It takes more than reality to destroy national myths

 Americans and Australians each have a dream Lucky Country, writes Michael Gawenda.

There is no need to feel bad about this, but Americans love Australia though they know next to nothing about the place.

Their love is based essentially on three things: our faithfulness as an ally, on what they see as shared values between the two countries, and on a feeling that Australia is the lost and lamented America of a century ago.

Even Americans who have visited Australia and just love the time they spent there know virtually nothing about the place, which just goes to show that travel confirms rather than shatters stereotypes.

When the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, was in Washington recently, he delivered the annual Anzac lecture at one of the think tanks. The audience was made up mainly of conservative think-tank types, Bush Administration officials and several American journalists who had come, it seemed, for a free lunch.

They all loved Downer's speech, and why wouldn't they? As one Bush Administration official said afterwards, he could think of no other foreign minister who would make a speech like Downer's speech, which was essentially a love letter to the United States.

And what was that love based on? Why, shared values, of course, and our faithfulness as an ally. Australians, Downer said, stuck by their mates and did the right thing, no matter how hard the going. And they did so quietly, without fanfare, because that's what Aussies are like.

Clouds of nostalgia filled the room as the Americans recalled the time, in their age of innocence, when John Wayne and Gary Cooper vanquished the bad guys and then quietly rode off into the sunset.

It is possible that even an Australian breast or two swelled a little with pride as Downer explained how we had "punched above our weight" in all the wars in which we had been involved.

The thing is, though, that a love based on what amounts to bulldust is infatuation and we all know how quickly infatuation can be followed by disappointment and resentment.

Take shared values. When Americans talk shared values they mean Australians are like Americans only nicer, more innocent. Not true. We may share a commitment to liberal democracy, but there are many fundamental values that we do not share.

The majority of Americans are regular churchgoers and, according to polls, more than 80 per cent of Americans are believers. The majority of Americans believe in creationism rather than evolution. And many Americans believe that God loves America best of all.

No great shared values there. Indeed, the first European Australians thought that, if God existed, he had abandoned them in this faraway place where they had been brought, shackled and chained, against their will.

And the great American dream is not an egalitarian one: it is that every American, no matter how humble his or her origins, can aspire to be president, and if not president, then at least wealthy and successful.

Americans in the main do not resent or excoriate the wealthy: they hope that one day they, or at least their children, will join the ranks of the rich. There is no tall-poppy syndrome in America. Americans love rags-to-riches stories. They love success.

They don't even seem to mind that the super wealthy, the top 0.1 per cent of the population, people who earn more than $US10 million ($13 million) a year, are the big winners from the Bush Administration tax cuts.

It doesn't seem to matter that the gap between rich and poor in the United States is growing and becoming entrenched, that the chances of those born poor becoming even moderately wealthy are slim, that the American dream more and more is a fantasy.

The dream lives in the culture and in the American psyche and in the hearts of the millions of illegal migrants who have crossed the border from Mexico into the United States - the golden land as the Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century called it - with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.

This is no different than Australian egalitarianism, which the Prime Minister, John Howard, says is a defining feature of Australia's national character, even as Australia grows ever more unequal. Clearly it takes more than reality to destroy national myths and dreams.

Of course, the Australia [that] Americans love - the Australia of vast empty spaces still to be settled and conquered, fabulous beaches, perennial sunshine, gorgeous looking women, incredibly friendly, uncomplicated people and unlimited opportunity - doesn't exist.

Where does that leave the great American love of Australia? One thing is true: on any reckoning, we have been good and faithful allies, even if most Americans would be surprised to learn that for a significant number of Australians that is no cause for celebration.

(Michael Gawenda, article, Sydney Morning Herald - 13 June, 2005)