How to Make a Nation Unhappy

The world has moved on since June 11… a couple of new moons, new threats, disasters and fears.

The world has moved on since June 11…a couple of new moons, new threats, disasters and fears. And so have the jokes and indignation expressed at this present government’s expense. But I am stuck like an old gramophone needle replaying the phrase I first heard that day which to me represents a horrendous dichotomy that could damage our spirit. Lifters and leaners. “Reward the lifters and discourage the leaners.” What a miserable way to speak of a nation and its people. Since it and its variations were uttered, and included in the Budget speech, I reckon most people who heard them have had queasy feelings of uncertainty – especially old people – about which category we fall under. And that is sad. I repudiate the notion that we are a nation of leaners and lifters. But I know that I am not the only person feeling down in the dumps for having heard it. It is rubbish, of course; a nasty little dogma that has had its day. Yet it causes pain and shame to good people. It is a vicious, false dichotomy that might yet have the power to divide a nation. The truth is that we are all both leaners and lifters. Graeme Innes pointed this out beautifully in his last speech as Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the National Press Club. In the course of one day ordinary people switch from one to another: helping, being helped. And there is no shame in it. But Innes called its latest use “facile”, a “Ming Dynasty phrase which has lately gained currency”: a clever reference to Sir Robert Menzies’ use of the same description. Menzies almost certainly borrowed it, not from some great philosopher or economist, but from a half-baked 19th century US pop poet called Ella Wheeler Wilcox who wrote the asinine rhyming stanzas called Two Kinds of People. She opined: “There is only one lifter to twenty who lean.” Now how did she work that out? Can I see the maths? No doubt it came to her between writing poems such as A Maiden to Her Mirror and A Maiden’s Secret, not to mention waiting for her dead husband to send her a message. She was big on that sort of thing. She believed in all kinds of spooky, sentimental stuff. She belongs in the Poets’ Naughty Corner. But she does resonate with our times in one “poem” she wrote, called I Like Cigars Beneath the Stars, which was set to music. I kid you not. So that’s where Sir Robert Menzies and our present Treasurer got their inspiration for characterising Australians as leaners and lifters. Makes your heart glad. Margaret Thatcher, too, favoured Wilcox, and quoted her (vomitous) The Winds of Fate in a radio interview in the ‘90s: “’Tis the set of the soul/that decides its goal,/And not the calm or the strife.” No doubt that helped change the course of Britain. We are a united country with pride in ourselves for good reasons. No one talks about leaners and lifters when there’s a flood or a bushfire. Community is about helping and being helped. No shame in either. Don’t muck it up. Reward the lifters and encourage, not discourage, the less able. Don’t give currency to terms that make neighbours look sideways at each other. And ditch Ella Wheeler Bloody Wilcox. ••••••••••• I miss language restraint. When we were young, things were nice or very nice or we found an exact word for them. Now everything is fabulous, incredible and amazing – I see “amazeballs” was given a dictionary tick last month – and people don’t know where to go when they really need to impress. People used to have interests and hobbies. Now they have passions. Last month, a real estate seller declared that she was “passionate” about selling my house, that it would be “good for my (that is, her) soul” and make her “feel good” to help me move onto the next chapter of my life. She declared this to my letterbox via someone doing a leaflet drop and will never know me or my house. Is that unrequited passion these days? For some reason, this brought a remembrance of tired insurance salesmen of the ‘50s, in their grey hats, and wrinkled suits, knocking on doors and asking quietly for a few minutes of madam’s time. No idea then of asking madam to be good for his soul or to serve his passion. Though I dare say that that was just what sometimes, they did. @mollyfisher4

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