Bring Back the Biff…?

March 20, 2007 at 2:35 am (Uncategorized)

On the way back from the wedding on Sunday, Tamsin, Ruben, Llew and I spent some time ruminating on the Australian condition. I used to think, for instance, that I was a fairly representative Aussie: mainly working-class roots, the product of both public and private education, fairly laid-back and open-minded, with a readiness to find humour in most things, and a desire to travel the world. I believed for a long time in a basic decency at the heart of the national character, which is popularly bandied about in terms of the “fair go” and the ANZACS. I now believe I was wrong about a lot of things.

I now know I am not representative at all. I was born and spent my childhood years in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, which immediately puts me in a rather bizarre group that loves rolling around in their own pretensions toward exclusivity. I’m certainly not representative of that culture, but my links to this section of society immediately mark me as someone who isn’t representative of just about anyone else in the country.

I was next dragged, kicking and screaming and crying, out of Sydney to the Central Coast. It was a very unhappy time in my personal life, and no doubt this tainted the whole place for me as well as my memories of it. I spent my two and a half years there fleeing back to Sydney every chance I got, and generally feeling and being treated like a complete and utter misfit and outsider. My first six months of high school, at a private girls’ school in East Gosford, were among the most miserable of my life.

Circumstances intervened and I returned to Sydney and went to live for the first time with my father. He enrolled me at a public girls’ high school in North Parramatta, in Sydney’s west. This is where the majority of Sydney actually lives, in the western suburbs, but I can’t say I or the friends I made there felt terribly representative there at all. In Year 11, fate dealt me a winning hand, and I was off on scholarship to an international college in Canada for two years. There I was embraced as a representative of my country. Hardly surprising, since I was there as a kind of teen ambassador, to ‘represent’ Australia and typical Australian youth, and I suppose I laboured under the fairly gross misapprehension that that’s exactly what I did. I really believed I was typical.

Now I know that’s bunkum. I actually belong to a very small demographic within Sydney, let alone Australia. I have a PhD. I live by the beach in the country’s biggest, most expensive city. In my own home. My husband is a professional with a university qualification. We have both lived overseas and travelled widely. We are small ‘l’ liberals.

In Maitland on Saturday night, I was reminded again that a lot of Australians spread throughout this vast land hate small ‘l’ liberals with an unreasoning passion, and think anyone from Sydney is a posh wanker only getting what’s coming to them. Cue knuckle sandwiches. Certainly walking down the main street after the bus from the wedding reception delivered us back into town was an education I’m in no hurry to repeat. There was one group of really scary men roaming the streets like a pack of wild dogs looking to make a kill, and as I passed by, one of them yelled “Hey bitch, you’ve got no tits.” Lovely. When I left a couple of minutes later, deciding this was all too much high country hi-jinx for me, I was rattled enough that I asked to be taken out via a back exit to avoid walking past them again. Llew walked me back to our accommodation, and I was genuinely scared about him walking down the street back to the club alone.

These are what I like to call the Bring Back the Biff Australians, and their numbers, sadly, are not few. Nope, there’s lots of them, more than I realised, and they’re all over the country. There are Australians who vandalise private property for kicks. Why go home when you can smash a plate glass window or two at the local cafe…? Why call it a night when there are still apartment blocks to grafitti? There are Australians who hate gays, Aborigines, Muslims, Asians, and anyone else they’re determined to remain wilfully ignorant about. Refugees, for instance. There are Australians who think that you are a dirty rotten tree-hugging un-Australian terrorist-loving commie if you think David Hicks has the right to a fair and expedient trial. Or that the war in Iraq is a humanitarian disaster (“Who cares? They’re just Osama Bin Laden-look-a-like towel heads anyway.”).

And I think the thing I despise most about John Howard’s reign of paranoia and ignorance and xenophobia is that he has allowed these attitudes to flourish. He has fanned the flames. He has made the Bring Back the Biff contingent stronger, more suspicious of difference than ever, more dangerous in their claims of ownership and entitlement. More ‘Australian’ than the rest of us. So are they representative? Boy, I seriously hope not.

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2 Comments

  1. Warwick said,

    While it is true that Howard has done much to legitimate the expression of anti-liberalism in the public sphere, the private discontent that gives rise to these expressions predates the Howard government. Australian society has arguably changed more dramatically, more rapidly, in the past thirty than in any other period since First Settlement, and these changes have benefited some of Australians more than others – not least those of us, like you and I, who are well-educated, relatively wealthy and live east of the great divide. ‘Biffers’ may not comprehend the sociopolitical and historical forces that have caused their discontent, but this doesn’t make their discontent any less real.

    Blaming Muslims and gays isn’t going to solve anybody’s problems, obviously, but liberal proponents of -isms a la mode – multiculturism, humanitarianism, globalism, etc, – need to look at the ways in which the brave new world ushered in by Labour in the 70s and 80s robbed many Australians of the economic security and social stability which they had worked so hard to create. Keating was perhaps right when he argued these changes were inevitable, but at the same time he didn’t seem overly concerned about the Australians for whom Mabo and the Mardis Gras were merely distractions from the hard grind of daily life.

    It seems to me people only feel the need to assert their identity when their identity is under threat. Rather than condemning the ‘Biffers’ perhaps we, as liberals, as Australians, should be asking why. Why do so many Australians feel so threatened, so angry, so afraid? When we know the answer to that question, perhaps then we can begin mending some of the divisions Howard has exploited so successfully during his time as PM.

  2. doctordi said,

    I essentially agree with everything you’re saying, Warwick, and I think you’re right to ask why. I think that simple question should be asked a lot more often than it is. Personally I think there is a tendency to be reluctant to ask why, perhaps because people think it betrays an ignorance on their part. Of course, the happy consequence of asking why is that the person or people to whom the question is directed must respond with some kind of answer, or at the very least must try to. And that’s when dialogue becomes possible, or at least so I have often found in conversation.

    I wonder if one of the answers to ‘Why do so many Australians feel so threatened, so angry, so afraid?’ is related to what you say just prior about identity. Okay, people feel the need to assert their identity when their identity is under threat, but just what is our identity, anyway? What exactly is being asserted/protected/enacted, and by whom? How much more enraging and alienating is it to fight desperately for and believe wholeheartedly in something you start to comprehend does not truly exist?

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