Everywhere one goes today, one hears the sound of regular people either outraged or bewildered by the leering presence of authority. There are cops with dogs at Newtown Station, making sure nobody’s got any fun in their pockets, faux cops at Sydney’s Luna Park, making sure nobody photographs the children, and uniformed baboons at your local pub, keeping alive the latter-day Aussie tradition that every peaceful night out must feature at least one ridiculous altercation with a bouncer. Just last week, a jog around my local athletics track was interrupted by a council worker, draped, naturally, in the harness of modern beautness, who demanded – I kid you not – that I cease my athletic behaviour lest I wear out the grass for others who might wish to engage in future athletic behaviour. With Australia Day approaching, it’s worth having a quick think about Australia’s apparent love affair with being told what to do.
Most Australians are proud of the fact that this nation was born of convict stock. But this most over-jerked take on our history overlooks a somewhat uncomfortable truth – that one in five of the “first Australians” were effectively cops. In all of history, there is perhaps no nation that began its life so top heavy with authority, a whopping 20 per cent of the population licensed to bully, dob and sticky beak on the others, their careers enhanced by doing so in a hierarchical system in which the only possibility for advancement was through brown-nosing to one’s superiors.
Convicts were encouraged to get with the program, their currency of privileges purchased through deeds that effectively turned them on their neighbours. “Good” convicts might be seconded into the “Night-watch” program, whereby such pets of the establishment would roam the colony at night with eyes peeled for folk who were up to no good, on the promise that “their diligence and good behaviour will be rewarded by the Governor”, while “any negligence on the part of those who may be employed on this duty will be punished with the utmost rigour of the law.” There was no middle ground – you were either with ‘em or against ‘em, a cop or a crook, a liberated oppressor or a captive minder of your own business.
There are no prizes for guessing how one’s “diligence” might best have been proved in such circumstances – those nightwatchmen who returned night after night with “nothing to report” were scarcely going to stand out in the eyes of the authorities. Had incandescent vests existed in the early colony, such sluts for the Governor’s attentions would surely have been wearing them, their notebooks filled with scribbles that damned their brothers and sisters for the slightest infractions and misdemeanours.
It is this particular breed – not the rebellious “larrikin” - that thrived and survived the early days of Australia, and thus shaped the Australian character into what it is today. The American character, dominated by Puritanism, is a direct descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers, and Thanksgiving Day is a celebration of a people whose righteousness utterly triumphed over all its contests. By contrast, the convict species didn’t make it in Australia, wiped out by its ultimate “good behaviour”, which was beaten into it by a fearsome authority and promises of prizes for Peeping Toms. There is no more of the convict spirit in modern Australia than there is dinosaur DNA in the meteorite.
Consider the moment in history that most Australians agree “defined our nation”. Out of all our triumphs over the natural and unnatural hazards that befell us in the first 200 years, it’s the moment when we blindly followed orders, strapped on uniforms and marched to our deaths in the name of badgering a people with whom we scarcely had a complaint. To this day, the annually-tooted Anzac story features no real justification for our being there – why the Turks, or even the Germans in whose service they fought, were so criminal as to deserve arrest from a multinational police force. Instead, it is simply considered noble and heroic that an entire generation did just as it was told. It’s astonishing they’re considered innocent, let alone venerated for being complicit in the mindless wholesale slaughter that ensued, and yet we cheer them more loudly each year in celebrations that become increasingly syrupy. Men equipped as police yet obeying like prisoners appears the perfect emblem of the Australian “spirit”.
The advent of television was useful in revealing our enthusiasms to ourselves, and, since 1954, the Australian stiffy for authority has been effectively blocking all else from the screen, our program guides never having been empty of police dramas like Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police, Cop Shop, Bellamy, Blue Heelers, Stingers and Water Rats, with at least one good, honest cop propping up the scenery in everything from Bellbird to Home and Away (even Skippy was a thinly-veiled cops-and-robbers excursion, Ed Devereaux never caught out of uniform as the pathologically curious Matt Hammond, Head Ranger, no less, of Waratah National Park). It’s true enough that America has built its television industry around police procedurals, but, today, they’re obsessed with the other side too, shows like Weeds, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy and Dexter effectively encouraging audiences to root for the ‘bad guy’. The single mainstream Australian television event that even approached such moral ambiguity - the successfulUnderbelly series - seems like a pantomime by comparison, the bad guys so unquestionably bad that a character’s position on that old “moral compass” can be adequately ascertained from a random screen grab. Elsewhere, the cops ofCity Homicide, Rush, Cops LAC et al are “heroes” of the most traditional varnish.
I recently spoke to the producer of a popular police drama who lamented that his uniformed characters couldn’t be more “flawed” - he had tried to suggest it in the past, he said, but the network’s palpable resistance to the idea suggested such liberties were out of the question. Either our television programmers are misinformed or they know exactly what the Australian public wants.
Today, a smorgasbord of “front line” reality programs cast security officers, customs goons - even facilitators of random breath tests, for crying out loud - as the reluctant ‘heroes’ of the nation, the awkward, boy-next-door smiles for the cameras proof of their humanity as another ne’r-do-well is dispatched in the distance (one needn’t wonder what a hidden camera from the other side of the argument might reveal). Feeling very much like recruitment propaganda, these unsurprisingly popular programs advance the myth, to which Australians are naturally supplicant, that people in uniform are the most honorable and morally meritorious members of the modern human family. This is, in fact, logically burlesque.
People too easily forget that when a man dresses in a uniform he makes a pledge to engage the quarrels of that uniform whether he agrees with them or not - to “resign his conscience to the legislator”, as Henry David Thoreau put it. This renders him less of a human being than a tentacle of politics, his soul - the seat of all that he truly believes in - frogmarched to some notional dungeon by his fidelity to the corps. Whether he’s a good bloke is irrelevant when he’s in uniform. He is, at best, a moral nobody, his scruples operated by remote control from some institution over which he has no command and for which he takes no responsibility. It might be somewhat courageous of him to have taken that step - as brave an act as, say, submitting to a lobotomy - but, once there, he has less moral rectitude than a Tasmanian devil, who at least has the free will to direct his rage one way or another. All the man in uniform can boast of is power, and a power over which he has no real determination. That he might be respected is another matter, but he is no more worthy of admiration than a boulder rolling down a hill.
Evidently, such power is still a much revered commodity in this nation of former guards and their charges, society breeding uniforms like rabbits, the people still trembling under the voice of authority.
Last week, with flood waters lapping at the door of her place of work, an acquaintance who lives in Queensland Twittered an update for the benefit of concerned friends.
“Looking very bad,” she wrote. “Just waiting for the boss to tell us it’s OK to go home.”