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A robust Australian culture has nothing to fear from America

By Stephen Barton - posted Thursday, 3 July 2003

In the BBC sponsored programme, What the world thinks of America, the Australian novelist Lee Tulloch in a mock message to George W Bush, warned him: "Hands off Australian culture."

American culture (if it can be defined) has always provoked varied responses in other English-speaking nations, but the negative has always been a constant. During World War 2, Enoch Powell so feared the onset of the American century that he advocated a post-war alliance with Russia. Even in the gentle Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time novels, American characters were never quite likeable. Graham Green and Nancy Mitford were uncomfortable at best with the other side of the Atlantic.

Evelyn Waugh viciously lampooned West Coast society in The Loved One, and the American character, the "Lootenant", in the Sword of Honour trilogy, was far from sympathetic. Waugh treated America and American culture with contempt, and as his biographer Selina Hastings attests, hapless Americans as well. Tulloch, on the other hand, lacks this sang froid, "they want so much. We're in danger of being gobbled up by them". Tulloch is not alone in her fears.


The Media Entertainment and Art Alliance recently released a campaign titled Free to be Australian; trade agreements are putting our culture and media at risk. Leaving aside the arguments for and against this free trade agreement, the Alliance produced a booklet with a cartoon depicting a woman watering a small plant shaped like Australia, meanwhile from above, like a meteor, the world comes crashing towards them, moments away from squashing them both flat. Poor Australia, squashed before it had chance to grow, or so it seems to say.

Australian actors and actresses have warned of a cultural genocide. Even accounting for their profession, this is an extraordinary claim. Lee Tulloch was asked by Tony Jones during the programme, "Lee Tulloch, what about this idea of cultural genocide? Would we be overwhelmed if we didn't protect film and television?" Lee Tulloch: "Yes, I do believe that the problem is that it's all going to be one-way". This claim of "cultural genocide" and the fear of a one-way flow of culture, reveals something of the adolescent in Australia's cultural life.

Australia's cultural relationship with the United States has always been complicated. In the post-war era, America was something new and fantastic. It was fresh and larger than life, lacking the stolidness of Britain, epitomised by Rank films and wartime rationing. It was if a long-distant relative had suddenly arrived, full of charisma and bubbling with charm and extravagance. Compared to this distant cousin, mother looked frumpy and old.

Traditionally writers, actors and artists had looked to Europe and England to provide their cultural nourishment. They believed, as Tom Keneally wrote, it was "every writer's sacred duty to be alienated by Australia - to be a European soul descended into this terrible place". But gradually the focus began to shift to the other side of the Atlantic. As Lee Tulloch herself said, "My generation feels much more akin to Americans", and she herself lived in New York.

There was a corresponding rejection of England. Even Blake's Jerusalem was quietly dropped from hymn books. With the influence of American television some even began to speak differently. Schedule became skedule, ceremony became ceremoany and lieutenant became lootenant. Instead of the ritual pilgrimage to London, young people (most notably from Sydney) went to New York.

In the 1990s some - indeed many - writers and artists embraced Keating's strident nationalism. The general manager of the Australia Council argued that we must become a republic "for artists to express themselves fully as artists". He could not "believe that we could go into the new millennium still tied to England". Rejection of Britain was seen by some as part of being Australian and forging a new national identity. With the decline of British influence such a rejection wasn't particularly hard, indeed it was rather trite and dumb.


A rejection or distortion of Australia's heritage left a gap, one that American culture, always competitive, had been steadily filling up. Thus Lee Tulloch's fear of being "gobbled up" by a culture drunk with a heady mix of sensationalism, violence and sex and the cry "hands off Australian culture".

This fear of being "gobbled up", of becoming a 51st state and the cries of "cultural genocide" and "free to be Australian" seem to suggest an inner anxiety. They create an impression of an immature Australian society and a culture not yet developed and seemingly unable to fend for itself.

This is hardly surprising giving the desperate teenage conformity of Australian writers and artists. David Marr in his rather unsurprising Colin Simpson lecture said "the role of the writer is always to surprise". But the problem with Australian writers is they rarely do.

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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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