The Australian Prime minister is not just out of step with the Australian public, he is adrift from the forces of history. His recent behaviour towards Indonesia is reminiscent of a medieval envoy rather than a post-modern leader. This is consistent with a global drive toward corporate feudalism.
Rewind to the Reformation
Most students of the English language have two reference works on their bookshelves: the Collected Works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. These two works date from almost exactly 400 years ago and are the source of a large portion of the idiom of the English language.
Phrases like ‘it’s all Greek to me’, ‘smooth water runs deep’, ‘a pound of flesh’, ‘murder most foul’, ‘method in the madness’, ‘protest too much’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘towering passion’, ‘slings and arrows’ and ‘lend me your ears’ all come directly from the pages of Shakespeare.
The King James Bible gives us ‘the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing’, ‘can the leopard change his spots?’, ‘a man after his own heart’, ‘go forth and multiply’, ‘the fat of the land’, ‘the people rose as one man’ and ‘a stranger in a strange land’.
The more you study modern English, the more remarkable it seems that so much of what we say every day, was first coined between 1560 and 1610.
Serious English linguists also own a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which predates the other texts by two centuries, but has much less in common with our spoken language.
It does yield ‘as brown as a berry’, ‘as lean as a rake’, ‘the knife under the cloak’ and ‘in one ear and out the other’. But the form of the language is not familiar. ‘Modre wol out, that see we day by day.’
What is it about those years, the turn of the seventeenth century that binds us four hundred years later but separates us from two centuries before? Why is it that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the few existing works that predates the classic texts of four hundred years ago?
The simple answer is that Henry VIII stuck his middle finger up at Rome and made English the official language of England. That took place in 1530 and began a revolution in language, commerce and world politics.
The resounding impact of Henry’s decision to cast aside the yoke of classical imperialism included the creation of the British Navy, and the global empire that it spawned and the spread of English as the world language that it is today. That classical imperialism had evolved greatly through the preceding millennium but it remained through medieval times and English was a parochial language that had no place in the royal court or the church.
In fact King James’ Bible was the fourth version of a work written in secret in Belgium eight decades earlier when it was still illegal to translate the Bible into English. By 1535 Henry VIII had authorized a translation known as the Great Bible which was replaced mid-century by the Geneva Bible used by Shakespeare, Cromwell and the emigrants headed for America. James’ scholars toned down the stridently revolutionary tone of the Geneva Bible and created the institution that remains today.
The overarching reason then, that the best writings of the late sixteenth century remain some of the best literature in English is that they were the first. In the dramatic fifty years of innovation the language shifted from the status of illegal street-speak to an instrument of empire. In that period the idioms and forms of a thousand different dialects where recorded, collated and rearranged. In that creative furnace the best of those forms were elevated to poetry and crafted for posterity into the works that now decorate millions of bookshelves.
It was that combination of capturing a previously un-recorded and dynamic pot-pourri of culture with the creative dynamic of creating a new language for an emerging power setting out to settle a new world that brought so much to bear.
The relevance to our argument here is that the Catholic Church denied the right of the English to exist. England was not recognized as a sovereign state, was officially countered as an imperial force and until the second half of last century has not been officially recognized as a global language by many European institutions.
Fast forward through the Asian Century
The mature language that is English does not produce the intensity of new forms that were available when it was young. A great deal of our more exciting literature comes from people relatively new to the language, writers co-opting the language of the ruling elite and injecting new energy and sensibility into it.
Where will the next great cultural revolution come from?
It will probably be a blend of old and new. The ancient traditions of China perhaps, the remarkably diverse sounds and forms of African language, the blending of native and European languages that characterizes South America.
It will be in a culture that has new-found economic and political power; that forms a language from the remnants of many cultural influences; that brings a rich range of traditions into one emerging culture that claims deep historical antecedents and combines them with new forms. The excitement and rapid growth of its emergence from relative obscurity into economic and military prominence will yield the enthusiasm and freshness that makes it ring with joy and freshness.
One candidate for that unique combination of factors could be Indonesia. The fourth most populous nation on the planet, undergoing rapid economic growth, Indonesia spans a rich range of cultures and religions and has active ethnic minorities from the ancient cultural traditions of China and India with the relatively recent overlay of Islam, Christianity and neo-liberal economics.
Its cultural explosions in music, art and film show how rich the creative atmosphere is in that crowded increasingly confident country and the combination of European and Asian sensibilities is more pronounced than anywhere outside the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and small enclaves like Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
The fact that it has not previously had its turn at the centre of world politics almost inevitably means that as it evolves it will bring something remarkable and new.
Just as inevitably that means that the emergent culture will codify a rich and hitherto unrecorded slab of human history in a language of the streets that will echo down the centuries as the height of cultural achievement.
Whether it reaches the cultural highs we attribute to Shakespeare or not, depends almost more on the economic and military success of the state than it does on the quality of the as yet un-known writer who rises to the top of that milieu.
Where is Australia in all this?
Humanity stands poised at a major shift of power as significant as the settlement of the New World by the Seventeenth century Europeans. The globe is full, the great colonial era has come to an end and Asia is loosing the shackles of nineteenth century European rule.
The twentieth century was the period when the battle lines were drawn and the imperial experiment rejected, but it has taken most of that century for the momentum to reverse direction. The Pacific War, as the Japanese call it (when they grudgingly acknowledge it), was more about the containment of Asian ambition than it was about political philosophy.
Over the last few decades Australia has toyed with the notion that it has an Asian future but fled consistently back to the bosom of American imperialism. We have boosting the presence of US forces and spy bases on our soil. By offering ourselves as a global nuclear waste dump, shooting range and quarry we have established our role as the lap-dog of US-based global capitalism and the enemy of Chinese expansionism or Asian self determination.
We can bleat all we like about our economic ties and robust friendships but unless we stand on our own feet and vary our alliances we remain firmly in the camp of English speaking dominance.
When we go out of our way to paint our view of the Indonesians as a third world nation that needs our military training, our naval support to control their borders and our economic advisers to develop their economy we further deepen our identification with the past and, by implication, distance ourselves from the future.
It is not inevitable that Indonesia will reach world power status, but it is more likely than not, and the trigger point that will force it to take its place on the world stage will be when it raises its middle finger to the existing global superpower that is trying to push it around.
As a third tier power on the periphery of world trade routes, Australia will be a pawn in that geo-political chess game.
Our attitude to our northern neighbor between now and then will no doubt have some influence on how it treats us when that time comes.
When the Indonesian Shakespeare of the next century pens the equivalent of Julius Caesar, Macbeth or Hamlet it will determine the historical image of Australia for a millennia to come. Shakespeare defined the public view of the Roman Senate, Venetian commerce, Danish royalty, Scottish treachery and Moorish naivety until Hollywood adopted it and took over.
We may not care how history views us but we should certainly care about our cultural, economic and military relationship with the emerging powerhouse that is our nearest neighbor.
Why single out Abbot?
Most Australians in Bali whether they are in the flesh pots of Kuta, the writer’s festival of Ubud or building a quiet retreat on a rarely visited beach in the North reflect the neo-colonial attitudes that poison our relationships with Asia. We assume our right to be rich and the privileges that gives us over the locals and are extremely unsettled when those rights are challenged.
We complain loudly and publicly when the airports are shut after a tsunami has killed thousands of locals, when draconian local laws put our errant teenagers on death row and when strident nationalism threatens our economic interests. The truth, of course, is that we are only rich at someone else’s expense and it is either stupid or disingenuous to claim otherwise.
Tony Abbot and his foreign minister, Julie Bishop, have adopted an attitude toward Indonesia in government that is based on all these bad habits and can only end in tears.
Worse though, it is informed not just by our current and pragmatic alliance with the USA, or our recent and romantic attachment to the British empire, it is directly related to the interests of the Church of Rome. Worse still, this is not the future Church of Rome that stands for the interests of humans against those of global capitalism, that preaches the Fransiscan virtues of poverty and humility. Abbot espouses, represents and champions the Catholicism of Jesuit George Pell himself a disciple of Bob Santamaria.
Abbot represents a movement that fundamentally believes in the righteousness of its mission to claim political power and unwind the liberal humanism that characterized the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Bob Santamaria’s movement was focused on Communism and Socialism and the gradualism and tolerance they embodied. If it seems that Abbot is dragging us back to the past as fast as he can go that is because that is the stated mission of his mentors and heroes.
To expect this man to understand the emergence of a cultural, economic and military power on our northern doorstep that could well redefine the image of humanity for the next five centuries is ludicrous. He is still actively and openly revisiting the battles fought in England four and a half centuries ago.