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Barbarians made the gate

What ya mean you haven't read Voss?

What ya mean you haven't read Voss?

"Cultures live in one of three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn't live as they live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption or destruction."

When I read that quote in George Friedman's 2009 bestseller, The Next 100 Years, I thought, "Bazouks! He's been drinking at my local" (probably in the TAB section, near where all the smokers congregate.)

Then, I realised George had crafted a pretty handy description of not only half my suburb but a good portion of Australia.

Friedman, however, was sketching a theory about the adolescent psychology of the United States, what he calls "a bizarre mixture of overconfidence and insecurity".

It's also one that could be draped over the shoulders of its little brother Down Under.

Friedman emphasises his words are merely "a description, not a moral judgment" and, if you accept both the US and white Australia are still comparatively young, immature societies, it's uncharitable to expect much more of us.

Europe, Asia, the Midde-East ... hell, they've been at this culture business for thousands of years; Australia, by comparison, hasn't even opened the removalist's boxes.

So, if you agree we've got a ways to go before we reach "adulthood" as a nation - what lies ahead?

Friedman argues the third state in which cultures exist is "decadence", where citizens "cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those who believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for."

That's where I thought this bloke must now have been talking to the other half of my suburb because I can't tell you how many self-satisified, post-postmodern f---tards you'll find cracking peanuts at a certain bar in my 'hood, yawning nihilistically, feigning detachment about the obsessions of the masses.

(It's also a pretty good description of Canberra.)

Of course, between the TAB and the nut bar - you'll find my mates, propped next to the pool table, the height of civilised conversation.

I'll let George explain: "Civilisation is the second and most rare state," he writes. "Civilised people are able to balance two contradictory thoughts in their minds. They believe that there are truths and their cultures approximate those truths. At the same time they hold open in their mind the possibility that they are in error."

Hello, cognitive dissonance!

I know all about that ... it's one of my constant variables, y'know ... "acting" naturally, exercising my "only" choice in life ... can I get a plastic glass?

Refreshingly, for an American, Friedman is not arguing that America is a civilised culture - but that it remains barbaric.

"America is a place where the right wing despises Muslims for their faith and the left wing hates them for their treatment of women," writes Friedman.

"Such seemingly different perspectives are tied together in a self-righteous belief that their own values are self-evidently best. And as with all barbaric cultures, Americans are ready to fight for their self-evident truths."

Though Australians are a little less willing to invade countries to show them how stupid their way of life is, by and large, we do get pretty shitty if anyone tries to tell us there might be other, reasonably fulfilling past times than the beach, football and grogging on.

We are, after all - and I quote 97 per cent of our population on Australia Day - "the best country in the world".

"Obviously all cultures contain people who are barbaric, civilised, or decadent, but each culture is dominated at different times by one principle," writes Friedman.

All in all, it made me wonder into which category I fit and which best describes Australia, today.

Are we barbaric, civilised or decadent in this country? Which group currently has a choke-hold on the national psyche? Are we at the beginning of the cycle, the middle or, perhaps, the end?

Me? I reckon you could replace "America" with "Australia" in this famous quote by Oscar Wilde and you'd have it just about right.

"America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between."

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

98 comments so far

  • definately decandent, with a side order of barbarism.

    the one and only peter
    my place
    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 6:27PM
    • I agree.

      Date and time
      June 28, 2012, 7:40AM
    • Such self absorbed commenters on this article - no one engages anyone else ideas, they're only interested in stroking their own point of view. Discussion fail. Which category does that fit in?

      Date and time
      June 28, 2012, 8:19AM
    • As a pirate, I am uniquely positioned to comment on this.

      I see many sides: the greed of the rich, the humanity of the "uncivilized", the desperation of the snobs, the sterility of the effete and the willingness of the fancy ladies in town for a bit of pirate action.
      Sure, you know what civilaztion is NOT. But scratch beneath the surface of any posh veneer and you'll find dirt. And life.

      yours informatively,

      Kingston, Jamaica
      Date and time
      June 28, 2012, 10:44AM
    • Celebrity magazines and our societies preocupation with them, the need for McMansions and the latest flash motor vehicles, Decandence.
      Australian societies attitude to the refugee NIMBY attitude. Barbarism.
      Civilisation, ignore the first sentance and accept the second.

      the one and only peter
      Date and time
      June 28, 2012, 3:46PM
    • As an Asian who grew up in Aus who had plenty of time thinking about relative merits of my two cultures I would like to say that comparatively speaking Aus is very civilised in terms of its frameworks (economic, political, legal etc) but not sure about the cultural aspects (that is how people interact with each other, how they share their values). I think Aussies care less about each other than people of my other culture. Add to that the pronounced racial sensitivity of the Aussies, people like me has to cope with unexpected unpleasantness in daily life. Korean by the way.

      Date and time
      June 28, 2012, 3:59PM
  • Australia has two very broad phases - first and third, and a narrow second phase.

    Loved the description of the USA, though.

    Date and time
    June 27, 2012, 7:16PM
    • The one thing Australia reeks of is an inferiority complex. We are constantly obsessing over some nuance of the national psyche: What it means to be Australian, How we are perceived overseas etc. Part of growing up is surely thinking for yourself and making decisions on the basis of your betterment and not on what others think of you. Canberra is the ideal national capital for this. Never have I seen a city obsess over itself as much as Canberra.

      A civilised position should be last imo as it is the most difficult to achieve. You have to accept their are multiple perspective in the world and what is right for you may not suit someone else. Can apply to certain countries as well.

      While there can be much emphasis on the age of culture youth has its advantages. A fresh perspective and the ability to create and adapt to new ideas and improvise is golden in certain circumstances. The young also treasure independence. Look at NZ for a case in point.

      The old can get stale. True of nations. The ancient cultures Sam describes such as Islamic Nations in the Middle East have unbelievably dysfunctional cultures and practices and in many instances a dysfunctional way of life. Australia, like any countries certainly has dysfunctional aspects but this does not translate into the law and a mandated way of life.

      Is it any wonder people want to jump on a boat and come here? If I lived in the Middle East I would do the exact same thing. If anyone thinks Australia is barbaric they need to look sideways. Female Genital Mutilation, subjugation of women, enforced religious laws and a lack of free will is barbaric no matter what ancient gravitas a culture holds.

      Date and time
      June 27, 2012, 8:06PM
      • hi dale, sam was talking "macro" and you "micro".

        Date and time
        June 28, 2012, 11:09AM
      • Amazing. Dale's last sentence accuses others of being barbaric, while satisfying perfectly the definition of barbarism:

        -Barbarians believe the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn't live as they live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption or destruction-

        Has anyone yet suggested a theory of "Australian Exceptionalism"? I think we've arrived at that.

        Hungary Jack
        Date and time
        June 28, 2012, 3:05PM

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