U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The United States and Australia: A Case for a Comparative Approach

In quite an unanticipated turn of events I have traveled to Australia twice over the last couple of years. To my surprise some of what I encountered in Australia was quite familiar—eerily familiar at times. To be sure the inclination to shorten words into fun abbreviations (as in the case of brekkie and barbie for breakfast and barbecue or Ozzie and Tazzy for Australia and Tasmania) was rather novel and the proliferation of espresso machines to every cot and corner of the country was quite inexplicable as well (though much appreciated). But in many other ways Australia smacked of the United States in suggestive ways. Consequently, I’m increasingly convinced that examining Australia could prove useful for understanding many aspects of United States culture and society and vice versa. A part of me is even thinking to embrace this as my research project, once I finish my current project—which will take quite a while. It has been too long since George Fredrickson furnished us with his masterful White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (1980), in my mind the most in-depth and illuminating comparative study in American historiography. Unfortunately, with the exception of comparative analyses of slavery in the Americas, very few studies in American history have engaged with comparative methods—certainly not in the realm of cultural and intellectual history as Fredrickson had. So let me here, with what admittedly amounts to very limited knowledge of Australian history, make a tentative case for such an enterprise.

Indeed, there is so much in common between the United States and Australia that any comparison should allow us to single out and examine the differences as well as the similarities with promising potential insights. Let’s first examine some of the striking structural similarities between the two countries, or should I rather say continents, as both countries have historically often imagined themselves as continents first and countries second. Both are settler-colonial societies established as part of the British imperial project, yet thought of as crude backwaters in metropolitan British imagination. Both started from small tentative colonial beach heads on the East side of the continent and expanded westward as they subjugated and exterminated native peoples and cultures they deemed uncivilized. In so doing, each also developed a parallel frontier ethos that cultivated a visceral relationship with the West as a powerful abstraction that explained for them their respective superiority to the corrupt Metropol in Europe. In sum, both cultures featured and still feature very similar settler-colonial structures.(1)

Let’s now examine several more contemporary parallels. While it is not uncommon in many parts of the world to have a gulf separating the rural from the urban, in Australia and the US the parallels between seaboard elite cultures and rural inland culture seem to run deeper, for both seem to exhibit similar peculiarities when it comes to the tense culture wars that dominate their respective political cultures. Much like the culture wars in the US, in Australia the political and cultural divide pits a multi-cultural urban liberalism centered in Australia around Sidney and Melbourne vis-a-vis a volatile coalition of socially conservative rural white people and neoliberal corporate elites. Furthermore, in both cases—despite some lip service enunciated primarily by liberal coastal elites—the remaining native population suffers under the yoke of centuries of structural and ideological prejudice and struggle to survive under immense difficulties on the very margins of normative white society. Likewise, in both places very strong nativist movements have erased the narratives of the peoples who lived in these respective continent-countries and have become fertile soil for xenophobia that targets newer immigrants of non-white ethnicities. In both places many people fervently believe that immigrants are stealing their country with no appreciation for the terrible irony inherent in such a sentiment.

In my limited reading of Australian history since my recent visits, I have noticed that scholars of the topic point out a certain complex at the very heart of Australian nationalism, namely that Australians are not clear on whether they are British or not. One of the interesting points I came across was that Australian nationalists often regarded themselves as truer Britons of purer Anglo-Saxon stock than the inhabitants of the British Isles. To them the challenge of the Australian environment (in Australian terms the Outback or the Bush) brought out the best, most uncorrupt, qualities of Britons or Englishmen and have come to represent the Anglo-Saxon character at its most exemplary state.(2) This surely mirrors in several ways notions of the American environment’s influence on the American character as articulated by many, from Hector St. John Crevecoeur to Fredrick Jackson Turner. The intriguing difference is that in American mythology the environment supposedly erased European corruption to create a new man altogether. On its face, such a difference seems to stem from Australia’s incomplete separation from the British Empire; they never fought a war—let alone two (including the War of 1812)—against the British Empire.

Now, the next part is even more tentative and circumstantial, but I would like to go ahead with it for the sake of demonstrating what one might learn from such a comparison in what appears on its face as an unlikely place. Let’s take my limited impression of the urban geography of Melbourne. Here we have a large metropolitan area that in many ways resembles the sprawl of cities in America. Much like in the US, the suburbs of the city are formed along the pastoral ideal of houses designed to invoke a commitment to tamed nature. Dozens of suburbs dominated by large family-unit houses with relatively large back yards—rather than apartment buildings as one would find in much of England for instance—surround a very dense and small downtown area. However, unlike Los Angeles—to take the American city that most exemplifies the pastoral ideal—there has been since the 1950s, when suburban development was at its peak, a persistent and successful effort to maintain the city center as the hub of the Metropol area. One day it dawned on me, as I took a train from a Melbourne suburb to downtown—all the trains in Melbourne go through downtown—that this might have been what Los Angeles would look like if it wasn’t for the Second Great Migration. Or should I rather say, if it wasn’t for White Flight and the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.

Ultimately then, in the very same vein of Fredkrickson’s White Supremacy, such comparisons can teach us much about how the social construction of race is historically contingent and underscores so much in the American and Australian environments.

[1] Here I refer to how theorist Patrick Wolfe’s conceptualized settler colonialism as a structure in his famous article “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8: 4 (2006), 387-409.

[2] See for example Luke Trainor, British Imperialism and Australian Nationalism: Manipulation, conflict and compromise in the late nineteenth century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994).