Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Australia’s Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Definition of Tall Poppy Syndrome from Wikipedia:

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a pejorative term used in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.


The term originates from accounts in Aristotle's Politics (Book 5, Chapter 10) and Livy's History of Rome, Book I. Aristotle wrote: "Periander advised Thrasybulus by cutting the tops of the tallest ears of corn, meaning that he must always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest." In Livy's account, the tyrannical Roman King, Tarquin the Proud, received a messenger from his son Sextus Tarquinius asking what he should do next in Gabii, since he had become all-powerful there. Rather than answering the messenger verbally, Tarquin went into his garden, took a stick, and symbolically swept it across his garden, thus cutting off the heads of the tallest poppies that were growing there. The messenger, tired of waiting for an answer, returned to Gabii and told Sextus what he had seen. Sextus realised that his father wished him to put to death all of the most eminent people of Gabii, which he then did.

As noted earlier in this blog, I began following Jessica Watson when she was somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and call me maudlin sentimental, but I was completely absorbed once this came to my attention. A teenager who was “out there” engaging in “risk-taking” behaviour very different to risk-taking behaviour teens these days mostly undertake without the knowledge of their parents. Yet among the sanctimonious, this was risk-taking behaviour not only observable, but stoppable, and according to them, there should be “rules against this”. According to the public “ideal”, Jessica should have been in school, and doing what “normal” 16 year old girls do, which in some cases isn’t a very pretty picture, and sometimes most certainly involves “risk-taking”.

There is little doubt now that Jessica Watson has sealed her place in Australian History. On her arrival in Sydney the three major television networks cancelled all schedule programs (Channel Ten beforehand on notice) to air her arrival (to the dismay of some), and comments on the Internet were coming through literally every second, mostly positive, but some negative and cynical. It would not be an understatement to say that on Saturday 15th May 2010, Jessica Watson “stopped a nation”. The only other event on a par with this is probably The Melbourne Cup. Her arrival on Saturday 15th, afternoon, was certainly planned, and I’m not so naïve to think that she just “happened” to arrive at an hour when it was convenient for Sydney to turn out to greet this amazing young lady. She was totally deserving of this fanfare arrival after 210 days at sea, even if planned, and she is deserving of every single dollar that comes her way henceforth.

The Tall Poppy shooters, however, were armed to the teeth, and ready to cut down any and every aspect of Jessica’s round the world sail, from her looks, her “rich background”, to only having to turn on the GPS and sit back while Ella’s Pink Lady glibly sailed her hassle-free around the globe. Like evenings with TV dinners and numerous channels to chose from, not, heaven forbid, 40 foot waves, knockdowns, loneliness, uncertainty, and no face-to-face human contact for seven months; oh, and having to bathe in a bucket of seawater now and then and being deprived of all of the comforts “normal” teenaged girls take for granted. Another intellectual armchair giant flippantly noted that Ella’s Pink Lady, a Sparkman and Stevens 34, was “unsinkable”. So, reportedly, was the Titanic – until this steel fortress struck an iceberg and went to the bottom of the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage.

Some of the commentary, frankly, scared me and made me feel dismal about the possible narcissistic future of this country, and the loss of the spirit of early Australian adventurers. While this is most probably fiction, it has a spirited message:

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success." – Ernest Shackleton

But it embodies the spirit of adventure, a spirit which we have traded for lives of physical ease. I’m not for one minute saying I’d do any of these things, but the least I can do is acknowledge greater and more daring souls than myself, willing to sacrifice much, much more than I am, and acknowledge their sense of adventure and personal bravery. I’m not prepared to sit at comfort in my home-heated house and criticise those willing to “have a go”; to live out their childhood dreams, and to do so as an armchair critic seems superficial and empty.

One person who realises, from her own experience, what Jessica has accomplished, is American teenaged adventurer Abby Sunderland . Months younger than Jessica, Abby was forced to retreat to Cape Town for repairs, thus ending her quest to unofficially (according to WSSRC rules) become the youngest “solo and unassisted” circumnavigator. I could almost feel her anguish, and wondered if she would continue (or even criticise Jessica), but to her credit she will continue (as "assisted"), even though her potential to be globally recognised is somewhat diminished in comparison to what she initially expected. Yet, in what one commentator on her blog called a “class act”, Abby had this to say about Jessica:

Before I go into everything we've done today, I'd just like to send a BIG congratulations to Jesse Watson! She has done an absolutely amazing job and while to be perfectly honest, I am a little envious, she deserves the record. She sailed around the world, alone, non-stop, and unassisted. I know how difficult that is to achieve. I can understand that you need to be fair to the last person to break the record and respect the fact that they followed certain guide lines. But in my book, Jessica Watson is the youngest person to ever sail around the world, and she should be given the credit she is due. It is hard to watch someone else accomplish what you have dreamed of for years and to be thinking, if I had only done this or that things may have turned out differently. But things are the way they are. Records, whether they are on paper or not, are made to be broken and it most likely will be one day, but Jesse is amazing, what she did is amazing, and that will never change no matter who holds the record.

Source: Abby’s Blog

My estimation of Abby shot up about 100 rungs after that post on her blog.

In a world of despair (certainly in some regards, don’t you agree?) and the daily dose of weirdness, mayhem, political and social hypocrisy and violence we see all around us, we have two young “girls” reminding us of old, and maybe forgotten values and fairness. This more than about just sailing. It is about character, adventure, hope and faith, and to see it coming from such a young generation should give hope for our future. I think every Australian who showered a big welcome home to Jessica, always realised that this was far more than just about sailing.

It is about the very future of our planet, and our species.

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