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Perceptions of America

An alien's journey from cultural

cringe to cultural shock

Originally published in June 2003, as an open letter from Bruce Dickson to an Australian

Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) forum on 'What the world thinks of America'.

Introduction

After moving to the United States from Australia, I commenced a monthly newsletter to my friends and family back home. Subsequently some of my Aussie mates commented on the (surprisingly?) positive tone found in these 'letters from America'. My simple response at the time was that there is little need for me to focus on this country’s wider deficiencies, as I can safely leave that task to the Australian media - the 'only in America' but not in Australia syndrome.  (Read on) Some of their focus is readily understandable because of America's status as a large, powerful and diverse nation - but what is not so widely understood is that the U.S. is a nation not without its own very lively debates, protests, concerns and differences of opinion over past deeds and current policy. And of course the visible counterpoint to this is its obvious pride in its achievements, its success in gaining independence from Britain, fighting hard for its early democratic principles, and establishing a new richly layered, genuinely ‘multi-cultural’ society. (Helped along the way by a naturally rich land and the sacrifice of many.)

Tapping into a deeper cultural well

There seems little doubt that in Australia the steady stream of negativity, clichés, generalisations and stereotypes about all things American, is not just a media creation, but something that taps into a deeper cultural well. (Author Craig McGregor several years ago wrote a very insightful and at the time lonely piece on the issue of anti-Americanism for the Sydney Morning Herald.)

Media jingoism and patriotism

Sadly in recent years, this fixation can be tellingly contrasted with the seemingly inevitable, at times pervasive, jingoism surrounding Oz media coverage of things Australian - particularly sport. (Nationalism/patriotism assumes many different forms it seems.) Of course, when casting their eyes across the Pacific, the Aussie media are feeding, if not fostering, the widespread love/hate attitude held toward America and Americans not just in Australia, but in France and elsewhere. But, frequently, this media focus is pointedly on the ‘downside’ (unless they are reporting Hollywood ‘celebrities’ or the like, possibly another indicator of what is seen as really important to them in the way they read their audience’s interests).

Loss of balance and accuracy

This practice (as with all stereotyping) is particularly damaging in terms of gaining a balanced and accurate understanding of the other sides to America – the many excellent things happening culturally and racially over here. (e.g. Recent polls say that both African Americans and ‘white’ Americans feel racial discrimination issues have improved markedly over the past few decades – a twenty percent increase during that time in those feeling that way – and for both groupings. Can the same be said for the rate of progress on the way Aboriginal Australians are regarded and treated day to day?)

The many Americas

First hand experiences should, and do offer different perspectives and cultural understandings. And it is these and some of the lesser understood, but potentially very important cultural subtleties I have tried to write about in my newsletters to friends. I have done so with a focus primarily derived from my immediate reality, the nation state of Oregon (or the Pacific Northwest) – as the truth is there is no 'one America', but lots of Americas. And paradoxes abound!   (Read more ...)