April 20, 2005

Un... Australian?

Turns out, the Self-Correcting Blogosphere is as swift and severe as it is fascinating. In response to my post below about no other country having "un-X-ian" as a concept, a commenter notes that in fact, "un-Australian" has acquired a wide currency in the land down under. Who knew? A bit of googling turns up this nifty story in the Herald:
The term "un-Australian" has become so widely used that the Macquarie Dictionary is revising its definition, writes Judith Ireland. It's not easy being Australian. Men who like cats, bosses who block internet access to footy tipping websites and anyone who refuses to eat lamb or support Lleyton Hewitt are un-Australian, say recent media reports…

Used as far back as the 1850s, the term has undergone a revival in the past decade. While its use in the 1990s was largely on the political stage - notably in reference to asylum seekers, Asian immigrants, protesters and monarchists - today the term has wider application.

"My sense is that out of the culture wars of the 1990s we can see the emergence of an entirely new kind of usage of un-Australian," says Tim Phillips, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania, who has conducted research into popular understandings of the word. "[It] is becoming part of the popular vernacular, rather than having the serious overtones of its usage in political life…

Joseph Pugliese, an associate professor at Macquarie University who teaches a unit on un-Australian cultural studies, says the term is often intended to exclude people from the nation. "What's at stake is that sense of belonging," he says. "I see it as a term used to discriminate between individuals and groups that refuse to conform to the dominant culture. I see it as a divisive term, one that's predicated on an 'us and them' mentality."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the varieties of "unAmerican"-isms are fun to study. It's rarely used in cultural contexts: people say lots of nasty things about gays and metrosexuals and immigrants and whatnot, but no one ever accuses these folks of being "un-American" nowadays. (Despite the fact McCarthy spent a lot of time in the 1950s harassing "subversive" homosexuals.) But of course, it still comes up in politics a lot, with revealing distinctions. Conservatives like Ann Coulter use it more or less in its McCarthyist context, denoting an opposition to the state itself, something akin to treason. (Though this is used less frequently by conservatives than thought: interestingly, a Google search for "John Walker Lindh" and "unAmerican" reveals more people calling the Walker trials "un-American" than Walker himself.)

Liberals meanwhile, as the cover of the American Prospect does with Tom DeLay, seem to use it to tar people who they think contravene various American ideals; in DeLay's case, honesty and transparency and whatnot. These distinctions aren't hard and fast, of course (what is), but probably more or less accurate. (My informal impression is that, around internet-land, liberals appear to use the phrase a lot more frequently, and usually in the context mentioned.)

The liberal use, of course, is something I can somewhat stomach—what's so bad about defining American ideals negatively, by implicitly contrasting them with people who are clearly repugnant?—but it blends pretty clearly with the Coulter-style use, and we don't want to get to the point where we're equating "being American" with "loyalty to the state." So best to just scrap the word altogether. Unless, mind you, it's better to do what Australia did and bandy the word about so frequently that it becomes a cheap and frivolous part of the popular vernacular. This might seem unlikely given the term's sordid history, but it seemed to have an even more sordid history over in Australia, and look what happened there.
-- Brad Plumer 1:47 AM || ||