Tag Archives: tall poppy syndrome

Tribute to a tall poppy

Springfield, Illinois

It remains a mystery which of the USA’s 38 Springfields inspired a young Matt Groening, but you can safely rule out the capital of Illinois.

Walking from one end of the sleepy administrative hub to the other I didn’t see a single Kwik E Mart, ‘retirement castle’ or nuclear power station. There was, however, an obese and creepy-looking comic book merchant, but I think all American towns might have at least one.

Aside from its ‘horseshoe’ sandwiches – an ungodly mess of ground beef, bread, fries and cheese sauce – Springfield is known for just one thing: Abe Lincoln.

Having practised law and raised his family here for two decades before his election, the 16th US president is ubiquitous, his distinctive beard and brow adorning cabs, pub windows and tourism pamphlets all over town.

Like most US history nerds, I’m a longtime Lincoln fan. There’s a lot to like: born in a dirt-floor log cabin, and having taught himself to read, he became a giant of the newly-formed Republican Party, ending the Civil War and helping bring down the abhorrent slavery of stolen Africans – the scars of which are still healing, as is so obvious on the streets on Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

But while Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the world’s all-time statesmen, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the idolatry goes a whisker (or moustache-less beard) too far.

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One one level, the US is home to a deeply ingrained sense of liberty and equality of opportunity – the “proclamation that all men are created equal” as Lincoln himself surmised at Gettysburg.

The notion of social mobility, that you can change your born status through talent or hard work – rising from the log cabin to the White House for example – is at the very heart of the ‘American dream’. 

The rejection of hereditary and class-based hierarchies is perhaps the single most important cultural attribute that the US and Australia share (compared to our mates in Britain, who – on this matter at least – are more European, whether they like it or not).

And yet, these fierce defenders of liberty create shrines to politicians and mythologise their former leaders to the point of demagoguery.

By contrast, it is impossible to imagine even the most popular Australian prime minister being honoured with a library and personal museum, let alone Hawkie or Pig Iron Bob’s mugs appearing on the side of taxis!

I have enormous admiration for Lincoln, Jefferson and the other creators of modern America – enough to cut a trip to an awesome city like Chicago short in order to pay tribute in person. But they were still pollies at the end of the day, and the almost religious fervour with which they are celebrated seems at odds with the new world vision of the founders, which was sceptical of government and authority.

My classically Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’ obviously runs deep. Aussies might seem politically apathetic on the surface, but underneath there is a profoundly  democratic conviction that no-one’s shit smells better than anyone else’s and that our rulers are there only by popular consent and can (and should) be sacked easily. 

Maybe it’s a convict thing.

Or maybe we’ve just never had someone of Lincoln’s stature handed the keys to The Lodge.

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Published on 4 August 2015