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Who dares to be the New Athenians?

By Stephen Barton - posted Wednesday, 25 September 2002

During the Second World War Harold Macmillan opined that the new role of the British was to act as the Athenians to the American Romans. Clever, though the quip is, it was also self-deluding and patronising. The British had lost their pre-eminent position and it would take decades for this to sink in. However, MacMillan’s sentiment, that the Americans need a restraining and sophisticated voice of reason in their ears, is particularly durable. Some European governments and not a few Australian commentators have cast themselves in varying degrees as the new Athenians.

The new Athenians whine, if only the Americans would listen to us, they are so crude, vulgar and gung-ho, and we are so sophisticated, refined and considered. The subtext at the moment is one of blaming the victim: the Americans really asked for September 11. Arundhati Roy called it a calling card delivered ‘by the ghosts of the victims of America’s old wars.’ Well that explains it then. They had it coming; it was only a matter of time before someone flew a couple of passenger jets into a crowded office block on a Tuesday morning.

But come a famine in Africa or genocidal war in the Balkans and we want the US there. We want America to be all things, and are disappointed when it fails to measure up to the standards we set for it.


This is probably because we misunderstand the American Dream, and joy in highlighting its flaws and follies. A nation of enormous wealth, with such poverty, a nation with the most advanced medical technology and yet lacking universal health care, a nation with some of the finest minds and the worst schools. And aren’t those Americans dumb! We see these as contradictions, as failures in the American experiment, but we miss the point.

America is the embodiment of liberal democracy. Government is there to see that people can be left alone for the pursuit of whatever it is that makes them happy. But power corrupts - governments interfere, regulate and control. As such, power must be divided and devolved, and the more things people have to vote on, whether it be for the town sheriff, state representatives, congressmen, senators, and the town school board, the better. And if people don’t want to vote, then why the hell should they?

And why not have a little conflict in the system? Lets have a Republican President and a Democratic House. Why not do the same for the state legislature? Who cares if there’s deadlock? Let them sort it out, and leave Joe Average alone. Americans like nothing more than their government to butt out. Australians like nothing more than governments to butt in. We see government as a helping hand, and by God it had better be there when we fall over. When things go wrong we look to government, Americans help themselves and find a lawyer.

For Americans, government can’t do anything right. State welfare? Hell no, I don’t pay my taxes to help some bum who can’t get a job! Donate to a charity? Sure, why not. Volunteer to help out at the local church community centre? Be happy to. Individualism it seems is perfectly compatible with sociability and a strong sense of community.

The American experiment says that you can be anything you want to be, if only you work hard enough; log cabin to White House in Lincoln’s case, and trailer park to White House for Bill Clinton. If you’re poor, well buddy you haven’t worked hard enough. It is for that reason that few Americans demand the government provide universal health care, and construct a welfare state. In America there are better ways of providing solutions than getting the Federal government involved.

Not only is voting in America voluntary, but it’s voluntary to know where Canada is, or care what happens in Mexico. Americans are frequently accused of being ignorant. But when you live in a nation of over 250 million people, busy working in the pursuit of happiness, what does it matter what is happening overseas? Americans are probably no more ignorant than the average Australian, it’s just we’ve heard of America because its awesome soft power is pretty hard to avoid. We, on the other hand, are pretty easy to avoid. Imagine the shock for these people, when they find out that some guy called bin Laden hates them so much he organises the hijacking of four passenger jets to fly into buildings on the East Coast of America. When Operation Enduring Freedom began, Arundhati Roy sneered that Americans might be a bit hazy where Afghanistan was. Maybe, but on the morning of September 11 an angry middle-aged American, with the smoke from the Towers bellowing behind him, spoke into a camera "we’re coming to get you for this, Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever you are". Seems he knew a little geography.


The average American may be no foreign policy expert, but in a nation that size there is bound to be a few. Some might even work for the government. The Bush Administration is smart enough to recognise, wise words from the new Athenians notwithstanding, that threats cannot be ignored anymore. Doing nothing will not make Hussein go away. Unlike the new Athenians they know that using passenger airliners as flying bombs is not a desperate cry for help from the oppressed. Rather it is an expression of violence from dysfunctional middle-class Arabs who hold values diametrically opposed to ours, and blame the United States and Israel for the fundamental failure of Arab nations to do anything right. Sometimes they have a point. But then again, Hitler had a small point about the Treaty of Versailles, but that didn’t mean he could march into the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia, Poland and attempt to conquer Europe.

As to Iraq, surely the Middle East will be a safer place without Saddam Hussein. Should it choose, America has the economic and technological superiority, which must have something to do with the American Dream, to make short work of Mr Hussein. It might anger some mad mullahs in the Middle East, but they need reminding their time has past.

The new Athenians are not that dissimilar from first-year political science students I know who rally against the United States’ hegemony and the vulgarity and selfishness of the American Dream, adopting the mantra that if wronged by the United States a nation or ethnic group must be a paragon of virtue, all the while wearing American designer label clothing, drinking a can of Coke and settling in for an episode of The Simpsons. It is excusable in an 18-year-old, but everyone has to grow up.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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