence – it makes sense we would try out new, different styles after such a step forward. Likewise, the idea that mass entertainment has divided the world; I think mass entertainment actually links the world, showing that our stories are basically the same, no matter your culture. It shows that language is translatable to different cultures, can have the same themes and myths that we all recognise and know in our hearts. And I think the Internet, in particular, has united the world, so that what was once distant and exotic is now much more real and tangible. With each layer of isolation we shed as a country, the world becomes smaller; we embrace the influence of different cultures and realise how familiar they really are.
That’s my view anyway, one I think a lot of my generation holds. It’s not that any particular view is wrong; it’s just that we see Australian in different ways, based on the themes and ideas we grew up with. In other words Australia means something different to each of us. That’s why Malouf’s essay is good; well-written, and even if you don’t agree it makes you consider things you might not have thought about, like how much we’ve exploited Britain since the beginning of our relationship rather than the other way round. It also makes me wonder how the next generation will see Australia. Will the issues they look back on be the asylum seekers and detention centres? AIDS and global warming? Will the world seem even smaller to them? And what will they think of us, knowing what we’ve left them? It’ll be interesting to find out.