Essay: Ross Gibsonon a lucky country

Burn, Lucky Country, burn!

Twenty years ago, before dispatching the manuscript of my book Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, I added an epigraph:

I sniff a fire burning without outlet,
consuming acrid its own smoke.

It’s from ‘Homage to Mistress Bradstreet’ (1956) by the American poet John Berryman.

At the time, the couplet felt like a good way to evoke a disoriented, rubber-necked routine practised by most non-Indigenous Australians, the perpetual routine of looking and knowing while simultaneously twisting around to feign ignorance. Via this relentless process, the book contended, most Australians have become habituated to disregarding what the evidence shows, that the wealth and health we enjoy are the spoils of undeclared colonial warfare, that we have inherited profits accruing from the un-recompensed requisitioning of Indigenous infrastructure.

The book assayed the Gordian knot that snarls the DNA of the nation. Explaining how the gun and the pen took the country, I wrote about the attack forces that pushed the colonial frontier through vast tracts of Indigenous country during the nineteenth century, how they were trained to keep clean records. Indulging themselves in the field and governing themselves in their reports, the white officers of the Native Police jinked a two-step of violent action and circumspect remembrance. They wrapped their deeds in dissembling verbiage and eventually they became their own twisted idioms, developing a pathological disconnection between doing and declaring, a disconnection which gave them no way to see the world clearly, no way to analyse and comprehend the changes that were coming toward them.

The Native Police were proxies for everyone who benefited thereafter. This is how the colony has been maintained, I summarised, by sensing but denying, by fearing and knowing but trying not to acknowledge.

Seeing the paradox as pathological, I borrowed from psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich to offer a prognosis, explaining how the histories of most nations founded on violence show that an inability or refusal to acknowledge the past will produce evermore confusing and distressing symptoms in the body politic. In the wishful shelter of ignorance or amnesia, an abiding melancholy tends to creep into the populace. Or equally disabling, holding fast to the denials, the society can succumb to a paranoid urge to expunge all dissenting persons and memories.

That was two decades ago. The ‘history wars’ flared. The book took some heat, caught some cool plaudits.

Fast forward. Now we really do sniff fires burning without outlet. How so, this catastrophe?

In answer, one might rail against an insulated cadre of rulers who deny the need for an overhaul of the economy, polity and morality of the nation. One might bemoan how nothing has changed since Donald Horne skewered such kangaroo-courtiers six decades ago. ‘Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck,’ Horne decreed, ‘[it] lives on other peoples’ 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.’

However, now that the luck has been torched, such railing won’t achieve much unless it goads us all into the daily, pragmatic work of breaking our ingrained national habit of knowing-but-not-acknowledging. The dull fact bears repeating: routines of denial are so powerful and widespread in Australia because they are habituated; generation after generation, knowing-but-not-acknowledging gets re-inscribed in almost everyone’s cognition every single day that we live under the charring sun, on the taken ground. The fact is, we are habituated to denial. Denial comes easily, almost automatically, because we have been rigorously trained in the rubber-necked routine of seeing and looking away since the inception of the nation.

The fact is, the people who administer us are the most exposed and damaging of the feign-sayers. And to say true: they are our representatives, they reflect our real qualities back to us. Granted, they tend to be more pre-disposed to denial than most of us. For prior to plunging into the spin-cycle of political power, many of them hustled careers as professional dissemblers: marketing operatives, barristers, party-political apparatchiks. But most of them have children and grandchildren. So logic dictates that they should understand and act on the looming catastrophe. But something is befuddling, stopping the revelation, stinting the action. Illogical but endemic – this inability to see and act straight. What is to be done?

There is an urgent national need to break the 230-year, nationwide habit of knowing-but-not-acknowledging, a need to see this habit as the entropy it really is: an acrid fire consuming its own smoke. We need to be setting a course through free-will bound for fundamental change, a course informed by closely observed and control-tested facts. Otherwise we will keep spiralling down through obscurantist reflex.

Am I being histrionic? After all, as the torrid summer has waned some of us have felt the balm of soaking rain. But let’s not be lulled. For a balm can mask a malicious lesion. Even as Sydney-siders draw some clean breath and pause to enjoy the sight of ash-sludge oozing into stormwater sumps, the denialist reflex is twitching back. And the Prime Minister is chanting ‘resilience and adaptation’.

Resilience and Adaptation. First thought: when muttered with a determined lack of detail or context, it is a jingle, not a policy. Second thought, there is a pun that cannot be avoided: the jingle is also a smoke-screen, art-directed to keep us from seeing clearly the gravity of the challenges and the radical renovations that we need to imagine and execute.

As complexity studies have shown, the first sign of a system-failure is when the governing forces disregard the validity of feedback-data reporting a substantive problem; ailing before failing, the system clenches and tries to wring greater efficiencies from its stuttering processes; then as the complex accelerates toward collapse, the insistence on resilience gets exposed as nothing more than a ploy to avoid enacting a radical re-design of the entire system. (Followers of European football might be thinking of the mess looming at Barcelona right now!)

Lacking curiosity, the governing forces get taken by surprise, consuming their own complacency and timidity without outlet, at the very moment they should be composing and launching a new operating code and shutting down the entropic one.

In their clinical work the Mitscherlichs, whom I mentioned earlier, used to offer therapy for post-traumatic, denial-steeped communities. They concentrated on their homeland: post-Holocaust Germany. The gist of their treatment was this: for clients paralysed by guilt and ever-pressing dread, they designed ritualised, careful processes of acknowledgement, processes similar to the modulated-exposure-therapy in vogue nowadays. Slowly, incrementally they guided people who felt afflicted with an ‘inability to mourn’ so the sufferers could turn and face the misdemeanours that had been enacted then ignored in their recent past. The next step was to help the sufferers grasp how the clearly-witnessed past can place them in the ‘actionable’ present. Literally, the therapy enacted realisation – making real much that has been heretofore ineffectually denied or wishfully ignored.

This slow-adjustment process – turning to address the facts and finding ways to survive continuous full-frontal contact with them – is similar to the processes enacted in most habit-breaking and anti-addiction programs. Step by step, one overwrites the malign reflex by performing a series of repeated, rehabilitative actions that are consciously analysed and affirmatively acclaimed by a cohort of supporters.

That last detail is crucial: the reformer needs to be surrounded by supporters, all of whom are either currently in the program or are graduates. Thus the change comes singly but also communally; thus the change comes slowly, purposefully, until it is a zeitgeist that leaves nay-sayers without any constituency. What is to be done? Something like a national twelve-step plan for all us denial addicts.

As is so often the case, Indigenous Australian wisdom holds a model: reiterative, formal acknowledgement. It’s why the ‘acknowledgement of country’ processes are strengthening in everyday Australian life (even as the rituals sometimes seem rote and even cynical when uttered by non-believers who are pretending to be fellow-travellers). The acknowledgements bring incremental enlightenment, tiny step by tiny step, within communal settings. It’s why the acknowledgements have slowly gathered moral authority and added trickles of nuance to rudimentary popular understanding of the sophistication in Indigenous knowledge-management and country-cognition. The acknowledgements are part of a secular, custodial liturgy that we need to make commonplace.

What is to be done? Turning to face facts … habitually facing facts about what stokes the climate that cooks our country. And accepting that new deals and definitions will need to be brokered around personal, communal and corporate wealth. To generate these new deals, we will need the governance of imaginative and genuinely empathetic leadership; we will need philosophy, poetry and authenticity delivered in compelling oratory. All this will need to be generated in conference across the full extent of the nation. To have such leadership, we will need to demand it in our discourse, to set the conditions for its emergence in our educational institutions, neighbourhoods and workplaces. And then we will need to elect it, to realise it.

What happens if we dig in and take the quiet-Australian approach, if we persist with knowing-but-not-acknowledging? Here is an epilogue. From The Book of Exodus (33:5): ‘Ye are a stiff-necked people. I could come up into your midst in one moment and consume you. Now therefore, take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do to you.‘ In biblical times, Yahweh spake thus unto the Israelites. But this year, backlit by so many bushfires, it could be wide brown land proclaiming.

Works Cited

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, Brisbane: UQP, 2002.

Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, Penguin: Ringwood, 1964.

Alexander Mitscherlich and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn: principles of collective behavior, New York: Random House, 1975.