Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Australian Exceptionalism

Dawn at Tambo

Australians are watching events across the Pacific with a mixture of boredom and incredulity.

Boredom, because what is happening has all the features of a B grade movie set on rerun, and incredulity because from time to time, what goes on in the USA is almost unbelievable.

After all, if we had been told that the incumbent President had called out the military to clear the streets so he could have a photo opportunity, we would probably not have believed it.

But this is America in 2020.

This is the America, where a representative of the law knelt on the neck of a black man for 8 minutes and 48 seconds until he died.

There is a long list of names of African Americans who have died this way in the land of the free.

It is difficult, on the face of it, for Australians to understand why this conduct by the forces of law and order in what is supposed to be a beacon of democracy, is a feature of contemporary American culture.

God knows, we have a similar problem in this country.

But what we don't have is the frequency of these events that is routine in the USA, the degree of outrage that they create, and the violence and disorder they generate.

There are clear and specific reasons for this exceptionalism of violence, some of which I've noted first hand.

Back in Vietnam 50 years ago, I was in a country where American culture was swamping the gentle collective enterprise of Vietnam. The contrast between the loud aggressive demeanour of the Americans, and the reserve of the Vietnamese was almost comical. The daily contrast of values and behaviour was stark.

Then there was the tangible tension between African American soldiers and their white counterparts. Australians were frequently surprised how positively African Americans soldiers reacted to them, without really understanding why. I can recall off-duty occasions in the company of black GIs when I simply did not have to buy a beer. I can remember being invited to an all black soul bar in Bangkok, where, as the only white face in the venue, I was treated like some kind of prince.

Looking back on it, it was clear that the black GIs felt much more comfortable with Australians than their own white countrymen, perhaps because we didn't come with the baggage of centuries of ingrained race based assumptions.

My father (ex-RAAF) used to tell stories about his encounters with Americans in World War Two, which had a similar underlying narrative. Australians objecting to the treatment of black Americans by their military police was one of the ingredients that led to the notorious Battle of Brisbane in 1942. 

This better treatment of black soldiers in Australia compared with what they were used to back stateside was not understood by Australians because they had no reference point. It was noted and appreciated by the African American GIs.

Now we have our own problems with racial intolerance in this country, but the outcomes are more subtle, generally less overt and our nation doesn't descend into paroxysms of violence when it becomes an issue.

The cliche holds. Violence is as American as apple pie.

And we should treasure and preserve our laid back generous culture.

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Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...