You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Uncivil Servant: America, Seen from the Antipodes

Mitchell Abidor
February 13, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

[caption id=“attachment_40734” align=“alignright” width=“295”]Andy Blunden (left) burning his draft card. Andy Blunden (left) burning his draft card.[/caption]

Andy Blunden is an independent scholar in Melbourne, Australia. A Hegelian who frequently lectures on the German thinker and has published many books on philosophy, he is also an administrator of the Marxists Internet Archive. Andy is a longtime political activist who left Australia for England in 1966 after burning his draft card in protest against the Vietnam War. He returned to Australia in 1986. We correspond frequently (I consider Andy the best friend I have whom I’ll never meet), and our emails often revolve around politics, American politics for the most part. I’ve always been struck by Andy’s knowledge of what goes on here and his take on it, one informed by his viewing us with Aussie eyes. We had this discussion via email.

Mitchell Abidor: I’m always amazed at how much you know about what’s going on here. Often reading the newspaper makes me nuts, and I saw a comment in The Guardian that I thought was perfect: “Do you English follow all U.S. elections this closely? Seems kind of unhealthy. I mean, you’re lucky enough to live thousands of miles away.” Anyway, do you have to dig for it or is it that the U.S. is covered in depth in Australia?

Andy Blunden: Events in the U.S. are regular items in the TV and radio news. I take the regular free-to-air news from the ABC (the national public broadcaster), and I don’t have to seek out American news from anywhere else.

MA: What kind of stuff dominates the coverage?

AB: We’ve had coverage of the current presidential election since before the first Republican debates started. We usually follow the mayoral elections in New York, the Senate and House of Reps elections, and other elections that are noteworthy, such as the California gubernatorial elections. We also get all the major police shootings and mass shootings like the recent San Bernardino shooting. Mostly it’s guns and voting, but we also get regular “only in America” reports like the civil servant who refused to issue marriage licenses to gays claiming “freedom of religion,” or the civil rights leader who turned out to be white.

MA: Does the press ever surrender to a tone of astonishment?

AB: No. American news is always delivered with a straight face.

MA: What are the issues that you see here that make you shake your head in disgust?

AB: “Disgust” isn’t really the word. Looked at from Australia, the U.S. is an amazing country that is also deeply troubled. When we see police shootings or hear people denouncing the very idea of a public health system as tantamount to communism, or learn about chemical companies that have poisoned an entire community, or about the latest measures of economic inequality, it is that feeling of a fellow country that is deeply ill and deserves our pity (but at the same time, one doesn’t want to risk catching the disease, so take care!).

“Anger” would be the word, rather than “disgust,” in the domain of international relations, like the century and more of American intervention in the affairs of other countries from the invasion of Cuba up to the invasion of Iraq.

MA: How about things you see that you say “only in America,” but mean it in a good way?

AB: I’m sorry, but “only in America” is in a “good way” only when it’s so bad it’s funny. Like that church that used to demonstrate at the funerals of soldiers. That is not to say that there are not really good things about America! but the good things about America are 1) the people, taken individually when you meet them — when there is an American visitor, mostly everyone wants to meet them. Americans are well-liked on a personal level because they are usually so positive. 2) the seemingly bottomless well of creativity and intelligence that manifests itself in books, scientific discoveries, movies, etc., which are not particularly American but which are universal. American music, by which I mean African-American music, is something else, both universally appreciated and uniquely American,

MA: What’s the coverage of the elections like?

AB: We don’t get the paid advertisements, but otherwise I think we get better coverage than most Americans. I remember during the primaries between Hillary and Obama having to explain to my American friends that primaries didn’t work the same way in every state, something which my American friends had never noticed.

MA: What’s your take on the main figures, Sanders, Clinton, Cruz, Trump...?

AB: It has to be remembered that Australia doesn’t have a Republican Party (or anything remotely like it) and the U.S. doesn’t have a Labour Party. U.S. politics is in a different universe. I have never met an Australian who fits in the top-right quadrant of the political compass, and yet every U.S. presidential candidate before Sanders lives in that quadrant. At the same time, you produce individuals who would shine like stars on the Australian political landscape as it is now (provided they didn’t promote the same policies they advocate in America). A pollster found that if Australians had been able to vote in the McCain vs Obama election, 93 percent would have voted for Obama.

Bernie Sanders seems like a good honest politician to me. But sure, probably 50 percent of Australians would regard him as too left wing — that is, until they looked at his program and saw that it is actually totally mainstream by Australian standards. Only his rhetoric is radical. I hope he does well. Australians have always liked Hillary Clinton, as they general liked her husband and still do. But Hillary is sounding like a scratched record these days. She is one of these politicians who seems to have run so many focus groups and opinion polls that they no longer know what they believe in if they ever did. We have that sort here, too.

As to the Tea Party people, including Rubio — all but the rightwing fringe in Australian politics regard these people as mad men. And even our rightwingers only admire them from a distance. That Bible-thumping, immigrant hating, gun-toting political discourse is a totally foreign language for Australians. Trump is a joke. We have a billionaire mining magnate here — Clive Palmer — who got himself elected to a seat in Parliament in order to reduce taxes on the mining industry, but he is very much a one-term wonder from Queensland, which is the Texas of Australia. And Clive still poses as progressive and doesn’t go anywhere near racism and all the vicious stuff that Trump puts out. I know Trump’s no joke in America, but people do laugh at him here.

MA: I often lament that my grandparents chose to come here instead of say, France or Canada. Do you ever say, “If only the family had taken a ship to the U.S.,” or do you feel better being from Oz than here?

AB: Ha! Never. I am very happy to be an Australian resident. I left the country in 1966 and lived in the UK for 20 years because of conscription to the Vietnam War, but I got homesick. Very happy to live here. When people mention that they are traveling to the States, someone will always remind them to make sure they have medical insurance. America is a dangerous country, and if you end up in hospital, they’ll demand to see your medical insurance certificate before saving your life — now that may be an exaggeration, I don’t know. But that is the general belief, reinforced by American movies and tales from travelers. We also learn from American movies that if your boss doesn’t like you, he can just say “You’re fired!” and that’s that! Again, that may not be the unvarnished truth. I don’t know. But that’s what we generally believe. The rightwing conservative politicians in Australia, while spouting their free-enterprise dogma, always make it clear that they don’t want to be like America — meaning lousy public education, elite universities only for the rich, no public health system, no worthwhile social safety net, no rights at work, no realistic minimum wage! These may be exaggerations, I don’t know, but that is what “America” means when talking about public life. When it comes to wars, of course, every Australian government lines up with the U.S. That is an Australian pathology. Fight with the U.S., but find a big hole to hide in when the American bombers arrive.

If I had to choose a different country to live in, it would be somewhere in Europe.

Historically speaking, Australia is a Christian country, but according to the Census, 25 percent report having no religion, very few who are Christian ever go to church, and religion plays no part in political life at all. So for an Australian the fanatical level of penetration of evangelical Christianity into American politics is probably the single element that marks American politics out as foreign to us — along with the way Americans treat political rallies like football matches. Weird!

The other thing is that it cannot be understated, despite all that I have said, how deeply American penetrates into the Australian psyche. Australians slavishly rely on the perception of Australia by other countries. Visitors are asked what they think of Australia as soon as they step off the plane, and no one can make it in the arts until they have made it in London, New York, or Hollywood. But American has a special place in that cultural cringe. Everything we do, everything we achieve, we measure against America. Perhaps it is comforting for us that America is such a mixed-up, insane, violent place, because that is one standard we think we do well against — apart from sport of course. We think we’re the best in the world at sport.

MA: If your population leans more liberal than ours, why is it that Australia follows us into our foreign policy adventures, willingly joining us in our quagmires? We think of draft-card burning as an American phenomenon, yet you were an early burner, so you lived the effects of this.

AB: I was in the first group to burn our draft cards here, but it was TV vision of kids doing it in the U.S. that was our inspiration. But the military adventurism is an historical thing. It comes out of the Second World War.

When Singapore fell (which was shortly after Pearl Harbor), and Britain was isolated in a Europe occupied by fascism, the British withdrew from the war in the Pacific and wanted Australia to send its soldiers to defend the Old Country. Australians have never forgotten this. The Japanese invaded New Guinea and young Australian soldiers fought a vastly superior Japanese army hand to hand in the jungles of New Guinea. Darwin was bombed and the government prepared to withdraw to southern Australia and fight a guerrilla war. It was the Americans who saved us, it was the Americans who fought the Japanese island by island across the Pacific, suffering enormous losses. So Australia has ever since turned its eyes to the U.S. on security matters, and Australia’s foreign policy hinges on keeping the U.S. engaged in the Pacific. While it is generally believed that Australia slavishly follows the U.S., in fact, Australian governments have acted as a kind of agent provocateur — for example, they encouraged American involvement in Vietnam and asked to be invited to participate. But ever since McCarthyism, the left in Australia has been anti-American, and I was raised as an anti-American- – though as I said, this never affected our friendships with Americans as individuals. The best and the worst the world has to offer seems to come from the same place.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.