Something Is Really Wrong with the USA
As I'm sure Americans have a particular view of Australia (if they remember us at all when they're not at Outback Steakhouse), so too do Australians perceive the United States through a lens that simplifies and possibly distorts the truth. When I think of "America", it's usually difficult to disentangle exactly what I mean by that.
Do I mean the pop culture that I consume every day, from websites to television shows, through to movies and novels? Or the theory and commentary I devour from my favourite intellectuals and antagonists? Am I thinking of the political landscape, that still confuses and confounds me, despite having studied and taught it at university level? Or is it the America of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Bruce Springsteen – the nation of such promise and innate goodness, that has lost its way?
As an incurable Americophile, I often romanticise the US and feel as though everything I've ever thought of, loved and felt is contained within it somehow. But when I compare it to my own country, toward which my patriotism is considerably more ambivalent, I'm reminded that all national dysfunction runs deep, even in two "new worlds".
Nowhere is the comparison starker or more alarming, and so often made clear, than in our different approaches to firearms. In Australia, if you're not a police officer, soldier or farmer, then it's very unlikely you've ever seen a gun up close, much less held or fired one. This informs our horror at the reporting over gun culture in the US and in particular, mass shootings. I also despair at the recent murders of Trayvon Martin,Renisha McBride and other victims of structural prejudice. The racial nature of gun crime, the size of the prison population and policies such as Stand Your Ground and Stop and Frisk seem to be social diseases that need urgent solutions.
Of course, Australia has no proud history regarding race relations, and both countries are responsible for genocidal treatment of our first peoples. In America, this is complicated by the difference between Native Americans and African Americans in terms of broader social understanding and political will. Slavery must be one of the most recounted and memorialised events in American history, and yet that cultural awareness seems unrelated to improving real outcomes for African American people, notwithstanding the now-distant joy of Obama's election.
It's also been incredibly difficult for the average Australian to conceive ofshutting the government down in protest against citizens receiving health care. As a population with universal free access to medical treatment, we've internalised the narrative that Americans can be turned away from hospitals despite needing help. Or that they can be bankrupted by the treatment they do receive. I fervently hope that this is the beginning of a huge cultural shift and America starts to untie this Gordian knot.
I remember helping an American student who was badly injured while stepping off a tram here in Melbourne. There was bone visible and at least a dozen of us pulled out phones to call an ambulance. She screamed and begged us not to, as she thought her travel insurance wouldn't cover it. We explained that going to a hospital was not a matter of choice at this point. I still recall the look of abject terror on her face, and realising that her first thought on being seriously hurt was: "But how will I pay for it?"
Money can often be a sore point for American tourists in Australia, and I've fielded many complaints about how expensive things are. I routinely explain that our minimum wage is close to $20 an hour, that the entire supply chain gets paid properly, and that many workers are unionised in industries that ensure their conditions are good. America has many more union members than our tiny country has inhabitants, but the difference is that our culture supports the right of workers to organise and collectively bargain with employers. For now, anyway.
This means that poverty is different for Americans on the wrong side of capitalism. Without fair wages and in the absence of a social safety net that allows any kind of dignity, I can see how the chance of rejoining the workforce might range from unlikely to impossible. Not to mention the crippling debts for students paying back loans, mortgages that bankrupt families, and the extent of ostracism for those who fall by the wayside. For a country that loves the idea of itself so deeply and passionately, I often wonder how it can hate its own people so profoundly and enduringly.
So why do I still love America? Simply, it's given me so much. I've been utterly transformed by its artists, thinkers, and visionaries and oftentimes it feels like there's something completely American about what they share. Maybe it's a hope that things can always be different and better?
America, it's time to be brave and redirect your immense power inwards. Imagine if just a fraction of military spending were channelled into education, health and a slew of social and economic programs. I remain as hopeful as the most fervent patriot that the full potential of your country will be realised – fulfilling the promise that those poets believed in and taught me all about.