The Word: Misère

I first learnt about “misère,” which is betting in a card game that you’ll lose every hand in order to ...

I first learnt about “misère,” which is betting in a card game that you’ll lose every hand in order to win, at the end of high school, when my good friend P. took to hosting large groups of friends for quiet evenings of bridge and conversation. He lived in the Bay, a posh little Sydney suburb full of nouveaux riches and the minimal boutiques where they send their pre-teens window shopping. I never liked the place, to be honest, and I hated the card games, but my mates were all there so I didn’t have much of a choice. And boy, did they love their bridge.

I remember one night sitting on the couch while the others played cards—I used to watch films, sometimes, silently protesting the unnecessary geekdom of my pals—and flicking onto the news, where they were running a story about asylum seekers. Our treatment of refugees is Australia’s little-known shame; except for the occasional challenge from a do-gooder sans frontières, foreigners rarely seem to be aware that it’s an issue at all. “Boat people,” they’re called, because they come on big rickety boats from Indonesia where they are gathered up by people smugglers and sent on their way. (Of course, most asylum seekers come by plane, but the image of the boat has Spanish-Armada style doomsday connotations that populist commentators just couldn’t resist).

This news report spoke of the processing time for asylum seekers—legal and illegal—once they reach the Australian authorities. Families and individuals have to stay in detention facilities, always off-shore or deep in the countryside, for anywhere up to a few years while their paperwork is scrutinized and their legitimacy determined. (Many asylum seekers are just seeking economic opportunity rather than sincerely fleeing danger). At the off-shore detention center on Christmas Island, 10 asylum seekers had decided to protest their miserable condition by sewing their lips together, an altogether gruesome move whose aim was to—well, to get some attention, I guess.

That image stuck with me, as it stuck with many Australians. I always thought it was peculiar how playing to lose like that—how applying your frustration to your own body, entirely without coercion—could win so much sympathy. Could make such a mark on a stranger.

But that’s exactly it, though, isn’t it? When people are connected by a sense of sameness—be it through pity, camaraderie, nationhood, or love—that sameness finds itself under threat when confronted with a person so destitute that they hardly count as a person. And in a matrix like that, when you’re playing to lose, you can start to win big.

P. would often join me on the couch, partially because he was a magnanimous host and partially because he started getting into French films. We never saw Australian movies because there aren’t many, and most of them are rubbish anyway. Only about five percent of domestic box office returns come from Aussie films, and most of these are the “whoppers”: big-budget feature films with an eager eye on the foreign audience. “Crocodile Dundee” was the first, and “Australia” the last; between these two great monuments to Australiana kitsch, there’s “The Castle” and “Strictly Ballroom” and, well, bugger all else.

We Australians have a hard time taking ourselves seriously. When it comes to war, our proudest moment was Gallipoli—an administrative debacle of almost criminal proportions from the English, which saw 28,000 young Aussies dead or wounded on the shores of Turkey. It was heroic, to be sure, but a crushing defeat.

Australian heroes come from the lost and the lonely: the bushman, the highwayman and the larrikin thief. For a convict nation that defined itself against the pale gardens of class-bound England, the priority has always been egalitarianism—and this has vertiginous effects for successful Australians who want to win but don’t want to look (or feel) superior. “Crocodile Dundee” casts a long shadow, and the frustrating thing is that Australians aren’t prepared to efface this worn-out trope of non-threatening affability.

If Australians are embarrassed to be winners—intellectually, at least—and that game’s real winners scorn our colonial backwater, then the choices are clear: play to lose, or quit your team. The cultural cringe, or the brain drain.

P. and I both had dogs, and he used to hit his when they needed to be disciplined. I thought it was cruel, at least compared to the little spray bottle I used when my dog was misbehaving. (Apparently dogs hate being squirted with water). When I asked him about it, he scolded me for righteousness and told me that the dog is suffering either way, and the bottle only doesn’t bother me because I don’t mind being sprayed. The limits of sympathy.

We had been talking about refugees, actually, because there had been new developments at a detention center in the Northern Territory: some Indonesian boatsmen being held there had set a fire in protest and damaged a bunch of buildings. Politicians went to town on the matter, talking of queue jumpers and their disrespect for Australian taxpayers, and the public seemed to agree. There was no ready sympathy for the destitute once the protest turned outwards. Patience is running thin with the boat people. But even still—we’re embarrassed.

The Olympics were a big moment for Sydney, a coming of age for a town trapped between its miserable, parochial roots and its new cosmopolitan ambitions. Over in the Bay, you get the feeling that people are starting to give up on the outback trope, starting to model themselves on the other (bah!) world cities like Milan and Tokyo. In commerce and in culture, Australians are starting to play to win—and with each victory we are less comfortable with egalitarian myths of national origin.

The strangest and most powerful of these: we all began as boat people.