Following the unfortunate spat between Germaine Greer and Andrew Denton, I read her Guardian article “We can dream too”, in which she proposes idiosyncratic arguments about the relationship between Australianness, Aboriginality and Britishness.
Greer and I are from different generations and our trajectories seem like odd reflections of each other. She grew up in an Australia that sold her the myth that we were simply British and nothing else, then went to live in the UK and discovered that she was actually nowhere near as British as she had imagined. She is evidently marked by that experience.
I, on the other hand, grew up in an Australia where the official myth was exactly the one that she proposes – that we aren’t British at all – but I went to live in Brazil and discovered that I am actually far more British than I would ever have suspected. I would like to suggest that, just as Australianness cannot be understood by denying its debt to Aboriginality, so it cannot be understood by denying its relation to Britishness.
Greer defines Aboriginality as “not a matter of blood or genes; Aborigines themselves have to learn Aboriginality”, positioning it not as an ethnicity, but as a system of cultures: a cultural matrix involving knowledge of country, relationships and lifeways, into which people of different ethnic backgrounds can conceivably be inducted.
In this sense, Aboriginality is analogous to Latinness: Brazil’s diverse regional cultures were formed from different mixtures of the same basic influences – the indigenous, the coloniser, the enslaved and the later immigrant – but the country as a whole is unmistakably Latin.
Like Aboriginality, Latinness is not about blood or genes: it is a system of values, institutions and priorities that traces its roots back to the Italian region of Lazio and was spread around the world in two great waves by the Roman and then by the Portuguese and Spanish Empires. What seems more difficult for us to recognise is that, just like Aboriginality and Latinness, Britishness is also a cultural matrix that has nothing to do with blood and genes.
Greer suggests that “Australians, despite the official policy of multiculturalism, aren’t genuinely cosmopolitan, but they aren’t British, either.” This no doubt strikes many Australians as an absurd assertion to feel the need to make, because we have largely forgotten about Britishness as culture and have allowed it to be reduced to a nationality.
Until the 1970s, every Canadian, every Australian and every New Zealander was a British subject. “British” quite naturally meant all of these peoples and “Britishness” quite naturally meant the institutions, values and lifeways that we have in common. Over the course of that decade, as legal connections were cut and the UK dived into Europe, we allowed the definition of “British” to be narrowed to the British Isles and ended up without a word to define our cultural world.
Greer also asserts that “If Australians should doubt [that they are not British], they have only to travel to England, where they will feel less at home than they would in any other part of the world.” Hyperbole aside, I could respond by saying that if Australians should doubt that they are British, they have only to spend some time in Brazil, where they will be fascinated to discover exactly what “British” really means.
How are we to react to her suggestion that “Australians cannot be confused with any other Commonwealth peoples; they behave differently from Canadians, South Africans and even New Zealanders”? If we had no specific connection, there would be no reason for her to select exactly that group to compare us with. Certainly we are not identical to any of them, but then we are not identical to ourselves either. Queenslanders are not the same as Tasmanians, people from Perth are not the same as people from Broome and people from Bondi are not the same as people from Redfern, but they can all recognise what we have in common.
Whenever I bump into a Welshman, a Canadian, a Pom or a Kiwi in Brazil and find that our values and sense of humour form an instant bond, I need a name for what we have in common. And whenever I notice the degree to which it doesn’t happen with people from the United States, I can’t avoid the conclusion that it is not simply a matter of language.
Greer contends that “the Australian national character derives from the influence of the Aborigines”. Her list of these influences is impressive and worthy of profound investigation, but I find it impossible to believe that, had Australia been colonised by the Portuguese, the Spanish or the French, the Aboriginal influence would have resulted in an identical outcome.
What she is suggesting must surely be that “the elements of the Australian national character that set us apart from the other British peoples derive from the influence of the Aborigines”. It is only by recognising our fundamental similarities with the peoples and societies of New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom that we will be in any position to appreciate the degree to which our differences derive from the First Peoples of these former colonies: the Aboriginal and Melanesian peoples of Australia, the Maori people of Aotearoa, the Native Americans and Inuit of Canada.
We will, one day, be capable of recognising that the uniqueness of Australian culture derives from three sources: an Aboriginal substrate, a British institutional and cultural matrix and an influx of migrants from all over the globe. Mainstream Australia has never adequately acknowledged the first, we are currently in more or less official denial of the second, and the post-war migration boom is ludicrously forced to assume responsibility for everything we are. Our national self-awareness depends on recognising both our Britishness and our Aboriginality.