31 December, 2009

Why I write about American politics

I’m a bit surprised that it hasn’t come up here more often, but a question I’ve been asked off and on for years is,
Why do you always talk about American politics?  You’re not American.  What does it matter to you?

There are several ways I could approach this.  I could talk about how I am going to become an American-in-law and therefore what happens there affects me more than your average auslander, but that would simply be an argument of convenience.

The first answer is that it’s just so bloody interesting.  Travellers will say that there are certain places that have colours you don’t see anywhere else.  Similarly, in politics, the US will give time of day to arguments that would be laughed at in other parts of the world.  By schoolchildren.  And I find it fascinating.  Infuriating, but fascinating.  When people give serious airtime to the notion that public health cover is both a communist and a fascist policy, how can you not slow down and take a look?

The more serious answer is this:
If I were to use the expression, “The leader of the free world,” who would you think I was referring to?
If your answer was the president of the United States, then you just proved my point.

The last time I checked, I live in the free world, but I didn’t vote for him.  More importantly, I didn’t get a chance to vote against him.  It would seem to me that if the US were serious about leading the world, and about democracy, it should open its elections up to all regions that it expects to influence.

Okay, so that’s the abstract, debating-society argument.  But how do the actions of the US really affect me?  Well, you might have heard a bit about this global financial crisis that’s been going around.  Every government loves to call it a “global” crisis, since that means no-one really has to take responsibility for it.  Where did this crisis begin?  It wasn’t in Brussels.  It wasn’t in London or Hong Kong.  No, the credit meltdown happened as a direct result of US economic policy, which was based on the assumption that if government just got out of the way and allowed the market to do as it pleased, people would naturally act in their own best interest and everyone would be happy.  We know now, how that turned out.  Because of the interdependence of national economies, the ripple effects of the Wall Street meltdown spread around the world with devastating speed.  Other countries may have been aware that self-regulation is a contradiction in terms, but nothing they could do with their own markets was going to stop the domino effect started in the US.  Where is the recourse?  Where is the accountability?  Naturally, the US government has the right to conduct its own affairs as it sees fit, but when those affairs impact on the affairs of others who have no say in US policy, we at least have the right to comment.  If taxation without representation is tyranny, what do you call plunging half the world into recession without representation? 

Then there is the current brouhaha over health insurance in the US.  That’s a purely domestic issue.  Why should I have an opinion on that?  Well, granted, it’s no skin off my nose if America chooses to regard health care as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a fundamental human right as most of the rest of the free world does.  It’s nothing to do with me.  Not unless you count the friend who, despite being fully insured, is being forced to wait up to three months to have the kind of procedure that I would expect to be able to get in my GP’s office on the first consultation.  And not if you count the other friends who live in the grey area where they earn too much to qualify to Medicare but not enough to be able to afford insurance.  But if you don’t count caring about friends, then I don’t have a horse in that race. 

What I do have, is a pretty low tolerance for bullshit – and some of the bullshit that has been coming out of this debate is trophy size.  And it does involve my country because some of the opponents of “socialised medicine” try to use the Australian system as an example of why it doesn’t work.  Australia has had universal public health care since 1975 and the current system has been in place since 1983.  I have friends and family who have gone through heart attacks and brain tumours and received sterling treatment with no out-of-pocket expenses or private insurance.  And if people would prefer to buy private insurance, you can do that too.  It’s a free country after all.  Do we pay extra tax for this?  Of course we do.  But it’s nothing compared to the cost of private insurance.  You will hear Australians complain that we are taxed too highly.  Here’s a news flash for you: Everyone thinks they’re taxed too highly.  You could have a tax rate of one dollar per year and there would still be people who say, “What, every year?”  So let’s just accept that people moaning about taxation is as inevitable as taxation itself.  But whatever the system, you get what you pay for.  We pay tax and in return we get services, like police, fire brigades, schools and hospitals.  As a Twitter comment defending the British NHS put it, “We have social health care because we are a society. God knows what the yanks are.”  So if our system is going to be used as an example of the tyrannical nature of looking after citizens, I’m going to have something to say about that.  It’s not that outsiders don’t have the right to comment on our system, just so long as it’s informed comment.

Let me put it this way: even if you’ve never agreed with a word I’ve said on politics, I think most people would agree that I’m a reasonably savvy customer when it comes to how we are governed.  So here’s my question:  If I had been living in a nightmarish socialist dystopia for the last 26 years.... don’t you think I would have noticed?

The final reason that I, and many others who might not initially appear to have an interest, express an opinion on US politics is because so much of the world’s news comes out of America now.  Of course, it’s not the US government’s fault that so many networks (mostly commercial ones, James!) have chosen to shut down their international bureaus in favour of getting it all on a feed out of Atlanta, but they should at least be aware that they are presenting themselves to the world. The whole world, not just the bits of it that play in the World Series.  And the more people hear a story, the more likely they are to form an opinion on something, whether it concerns them or not.  For example, there have been many and varied opinions expressed in recent weeks about how a golfer’s wife should best deal with his infidelity.  I don’t know what this has to do with anyone outside their family, but it’s all been reported and so everyone has an opinion on it. 

This is also the reason why Americans don’t comment on Australian politics as much.  (I only choose Australian politics because I am Australian.  It could just as easily be any other country, with a couple of exceptions)  They just don’t hear about it as much.  I welcome all views on how we run ourselves.  I might agree or I might disagree but I won’t pull out the “you don’t live here, what’s it to you?” argument.  Then again, if foreigners don’t have the right to comment on how other countries conduct themselves, maybe America doesn’t have the right to talk about how Iran, or Venezuela, or North Korea behave.  If America wants to hold itself up as an example to the world, that invites closer scrutiny.  What some people in the US should realise is that just because the actions of other governments don’t affect them doesn’t mean the actions of their government don’t affect others.  When they do, people are going to have things to say about it.


  1. First of all, America no, United States of America. America is the name of the continent. Amerigo Vespucci didn't give the name America to US. He was never in US. ;) I don't give a **** about people's bad habit. The same way people got used to call the country America they can get used to call it United States. History can't be changed. Colombus didn't discover US either but they celebrate Columbus day, I don't know why. Second, the news are about US because US is still the biggest economy of the world. If power changes hands, the focus will change. Will you talk about chinese politics? No. You talk about what you understand, you speak English, people speak English in US. Do we hear anything about Portuguese, Spanish or British politics? Not really. Do you think people cared about US politics 500 years ago? No.

    In every country I believe there is something called world news and it's a little obvious that we will hear about other countries including US.
    Us used to have more influence. Things are changing but you have this romantic view of USA. You wanted to be Unitedstatian and that's why you are so proud that you will become an American in law.

    This global crisis didn't affect the Brics like it affected European countries for example. I wonder why?

    In my country the world news is about Israel, China, USA, Japan, Mexico, Argentina etc etc etc
    GOOD for us.

    Your dream will come true. You will finally become an American in law. Congratulations Bill, you finally got what you wanted! Now you should move to USA, you would love living here, you would be able to vote if you wanted. ;)

  2. I never cared about American politics until I lived there. Then I got that train wreck interest that most of us feel. It was all so surreal and frustrating at the same time.

    Americans don't talk about other countries as much as we talk about them because most Americans know very little about other countries. I can talk about Israel all day but I don't want to talk to people who only know what their TVs tell them.

    The American health cover "debate" is just the funniest thing. I've lived places that Americans call socialist and even in a genuine communist country so I like to think I'm qualified enough to laugh at their notions of socialism and communism.

    Michelle, I understand your frustration with everybody calling Americans Americans but that's the official demonym. Maybe you can create a spelling differentiation like African and Afrika.

  3. I live in the south of Australia but not in South Australia. How dare they? It annoys me when people refer to Australia as "Oz," but whatever. Worse things have happened.

    Politics has always been my favourite sport. And what I want to see most is a clean game. All these teabagging nuts going around screaming sociocommufascism are the political equivalent of soccer players who get a bump in the hip and collapse clutching their groin.

    I have a friend who lived in London for several years and she would send me videotapes of interesting things like Never Mind the Buzzcocks and docos on the Smiths and Pink Floyd. In 2002, I asked her to send me some news clips of the election coverage. She thought I was a little strange for asking, but that's only because I am. I enjoy hearing the news as reported in other countries.

    Unitedstatian? That's cute.