American individualism and Australian mateship make two similar countries very different.
I’ve written before about the little differences between Miami and Melbourne. It’s hard to make generalisations because the United States and Australia are both large countries with different regional cultures, political and social ideologies, and state laws. Life is very different in New York, Georgia, and Montana. The same is true in Australia. The cost of living, employment opportunities, and access to quality education and health care can vary greatly. Nevertheless, a national identity emerges. America and Australia are similar in some ways, but their national identities are starkly different. Americans view themselves as individuals; Australians view themselves as members of a community.
The Protestant work ethic
There are two related concepts in American culture that drive this difference: the Protestant work ethic and bootstrapping.
In 1904, German sociologist Max Weber published a series of essays in which he explored the Protestant work ethic. This is a historical, sociological, and economic concept based in the Calvinist emphasis on the necessity for hard work as a component of a person’s calling and success. While Catholics believe that good works are required for salvation, Protestants re-conceptualised good works as a consequence of an already-received salvation. It’s an important difference because the Protestant work ethic has been a powerful force behind the development of capitalism. Weber’s visit to the United States, which was founded by Protestants, convinced him that his thesis was right.
Most Americans are not conscious of the religious roots of our industriousness, but the Protestant work ethic is a fundamental value of American society. As many Australians have observed, Americans live to work. The U.S. has some of the longest working hours in the developed world and some of the shortest paid vacation leave. What you do is essential to your identity as an American. After names are exchanged in an introduction, the next question asked is, “What do you do?” And the more you do, the more productive (and, hence, valuable) you’re perceived to be. Of course, in reality, this does not apply to all kinds of work. This tradition is least kind to the majority of working class Americans.
Pull yourself up by the bootstraps
The second related concept is the notion of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”. The basic idea is about improving yourself by nothing but your own efforts. It is the very ethos of the United States. It’s the American Dream; freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity, success, and upward social mobility through hard work.
The reality, of course, is very different. Despite a deep belief in an egalitarian American Dream, America’s wealth structure perpetuates racial and class inequalities. Studies have shown that economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe. NPR recently ran a story on how the rungs of America’s economic ladder have moved further apart.
This lack of mobility is especially true for people at the bottom of the income ladder. If you’re born to low-income parents in the United States, you are significantly more likely to remain on the bottom rungs than in countries like Norway and Germany. In fact, 40 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth don’t get to the next rung.
Similarly, if one’s parents are well-off, Americans are more likely to remain in the top income rungs than in those European nations.
Still, the idea persists. Americans are fiercely individualistic and often confuse privileges with rights. It’s a problem that leads to opposing a number of incentives that would benefit us as a society such as recycling, healthier food options in schools, and universal health care. It’s absurdist. Why should the government decide what my child eats in school? Never mind that the National School Lunch Program is federally assisted and that it’s a good idea to invest in the health of our children, our future. Why should I have to pay for your health care? Never mind that we already do, that the reason health care is so expensive is because 46 million Americans have no health care coverage (myself included). This should be an embarrassment for a wealthy and civilised nation.
Mateship and a fair go
Turning to Australia, instead of an ethos of “me”, we discover one of “mateship” and “a fair go.”
Perhaps born out of the cruel hardships of convict life or the working-class egalitarianism of British society, mateship embodies equality, loyalty, and friendship. In her 2011 Australia Day speech, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that mateship defines the spirit of Australia. It is so central to Australian identity that there was debate over adding “mateship” in the preamble of the Australian constitution during the 1999 Australian constitutional referendum.
Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.
Ultimately it was not included in the preamble on the basis of the word being too common and not actually a real word.
What exactly is mateship? Historian Dr. Glenn Davies explains that a mate is more than just a friend.
As Aussies we recognise that individual achievement rarely occurs without a helping hand from others. We value independence in a community minded way. Despite our differences we all know that when adversity strikes, whether in the form of bushfires, floods or international conflict, there’ll be a fellow Aussie to help out. It’s the tradition of the digger, the character of mateship and it’s still the essence of the Australian spirit.
Here are a few examples of mateship at work.
In 2011, Arthur Freeman shocked and horrified Australia when he killed his two-year-old daughter by throwing her off the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. Justice Paul Coghlan sentenced Freeman to life in jail with a non-parole period of 32 years. This is a pretty heavy sentence in Australia, but there’s a community-minded reason behind it.
You chose a place for the commission of your crime which was remarkably public and which would have the most dramatic impact.
It follows that you brought the broader community into this case in a way that’s rarely if ever been seen before. It offends our collective conscience.
Earlier this month, a long-time supporter of the Aussie football team Collingwood Magpies was stripped of his membership for a racial slur against Joel Wilkinson, a player for the Gold Coast Suns. The slur was heard by Magpies midfielder Dale Thomas during a match between the teams and he reported it. The issue was made public in an effort to educate spectators on inappropriate crowd behaviour.
In the aftermath of significant flooding in the state of Queensland last year, thousands of volunteers offered unconditional assistance. It’s a remarkable contrast to the looting, violence, and criminal activity that erupted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. One police officer told a tourist, “Go to hell, it’s every man for himself.”
Mateship is about considering the broader community ahead of your own needs sometimes in order that everyone may have equal opportunity, a fair go.
This is not to suggest that America’s got it all wrong and that Australia is a utopia of social equality or that all Americans and Australians feel this way. In the United States, individualism versus community is one clearest dividing lines between conservatives and progressive. That seems to be the case in Australia too. The Liberal Party is often viewed as chipping away social programs. Like America, Australia also struggles with issues of privilege, inequality, and racism especially when it comes to Aboriginal people, asylum seekers, immigrants, and Muslims. In short, we all have work to do.