World Class Anxiety (part one)

Saturday 22 March 2008

It’s an unpalatable fact that many of the intrinsic qualities of our cultural identity, which we like to think of as native and so unique to ourselves, are imports; transplants which have flourished in a foreign soil even as they withered at home. I’m not romantic but even I like to pretend that Australian colloquialisms like ‘dinkum’ are entirely our own invention, and that their roots in Lincolnshire or wherever, by reason of their obscurity, somehow don’t count.
I would also like to think, for better or worse, that our desire for a distinct Australian identity has led us to embrace our perceived failings as cultural traits worth defending, such as our nationalist apathy and inferiority complex. For me, the latter is particularly symbolised by the frequent occurrence of the wonderfully meaningless epithet “world class” when describing an education system, an artist, a station wagon, whatever.
Like “recyclable”, the approving invocation of “world class” is an expression of boundlessly optimistic, unmeasurable potential. As with many optimistic statements, it is also freighted with naivete and unconscious irony: the idea that if we strive and excel, we might just achieve enough to belong with the rest of the world. Beneath it lies the anxiety that our best isn’t good enough.
In the Australian context, “world class” has an attendant semantic miracle, being simultaneously more and less hubristic than the boast “best in the Southern Hemisphere.” (Take that, Johannesburg! In your face, Buenos Aires! Eat dirt, Niue!)
I had always thought that “world class”, with its implicit plea to sit at the grown-ups’ table, was a distinctly Australian phenomenon. Imagine my surprise and dismay to arrive in Britain and find the term common currency in the pronouncements of politicians, NGOs, pundits, and critics who should know better. Britain is awash with the same uncertain boast. Where did this phrase really originate from? Is it truly British, or was it adapted from American marketing-speak?
Either way, the British have embraced it as their own, for it really suits them. It suits their national stance of being somehow apart from the world, yet nebulously engaged with it in some discreet, behind-the-scenes manner (their relationship with Europe writ large, in other words). It reflects Britain’s dependence on the USA and neighbouring trading partners, willing but unable to openly call them rivals, yet at the same time tacitly acknowledging that it has been left playing catch-up to both. How Britain sees itself is the mirror of Australia’s own dichotomous self-image: a small country subconsciously aware of its inadequacies while boasting of “punching above its weight.”
It could be expected that a newer country inherits much of its character from its former colonial master, but Britain is now in an unusual situation, where political leaders have started to talk of reversing this relationship. Last week, former Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith published his government-commissioned report on British citizenship, in which he suggested Britain could be more British by being more like Australia.
Lord Goldsmith says a new British national day should be established by 2012 to coincide with the Olympics and what will be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It could operate in the same way as Australia Day, which is a public holiday on 26 January and is used to celebrate what it means to be an Australian.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla. To be concluded shortly.)