LIVING IN THE DUMB BLONDE
In the press recently, an expert on branding, Simon Anhalt, declared Australia
the Ďdumb blonde of the worldí. Mr Anhalt went on to explain that while other
countries view us as attractive, they also think we are shallow and
unintelligent. His opinion seems to have been based on reactions to recent
tourism promotions featuring Paul - shrimp on the barbie - Hogan, and Lara -
where the bloody hell are you? - Bingle. Perhaps to soften the blow, Anhalt
went on to add that Australia still ranked best in the world for natural beauty
and as a place to visit, as long as money wasnít a problem.
Predictably, the expertís pronouncement roused the public firing squad,
readers who seemed not to understand that Anhalt was not taking a personal
swipe at the country, but rather criticising a couple of advertising campaigns
designed by Tourism Australia. Online, one reader responded with the war cry:
Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie oi oi oi.
Others lashed out with:
You insult my
intelligence with this crapola; What pure dribble; At least we are happy and
get laid regularly; How many tourists want to come and visit our science labs?
To a final thrust from Ray of Modbury, who expressed the view that
dumb watching the poms let all the blacks in stuffing up their
country and now were
doing the same.
One lunch time around the same date, I was sitting in a cafe which opens into a
food hall in the city. At the table next to mine, a young couple and their two
children had ordered up big but didnít seem interested in eating. The woman was
busy punching buttons on her mobile phone, while the children squirmed on their
chairs and made rude sounds with the straws in their milkshakes. After a while,
the four of them got up to go, leaving behind the debris of an almost untouched
meal. Within thirty seconds, a man of unremarkable appearance - fiftyish,
tidily dressed, dark-haired with hints of an ethnic background that might have
been Mediterranean - strolled through the food hall and paused at their
abandoned table; he picked up a big white bowl of hot chips, selected a fork,
and moved to an empty table.
But the woman on duty in the cafe was sharp-eyed; within seconds she was
bustling towards his table, her body taut with outrage.
"Excuse me, sir, but
I donít think those chips belong to you,
do they? I think
you took them from that table over there."
The woman whisked the bowl from under his nose, and he sat passively,
hands in his lap, as she marched back into the cafe with the bowl of food held
high, as if it were a trophy. There must have been a bin out of sight behind
the counter, because she emptied the contents with a flourish. With the
chips disposed of, she rubbed her hands together - that was that, her body
language seemed to say. Meanwhile, the man sat quietly for a moment, perhaps
swallowing his feelings of humiliation, before rising calmly, slipping his arms
into a small backpack, and walking away towards the street.
The incident so disturbed me that I went back to my office, logged onto
Facebook, and posted this small cameo of city life, reporting it impartially
to see what other people would say. I suppose I expected expressions of
something like my own shame and embarrassment for belonging to a society which
would rather bin perfectly good food rather than allow someone who is hungry,
and prepared to risk leftovers, to eat it. In floating the idea that there
might be countries in the world where the woman would have rushed over, not to
chastise the man, but to offer him a clean fork, I suppose I might have
betrayed my feelings.
I imagined most of the people I know being appalled at the profligacy of the
couple who had ordered more than they could possibly eat. Parents would be
concerned about modelling conspicuous over-consumption to children. I
expected questions to be raised about the ownership of the food - after all, it
had already been paid for and no longer really belonged to the restaurant; at
most, they owned the bowl and the fork. What, I wondered, did this scenario
have to say about our wider attitudes to waste, to nourishment, to need. We
live in the 'Lucky Country', right? So why was this manís luck so bad, and why
did the woman from the cafe feel justified in making it even worse?
Posting on Facebook is like talking out loud in the street, except that because
it is silent it is not regarded as weird, although perhaps it ought to be. In
this instance, my soapbox moment drew a resounding lack of interest. No one
it seemed, was much struck by this slice of city life, and it was at that
moment I began to wonder whether I was, after all, living in the heart of the
dumb blonde. Not because the hungry man had taken the food, or because the cafe
woman had subsequently deprived him of it and thrown it in the bin, but because
nobody appeared the least bit moved by what had happened; nobody, it seemed,
had the empathy or imagination to stand in the shoes of the hungry man or
indeed any shoes other than their own.
I know that there are probably
cafes all over this city, and elsewhere, where the staff would have chosen to
look the other way, and that sampling a single incident between two individuals
cannot be made
to stand for the whole of Australian societyís behaviour. But it happened in a
week when the media was awash with
reports of racism and bitterness towards asylum seekers, and the one-off
felt like a microcosm of what was going on across the country.
I am not actually much of a Facebook fan, but I admit the lack of response
troubled me. It is not that I have hundreds of online Ďfriendsí, but upwards of
eighty bright and thoughtful people do have access to my posts. In the end,
there was a small response. Interestingly it came from a friend who has
recently been dealing with some life difficulties, and another whose
professional life revolves around human travail. So perhaps we need to
experience being down ourselves in order to activate the empathy button. If so,
I must have caught Facebook at a moment when everyone was feeling too happy,
enjoying life too much to want to cross, however briefly, to the
Every day we brush against unknown lives, many of whom must be in the midst of
private crises, or enduring hardship and sorrow. And the one thing we can be
certain of is that anything they are facing could come our own way, given time.
Just before Christmas, 1971, my father was admitted to hospital with a brain
tumour, and my mother still remembers being incredulous - as she walked home
from seeing him before surgery - that the people she passed had the energy to
care about shopping, or putting up tacky tinsel decorations. So while at one
moment you might be the happy shopper, you just never know if or when you will
be the one facing brain surgery. Itís difficult to understand why, for most of
us, this knowledge doesnít seem to have any discernible effect on the way we
treat other people, either privately or politically.
The affair of the man who wanted food that was excess to someone elseís
requirements has made me wonder, not for the first time, about compassion, or
rather the lack of it, in Australian society. While religion is, for me, more a
matter of disbelief than faith, I canít help pondering the sheer commonsense
of that commandment from Matthew 7:12 'Do unto others as you would have others
do unto you'. Clearly, this is not a fashionable stance in twenty-first century
Australia, but if, as a society, we were to make it as much a part of daily
life as, say recycling waste, or conserving energy and water, we might be seen
as less dumb, less blonde, even. We might become a country that actually is as
good as it thinks it is, a country that can hold its head up, not because it
has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but because we who live
here understand that what diminishes one person, inevitably diminishes us all.
Other musings on the Writing Life ...