02 October 2013

The Myths and Realities of How Americans See Themselves

This is the text of a talk given by Susan Nulsen on 26th September 2013 following Timothy Patrick McCarthy on the same topic.

Bio: Susan was born and educated in Australia. Shortly after she married she went to England where she stayed for about nine years from the late 70s to the mid 80s and then also spent another year there in two different stretches during the 90s. She has now spent a similar length of time in the US.

I always look forward to hearing Tim McCarthy speak. He has such insightful things to say. But I quite had the wind taken out of my sails when I heard he needed to leave early and I had to speak after him. He is a very hard act to follow!

As you can see from my bio, I have no qualifications to speak on how Americans see themselves. Almost every one of you is better qualified than me!

So I will start by describing my earliest interactions with Americans, and then tell you some of the myths I learned about America and how my experiences have led me to judge these.

My mother and an Australian friend
The first people I could identify as American were a couple of young women my mother was friends with when we lived in Mount Isa, a small remote copper mining town in Queensland. As a ten year old I had very little interaction with them. However they stood out because they dressed strangely; to my mind they seemed very elegant but very old-fashioned. They wore dresses that stood out stiffly over big petticoats. My mother and her other friends often went around in shorts which were much more suited to the tropical climate.

Some stockmen

Around this time, although there was no television in the town, my family would gather around the radio on Tuesday evenings to listen to a couple of radio shows which often included American westerns. Since Mt Isa was in the middle of cattle country the westerns seemed very appropriate. (I should say that we didn't have “cowboys” or six-shooters; instead the people who strode around in high-heeled riding boots and rounded up the cattle were known as “stockmen”.) So I was already getting a dose of American culture.

The Pine Gap Facility
The first time I met Americans of my own age was when we moved to Alice Springs. These were the children of people working at the “secret” American communications base at Pine Gap. It wasn't very secret, in that everyone in the town knew of its existence, but not even the Australian government knew what information was gathered or relayed from there. The most notable thing about these children was their contagious American accents. It was impossible to talk to them for very long without starting to sound like them yourself.

Also when we lived in Alice Springs my family spent a lot of time going bush on camping trips. On these adventures we seemed to meet a lot of retired Americans travelling around the country in camper vans. Many of these described themselves as “rock hounds” – they collected interesting, often semi-precious, stones. My sister and I were told we could be “pebble pups”. On one of our camping trips we took Bea, an American journalist from Cleveland, with us to see some of the spectacular scenery in the ranges out of Alice Springs. I have no idea how she got in touch with my family – maybe my father had given his contact details to some of the American tourists we had met previously. So it is very possible that my family, through Bea's writing, influenced how some Americans saw Australia.

When I was fourteen I used to wait at the school bus stop with a girl who was absolutely furious with her parents because they had refused to allow a couple of these American tourists to adopt her and take her back home with them! I still don't understand how she couldn't see her parents point of view. Around this time I also made friends with an American girl who lived in a fantasy world. Both her parents worked, which was unusual at that time, and each afternoon she was responsible for caring for her younger siblings. Her thirteen year old sister did nothing to help take care of the two little boys who ran wild! Janice told me all about the exciting life she led on the French Riviera where she had her own speed boat.

I met a few more Americans in high school and at university. As you can see, I had had contact with only a handful of Americans. However I was still exposed to American culture through films, books, cartoons and comic books.

It was when we went to Cambridge in the UK for my husband, Paul, to do his PhD that we met a large number of Americans and became good friends with some. Because of our common language I would also often end up spending time with the American wives at conferences at various places in Europe.

My first visit to the US was when Paul was visiting the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as a student. We stayed with an exceedingly generous American couple who put us up for a whole six weeks. During that time I remember being at a barbecue where one person was describing loudly, in graphic detail and at great length his bout of amoebic dysentery. I had never experienced the like. Australians or British would not air their medical problems so publicly.

And the first time I lived in the US was for six months when Paul came for the launch of the Chandra satellite in 1999. We spent six weeks living right in Harvard Square, above the Harvard Book Store and the rest of the time in Newton where my daughter Alix went to high school and my son Luke to the middle school. Girls she met told Alix that she spoke “very good English.”

Finally after I came here in December 2003 I met a large array of Americans, including all of you. I have learnt that the only thing I can say with certainty about Americans is that they are a widely varied group of people and it is impossible to make any generalizations.

Now here are half a dozen myths that I have encountered.
Myth 1: Britain was NOT democratic at the time of the Declaration of Independence. (1776) The UK had been a constitutional monarchy since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – when James II was replaced by William and Mary – around a hundred years before. It was ruled by an elected Parliament with roots stretching back to the Magna Carta in 1215. At the time of the Revolution, the trouble from the American point of view was that the Americans did not have a vote. Yet I continually hear Americans talking as if Britain had been an absolute monarchy.

Myth 2: America is the most democratic country in the world. Now America certainly set an example to the world with its constitution in the 18th century. However constitutions written since then have been able to draw on others experience. I would like to point out two features of the Australian electoral system that promote a more democratic government. You may have heard me say this before. Preferential voting, which is the equivalent of running multiple run-off elections, eliminating the candidates one by one, provides a much fairer way of voting. Secondly making voting, and registering to vote, compulsory ensures that the outcome of an election is more fair. Just think of all the work that goes into getting out the vote here, and in Britain too.

Furthermore, far from upholding democracy around the world, the US has a history of overthrowing, or working against other countries' democratically elected governments with which it doesn't agree. Think of the Allende government in Chile.

Myth 3: One man, one vote. It is now not “one man, one vote” but “one dollar, one vote”. I know that many of you will agree whole-heartedly with me here. The electoral system has been distorted by the inordinate amounts of money needed to win an election. Politicians are chosen by their ability to raise money and spend too much of their time fund raising.

Also the control of media by wealthy media barons deprives the ordinary person of the tools to make informed choices. This is no better in Australia. Rupert Murdoch is openly boasting that he put Tony Abbot, the new Liberal (what you would call conservative) prime minister into power.

Myth 4: America is God's Own Country. I don't think I need to say anything about this!

But I would like to throw in
Myth 5: Atheists are immoral. As a non-religious person I find this statement very insulting. I have heard this or something which implies this many times – statements such as “I couldn't believe he could do something so evil, he regularly attended church.” If he hadn't attended church then it would have been believable that he could have been evil!

Myth 6: America is the land of opportunity. Anyone by their own hard work can make it rich. Anyone born a citizen can aspire to be president. This is a very dangerous myth. In fact everyone is dependent on the society they have been bought up in, their families, schools the local infrastructure. Many poor people cling to this myth as hope for their own future. If you are poor it can only be because you are lazy or made bad choices. People at the top are being rewarded for merit. Luck plays no part in your fate. If you vote for anything which penalizes the wealthy you might be penalizing yourself in the future. This myth pacifies an underclass and persuades the poor to vote against their own best interests.

I was incredibly shocked the first time I came to Boston to see beggars on the street! In the richest country in the world! It was additionally amazing to see that the numbers of them are military veterans.

Until I left Australia I never dreamt of tipping a waiter at a restaurant. I had been one myself and knew that waiters earned a reasonable wage and the price of the food covered that. I would love it if some restaurants here banned tipping and paid their staff appropriately!

Businesses feel it is in their interests to have a large pool of cheap labor with poor working conditions. So-called “illegal” immigrants provide even cheaper labor. It seems that this whole economy is dependent on these underclasses of people for cheap food, cheap goods and cheap services. A business that depends on a labor force earning less than a living wage should not be a viable business. Government support of low paid people is just another way the government is subsidizing business.

It is a very sad fact that America is an extremely unequal society and it is only becoming more unequal, despite the efforts of many good people.

The final myth I just have to mention is
Myth 7: Americans don't have an accent. Of course the only people who don't have accents are those whose who don't speak! Yet this is something I constantly hear Americans say.

I also find it strange that the accents spoken by the locals along the east coast, the areas that have been longest settled, are looked down upon by speakers of standard American. Recently a Belgian friend and her husband, who have only been here about a year, were asked for directions by an American tourist. After they had told him the way the tourist commented on their “rough Boston accents”!

I should end by saying that although I have tried to point out the fallacies in these myths there is an element of truth in many of them. America is a great country with many resources. Unfortunately it is not fully utilizing its greatest resource, its people. It has an opportunity to set a shining example to the rest of the world and I think it would be a wonderful thing if it did.

—Susan Nulsen