Ah, as we approach Straya Day, give thanks for Nick Cater, last of the ten pound poms. Yesterday, the BBC/Essex Uni sociology graduate turned his attention to Strayan culture, adopting the royal “we” for his adopted homeland, and digging deep into Strayan culture, to wit A.A. Phillips’ influential essay “The Cultural Cringe”.

He should have dug a little deeper. Cater has Phillips identifying the cultural cringe in 1958. No, he used the phrase in 1950, in a Meanjin essay (collected in book form in 1958), when it was part of a vigorous post-war debate about future directions for Australia — a debate that had somewhat ebbed away by 1958. First howler. Second howler: “these are denaturalized intellectuals, the group identified by [Phillips] as the unhappy victims of the cultural cringe, isolated and alienated from their own country”. No, actually, that’s the exact opposite of Phillips’ intervention, and of the purpose of Meanjin at the time. Meanjin, founded in 1940-1, was part of a left-nationalist movement of intellectuals, who aimed squarely at the mass general populace, and their willingness to accept British high culture domination and US mass culture domination. It was these left intellectuals — inside and outside the Communist Party — who revived half-forgotten writers from the 1890s, changed high school curricula to include Australian history and Aboriginal history, made us all sing “click go the bloody shears”, created the Ned Kelly myth, etc. Indeed, the Jindyworobak movement that Meanjin sprang from was part of a radical re-orientation to the idea of Australia being an Aboriginal continent, and spruiked the idea that a deracinated white Australia needed to re-infuse itself with the Aboriginal life spirit, to escape the deadness of European settlement. A.D. Hope’s Australia is influenced by the Jindyworobak spirit (though not form — they were terrible poets), when it proclaims:

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

The “change the date” movement is a direct heir of Jindyworobak/Meanjin spirit. Does Cater even understand this? The thing with Nick is that he’s many things. But what he’s not is Australian — even in spirit. The one-dimensional prefab Australia he constructs out of his programmatic populism shows that he remains a condescending Brit. Deep down he’s unable to believe Australia has a complex history, so he just makes up what he needs. The personage who, for Meanjin, Phillips and others, best represented the cultural cringe was the prime minister who gave his name to the propaganda group/think tank Cater now heads: our Sir Robert, during whose tenure the editors of Meanjin were bugged by ASIO, followed, harassed. The journal was all but closed down and thrown out of Melbourne University by Menzies’ goons. A process that was, at the time, called civilisation over here. They won the Australian nationalism debate. I think from the grave, they’ll win “change the date” too — not least because its opponents are utterly addled about how Australian history happens.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey