The documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux is currently in the nation to sustain himself, his newest work, and, it would seem, the persistent idea we Australians have that we can produce no ideas of our own.
In an interview with The Guardian’s Amanda Meade, this guy — whose latest revelations are of the much-revealed world of Scientology — provides a contemporary introduction for the old and important A.A. Phillips essay, “The Cultural Cringe”.
Writing in Meanjin more than half a century ago, Phillips begins with a description of an ABC radio program, Incognito. Listeners, he wrote, were treated to a recital by an Australian classical musician who tested his skills against an import. Nationality is withheld until the end of the program, and on the occasion the local boy played the fiddle as well as his European counterpart, there flickered the brief, decrepit light of patriotic satisfaction.
“I am not jeering at the A.B.C. for its quaint idea,” wrote Phillips, and I am not jeering at Meade. As she reported by social media to Crikey reporter Myriam Robin, she only had 13 minutes with the superstar, and it was he who volunteered all hasty ideas about how we just didn’t understand our own problems and probably needed his help. But the article played well, just as Incognito did. Like the ABC of 1950, The Guardian of the present has, “diagnosed a disease of the Australian mind”. We are largely comfortable with the reminder that we don’t make culture or thought as well as those others.
In Theroux-style, Theroux had stumbled on a broad truth. That is, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a pretty shit deal; a fact acknowledged, if not actively tackled, by everyone who realises that Andrew Bolt is actually a gag writer. While this is a matter of central national significance — and one whose address, I’d say, would expedite the end of Phillips’ “cultural cringe” — Theroux’s thoughts on the matter are worth reporting only insofar as they are bound to get a lot of clicks. Please Louis, great muckraker in the tradition of the guy who made the Kurt and Courtney documentary, tell us where we went wrong.
No! The guy knows little about indigenous Australia and that he saw, as he said, no indigenous Australians, 75% of whom live in cities, says more about the postcodes he visited while on tour than his actual willingness to shine his famous light on injustice. Surely, a quick Google would have led him out of hotel suites and into La Perouse.
To be fair to The Guardian, which I rarely am, the site does make an effort to report on indigenous Australia. At a guess, I’d say its coverage is about equal to half of The Australian’s and, honestly, it’s about 10 times better. They do not choose blame as a narrative filter or its close cousin, distant pity. So, it’s particularly odd that Theroux, who is not far off distant pity at all — he knows something is wrong, but is not sure what — gets a guernsey. In short: who gives a shit what he thinks? He’s not an expert. He has nothing to say. His single qualification is that he is English.
Whether we are elevating our musicians or diminishing our own social policies, we don’t need these imports as a guide. This means not amplifying their substandard fiddle playing in the pages of The Guardian, most particularly when young Aboriginal intellectuals are making the most glorious noise they have since the early ‘70s. Expert analysis from abroad is fine, and possibly useful to our cultural and political life. But a rap on the knuckles from some mildly amusing gonzo guy achieves nothing for the indigenous peoples he is yet to encounter or for the production of Australian ideas. Its report simply re-establishes our habit of doomed comparison against “better” cultures.
To say that indigenous Australians continue to cop a complex of rot is true, and it needs saying. But not by some guy whose prominent and perceived edginess just happens to play well with readers. The marriage of Theroux and indigenous issues is a good commercial decision — a bit like those photo features in the colour supplements that put Asher Keddie in Prada, and what have you. It is, however, a poor editorial decision that appeases the national brain disease Phillips described.
To implore my fellows to desist in asking under-informed foreigners what they think of us is no “strut”, the term Phillips uses to describe an inverted cringe. To implore for any culture or any conversation — especially that with indigenous Australia as its topic — to remain unmediated by the approval or disapproval of powerful foreigners is not to be some nationalistic dick. Or it is not, as Phillips put it masterfully, to be a “God’s-Own Country and I’m-a-better-man-than-you-are Australian Bore”.
When I re-read the Phillips essay last night, I was expecting it to be very dated. Regrettably, it’s not. The popular idea of Australian culture, just like the popular idea of indigenous Australia, still rests on a bedrock of denial. We remain “un-Australian” and continue to define ourselves, whether strutters or cringers, in the terms of what we are not.
What we are will reveal itself only when our cringing view of a brutal history and a tedious present is done.