Are we ashamed of Australian culture?


February 17, 2013 – 11:59 pm

Alecia Simmonds

Alecia Simmonds



Summer is drawing to a close. And as the last of our international visitors do the annual skip back from a sunburnt South to a pearly-skied North, we can finally breathe in the calm, put on a cuppa… and bitch.

Not about the guests, but about peoples’ reactions to the guests. That simpering, servile bleat on the part of too many Australians that goes something like: ‘Oh! You’re living in Eurrope! How MARVELLOUS! Vacuous Partner and I were just recently there. In fact, we like to go every year to get our dose of culture.’ Variations on this loathsome theme can include: ‘Oh, you must just LOVE the cheeses in Frawnce. It’s so difficult in Australia to get decent fromage’. Or they may add in a cheeky ‘n’est-ce pas’ to the most banal observations: “It’s hot, n’est-ce pas?’ or ‘I’m a tosser, n’est-ce pas?’

It may seem odd to complain about colonial cringes in the aftermath of patriotic Australia Day booziness, but elite self-loathing is impervious to time. On a perfect summer day they could be sitting on a crystalline beach wishing that they were holed up in an apartment that resembles a telephone booth on a bleak muddy island in the northern hemisphere.

When people complain about Australia relative to New York, London or Paris what they want to say is: ‘I AM SOCIALLY SUPERIOR TO MY COUNTRYFOLK.’ But blurting out a comment like this is socially unacceptable. It can create social awkwardness and may sometimes lead to depression. So people find other ways to advertise their bourgeois status. One of the most time-honoured means of doing this here is to measure Australia against a mythical Old World and find it grievously lacking. If Europe is the natural homeland of philosophy, culture and art then Australia is a place of brash materialism and vulgar stupidity. If Europe has a long and complex history populated by Great Men with Great Ideas then Australia’s history is a story of fly-pestered philistines stuck on a desert island.

By identifying themselves with the Old World, these people assert a kind of social power through cultural distinction. They may not have as much money as ‘cashed up bogans’ but they know a language and a set of codes that guarantees their entry into a cultural elite whose ranks they guard with sneering pomposity. Rather than taking Australian creativity on its own terms they place it in an imagined hierarchy of nations and declare it bankrupt for the simple fact that it’s Australian.

I would understand this if we were still living under Menzies or Howard. If we were 19th Century ladies flung to a convict dumping heap on the other side of the earth then of course Europe would look sophisticated by comparison. But we’re not. We’re a country with a breathtaking line-up of artistic events this year (Anish Kapoor and Francis Bacon to name but two) restaurants that would make any Parisian die of pleasure, universities with world-leading Professors and a fantastic history of feminist activism, democratic reform and workers’ rights. We were the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament on a national basis. We also invented the idea of the eight-hour day. Not to be sniffed at even by those who sniff!

Europe is just not that great either. I mean, if Europe was so terribly thoughtful then why would 17% of people in Holland or 15% in Denmark vote for the far right? Why were Parisian streets recently flooded by an estimated 800,000 people protesting AGAINST gay and lesbian marriage and adoption rights? Sure, Italians make good buffalo mozzarella. But how did they continue to elect Berlusconi for all those years? And have you seen European comedies? Not. Very. Funny. At. All.

If the colonial cringe was limited to irritating people at dinner parties then we could just engage in fierce eye-rolling. But it has much more serious consequences. It results in an over-valuing of anything that comes from Europe or America and an undervaluing of anything home-grown. Take the decision by the Liberal Queensland Premier last year to slash arts funding by 12 million, at the same time as establishing a 3 million dollar ‘superstar fund’. What this means is that local talent is starved while superstars from overseas are nourished. Or take the University of Western Sydney’s decision last year to only advertise for new academic posts internationally. No-one in Australia knew they were hiring. And good luck advancing in the legal profession without a Masters from Oxbridge.

I’m all for us being an outward-looking, cosmopolitan society that draws talent from around the globe. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of people here. And it shouldn’t mean a slavish adoption of all things European or American. Why is speaking French or Italian any better than speaking Walpiri or Indonesian? Why do we lament not being able to find a good croissant outside of France but say nothing of the difficulties of finding tagine outside of Morocco?

The sun set on European Empires years ago. We need to stop the cringing, end the sycophantism and soak up the sunshine right here.


Do jerks deserve free speech?

January 22, 2013 – 11:58PM

Alecia Simmonds


On 28 September 2011, Andrew Bolt was found to have contravened section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Photo: Justin McManus

Imagine if Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt could be thrown in prison and charged money for vomiting venomous racist bile in public. Seriously. I don’t mean this in an ‘imagine if you were invisible and could fly’ kind of way. Nor in the sense of: ‘imagine if Ryan Gosling begged for you to be with him but you turned him down in favour of being a lesbian mother with Portia di Rossi.’ I mean this in the sense that [insert sonorous BBC news voice here] the NSW Parliament is conducting an inquiry into racial anti-vilification laws which impose criminal penalties for hate speech. Specifically, section 20D of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act is for ‘serious racial vilification’ and carries a penalty of $5,500 dollars and 6 months in jail if you’re found to have incited ‘hatred’, ‘serious contempt’ or ‘severe ridicule’ of a person or a group or to have threatened physical harm. Since the law’s inception in 1989 there have been 27 complaints referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions but not one has been prosecuted. The legal requirements are too stringent. The Inquiry may look at revising the requirements to make it easier to sue. [Now stop reading in BBC voice or it will become distracting.]

Already the announcement has sparked the usual Cassandra like murmurings of free speech advocates wringing their hands and making terrible prophecies: Pestilence! Death of democracy! Gagging of political dissidents! Voltaire is quoted with promiscuous glee: I may not like what he has to say, but I’ll defend to the death Alan Jones’ right to call Lebanese people ‘vermin and mongrels’. Democracy needs free speech. And in the free marketplace of ideas, the truth will always triumph.

A similar debate raged last week in England over writer Julie Burchill’s breathtakingly transphobic article in defence of her gob-smackingly transphobic mate Suzanne Moore. Moore made a jibe at ‘Brazilian transvestites’ in an otherwise excellent essay on female anger. In so doing, Moore incurred the wrath of some ‘bullies’ standing up for transgender rights. I don’t want to repeat what Burchill said in defence of Moore, but suffice to say it was so horrendous that the Guardian removed it and released an apology. It was in flagrant breach of their anti-vilification policy. In their ping-pong game of hate, Moore hit back in defence of Burchill saying that she had been censored by ‘humourless, authoritarian morons.’ ‘How has the left ceded the word ‘freedom’ to the right?’ she brayed.

So how do we make sense of this seeming opposition between equality and free speech, especially given that we pinko lefty types tend to cherish both and have historically stood up for both. Perhaps it’s best to start with the fact that freedom of speech is not an unqualified right or an unqualified good. Your ‘freedom to’ say what you want can’t come at the expense of other people’s ‘freedom from’ fear, violence or hatred which may be incited by what you say. The left hasn’t given up on freedom. We just want to stretch it to include the most vulnerable members of our community.

Studies have consistently shown that hate speech is not just words, but that it usually precedes an attack. Sociologists Rowan Savage and Gordon Allport describe it as part of a continuum of violence where racial vilification can slide easily into violence or genocide. Hate speech makes violence possible and is also itself a form of violence. Law Professor Mari Matsuda has found that victims of vicious hate propaganda experience physical symptoms such as difficulties breathing, increased pulse-rate, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder. So, I would think, like any form of violence, hate speech should be subject to criminal sanctions, not just toothless symbolic legislation.

And what about the free marketplace of ideas? The idea that the truth will win out through rational debate while bad ideas will wither and die? The problem with these arguments is that they imagine that the marketplace affords everyone an equal right to speak and that every voice is equally loud. This is nothing more than a beautiful fiction. Unfortunately, very little can rival the booming flatulence of Alan Jones. Migrants or Aborigines don’t have the same access to public space.

And you have to wonder why free speech advocates are mostly concerned about the stifling of right-wing views. If people like Tony Abbott were genuinely concerned about free speech then surely they would campaign as fiercely for the protesters involved in the Palm Island riots as for powerful bigots.

We’ve had anti-vilification laws for over twenty years now and don’t appear to have spiralled into a totalitarian state governed by authoritarian morons. I think we need to stop debating whether the laws will gag democracy and start questioning why, in NSW for instance, they apply to homosexuals, ethnic minorities, transgender people and people with HIV but they don’t apply to women. Of the State and Federal Anti-discrimination Acts, only Tasmania condemns inciting hatred towards women through language such as whore or dyke. Is it because too much of what passes as ‘pub talk’ could constitute hate speech? Is it because it would release a flood of litigation around everything from pro-rape facebook pages to misogynistic shock jocks to sleazy uncles? Is it, ultimately, because we live in a society where violence against women is simply not taken seriously? I think it’s high time that Jones and Bolt were sent to the clanger, but for their misogyny as much as their racism.