Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More or less Unaustralian

The term “Unaustralian” is the great Australian pejorative weaselword. It has jumped into the popular lexicon in last decade or so, almost always as a dog-whistle to call attention to some undesirable activity in the eye of the beholder. And just about anything can be thus labelled. In recent weeks such diverse items such as binge drinking, school metal detectors, the Melbourne 2030 blueprint (which limits outer suburban housing development) and the racist removal of Aboriginals from an Alice Springs motel were all lumped together as being “unaustralian” (or sometimes unAustralian or un-Australian).

This word is wideranging and eminently adaptable. People can be unaustralian too, such as Dick Smith, for helping David Hicks find employment. Actions can be unaustralian such as slurring Liberal politician Eric Abetz by association with his great uncle Otto who was Nazi ambassador to Vichy France (even though the only person making the association, and using the unaustralianism is Eric Abetz himself).

One can also be labelled unaustralian in more deliberately facetious ways such as the refusal to stop work and have a pint of Guinness on St Patrick’s Day (yesterday) or by having humility and good taste or by hating lifeguards.

The Australian newspaper’s (which ought to be an authority about its opposite) music columnist Ian Shedden claims the title of Un-Australian of the Year, which he says was bestowed upon him for suggesting that the Country Music Association of Australia was considering moving the annual Tamworth country music festival away from Tamworth. If true, and it has yet to be corroborated, he is in august company as it is a title he must share with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Rudd was also named 2008 Un-Australian of the Year by men’s magazine Zoo Weekly for his revelation he behaved like a “perfect gentleman” during his 1990s New York strip club adventure. Rudd narrowly edged out David Hicks and Eddie Jones for the award.

He follows in the footsteps of Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali who has been quiet for the past 12 months but who won the award in 2007 for his long list of controversial pronouncements all gleefully reported by the media. Hilali beat out Germaine Greer and Paul Hogan for the title. The magazine’s editor declared the nominees all deserved "a tonk over the head" for not displaying "good old-fashioned Aussie values".

According to the Macquarie and Australian Oxford dictionaries the word “unAustralian” means: "not in accordance with the characteristics…said to be typical of the Australian community". It also has connotations of "incivility and foreign influence". The Melbourne Age suggests the phrase dates back to 1855 when it was used to describe a part of the local landscape that looked British and hence unAustralian.

The subject of unaustraliana has received attention in academic circles too. Researchers Philip Smith from the University of Queensland and Tim Phillips from the University of Tasmania wrote a paper (pdf) in 2001 about it which suggests the word is a relative latecomer to fame having entered popular culture in the 1990s. But contrary to The Age, Smith and Phillips can only trace the history of the word back to the early 20th century and the institutionalisation of the White Australia Policy. In the military aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution the archetypal “heroic digger” was portrayed as willing and ready to guard and defend Australia against such ‘UnAustralian’ ragtag elements as communists, radicals, the Irish, trade unions and pacifists.

The academics also saw parallels with the use of the word and the term ‘UnAmerican’ which was introduced into the popular vocabulary during the 1940s and 1950s by the Senate Committee on UnAmerican Activities. They quoted political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset who pointed out in 1990 that “being an American … is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are un-American”. However while the American Unamericanism was well documented Smith and Phillips decried the lack of information about the Australian Unaustralianism.

But things have moved on in the last seven years. The conclusion of a three-day conference at the University of Canberra in 2006 was that the word unAustralian meant: nothing. They quoted a 20-year study of the Hansard record which found that politicians of all parties used it 600 times to describe just about everything, with former PM John Howard a prominent user. The study was conducted by German researcher Klaus Neumann who pointed out “it's more or less meaningless. You know, it's used in all sorts of circumstances. The best that could be said for it is that it's a synonym for bloody awful.” But what would he know? He is unAustralian, after all.

No comments: