The Kids Down Under

When carrying out my obligatory post-graduate European wanderings decades ago one thing I ran into a lot was Australians. These Aussie youths of yesterday and they were overwhelmingly male were invariably courteous, kind and deeply sincere. They explored the world with a quiet respect for other cultures. And they were only too willing to share a sandwich or a Kronen.

I was mildly surprised when, while trekking through the hills of northern Thailand two years ago I again found myself accompanied by young Australians. As a lone American, and by far the oldest person in the group, I was the odd bloke out. As sweat pored off my brow like rain of which there was not a drop – the gracious young gracious Thai guides watched my face concernfully, for they didn’t want an American tourist experiencing a major cardiac event on their watch.

With the Australians, many of them couples, I was less impressed; they clung together clannishly and guffawed endlessly, as we sat around campfires in villages that had never seen an electric motor, about the beer halls of Sydney or Melbourne. Conversationally and imaginatively, they seemed to rush back to their native land at every opportunity. They played the cliquish social games appropriate to an upper middle class high school, and they had less curiosity for the remarkable foreignness that surrounded them than for frolicing at the next bar bash.

I realized, sadly, that these were the children of the Aussie wanderers I had known a generation earlier, and, walking through the village of one of our guides, I imagined the quiet torment of their parents, who undoubtedly thought that their children were soft and hollow in the places where they need to be hard and full, and visa-versa.

So I was not entirely surprised when I read of the recent violent assaults by gangs of Australian youths on minorities they discovered at local beaches. The photos showed masses of pale porcine kids pounding anyone darker than themselves, and later expanding their aggression from the beaches to the buses and streets and beyond. Of courage, fighting skill or physical strength they had none, but they had numbers, and they were using their advantage to the fullest.

When I saw their baggy, drooping pants and slack tattooed arms I noted an element of this shocking social evolution that was not being discussed in the endless self-examining diatribes in news reports. It was the fact that these youthful pack-maulers were a long-overdue Australian import of the current American fascination with the culture of crime and violence.

American suburban youths who have never made association with a belt and who import hand gestures from the hood are themselves desperately searching for an identity that, to an immature but over-indulged mind, appears to provide a shortcut to power and significance. Why face struggle head-on when you can cop a piece and cap some poor slob from a far distance, and thus earn mass respect? Why work ceaselessly and earnestly toward some grand goal, when, like Tookie Williams, you can be a cold hearted killer to the end and millionaires and movie stars will burst their lungs singing your praises?

So what if, every week in the local jails, I talk with recovering gangsters who would gladly surrender the Lexus and the bling and would happily work fifty hours a week as a housepainter if only they could start again with their freedom? The global uber-culture commands that bad is good, and assault, rape and murder are merely means of gaining your props – and someday, if you are lucky, your glorious misbehavior will be commemorated on Oz.

I would venture to propose that the current Aussie adolescent palace revolution is not primarily a manifestation of racism but rather represents a simple expansion of the dominant media culture into the southern hemisphere. The lonely, welcoming, open-minded Aussies of the previous generation are watching themselves slide into the Pacific as we of the colder northern climes have been washed into the Atlantic. Youth rules, and youths, in general, are challenged in the wisdom department. The best pub or crack-pipe are not goals worth living for, at least if you want to live for anything beyond the merest sliver of the present.

The conflict is thus more generational than ethnic; if we Boomers offended our elders with long hair, promiscuous (if all too rare) sex, and ragged clothing, and we therefore accepted such in our offspring, they will find something worse to elicit that response of shock and reprobation, and, for the moment in Australia, pummeling minorities will do the trick.

Australia’s elders can look to America’s young men, more likely to go to jail than college, for a glimpse of the near future. And, in time, as they struggle to contain their own over-indulged generation, they will someday look back on the beach brawls of the present as a quaint prelude for the worst is yet to come.