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.