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Little America's Term of Love

Kathryn Hummel
Gordon Hookey's Sacred nation, scared nation, indoctrination — Photo by Paul Harris

While peering 'down' at Australia from on-high (or rather, up north) through one's proverbial binoculars, one might get the impression this country is closer to North America -- perhaps uncomforably closer -- than mere geography might imply. Hummel hopes that is but a trick of the light... and other changeable circumstances.

According to George W. Bush, the United States of America and Australia share a very special relationship. While he might say that to all the good-looking countries, it is true that Australia has frequently been involved in exchanges with America of the most intimate nature. America has never had her arse (excuse me, ass) licked so cleanly or consistently by another country than by Australia under John Howard. A quick reflection on Australia's accordance with the US on issues ranging from the Global War on Terrorism to gay marriage also brings to mind Howard's constant bowing, scraping and forelock-tugging, which equates, in terms of the everyday Australian vernacular, to only one thing: arse-licking.

That may be the way Bush likes it; I'm not sure. American politics either confuses or angers me. I tried watching The West Wing to figure out what it was all about, but apart from understanding and liking the sentiment, the characters all talk so fast I couldn't keep up with the technical side. The best I could reckon is that Martin Sheen is the liberal antithesis of the current President, and the one who should be in power, if not for his regrettably imaginary status.

If you think I'm being unnecessarily harsh, allow me to call it quits and admit that I don't think much of my political leader, John Winston Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, either. I give him his full title because I know that during his recent trip to the US, only one out of many potential protestors recognized Little Johnny and gave him a well-deserved heckling. ("The 'Arse Licker' Goes to Washington", Brian McKinlay, Counter Punch, 19 July, 2005 19, 2005) That was it -- just one man. It was a blow to Australians in many ways. For Howard's supporters, and indeed himself, I am sure it was irksome that more people didn't identify him, or that the attention of this one worthy man was so unlike the positive reception Howard had received everywhere else. The anti-John among us had reason to feel jubilation over the lone protestor, yet despondency at the same time because there wasn't a bigger turn-out. Allow me to explain: John Howard does not listen to the voice of dissent in his own country. The same sentiments expressed in an American accent just might make him stand up and take notice.

This is because George W. Bush, the United States of America, and all the values and traditions they both represent, combined and transplanted into the body of, say, Reese Witherspoon, would just about make up John Howard's ideal woman. Upon this woman he would bestow more tender love and solicitous respect than he would on any one ripped from the womb of Australia. This fact has not only permeated the political arena, where Kim Beazley, Leader of the Opposition (the Australian Labor Party), has asserted he is "less interested in what George Bush thinks than what middle Australia thinks," oh-so-pointedly alluding to the potential dangers of Howard's brown-nosing. It has also saturated areas middle (and little) Australia is more intimately acquainted with.

Politico-cultural types from the wider antipodean region are naturally going to town on the wealth of information provided by the presidential pair: Australian blogs predict Howard and Bush's close relationship is going 'Brokeback Style' and their future plans include ranching it up, complete with saddle-horns. Presumably this will not occur before the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, where the pair are usually called upon to lend some gravitas to the revelry by featuring on street floats -- last year they tied the knot and as rumor has it, this year they will start renovating their first home. In another defining moment for local street art, floats and balloons freely interpreting the close friendship between Bush and Howard always appear, oddly enough, at about the same time as Australia-wide protests against GWOT/refugee detention centres/new IR laws.

In artistic circles, however, no tribute to the duo's relationship has generated more controversy than a painting by Gordon Hookey, which features a few lines along the (now familiar) strain of Howard being a certain distance up a certain President's rectum -- and with the extended message of, "We're kept in the dark and it stinks." (see "Gallery Slammed for Painting Mocking Howard-Bush Ties", Common Dreams News Center, 6 February 2004.) In Melbourne, the gallery displaying the painting was immediately bombarded with requests from the Liberal government to unhook this highly personal attack from its well-lit wall, to take it away and preferably nuke it (or failing that, I suggest sending it to Iraq where it is certain to get shot to pieces.) Luckily, freedom of expression is still one of the civil liberties we enjoy here in Australia and the painting, as well as its message, remains uncensored for the viewing pleasure/displeasure of all.

Of course, regardless of whose bottom is being cleansed, arse-licking is a power relationship just like all the others in the game we call international politics. Howard is therefore referred to as the Sancho Panza to Bush's Don Quixote, and Bush was welcomed like the latest American Idol during his visit to Canberra three years ago (Young Liberals still squeal over the memory). The feeling from the US, however, does not appear to be mutual, if the five cents' worth of newsprint wasted over Howard's recent visit is any indication.

The fact that John Howard � and through him, Australia � is not recognized in the US, for good or bad, is a source of worry as much as it is of humour. How is Australia ever to be taken seriously if she is not only attached to America's behind but at the same time obscured by it? It seems we have adopted the worst parts of US culture � anti-Middle Eastern fanaticism, devaluation of the working class, appallingly unfunny sitcoms � and received none of the benefits, aside from the dubious honour of being identified as the country that has spawned Bush's most flexible Yes Man.

For those in the US who might meet an Australian on your soil, please, don't ask if they have kangaroos hopping down the street where they live, or get them to do a Paul Hogan impersonation in their cute accent. If you're interested in the country, make the effort to get to know what exactly Australia, its people, society, culture and politics, is really like, lest you find yourselves thinking that when you're looking into an Australian's eyes, you're only seeing a smaller, dimmer reflection of the all-powerful, all-conquering US.

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