By JR on Friday, June 17, 2011
"Wowser" was originally an American term for "temperance" campaigners. It seems to have died in the USA when Prohibition was repealed. Australia never had Prohibition, however, so the term is still in common use there to decribe killjoys of all sorts
WHEN we survey some of the more controversial incidents of recent times, from the attempts to place restrictions on poker machine players to the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia, there is a connecting thread that almost everyone has missed. This is the return of the wowser.
Wowsers (We Only Want Social Evils Remedied) are traditionally as Australian as meat pies and Holden cars.
They were responsible for Australian institutions such as the six o'clock closing and the shutting of shops on Sundays.
One would have thought that they had receded into the annals of history as Australians became more liberal on these sorts of issues. Shopping is now very much a Sunday experience and Australians are used to the idea of civilised drinking.
But wowserism has never really gone away and, like any great tradition, has bided its time waiting for new opportunities. It has simply changed its spots. Once it had a strong religious colouring; now it is taking on an increasingly secular tone.
Wowsers want to improve people and make them better. To do so they have to prevent them from engaging in activities that they find immoral: be it gambling, eating meat, drinking alcohol, smoking or consuming junk food.
My father used to say that for such people if you were enjoying yourself there must be sin involved.
I have no doubt that behind the ruckus about live meat exports there is a vegetarian agenda, based on the idea that vegetarians are better people than meat eaters. If we limit gambling we can make people better. And, as we all know, it is a fact universally acknowledged that there is not a bogan out there who could not do with some improvement.
In days gone by, the ideals of wowserdom were often linked with those of eugenics. People could be improved if only their habits and lifestyle were changed; if only they lived a more rational way of life.
Eugenics has often been misunderstood. For one thing it was embraced in countries such as Australia by people who considered themselves to be progressive, who we would describe as being on the left. For another it was as much about changing the environment as it was about selective breeding. It was about making better people.
It was not only Nazi Germany that engaged in activities such as sterilising the unfit. Many countries, including democracies, sought to improve their populations in this way.
It was not politics so much as religion that determined whether a government would seek to go down this road. Protestants generally did, Catholics did not. Fortunately, Australia had a significant Catholic minority.
In a slightly different vein it is worth observing that Hitler and his fellow Nazis were very concerned about cruelty to animals and introduced legislation that made Germany a world leader in this area. They restricted their cruelty only to those people whom they regarded as inferior, all in the name of improving the human race.
Wowsers and eugenicists generally go together as they see the key to a better world lying in the creation of better human beings. Eradicate evils and that will be possible.
The idea that it is the task of the government to improve the people who are entrusted to their care is very dangerous. Are people who do not eat meat or play the poker machines really better than those who do? Do we want the state to attempt to create a utopia of good people who have had their bad bits excised?
It is not surprising that wowserism should come to prominence again in tandem with the growing strength of the Greens. The Greens are the latest manifestation of a sort of moralistic puritanism that has been part of Australia since the First Fleet. Australians must change their evil ways. The Greens see themselves as the enforcers who will achieve that change, thereby leading the country into the sustainable utopia.
In such a utopia the status of animals would rise and that of humans fall. It is no longer necessary to sterilise the unfit. With the advance of medicine they can be detected and disposed of while still in the womb.
The only problem is that maybe ordinary Australians do not want to be improved in this way. As in the past, they enjoy their gambling, their steaks and their booze. They simply want to enjoy life.
Wowsers are part of the Australian tradition but they have always been in the minority.
Their grand plans for the people of this country have always run up against the reality that most people are happy to be less than perfect. On that rock the Greens will ultimately founder.