Pilgrims’ Partners

Plymouth, Massachusetts

When, in 1620, the pilgrims disembarked the Mayflower on this salty outcrop of New England, I’m sure they couldn’t possibly imagine the global superpower that would one day sprout from their quaint little colony.

Given that their mission was to establish a puritan utopia morally superior to the perceived debauchery of the Europe they fled, I wonder whether they would be proud or ashamed of the nation they gave birth to.

On the one hand, the United States has been immensely successful – and what parent doesn’t want to see their offspring achieve financial independence and maturity? It has also kept up with many of the protestant traditions and moral inquiries the ‘Brownist separatists’ – as the pilgrims were known at the time – inspired, at least compared to their godless cousins in Old Europe, and has often come to the aid of neighbours and allies facing hardship or oppression.

On the other hand, it is also home to Kim Kardashian and Kaitlyn Jenner, and just chose a casino and beauty pageant mogul to be its leader.

Regardless of whether they would be proud, it is clear that many Americans are proud of them and of the history that followed. Putting to one side the problematic issue of relations with the indigenous population – which I wrote about this time last year – the pilgrims reflected that very American proposition that individuals determine their own destiny and excellence should always be strived for.

Here by the famous rock where those first settlers once stood, I am struck once again by the fact that Australia’s founding could not be more different.

Bound in chains as convicts or simply carrying out their orders as officers of the British Empire, the first European settlers of the Land Down Under were not interested in establishing a nation of any kind – let alone one that was morally pure.

Should they be given the same opportunity to assess the performance of their descendants, they would probably respond with a characteristically Aussie shrug of the shoulders, though they may indeed be proud that we haven’t lost our appetite for gambling and booze (not sure they would approve of Baird’s lockout laws however).

The importance of these very different foundational stories cannot be overstated. It explains much about our respective national characters – like how Aussies are suspicious of overly successful people and cringe at singing their own anthem, while Americans do not flinch at reaching for the stars or reciting a daily pledge of allegiance.

These differences can lead some Aussies to a knee-jerk anti-Americanism at times, put off by the strong sense of American identity, the religious adherence and devotion to traditional values from much of the population and the steely focus on work and money.

We saw that sentiment on display often in the past weeks, as foreign observers denigrated Americans for their election gamble. This came not only from social media but even from Australia’s alternative government.

Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong suggested that in light of the Trump victory a pivot away from the US alliance might be warranted.

She could not be more wrong.

Since federation, Australia’s security in the region has been largely reliant upon its alliance with the world’s superpower. Australia’s instinctive apathy and easy-going lifestyle makes it easy to forget that, as a relatively small population inhabiting an island blessed with an enviable honeypot of natural resources (and with far more populous and less lucky neighbours to consider), security is not something we should be complacent about.

Embracing and engaging our Asian neighbours is smart policy, but ultimately we share more with the United States culturally than almost any other country.

We are inherently New World nations, where parentage and accent matter less than character and ability. We believe inherently in people power and democratic rule, even though that conviction may be under threat.

Moreover, even where we don’t see eye to eye, it wouldn’t hurt for Australia to adopt a slightly more American attitude on some issues.

For example, a greater focus on risk-taking and entrepreneurship would do wonders for our global competitiveness and the health of our business community and living standards. A greater scepticism of government would unleash the power of voluntary, charitable and community endeavours and enrich Australian society.

This doesn’t mean we need to swap our surfboards for shotguns, or rush out and cancel Medicare, but there is much we can learn from the US if we look beyond the caricature and our instinct to cut down tall poppies.

In 2015, former Australian PM Julia Gillard proclaimed that we are entering the ‘Asian Century’, with the subtle implication that the post-WWII age of American hegemony is over.

Over the past 18 months, Donald Trump echoed this fear of decline with his successful ‘Make America Great Again’ mantra.

But overall, my assessment is that while the fears are real and palpable – aided by a hysterical US news media – the outlook is far more positive. America’s culture of innovation, its creativity and dynamism remain unrivalled and its global influence will endure well into the near future.

Pilgrims and convicts are fundamentally different, but they can still be mates. I hope that mateship will continue, irrespective of electoral ups and downs and united in the belief that the world is a better place when it is both brave and free.

Now that is a goal worth pledging allegiance to.

Image source: J Russell Janishian Gallery 

Published on 23 November 2015

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