The Australian Outback
How many of you have been to Australia? Were you on R&R there during the Vietnam War? Traveling on business? On a vacation? Were you on a medical mission to a poor region? Did you go there to study, or conduct research? One ‘60s SHHS woman I know of lived there a while, and visited often. I’d guess no more than 50 of you, probably fewer.
Australia has always been a land of legend and myth. We believe their animals are strange, even bizarre, and that the people are rough-hewn, extremely vigorous, hearty, hard-drinking, tough and feisty. They have an indigenous human population we consider primitive, even wild. We think of Australian athletes as unusually talented, aggressive and strong. Many Americans admire and praise the somewhat harsh policies and leaders in Australia, especially for their adversarial laws about immigration and regarding their neighbors across the water in Asia. The popular view of Australia holds their people as a little dumb, rugged, heavy drinkers, cursing, rowdy folks, and their national origins as a former British penal colony of exile for convicted criminals, seen as later, accurate explaining who they are and what they’re like. Almost all Hollywood movies about Australia abide by these myths. The highly volatile Australian actor Mel Gibson is widely understood as a typical Australian.
Yet is that mythology accurate today? Are their native animals strange and bizarre, or are they simply unique to Australia, found in the wild nowhere else, and otherwise like wild animals anywhere else?
Australian characters in American movies — Crocodile Dundee, for example — fit the mythology, but are Australians in general like that, or even more than a few of them, that way? They raise their children more or less as we do, work in the same occupations, from accounting to construction to lawyers and judges and plumbers, doctors, city administrators, green grocers, architects, housewives, and so forth. They live and die, with crime rates much lower than ours.
In their vast open territory, the Outback, intensely hot, subject to harsh elements, arid hostile to human settlement, we find many people and individuals similar to earlier Americans who afforest explored our frontier, or more accurately, former frontier areas. The phenomenon can be explained because our early families usually went there as risk takers, hoping to find conditions and ways of life to suit them, exactly the way most Americans came to settle in the West. They were not the much later Okies and newly poor and often desperate Americans who came to California to work and feed their families. All the Outback that we meet in this video are male, and most are 50 years or older, even seventy or older. Their faces are weathered, their clothes are simple and worn, and the homes that live in are, too. Their testimony contains strong themes of risk, danger, derring do, of hard lives, eking out a living, often threatened by death, and always in varieties of isolation. Many of them have chosen to live that way, but not all. They do not seem highly educated, but rather shrewd, realistic, pragmatic, sometimes cunning, even, and significantly resourceful. They are a small proportion of the national population, and hardly participate at all in forming and maintaining national thinking, ways of life, trends of emotion and psychology, or laws or music, or sports, or jurisprudence. They do not seem like criminals, or dishonest, or violent.
My other personal source of observed knowledge of Australia was a women I knew well, someone who spent a year in an Australian family when she was a high school foreign exchange student from a small Ohio town about fifty makes grin Akron. She described her host people as warm and high-spirited, fun-loving, with a father who loved candy and consequently was becoming overweight with dental problems. In the main, my friend found her Australian family to be very much like a white, middle class American family. They went to church, they liked to sing and watch television together, the kids planned to attend college, and they were law-abiding.
That friend was only one observer, but is there any considered reason to regard Australians, even those in the Outback, as depicted in the myth?
Do we believe in what’s called national character? On the negative said of it, Germans are all warlike, all Italians are musical, all Irish are melancholy drinkers, Scots are thrifty and private, the French are romantic and most highly political, Mexicans lazy and shiftless, Japanese are all alike and singularly united to adore pop culture and thrive in industry and invention, Africans are endlessly festive, musical, sexually profligate, Scandinavians cold and aloof, and more: all myths, none true except anecdotally. If there is any valid national character, it can only be derived from the history of groups, never any individual. Yet impressions of national character live in almost all of us, in large or small amounts.
During our youth in Fullerton and through the age of thirty or so, we all probably heard at least one American friend or sibling or coworker declare he planned to move to Australia, and his tone was defiant, with some implied discontent about or anger toward the United States. I heard half a dozen of them, all young males, and as it happened, all highly athletic, restless, risk-taking young men, young men who’d hated or at least felt uncomfortable in school, all young men who were eager to make a lot of money quickly, and all of them defiant. There was a widespread belief then that Australia was “like Southern California” or even “just like Southern California”, and sometimes “just like Southern California used to be”. All the young men were excited, and their tone was boastful. They believed Australia was not only “like Southern California” in prevailing warm climate, but also in the sense of widespread opportunities, but many believed boundless opportunities, as if a new resident only had to work hard to scoop up wheelbarrows and boxcars of gold and silver. None of them I knew ever went to live in Australia, if for no other reasons that they got married and had children — or had them already —or got drafted, or continued in college, or found full-time jobs in the USA, or grew disenchanted with the mythology and believed it betrayed them.
They were caught up in the mythology. They all indicated it was the Outback where they’d go, or at least part of the time, and none of them seemed to understand conditions there and how hard the lives were there.
Do tens of millions of Americans embrace the mythology of Australia today? Is it possible they conceive of the American frontier between 1700 and 1800 as an abundant new home, a land of opportunity, where a man or women could work hard and thrive, a challenging land where risks taken paid off with spectacular levels of happiness, security and riches? And do they shift that conception, or project it, to Australia, because the American frontier no longer exists in any form as before? Moving toward or into the American frontier was infinitely more difficult, troublesome and for many bloody and deadly, than most Americans imagined. Most of these Americans who went west followed established settlers who’d made a way of life possible in small towns and cities, and arrived when theses places were still wild and unsettled. The Latter Day Saints of New York, Indiana, Illinois and elsewhere were a good example, of these waves of settlers who risked everything, and many died or were killed along the way.
Mythology is a powerful force, atavistic and sometimes indomitable, and when it impairs our observed and reasonable understanding and judgment, when it dulls our ideals and values, or extinguishes them, mythology can be deadly. We all carry some of it, probably a lot of it, and mythology can also be benign, and often offer richness and joy to our lives make it seem more significant, and it can be valuable. We thrill to mythology in music and the arts, we enjoy and glory in benign mythology in history, we love movies and TV shows, and we enjoy minor mythology about some of our friends: “Fred never lost a fight!”, “Mary was as gorgeous as any movie star!”, “Frank’s dad was courageous as an African lion!”, “Melvin’s dad killed a hundred Japanese soldiers with his bare hands at Iwo Jima!”, “Lou’s dad could punt a football 105 yards, end over end!”, “Mark was a math genius on the level of Gauss, or 99!”, and so on. We may wonder if it’s really true, or know it’s not, not quite, but it entertains us all as a group, and makes us feel good. Our own mythology can turn vicious, too: “Mildred slept with every member of the varsity cross country team by the end of her freshman year.” “Anton was a profoundly psychotic, paranoid psychotic, from kindergarten on, and that’s what made him such a great rebounder”, and many more. The most common is always about this or that unfortunate girl being a “slut” or a “whore”, and that can cause great personal damage to personalities maligned unfairly and without any truth, those lurid myths that arose in misunderstanding, in rumor, and sometimes in willful cruelty or revenge, itself usually borne of mistaken interpretation of events and speech of others.
Mythology can seem boundless, but it’s finite and never rises to the truly spiritual. When a people accept it as truly spiritual, they often become hateful, destructive and violent.
We have our mythology of Fullerton, and of Sunny Hills, especially, and our high school. Everyone in Sunny Hills was rich. Right? Their lives were generally glorious, delightful, and the free time of Sunny Hills adults was festive and languorous, characterized by genial gathering, one thousand genuine friendships for everyone, mass square-dancing, many hundreds of families in caravans to the river, or Balboa and beaches south, to the mountains where the fun and fellowship followed uninterrupted. Every young person in Sunny Hills had highly attractive and fashionable new clothes every month, expensive new cars at sixteen years of age, abundant allowances, large family swimming pools, unusually lenient parents who looked the other way when teenagers threw spectacular parties for their friends, often with Bacchanalian revelry, and more. We probably never considered the totality of all those myths at one time, or as a body, but in those days it was almost impossible to swallow at least some of it, some minor mouthful.
Now we all know very little of that was ever true, probably no more than a fraction of one percent, and most of it false. But myths without a small core of truth sustain us, and if we cling to too many of them too long, disappoint us, cause us resentment and envy, and may leave us in despair.
The mythology of Australia is unlikely to affect us that way, and it's worthy of some consideration nevertheless.