What do I miss about America? Well, the answer is very little. But it’s a question I ask myself now and then, a kind of reality check after what are this year 55 years living outside my native country - 50 of which I’ve spent in Australia. That’s half a century. But then I think I needn’t have bothered uprooting myself in the first place, when all I had to do was stay put here and wait for America to come sailing across the Pacific.
Yes, we have it all now. Mexican food and sour dough bread, freeways and supermarkets, poor public transport, rhythm and blues and fusion – I could go on. Even the Aussie accent has changed, become twangier, more Yankee or West Coast American. The links between my two countries, frayed at the time of the GI invasion during the second world war, have been polished and strengthened, as though nary a tension had existed between them. I’m no longer teased about the way I pronounce ‘tomato’ and am free to write about characters who aren’t dinky-di Australian. My children (at least some of them) think it’s cool to have a parent who’s American, when once it was a source of bewilderment and embarrassment. American literature, more or less sniffed at on my arrival, is now embraced, as New York has taken front page and centre as the global English-language book capital. And then there’s the politics, where gradually over the decades the Westminster tradition has given way to an increasingly presidential system, if not without its measure of confusion and pain.
I can’t say these are changes I’ve welcomed. The America I left in 1958 was a divided country, as it remains. It was just as parochial then as it is today, seeing everything and every other nation through the prism of its exceptionalism. America is good, therefore what it does is good. It dismays me when Australia uncritically adopts this attitude, even when it’s argued to be in its interest. It dismays me further to see Australians act like the worst of Americans, claiming that ‘god’s own country’ is their own, making a fetish, say, of Kokoda or Gallipoli or Australia Day. Our economic policies have been shaped by American ones, and the last thirty years have seen as a consequence alarming rates of inequality.
But back in 2008 when Obama was running for president, and four years later when he was trying to get re-elected, I was moved to tears by sights on my tv screen of that other America – the one that’s perpetually screwed by those in power but still finds a way to fight back. Those people lining the streets in support of him fairly melted my heart. This was the America I recognised, though, sadly, the one rarely emulated. America of the crumpled face and cheap-food body. Not the slickly landscaped exteriors seen at the party conventions, or in most of the sitcoms, or sashaying along the red-carpeted gauntlet on the way to the Oscars. Not the hate-filled faces of the Tea Party. But Walt Whitman’s people, and Carl Sandberg’s, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s. Braver than we know.
All through the 1960s, America exploded. I watched in wonderment from afar, with a dollop of self-pity I admit, for missing out. Kennedy was president and friends from my high school went on the freedom rides. It seemed like the country I left was changing without me and, briefly, perhaps it was. Then came the assassinations, Nixon’s election, Watergate, bankrupted cities, the usual quotient of murders, America being the endlessly violent place it is. But there were good things too – the end of school segregation, civil rights legislation, Roe v. Wade, the swell of protest against the war in Vietnam .
Soon enough Australia had its protests too. The Anti-Vietnam Moratorium and Women’s Liberation swept through the capital cities. The Whitlam government was elected and then, by comparison, America seemed the backward country. Gough had gone to China and, in office, ended conscription, pulled us out of Vietnam, opened the case for equal pay. The country embarked on another era of social reform, for which it was rightly known, and part of it was acting independently from America. After which the government was quickly dispatched. (Conspiracy theory, we were told at the time, but what was the CIA about if not conspiracy?) After that trauma Australian governments of every stripe have been willingly supine. But what have they got us into?
The crux of the matter is that there’s been scarcely been a time when America hasn’t been at war. All through its history, from the War of Independence to the Spanish-American one at the end of the 19th century, and in the 20th it was the world wars, but also more local ones, playing one dictator off against another, dropping bombs, selling arms to everyone, friends and enemies, all in the name of freedom and democracy. There have been periods of isolationism but they haven’t lasted long. Often war has been waged against its own citizens, whether it’s been the crackdown on Wobblies and anarchists or Cold War executions, or incarceration in Guantanamo during this generation’s War on Terror. Of course there have been resisters, many of whom have met with untimely, violent deaths, in spite of their own campaigns of peaceful disobedience.
Some of these have been whistleblowers, heroes our leaders – Australian and American - are only too quick to brand as criminals, even when what they make public are government actions wholly antithetical to the interests of their citizens, not to mention Vietnamese, Iraqi or Afghani ones. Men like Daniel Ellsberg, and today, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.What courageous people, to take on the might of governments. They, it must be said, are what I do miss about America.
Next time: Shulamith Firestone.