American set to stir up trouble in paradise

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2007, 12:00am


It was once known as the world's best-kept secret. A relaxed, sunny city where men wore shorts to work, ties were taboo and weekends began at 5pm on Friday.

Sydney started as a penal colony, but soon built a reputation for enterprise, cunning and a generous rough-hewn egalitarianism - otherwise known as mateship. Today, however, egalitarianism - like affordable housing and cheap parking - is a precious commodity in the Emerald City.

Charles Murray, a visiting American political scientist, believes Sydneysiders should become more ambitious, and that elitism should replace egalitarianism. The co-author of The Bell Curve, a controversial book that linked race and intelligence, says that far from being the glue holding society together, egalitarianism is actually impeding the city's development.

'Australians talk about this tall-poppy syndrome without understanding where it comes from,' he said. 'It is based on the idea that we're all equal. Well, I've got news for you - we're not all equal, and the sooner we accept that, the better.'

Dr Murray believes the downside of egalitarianism is that it gives everyone the right to be stupid, putting emotional well-being ahead of education. He mostly blames the education system - and the lack of intellectual rigour in schools. 'You never have the right answer because all answers are right,' he says. 'Everyone gets an award at school, no matter how undeserved.'

Unless the problem is fixed, he argues, Australia will become a nation that elevates mediocrity and condemns excellence. 'Whether we like it or not, the future of our culture lies in the hands of the people at the top of the IQ bracket. Young people are not being pushed, and that's what worries me.'

But Dr Murray is in for a bumpy ride when he arrives in Sydney next week to address the Centre for Independent Studies on his chosen theme, 'In praise of elitism'. Despite its affluence, Sydney's inhabitants still cling to the sentimental notion that their society is classless and opportunity, like the city's surf beaches, should be open to all.

Richard Neville, social commentator and former editor of 1960s satirical magazine Oz, says that far from rejecting egalitarianism, Sydneysiders should defend one of their most hallowed and socially productive values.

'Egalitarianism has produced some of the best things about Australia - votes for women, the eight-hour day and the welfare system itself,' he says.

'There's a zealotry about building wealth that I fundamentally reject. Plato was right when he said that any society which has a wide disparity between the rich and the poor will only produce evil.'

Mr Neville believes the argument that egalitarianism produces a mediocre, non-competitive and complacent society is wrong.

'There are fantastic opportunities for brainy people in this country,' he says. 'Australians are much more focused on education than they once were, and there's a huge pool of creativity and innovation in this country.'

Rather than ditching its egalitarian roots, Sydneysiders should celebrate them. 'The idea of equality is the bedrock of our culture. It was our response the British class system,' he says. 'Sadly that easy-going way of life is being eroded. Thanks to globalisation, we're becoming as materialistic as everywhere else. Our natural defiance is fading away.'

Far from attacking Sydney's holy cows, it seems Dr Murray may find himself talking to the converted. The latest figures from the Bureau of Statistics show that Australia's 20 million people are better educated, healthier and wealthier than ever - and more egalitarian.

'You see egalitarianism is a very post-modern concept,' says Mr Neville. 'It produces social fluidity, questions authority and celebrates individuality. I'd hate to see us lose that tradition of ratbaggery. We wouldn't be Sydney any more.'