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Australia's fatal attraction to America


'We know other countries in response to one mass shooting have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings,' said US President Barack Obama earlier this month. 'Friends of ours, allies of ours, Great Britain, Australia — countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.'

Australia flag with US flag in place of Union JackThe conservative US journal National Review disagrees. It says there are 350 million guns in circulation in the US, compared with fewer than half a million handguns circulating in Britain when its government banned them in 1997, and 650,000 guns that were 'easily confiscated' after the Australian ban in 1998. It asserts that if the US government tried to confiscate guns, it would bring in 100 million, leaving between 200 and 250 million 'on the streets'.

Its unspoken conclusion is that the genie is out of the bottle: that all Americans need guns now, because so many bad guys have them already. 'Contrary to the President's implications, Britain and Australia are not "countries like ours" when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms: they are completely, utterly, extraordinarily different.'

Thankfully, America is not like Australia. Some Australians are relieved that we are not. A sad President Obama, who likes and feels at home here, wishes we were.

Usually, it is the other way around. There is a natural envy and longing some feel in Britain, Australia and Canada — smaller, fellow English-speaking countries with broadly similar cultures and politics — for our confident, successful American cousin. Yet America is also capable of plumbing the worst depths.

We fellow anglophones are content to live safely around the middle. A few vote with their feet, in both directions. Ambitious young Australians take the yellow brick road to the US. Americans who hanker for a simpler, safer way of life do the reverse.

What is changing? Potentially, a lot. In the internet and mass media age, the seductive power of American models of public culture and political discourse grows.

So often, when I think about some new disturbing development in Australia, its roots are traceable to the US; whether it be Tea Party style politics, anti-immigrant nativism, know-nothing anti-science, earnest biblical fundamentalism, breakdown of respect for communities, disregard for the welfare of poor people or a militarised foreign policy that needs enemies.

And yet America at its best offers such shining examples to Australia: its high culture, science and technology; its advanced medical research, prolonging both life and quality; its seriousness of moral purpose; its diversity; its many aspects of grace, charm and civility.

What are we to do with this contradictory America? How do we get the best from our common language, traditions and values, while protecting ourselves against America's worst excesses?

Sadly, there is a powerful fatal attraction some Australians feel to the worst of America: the materialism, dumbed-down politics, exceptionalism, arrogant self-regard, claim to define and arbitrate international norms of conduct, indifference to the poor, and weird, lurking dystopianism.

And we are so easily culturally colonised. We do most of it to ourselves. There is no American plot to dominate Australia: stuff like the Trans Pacific Partnership, American military presence in Darwin and Australian soldiers making war on people in the Middle East happens without explicit urging.

Many Australians hope the recent leadership change in Canberra might represent a return to a more civilised, 'British' style of political discourse. On this reading, the parliamentary Liberal Party wisely rejected on behalf of the population at large Tony Abbott's sloganeering, Tea Party-style divisive politics in favour of something more diverse, more respectful of voters, more intelligent.

But it was a close-run thing. Abbott could so easily still be there. Imagine the aftermath of the Parramatta shooting if he were.

I watched Hillary Clinton this week talking about gun control to a dull, passive audience. She sounded like Abbott. She spoke in slogans. She spoke with great earnestness, as if she was actually urging Americans to reject guns.

But no: she was merely advocating what National Review mocks as 'pointless, around-the-edges reforms': universal background checks, limits on types of guns and ammunition that can be sold etc. Such low horizons, but this is how she sees the limits of possibility in the United States.

For us, we can still enjoy a safer gun control future, but we need to fight to defend it. The powerful American National Rifle Association has already targeted Australia, and public figures like Senator Leyonjhelm have been seduced.

In all fields, we need to be alert to the risky blandishments of the American cultural model. There is good reason for Australian content rules in our media: it would be so easy to succumb, to transmigrate our souls to New York and Hollywood.

We need to remain open to other cultural models and resist the deluge of American commercial mediocrity. At the same time, we must love and seek out America at its best.

Australia doesn't need one great and powerful friend any more. In today's multipolar and multicultural world, we need a diverse circle of mutually respectful friends. I don't believe Australians, especially young Australians, actually want to live in a permanent state of cultural cringe towards America. Yet I fear that many in our political class mistakenly assume the inevitability of this.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is a former diplomat.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, America, Australia, gun laws, Obama, John Howard



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Existing comments

Well said! I especially liked the final paragraph which has many people well ahead of the political class in Australia.

Frank Golding | 12 October 2015  

How did I first absorb American culture? Through American movies? I could barely read when I first went to the flicks of a Saturday afternoon in 1940s with my brothers and sisters and most of the kids in the street.. Our staple movie diet was 'Cowboys & Indians' for adventure and The Three Stooges for laughter. As if by osmosis we learned that all that was needed to defeat evil (whether primitive Indian or corrupt white man) was a brave sheriff with a six-gun. What made us laugh was slap stick, with its inherent violence. Even though I was in my 20s when television came to Australia and my taste in entertainment had moved on it was obvious that a movie diet similar movie diet was being offered to children, even if the Cowboys had become Scientists and the Indians had become Aliens and The Three Stooges any number of Disney cartoon characters. And so we come to the Internet as Tony Kevin has pointed out through which 'the seductive power of American models grows'. The medium may have changed but the basic message is the same - power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Uncle Pat | 12 October 2015  

I suspect that much of Australia's fellow feeling with America is grown from deep history; you shucked off imperial England, you are not particularly interested in being Asian, and you have stood with America and Canada in many a battle; John Howard clearly chose to keep America close as a powerful friend against an Asia that once did attack your country. America, I posit, is a great idea of a country, but not fully grown up yet; we are a huge powerful foolish teenager, liable to violence and capable of flashes of mature greatness.

Brian Doyle | 13 October 2015  

With deep respect to Brian Doyle, I don't think this is an issue of immaturity in USA. After all, European settlement in USA started nearly 200 years before Australia. But our colonies began with a Whig tradition of liberalism, and tolerance, America's began with religious fundamentalists. Also, America's history of use of guns to settle disputes and defend one's own life is so much more deeply entrenched in her history than in the other Anglophone democracies. Actually I think Ameruca faces a challenge now no less fundamental that Germany faced in 1945 - to come to grips and deal with a tainted past. this requires a fundamental reset in the way Americans - far too many of them, in all classes and groups - think about guns. It is not OK for good lawabiding citizens to keep a gun in the house. We should rely on good locks on our doors and windows, and a quick reaction welltrained and resourced police force. I would like to see America's friends saying this franky to America. Every candidate in the coming US presidential election is setting their aspirations for gun control so low, this is sadly the mark of a sick society . We need to recognise this embedded propensity to lethal violence in USA is a social disease. And a disease that if we are not careful could spread to us. That , to me. must be the starting point of productive discussions with American friends.

Tony kevin | 13 October 2015  

I'm one who does not understand the Australian attraction to to the US. I've always been interested in Europe, Britain, & Scandanavia, not America. A failing TonyKevin didn't mention is that the US is the only FirstWorld democracy with no universal healthcare system. Thank you Tony for this excellent article. So true, so very true unfortunately. We must never let Australia get any more like the US than we are already. Yes, they helped us in WW2, seventy years ago! But we if owe our culture and values like social justice etc to Britain! We do not need the US. We are our own developed nation which is geographically part of Asia and and we should be focusing on our own region here.

Louw | 17 October 2015  

How did I first absorb North American culture? Certainly not through the movies, we bush kids of the forties and fifties were lucky to get to two flicks a year. And having grown up before the advent of television I was fortunate not to have been influenced by programmes like The Rifleman or Have Gun – Will Travel. No, for me it was a mother who made sure we had plenty of good reading material and by about age 13 or 14 I was an avid fan of Mark Twain, I had read just about everything Mary O’Hara ever wrote, a favourite was a children’s version of Moby Dick and I still read and re-read Paul Gallico. Not until well into adulthood did I come to realize how deeply entrenched violence is in the US (not that Australia doesn’t have its own dark moments) but I still retain a deep affection for the best of American culture. So how disappointing it always is to find that the same country that produced a Robert Frost is also capable of something as deeply repulsive as Sicario. Violence for the sake of violence, violence and vengeance as solutions to human problems, nihilism writ large, utterly insulting to neighbouring Mexico; Tony Kevin has nailed it, America’s gun culture is the mark of a sick society and the US must deal with it head on. Hasten the day when the best of her artists trump those who feed us with stuff as vile as Sicario.

Paul | 20 October 2015  

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