Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Rhymes with failure

Finders Keepers (2017) by Pants

It's often said that the only word that rhymes with Australia is failure. As if to prove the point, it was the only one the erstwhile regent of rhyme, Noël Coward, could come up with for his 1952 song There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner. To wit,

In far away Australia
Each wallaby's well aware
The world's a total failure
Without any time to spare.

To be fair, (see how I did that?), it is a long song, this sequence comes well into it and even Noël Coward is entitled to an off day.

There are other words that rhyme with Australia. There's regalia for example. How could a status-loving people not find a place for that? And what's wrong with azalea? Not so popular now but definitely a must-have in the suburban gardens of my youth. We're very into robust border protection. Surely we could weave azalea into the national narrative.

Bacchanalia? Now there's a word that ought to be of use. Beer and backyard barbecues might fit that storyboard, at a stretch. Paraphernalia? Perfect for a place that's all clobber and no body; never mind soul. Westphalia? Well, we try to be European and don't quite pull it off. And then, if you want to go all olde-worlde and invoke some Latin, there's inter alia. And that pretty well describes us. We could easily be dismissed as amongst every other thing going. The impression that we're really not trying very hard is unavoidable. We have usually failed before we've even broken into a sweat. Perhaps failure is the apposite rhyme after all.

This post was originally going to be about the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and it still might be, if I can find my way into it. If the gut response by the pale, stale, male, usual-suspect oxygen hoggers to this reasonable, modest and long-overdue ask is any indication, those dots should join themselves without too much trouble. Just in case they don't, my position is this,

I agree with everything in the statement - and then some. I'm strongly for treaty and reparation. Whatever the first peoples of this nation are asking for, it will be nowhere near what they're owed. We should think ourselves lucky and pay up. Whatever it takes. And let's move on, finally. I've written about this many times before and I don't think I have anything new to say - yet. Besides, there's an excellent roundup of writings on the statements and responses to it here.

The thing that interests me most, and always has done, is why my fellow white Australians are so pig-headedly resistant to truth and reconciliation. Other colonising hordes have managed it. Even South Africa. Everyone but us in fact. Pretty pathetic. And the litany of past failure itself is always cited as the very reason we shouldn't even try to get this done. Since we persistently meet Einstein's definition of stupidity, i.e. doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, there are only two possible conclusions that one can draw. Either we really are collectively stupid - and I don't necessarily rule that out. Or, the result suits us - perverse as that may seem.

There are some other possible reasons for our chronic inertia, and they're not nearly as complex as people make out. The narrative we've been running since we first rampaged across this vast continent, felling trees and replacing them with sheep, that we're a fair and generous people is hokum. The boundless plains to share fiction is now looking shabbier than last year's Ugg boots. With our record on the treatment of refugees, the whole world knows what we're really like and we should stop pretending otherwise. There's a huge dollop of shame and guilt in the mix and the coward's way of dealing with that is to protest innocence. We know how that ends. Sooner or later we'll have to fess up and face up. It's okay to be wrong. It's okay to be afraid. It is not okay to use those things as excuses for not acting honourably - for, like, ever!

You know that scene in Finding Nemo where the seagulls are all squealing mine, mine, mine? That is how we really are. Australians who own property are obsessed with its monetary value. We don't think of a house as a place to live anymore. A house is an auction item, a series of flattering photographs on, a reality-show set hosting a moveable feast of flat-pack kitchens and bathrooms. 

Because we think of land as nothing more than a valuable commodity, it is something over which we seem doomed to constantly squabble. Whenever our first peoples have the temerity to remind us that all of their lands were stolen and perhaps we could have a think about how that might feel, we freak out and squeal, they want to take what's ours - apparently without a hint of irony. That threat has nearly always worked. It's the way we're programmed. We can't conceive of a different mode of thinking about land and belonging. We don't think of ourselves as belonging to the land, we think of the land belonging to us. No matter how long the deliberations and how carefully framed and modest the requests from Indigenous people are, they will always be considered too much. And it's back to square one we go.

I happened to be listening to an interview on the radio the other day. Whenever a white Australian presenter interviews a black American writer, sooner or later, there comes a question or statement that infers something like this,

You know, we don't get you Yanks and your social unrest because all is bliss on this side of the Pacific

That's honestly how we see ourselves. And, the rest of the world? Well it's a giant theme park. Nothing more than an entertainment.  A curiosity that has nothing to do with our lives - which we think of as the authentic version of being human. And sometimes, during one of these encounters with a being from this theme-park version of the world, the cultural cringe suddenly goes grand mal. ABC presenter Michael Cathcart's ignorant and crass questions to Booker-prize winning author Paul Beatty so infuriated Indigenous man Trent Shepherd that he shouted,

'Look at yourself. I want white Australians to look at themselves.'

That's the best advice I've ever heard on the subject. Because, to white Australia, non-white Australia is theme-park world too. Even the people whose continuous occupation of this place goes back at least 40,000 years are part of that other world. We see ourselves as the true mob. Because we earn a salary and pay a mortgage, and that is the only version of ownership that we recognise. Because we line up every couple of years and vote for people we don't know to make decisions on our behalf, and that is the only version of citizenship that we recognise. Because when we look in the mirror we see ironed clothes and salon hair. And that is the only version of decency that we recognise. As individuals, that level of delusion would see us diagnosed with a mental condition that would require some serious medication and a lot of therapy. But it's a collective delusion and that makes it normal.

There are calls this week for us to start a conversation - again. We are incessantly starting these conversations and never getting anywhere with them. I think it's time we shut the fuck up, took Mr Shepherd's advice and looked truthfully at ourselves, and then sincerely listened to Indigenous people. With a little self-reflection, opening our minds and our ears, not to mention our cold, cold hearts, we might break the seemingly endless cycle of grudging, misguided gestures resulting in failure. 

I returned to Australia after living abroad for nearly three decades a few days before then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his 'Sorry' speech. I honestly thought I'd come back to a country finally ready to confront past wrongs. I've learned now that sorry, far from being the hardest word, can be as easily deployed as hitting pause on the remote when you want to stop a movie and go to the toilet. Nearly ten years later, the movie is still on pause and we're still in the dunny.

Leonard Cohen famously rhymed Hallelujah with do ya, so I'm trying to work that trope.

If you don't agree with us we'll impale ya
Cos we're Australia...

Perhaps not. I'm thinking failure may be the only possible rhyme for this moment. We need new words. Ones that we can string into a better sentence...