The perils of frontier society

It’s a boring job sitting behind a reception desk waiting for people to come in to serve. I wile away the hours on the small tasks I’ve set myself, and surfing the net. As you see, I’ll take time to write the odd lengthy post in this joint. The rest of the time I’m either wandering around – inside the shop, and more often standing outside it; or reading.

I’ve got three books beside the reception desk. The first is the book of Hitchen’s essays I mentioned a few weeks back. The second is a book of critical essays about the classical era – Ancient Greeks and Rome, etc. The last book is called The Speeches That Made Australia. The name says it all.

I’m been dipping into this book over the last week, reading from front to back. The speeches are arranged chronologically, but within thematic sections. The section I’ve been reading is entitled Nation, and records speeches made on the subject of the country itself.

The earliest speeches in this pertain to Federation – why it should be, how, and celebration of it. The speeches are surprisingly good in general, and occasionally rousing. It’s funny, but it seems so long ago that you seem hardly to expect that. They were made by some of the great names in Australian history, Parkes, Deakin, Barton…

What struck me as I read these speeches was the urgent passion of these men as they sought a more ambitious place for Australia among the nations of the world. They were articulate and urgent in their appeals, and gracious in ways that have gone out of fashion. They became real to me not just in their words, but in their common aspiration.

It seemed quite natural in reading their opinions to then reflect on how the Republican cause these days has stalled.

It’s a source of significant frustration for me that the republican cause has gone backwards in the last dozen years. Much of that is because of conservative governments actively talking it down. It coincides with the rise of Gen Y, whose focus is more individual than those before. And, though it seems awfully shallow, photogenic and friendly royals have seduced many into the royalist fold.

I need not explain why I’m such a devoted republican. It embarrasses me to read the words of our far-sighted forebears in context of the world today, in comparison so often trivial and superficial. There’s a wont of vision and energy today when we compare to Australia pre-federation. Life is easy, even banal. There’s little adventure in how we think, and barely any hunger. Perhaps it is that then we were still looking to build, to become something, and that those in charge of that were emboldened by the challenge.

I think that the challenge remains true, though less clearly defined. We have become something, but you do not stop having reached a point. It’s more a process of becoming, ever and eternal. In a comfortable society such as ours and with many diversions notions of identity and meaning either become lost, discounted or derided as the fatuous ramblings of out of touch intellectuals. There is the illusion that we have arrived – what need then to become a republic?

Unfortunately this is a view promulgated as well by recent conservative governments.

This leads nicely into the next speech I read (Creative man in a frontier society). This was by Robin Boyd, among other things a vital cultural critic from the middle of last century.

It’s hard to say exactly what he spoke of, though his thesis was so very well put. He spoke of modern Australia and the different perspectives – one settled, conservative, suspicious of the new and different. This is the traditional Australia, laconic, unambitious, more concerned with doing than talking. Practical minded, honest, friendly, but unwilling to contemplate too much beyond immediate view. They are predominantly the ‘doers’. In truth Australia was built upon such men.

The second Australia he spoke of was something only just emerging – his speech dates from 1968. This is the outward looking Australian who looks to engage with larger ideas. It’s a more cosmopolitan and creative Australian with the native curiosity to look beyond our history and the limits of our own boundaries and culture. It’s a perspective that encompasses art and literature, and questions as to our identity. This person may or may not be a doer as well, but for certain they also dared to dream.

He clearly identified himself as one of the latter, and in fact much of his critical career was focussed on this very subject. Back in 1968 he was hopeful of this emerging class, and looking ahead saw it guiding Australia towards a more thoughtful society.

In many ways he was right. We’ve come a long way since 1968, and in many aspects flourished. There’s no doubt that there is a greater appreciation of the artistic now than there was, and, though it remains patchy, more of an intellectual edge. The external cultures we have absorbed, and ultimately embraced, have enriched us. Our quality of life is second to none.

At the same time it’s a sad truth that this second Australian he spoke of then has in more recent times been disparaged with the mocking term of ‘elites’ – as if to say, too good for the rest of us. It’s reprehensible that it has been our own leaders responsible for the put-down, and the ambition-deadening intent behind it.

I read the Boyd piece and there was so much I identified with. It’s a wise, learned, and slightly sad articulation of national being. I felt very much the model of his second Australian. I share his ambition and hope, and belief. It’s my view we need more like Boyd, but unfortunately, and for many reasons,  we live in a time of simplification and dumbing down.

Taken together these readings create a picture. In reality the men who made federation happen made their careers on doing, but they would never have achieved this without dreaming first. Few dream like that any more, and in its place is prosaic and luxurious lifestyle. It’s seductive, and sold to us by marketers and media and ultimately a government that prefers us relaxed and happy and out of harms way.

Makes me sad to. Does it have to be like that?

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