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Philistine invasion is cringe-worthy indeed

  • 17 December 2018


In 1950, A. A. (Arthur Angell) Phillips — a teacher at Wesley College in Melbourne and an essayist of growing repute — wrote a piece entitled 'The Cultural Cringe' for the literary journal Meanjin. Phillips was intrigued by a regular ABC radio program:

'The Australian Broadcasting Commission has a Sunday program designed to cajole a mild Sabbatarian bestirment of the wits called Incognito. Paired musical performances are broadcast, one by an Australian, one by an overseas executant, but with the names and nationalities withheld until the end of the program. The listener is supposed to guess which is the Australian and which the alien performer. The idea is that quite often he guesses wrong or gives it up because, strange to say, the local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner. This unexpected discovery is intended to inspire a nice glow of patriotic satisfaction.'

Phillips's coinage — 'cultural cringe' — struck such a chord, seemed somehow so precisely to nail a particular Australian social and intellectual trait, that it passed into the language. As Sydney University historian Rollo Hesketh describes it: 'Coined in 1950 in the pages of Meanjin, the term has come to refer to Australians' inherent lack of faith in their own culture ... Phillips wished to create a national culture that conceded no inferiority to Britain, and indeed was unembarrassed to be Australian ...'

In much the same way, Donald Horne's title, The Lucky Country, lost its original meaning. His proposition was that 'Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people's ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.'

This confronting opinion has been so continuously misinterpreted that Horne was moved to re-state the position in his Death of the Lucky Country (1976), where he expressed his exasperation with how the title phrase had been misused. 'I didn't mean that it [Australia] had a lot of material resources ... In the lucky style we have never "earned" our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.' Nevertheless, the ironic edge of 'lucky' was lost among the paeans of national praise that the phrase was so egregiously employed to validate.

As far as the 'cultural cringe' was concerned, Phillips had unquestionably noticed and identified a