Wednesday 16 October 2002

Distant no more

In 1967 historian Geoffrey Blainey coined the term, the tyranny of distance, using it as the title of his book about how Australia’s history and national identity were shaped by our distance and isolation from Britain (the “mother country”) and Europe. Blainey argued that Australia only broke free from its assigned role as a British penal colony because it was able to develop an export economy based initially on whale oil and wool, products that were sufficiently valuable to justify the cost of shipping them back to Europe.

The tyranny of distance has also come to mean something else for Australians: a sense of being stuck in a remote backwater, away from the main action that (we imagine) occurs in Britain, Europe, and—more recently—the United States. It results in the national obsession with winning international sporting championships, in writers yearning to win the Booker Prize, in artists desperate to be represented by a New York gallery, in actors and actresses frantic to make it big overseas—previously in London, now in Hollywood.

But the sense of isolation has always been accompanied by a feeling of safety: the fact that we’re “so far away” has conferred upon us a sense of security, a feeling that we’ve been largely exempted from the terrors of the larger world. Not since the Pacific War, when the Japanese invaded New Guinea and bombed Darwin, have we felt truly threatened.

That naive sense of invulnerability has been destroyed. On current figures for the dead and missing, Australia lost more of its citizens per head of population than did the United States in the September 11 attacks.

I can hardly bear to watch TV. Every time I switch on a television news or current affairs program, I cry.

“These are the most destructive injuries I’ve ever seen,” said a doctor on tonight’s news, “things you could only see following a war incident or an airplane crash.”

Stories of loss, courage, suffering, endurance, friendship, love, selflessness…

“This is not, as some sages have suggested, the Information Age (thought there is plenty of information),” Joe Duemer wrote last week, “this is the Age of Opinion.” Though, as Joe correctly implies, opinions are what we need least right now. Margo Kingston said it best:

I think finger-pointing and blame and jumping straight into anger and visions of revenge is dangerous displacement of feeling before feeling is fully felt. It also ignores the absence of facts upon which to analyse what has happened. This is our experience, and those who wish to define it for us and appropriate it to their cause can get stuffed.



Jonathon, seriously, turn the TV off. I'm sure Australian TV news is in general better than the US variety, but even so -- turn it off.

You are not being callous or isolationist when you do. Truly, you're not. But if you're anything like me, you can't process -- you can't *feel* -- while watching TV.

I am tremendously sorry about the devastation. Like Bb, I'm at a loss for anything useful to say.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on 16 October 2002 at 11:26 PM

My thoughts and prayers are with you, Jonathon. But Dorothea's right, turn off the TV.

Posted by: Mark on 17 October 2002 at 12:15 AM

>That naive sense of invulnerability has been destroyed.

This is very much like what it felt like in America a year ago. I saw a posting somewhere else (probably Metafilter) by someone in Perth who mentioned that the city (and by extension, much of Australia) was small enough that it would be hard to find someone who wasn't personally touched by this attack. As someone who lives in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, I certainly sympathize. Life here was like walking on eggshells for a couple of months afterward, and the question "how are you?", normally a meaningless pleasantry, took on an almost unbearable sincerity.

My thoughts are with you and all Australians.

Posted by: ralph on 17 October 2002 at 12:47 AM

yes, turn off the TV jonathan...i'm sick of sappy rants about this...there are far worse tragedys that no-one gives a rat's arse about

Posted by: HEMI on 17 October 2002 at 05:22 PM

Caught up as I am in my own personal tragedies at the moment, Jonathon, I forgot to say something. I love Australia and Australians, more perhaps than my own country and countrymen, and I... well, shit, you can probably imagine what I want to say better than I can say it right now.

Also, kudos for not deleting the comments of people like HEMI above, and whoever-it-was on your last post. I'd not display as much equanimity, and I respect it.

Posted by: stavrosthewonderchicken on 17 October 2002 at 08:49 PM

Well, it's been instructive, Stav. And I know exactly what you want to say.

I've been following Rick's progress via your blog and it's been wonderful to have learned progressively that his injuries are not quite as serious as had originally been thought. I've been deeply moved by the warmth and generosity of those who have visited the hospital and reported back via your comments.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 17 October 2002 at 11:17 PM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour