The New York Times’ Bari Weiss last week wrote a curious op-ed about Australia, a country she had visited for all of a month. Weiss’s experiences seemed to be confined to a trip to the beach in Sydney and an interview with the director of a conservative think tank, but nevertheless, she felt qualified to write a curious paean to what she perceived as the national psyche.
Well, two can play at that game! And now the boot is on the other foot because we flew a wide-eyed Australian journalist to America and dumped him in the middle of New York for a month. This is what he came away with.
When Bari Weiss flew into Sydney’s airport in January 2019, she filed her take on the state of the country before she had even stepped off the Qantas 747-400 that had brought her. “I am going to write a book on Australia,” she proclaimed. “And I think I ought to start now. You always know so much more of a country when you have not seen it than when you have.”
Across the Pacific, for my part, I expected an exotic menagerie: celebrities whose names begin with the letter “K” frolicking next to shirtless men who look like Kid Rock, mostly.
Instead, I found America—or rather, the teeny, tiny corner of this vast continent that I got the chance to experience this past month—much closer to how a wise man who was not David Sedaris once described it: “Canada with an assault rifle.”
It is a place where things don’t work. The politics are polarized. The economy is limping along like a fattened Christmas turkey (at least for now). The strangers are brusque and unhelpful.
No one has health care. Mass shootings are . . . not unheard of. And I can’t give you an opinion on whether I’d feel comfortable following the five-second rule on a random subway platform, because it’s faster, at this point, to walk.
So far, so America.
But you don’t get on a flight across the world to stare in horror at a . . . $7.25 per hour minimum wage? You come for the guns.
Americans have more guns. They just do. I guess I should not be surprised by this given that this is the place that birthed both Donald Trump and Elliott Rodger.
As someone who is naturally suspicious of people who don’t seem to be gettin’ on the piss before lunchtime, I have watched my temporary neighbors with deep suspicion. As I prepare to board a flight back to my natural habitat—only the greatest little country in the whole flamin’ world, I’ll have you know—here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the murderous Americans I count myself lucky to have survived.
The first: work yourself to death. But really.
On New Year’s Day, I spent seven hours at work. Doing what, I can’t quite tell you. But seven hours spent in an office with nameless co-workers and no food went by in the blink of an eye. I haven’t had a day like that since yesterday. Here, that’s typical of any given Sunday.
Part of the horror of the way Americans work isn’t just how awful it is but the all-inclusive, steamrolling nature of how they work. I showed up to finish off some work at a colleague’s house one evening last month, and within an hour, four people had turned into eight and by the time I left the rest of the office was en route.
Happy hour is simply not a thing, because no one is happy. I went to an office Christmas party that began at 3 p.m. in one venue, stumbled into dinner, and then morphed into karaoke. When I hailed a cab at 11:30, I was the first to leave. In my experience, American office Christmas parties mean that everyone gets absolutely shitfaced on the company’s dime because they have all been driven to alcoholism and the Christmas party is literally the only thing that could be in any way characterized as a “benefit” of their employment. Australians have a lot to learn.
Which brings me to another thing Americans never do: vacation.
My local cafe here closed the day before Christmas. It reopens on January 15 under a new name: “Starbucks.” And no one here thinks that’s strange. January here is like August in hell. The only labor taking place in summer seems to be waiting for the L train to arrive after the last two were canceled.
Many public pools, by the way, are called “carparks” in America. Parks also tend to be “carparks.”
Doublespeak here is a national pastime. Christmas presents: “multi-level marketing opportunities.” A bar mitzvah is a . . . bar mitzvah? McDonald’s: “culture.” Breakfast is “coffee on the subway,” Australia is “a conspiracy,” avocado is “a Mexican invention to be regarded with suspicion,” but you already knew those.
You can roll your eyes or you can cringe at the fact that everything here sounds a bit more like a corporate press release. I opt for both.
More profoundly alienating is how people relate to one another. I’ve talked with people for hours before they have asked me what I do for work, mainly because they have talked for hours before I have had a chance to say a word. I won’t ever make that mistake again.
Americans also consider themselves to be in the midst of a raging culture war, which is funny because you’d think that in a capitalist dystopia like this, the culture war in question would be against the rich.
America is a bit like the hottest girl—no, it’s not.
At home, friendships are largely delineated by class; couples that date across the divide are newsworthy. Here, ignorance of class politics is normal. The political is not personal, and that’s not just because so many of the big issues that tear Australians apart (footy, cricket, the rise of the far right) are settled—no one here cares about footy OR cricket, and the far right are already in the White House.
And yet, for all that this country gets wrong, America is a bit like the hottest girl—no, it’s not.
Some of the insecurity is warranted. Given the tremendous capital and the lack of brain power here, America can’t help but be infested with start-up culture and immense inequality. Ask Americas why it isn’t like Sweden and they will invariably chalk it up to “not being communists.” (Another great Americanism: commies are people whose politics lie anywhere to the left of the Republican Party, whose ambitions therefore deserve to be cut down to size.)
Another obstacle to socialist revolution is how generally unpleasant life here is. When you’ve got an entire generation oppressed by student loans and crushing poverty, it’s hard to justify taking a risk that will most likely result in being shot by a policeman. And people here tend to be deeply depressed, a quality that can shade into risk aversion and complacency—perhaps an inevitable result of living somewhere so spiritually bankrupt.
“America has the largest economy in the world. We are an old oligarchy. We have a continent to ourselves,” a fruit-hued man who claimed to be the president told me. “Given all that, it’s insane to think that everyone could share in the country’s wealth when we can just hoard it for the rich.”
A longtime Republican in the American sense of the word, he partly blames society’s poorest and most oppressed citizens for this state of affairs. “Are we so hopeless that we don’t deserve a big, beautiful wall?” he said. “I don’t think we are. Spending money that could otherwise fund healthcare on an entirely pointless border wall would make us prouder and more purposeful.”
Toby Keith once cited America’s flag as the reason to “put a boot in their ass/ It’s the American way.” The sentiment behind that song, at least as I hear it, touches on something Americans seem to understand about themselves: that they are terrifying. To Australia, to England, to everyone else.
The faster they can stop caring about what others think—not just other English-speaking countries, but also their fellow Americans—the more domineering and violent this country will be.
* The part about it being written by an Australian journalist is true.