Bari Weiss, one of the few sane, non-left people allowed to write op-eds for “The New York Times”, has just come back from Australia and penned this interesting perspective on the land Down Under. My summary: it’s a Lucky Country, but maybe all the luck has got some downsides.
When Mark Twain steamed into Sydney’s harbor in September 1895, journalists peppered him with questions before he had even stepped off the S.S. Warrimoo. “I am going to write a book on Australia,” he proclaimed. “And I think I ought to start now. You always know so much more of a country when you have not seen it than when you have.”
I imagined an exotic menagerie: animals that begin with the letter K frolicking next to shirtless Hemsworths, mostly.
Instead, I found Australia — or rather the teeny, tiny corner of this vast continent that I got the chance to experience this past month — much closer to how David Sedaris once described it: “Canada in a thong.”
It is a place where things just work. The politics are moderate. The economy is roaring (at least for now). The strangers are helpful.
Everyone has health care. Mass shootings are almost unheard-of. And I’d feel comfortable following the five-second rule on a random subway platform.
So far, so Canada.
But you don’t get on a flight across the world just to admire a $19 minimum wage. You come for the thongs.
Australians have more fun. They just do. I guess I should not be surprised by this fact given that this is the place that birthed both Hugh Jackman and Kylie Minogue.
Canada in a thong, but mercifully without Justin Trudeau.
You can roll your eyes or you can appreciate the fact that everything here sounds a bit cuter. I opt for the latter.
More profound is how people relate to one another. I’ve talked with people for hours before they have asked me what I do for work. At home that question can come before “How are you?” I won’t ever make that mistake again.
Australians are also, mercifully, not in the midst of a raging culture war. At home, friends are largely delineated by political tribe; couples that date across the divide are newsworthy. Here, it is normal. The political is not personal, and that’s not just because so many of the big issues that tear Americans apart (health care, guns, the social safety net) are settled. It’s that Australians never seem to doubt that there is more to life than politics.
For all the apparent similarities – both former British colonies and settler nations – the political cultures of the United States and Australia are very different. Australia’s has always been less passionate and more laid back, with a less significant libertarian strain and a more statist consensus. I think it goes back to how and by whom the two countries have been originally settled; the United States by religious and political dissenters and Australia by prisoners (our political dissenters were the Brit-hating Irish, thus guaranteeing a strong radical, anti-establishment tradition). It also helped that America was much closer to Europe, getting the migrants from all corners of the Old World, whereas well into the post-war period Australia was largely Anglo-Celtic in its ethnicity and culture. At the risk of sounding unkind, for most of its history Australia (like Canada) got the migrants who wouldn’t go the United States, often people looking for a familiar British experience but with a better climate (Australia, not Canada) and plenty more space. There has always been a greater role for and the acceptance of government in everyone’s lives, which counter-intuitively made for less divisive and more placid politics.
And yet, for all that this country gets right, Australia is a bit like the hottest girl in your freshman class. She looks fantastic in her crop top but suffers from crippling self-doubt.
Some of the insecurity is warranted. Given the tremendous capital and the brain power here, Australia should be a start-up nation. Ask Australians why it isn’t like Tel Aviv or Silicon Valley and they will invariably chalk it up to “tall poppy syndrome.” (Another great Australianism, tall poppies are successful people whose ambitions perhaps deserve to be cut down to size.)
Another obstacle might be how generally pleasant life here is. When you’ve got a good thing going, it’s hard to justify taking a risk that will most likely result in failure. And people here tend to be deeply laid back, a quality that can shade into risk aversion and complacency — perhaps an inevitable result of living somewhere so physically beautiful.
I rather like this conceptualisation of Australia as a hot girl with self-esteem issues; it’s perhaps more poignant than Weiss realises. Like all hot people, she expects life to be easy and pleasant, because it largely is for someone like her, but this very fact means she doesn’t need to diversify her assets and try harder in life. There is a big unrealised potential that is going to waste (or waist). Thus Australia is actually quite good at coming up with great innovative ideas; we’re only crap at commercialising them and reaping the benefits. The local capital is just too staid and not venturesome enough. There is laziness (of imagination, because we tend to actually work hard, despite the heat), complacency and a false sense of security with a tendency to drift.
But for all that hotness there is also problem with self-esteem. We crave attention and approval and security, whether it’s our parents (Great Britain), the alpha males (the United States) or wealthy neighbours (China). We feel a bit guilty to be so lucky, but not guilty enough to do something to rely less on luck in the future and more on factors that are in our control and up to us to do something about.
Still, it’s good to be hot. Thanks, Bari.