I’ve had a fascination with myth and myth making and recently watching Lincoln (2012) directed by Steven Spielberg, got me thinking about it again. If the United States has succeeded at one thing, it has succeeded in the mythologisation of its history, even to the point where those myths are exported to the rest of the world.
The film worked. This President, gently imitated in popular culture forever, became understandable and I could see why he was and remains, beloved by so many, even if he infuriated people too. I’d never thought about Lincoln’s voice before, and I’m no expert, but for me, once again, I was convinced. I particularly loved this bit, where one of the most important decisions of the film hinges on a conversation with a couple of Morse coders:
Abraham Lincoln: Euclid’s first common notion is this: things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning and its true because it works – has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see there it is even in that 2000 year old book of mechanical law it is the self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.
I’m glad the film was a vignette rather than his entire life. The narrower focus gave an impetus and tension to the narrative that it would have lacked without it, even though the ending is not in doubt (unless you know nothing of US history). What became evident was Lincoln’s incredible political and inter-personal nous, even at the cost of his personal relationships.
Sally Field as Molly Lincoln lent conviction to her portrayal. I understood she had to fight for the role, given she is (shock) 10 years older than Daniel Day-Lewis, but you can’t fake chemistry and they had it. This is what casting agents and producers need to understand: chemistry happens at any age, not just between 23-year-old women and 55-year-old men.
As a non-American, what occurred to me is Australians don’t really do this with politicians. We are sceptical of those who seek to mythologise anyone and there are as many critics as fans of any particular candidate.
Hence, there are no politicians whose speeches Australians memorise, even when they make good ones. Some collect the insults used by Prime Minister Paul Keating, who did corner the market in this area. But a legendary ability to hurl a slur across the floor of parliament just makes Keating the subject of a musical, not a hero. PM Bob Hawke was (and remains) a legendary drinker (Google lists beer first when you enter his name) and parts of the culture commend him on this, but again, it’s not the same. PM Malcolm Fraser was (rightly) a hero to the Vietnamese community in Australia, but divided opinion on other matters.
There is an argument that Australia’s lack of mythologised characters is due to a lack of a bill of rights, or wars of independence or civil war. But Australia had plenty of battles: like the Rum Rebellion and the Eureka Stockade and the WWII attacks on Darwin. There were battles between settlers and Indigenous peoples, including massacres (which require their own histories), and these continued into the 1930s, so they can’t sit as part of some kind of romanticised early settler past. They should be remembered and mourned and to our collective chagrin, they are not.
I don’t think war creates in that way anyway. One could argue it is about time, Australia is a young nation, albeit with the world’s oldest living continuous culture. Maybe that’s a factor.
Anyway, it maybe more about the concept of national character. If any country has one, Australia’s is to mock those who would be our heroes. We can’t even be polite to our politicians. Those who hold the highest offices don’t get courtesy titles and our current Prime Minister this year almost lost his position, partly because his ‘captain’s call’ to re-instate knighthoods, was universally derided.
Americans may assassinate its politicians, but they still call former presidents Mister. Australia doesn’t even have a title for the spouse or partner of the Prime Minister, except when it was First Bloke, which was kinda endearing, even if it was because no one remembered his name. Hell, most Australians would find it difficult to list most of our PMs: there was Barton, the one that drowned, the one who loved the Queen and Whitlam.
Following on from a belief that Australia stands for egalitarianism, (even though rarely practised), this country has some national myths. They consist of the reactionary vs larger socio-political forces. Thus, one of our most divisive is an executed police killer called Ned Kelly. A bushranger who was (justifiably) angry at the oppression the poor and especially the Irish-Australians faced. He is both hero and villain. Interestingly, a recent study found you are more likely to have died from non-natural causes if you possessed, in life, a Kelly tattoo. Such is life indeed.
In this vein, Australia’s soldiers fighting losing battles not so much against the enemy (they respected) but against their better judgement at the behest of an Imperialism they learned to disrespect has been analysed forever. See Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and every recent WWI commemoration. Yet, even that process of mythologisation has waned. People aren’t watching epic depictions of WWI like they used to. The audience is tuning into cooking and renovation competitions, for instance, for our collective dose of the myth of the underdog.
Every myth Australia has of itself is contested. Even if we laud the farmer settlers, it was because Australia is one of the most urbanised nations in the world. Few, even in Banjo Patterson’s day, were living that life he did his best to mythologise in his ballads.
Perhaps that’s our character: contrariness. We get people holding up individuals and events to commemorate, while at the same time we find reasons not to.
Maybe there are other reasons why Australia doesn’t have a Lincoln or a Washington? Take for example Governor William Bligh. No, I mean take him, he was despised by most everyone he met, including his friend Fletcher Christian, hence the Mutiny on the Bounty and later, the Rum Rebellion.
Then we have founders of the Australia’s Federation, like Alfred Deakin, who had many interesting qualities. In fact he:
attended séances and channelled messages from mediums. In 1877 he became president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, and was for a short time a member of the Theosophical Society. Alfred Deakin and the Divine, 2014.
Deakin, a thinker and writer of lyrical prayers, in some respects, could be considered Lincoln-esque, in designing polices to encourage the development of a fair labour market, prevent slavery and ensure indentured workers were not imported. Yet, this same policy, called the White Australia Policy, enshrined in legislation 19th century beliefs in ‘hierarchies of races’ and expressed in parliament the idea that Aboriginal peoples wouldn’t survive. The upshot of Deakin is that people born here were attacked and deported and Indigenous families were broken up, becoming the Stolen Generations.
It’s hardly the Gettysburg Address is it?
Deakin: We [the Commonwealth Parliament] have power to deal with people of any and every race within our borders, except the Aboriginal inhabitants of the continent, who remain under the custody of the States. There is that single exception of a dying race; and if they be a dying race, let us hope that in their last hours they will be able to recognise not simply the justice, but the generosity of the treatment which the white race, who are dispossessing them and entering into their heritage, are according them (Parliamentary Debates IV, 4805).
Alfred Deakin has things named in his honour, as a founder of Federation, but his statues aren’t tourist destinations, and he lacks the pop cultural recognition of Lincoln in the US or beyond, even now.
I think we should know our histories and our myths. America can lionise Lincoln. But I’m ok with Deakin and others of his ilk not being mythologised.