Australia and the USA as ambiguous mirror images (Part 2 of 2)

Jul 15, 2020

If Australian governments over the past three decades have been unrepentant in intensifying our alliance with the USA it is because many conceive us of having identical interests rather than just as having identical values? But does the identity of interests arise from a perception of identical values and historical development?

In a brilliant recent summary (P&I 24/6/20) of influence leading up to the present crisis situation in American democracy Fintan O’Toole focusses on three “historical surpluses” that have been instrumental in defining Amercian history for the past seventy years and have reached some kind of climax in the USA today. These are the Civil War, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and the War on Terror. Of these Australia has no equivalent to the first except for the institutionalized racism against indigenous Australians that produced and followed the Civil War and continues in Australia until the present day.

For the second, which has involved continuous conflict in areas where America has usually lost, Australia has little equivalent except as an obedient follower-the possible exception being the psychological damage inflicted on returning veterans which is as bad here as it is in the USA. As for the third the implicit declaration of war on terror has been a valuable political device in both countries to ramp up government’s security powers and to create a unified enemy where none might exist.

To some extent these are superficial similarities, because the USA does have historical conditions not replicated in Australia. Especially different is the behaviour of the USA over the last two hundred years as an exporter of war and as an active destabilizing influence in many political regimes. This has been well documented elsewhere but it is clear that it has been involved in more wars over the past two hundred years than any other country and still has troops stationed in over one hundred countries, including Australia. In this sense Australia has always been a follower rather than an initiator.

But if there is a fourth area where the USA has engaged in a war it is a war on the poor. Its social welfare network is negligible compared to Australia’s and African American and immigrant workers in general have much more insecure working conditions and lower wages than their white American counterparts. To this we can add the US prison population–mainly of lower class people–which is 655 per 100, 000 population compared to Australia’s 170 per 100, 000. Whilst economic inequity is now worsening in Australia, historically it has been much better than what obtains in the USA and Australia’s health system is much more equitable. Similarly, Australia has a much more equitable social support system, the advantages of which are becoming very obvious in relation to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The reality is that in so many ways our cultures–the use of the plural is deliberate–are considerably different despite the bombardment of Australian popular culture by Hollywood and other American manufacturers of culture. In the first instance, even with the kinds of “wars” being waged historical conditions existing in the USA are not replicated here. There are sharp differences of culture between the Deep South on the one hand, the mid-West and prairie states on the other hand, and the three West coast states as a third, and the New England states as a fourth. The historical and cultural differences between these remain, as do considerable economic and political divergences and levels of education amongst the general population. Perhaps the belief in American exceptionalism- though now in decline, which has been an implicit cultural force in the country since the “founding fathers” brought their brand of heightened religious puritanism, has been magnified across certain parts of the country as a whole. There seems no equivalent to this in Australia even though there are cultural differences between the various states.

Nor do we have the kind of extreme sense of inferiority that seems to define much of the Deep South, in relation to the Northern states, and is so strongly reflected in the underlying racism so prominent there and the rabid connection of conservative Christianity with the conviction–becoming increasingly powerful–that guns can adjudicate all differences and that Americans are always under siege. Recently at the Trump rally in Tulsa there was a picture of a middle-aged couple wearing T-shirts. On the right side emblazoned was the word “God” and on the left side “Guns.” The existence of a Shooters and Fishers party in various parts of Australia may seem superficially to resemble the kinds of attitudes giving rise to the gun culture in certain parts of the USA, but it is nowhere near as strong, and nowhere is the carrying of guns by citizens legislated. Whilst there have historically been differences within Australia between Queensland and the southern states and Western Australia and the east coast states, the differences are nothing like what exists in the USA.

The military is almost always in sight when one travels in the USA, and some of the various state police forces have become more militarised in their training and weaponry. All airports have special segregated places for service-people and the continuous production of Hollywood films chronicling the latest conflict in which America is involved heightens the sense this is a country under siege, but that American individualism and resourcefulness will solve the problem. About the glory of winning against the odds there is much, but not about the after effects such as posttraumatic stress syndrome which have ravaged so many veterans since the Vietnam war.

One of the biggest differences between American and Australian culture is that we lack the religious imperative so strong in the USA. It is true that in both countries various religions exist–with Hinduism and Buddhism becoming more popular as a result of immigration over the past forty years–, yet it is the rise of the evangelical churches, and their increasing political influence, that is perhaps the main characteristic of Christianity-the traditional religion of both countries. This is much more prominent in America than Australia where it has come to light primarily because of Scott Morrison’s membership of the Horizon Church–focussing on religious experience above all, but is associated with right wing religious movements, and the infiltration of the Victorian state liberal party by Mormons and other religious sects. Whilst Catholicism has certainly been more significant in its influence on politics over the past century in Australia, it is the evangelists of the Billy Graham type who have been fundamentally influential in American politics and life, especially in the Deep South. Even to the point that nihilists like Trump pay lip-service to the church, as do all other Republican politicians.

All of these factors have been severely exacerbated over the past forty years and especially since the Republicans have been in power and the voters are waking up to the rampant failures of neo-liberalism, but not knowing where else to turn in their desperation. Trump and the Republicans, in particular, have taken full advantage of this in shifting the country further to the isolationist right and consolidating their own power, even under a Democrat government. Australia needs to establish some independence from its traditional ally which is becoming increasingly authoritarian and distant from the reality that faces it, a reality of which most Australians have a much better comprehension.

Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. He has lived in America.

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