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Altered States: How the US Really Achieves Global Domination

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This is an edited extract of a story that appeared last week in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper: When 30 people gathered in a Sydney ceremony last month to pledge allegiance to Australia, they were treated to a moving speech on what it means to be an Australian citizen … by an American. While Prime Minister John Howard has been stressing the importance of new Australians swearing allegiance to Australian values, no-one in his party had the time to take on the job. So guest speaker was US Consul-General Steve Smith, whose consulate is in the area and who was initially baffled by the invitation but ended up speaking about the similarities between Australia and the US.

I’ve been joking about this stuff for the past two weeks, and synchronicity being what it is, something like this was bound to happen. This past week or so in Sydney, two separate newspapers have carried stories about the “Americanisation” of Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald started the ball rolling with a piece headed Yanks R Us on the similarity of our TV viewing habits.

Among other things, it also argued most Aussie children now pronounce the last letter of the alphabet as “zee”, rather than the traditional “zed”, so I tried it on my 11-year-old daughter, who to my shock duly used the American pronunciation. When I questioned her, she replied: “Well, we use the other one too … they’re both right, y’know.”

“What, the proper one, you mean?” I asked. “No – zed, the other one. We use that too,” she said. The next morning, she offered further proof that what remains of our culture is all but doomed. She has recently developed a fascination for yuppy cars (perhaps one day she can move to Los Angeles), and while I was driving her to school, we passed a new Jaguar (now owned by Ford). “Oh, look,” she said, all prim and proper and very English-looking in her grey-checked school uniform and hat. “A new Jag-wah.”

“What’s that, Liz? Beg yours? Don’t you mean a Jag-you-er?”

“Errrr, no way, dad,” she said, with a mid-Pacific accent inspired by shows like The OC, with the must-have accompanying eye, mouth, jaw and head movements, and too close to being devoid of any Aussie twang for my parental liking. “Sor-ree for, like, living … it’s a Jag-wah … don’t you know aaa-nnneee-thing?” Sigh …

Serious commentators might point to Australia’s switch from traditional British allegiance and our foreign policy since half-way through WWII as evidence that we’re on a fast track to becoming the 51st state of the US, and it’s a joke we make about ourselves, but the little things that are the true barometers – and which, to be honest, really grate. Like the American expat commentators for Australia’s National Basketball League, the NBL, talking about a game that was foreign to us until 20 years ago. “Oh yeah, they’re totally on fire, Jaahn … The Kings are now 5 and oh [zero?] for the season,” said one the other night. I don’t have a clue what that means, although my son, who is 19 and who until some years ago had taken to wearing American baseball caps backwards and sideways, has tried to explain it me. And don’t get me started on baseball, a game that bamboozles me, although it’s on cable so the rot’s probably set in.

Sesame Street has left a generation of kids sounding like little Americans, who now even go trick-or-treating on Halloween – unheard of until about 10 years ago. The similarities, however, were already frightening. Whenever I have visited the States, I have only needed to stick my fingers in my ears and I’m back home in the blink of an eye. Especially in a taxi when the traffic’s not moving. (Remarkably, many cab drivers in Australia and the US have the same accents, the same conspiracy theories and the same lack of knowledge about how to get from A to B without taking the circuitous route.) But soon, I won’t even have to cover my ears.

Politics are similar, too: two main parties with a Senate and a House of Representatives. And where Australia used to have a pub or a fish ‘n’ chip shop on every second corner, now it’s McDonald’s (known as Macca’s, of course), Burger King, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut and Domino’s. There is even a mutual love of flashy pick-up trucks, although Down Under’s are mostly based on big saloon car chassis (generally locally designed Fords or Holdens, the GM brand) and equipped with a big, thumping six or a hotted-up V8 that makes them more like a two-door NASCAR racer. They’re called utilities, or utes (yoots, as in shoots).

Down at the pub recently, my mate Johnno, never short of an opinion, claimed he’d found an article by an American industrialist who believed Ford suffered a few years back from having an Aussie at its helm – because foreigners don’t understand America’s love affair with big 4WDs and pick-up trucks.

Johnno is a transplanted red-dirt bushie from an outback town (a fair way out the back of nowhere) whose idea of a good time is a motorbike cattle-muster followed by a weekend of pig “shoot’n” and he begs to differ as he has two of these – the shiny two-seater V8 number for weekends that takes him and a mate and their fishing gear (or his girlfriend, if it’s her birthday), and a four-door dual cab for workdays to drive the building crew (and two blue-heeler cattle dogs, Nippy and Lucky, who will only answer to “Oi”).After five beers he was promising to ring Ford to offer his services. “Mate, fair dinkum, they’ve lost the plot over there,” he said. “They don’t know about cars. Those big-wig blokes in stripey suits get $20 million a year to run a company that runs itself. Fair dinkum, I could do it better meself and they could pay me in beer.”

Yet what would America really get if the two were to tie the knot, apart from English as a second language and half the world’s most dangerous animals? Well, everything they’ve missed out on in the past 200 or so years would be generously back on the table. For starters, The Queen; at least four weeks’ a year annual leave; universal health care; a proper flag, and driving on the correct side of the road. And an understanding of why cricket is one of the world’s great civilising influences and thus why the Pakistanis, fanatical exponents of the game, are the only Muslim nation really trying hard to be on our side, despite the fact they don’t really want to. And since Australians nearly always beat everyone at most sports they play, Americans could discover (just like the English) that sport is about playing, not winning.

But there ARE pitfalls for the unwary. Sir Winston Churchill, possibly not gifted with his usual foresight, once described America and Britain (and I take it at the time he meant the remnants of Empire as well) as one people separated by the barrier of a common language, so ponder this little anomaly: the use of the word entree in the US to mean main course. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world it has its original French meaning – literally, to enter. An appetiser.

Imagine my surprise, then, at a nice restaurant in San Francisco when a seafood “entree” came out that could have fed all of Burkina Faso for a week. Things went really pear-shaped when, if you included the sirloin steak and added Nigeria to the possible list of beneficiaries, I realised I’d ordered two main courses and an appetiser that was a small version of the seafood “entree”. In a real-life episode of Seinfeld, confusion reigned supreme and led to much mirth and merriment among the other diners. On the same trip, I ordered a spaghetti marinara at a restaurant in New York. Now, in Sydney’s Little Italys, marinara is a seafood sauce (mare = sea. Get it?). But in the US, it was just a tomato sauce slopped forlornly over some limp-looking pasta. “Hey, what happened to the prawns [shrimp], mate?” I asked. “Oh,” said the waiter, by way of explanation to the other diners, “you’re Australian”, like I was some kind of weirdo or even worse, a Texan.

Then there was the time I was staying with some American friends in LA. “I can’t find my thongs,” I said to my goggle-eyed and giggling hostess, who kindly offered me the use of hers as she “had plenty”. A quick check of her feet revealed there was no hope they’d fit, and then she asked how long I’d been wearing them.

“Since I was a kid. We wear ’em to the beach,” I said. “Something wrong with that … ?” When I found them under a pile of clothes, just like at home, the penny dropped. “Oh,” she said. “Flip-flaaaps. You call those thaaangs?” She dashed off, returning presently with a fetching, barely-there, fragrant piece of women’s black, lacy underwear. “This,” she said, waving the apparel under my nose, “is a thaaang.” A g-string. Which went a long way to explaining the strange looks at the surf shop in Hermosa Beach when I enquired about their thongs.

Also, why call something a tap when you can sound like a prize pseudo-French wanker and waste an extra syllable by calling it a bloody faucet? Still, it’s better than cock, the old-English term. And while we’re there, let’s not forget rooting, that other wonderful old chestnut. In Australia, if you’re rooting for a football team, you’ll likely be pretty sore by the end of it. (Well, that’s nice dear, but make sure you use plenty of lubricant or you’ll look like you’ve been riding a horse for a week.)

Many of the differences, as I’ve speculated before, might be down to the fact America’s founding fathers were religious puritans while Australia’s were thieves, conmen, prostitutes and Irishmen. (Big mistake, that, sending all the party people to the best place. The choice: hang by the neck on the gallows at Tyburn Hill, spend the rest of your life on a rat-infested prison hulk in The Thames – or take a long cruise to sunny Sydney, with plenty of rooting. Yee-hah, and remember to pack the condoms). Yet somewhere in the middle, there must be a desire among Americans to be a bit naughty, while Australians at least TRY hard to be good, which must be where the minds meet.

Meanwhile, Johnno, who for the price of a sixth beer adds public-bar marriage guidance, real-estate speculation, debt management, financial counselling and bush political analysis to his list of services, has a much better idea than Australia becoming America’s 51st state. It’s a concept brilliant in its simplicity: “Mate, I reckon we could incorporate the 50 states of the US into Australia, which would be more beneficial to ’em in terms of culture, sport and cars and all that fu.kin’ stuff, y’know?”

No doubt US consul-general Smith would be fair-dinkum stoked about that. He gets the trifecta: stay in Oz for good without being locked up as an illegal immigrant, buy Johnno a beer in the front bar of The Hero of Waterloo AND speak at more Australian citizenship ceremonies, this time in an official capacity.

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About the silver surfer

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Great read, Stan.

    The only comments I can make are that

    1. at the top of my site here there are two ads, both for obtaining Australian citizenship. One is in English – the other in Hebrew with a Tel Aviv (TA to most of us Anglos) phone number.

    2. you guys Down Under really have to learn to negotiate. If you’re goijng to join the United States, you need to drag New Zealand in with you and get fourteen seats in the United States senate, not one.

    Now… Go to the faucet, fill yourself up a glass of water and when you’re done drinking it down, repeat after me three times;

    oh zee – OZ.

  • S.T.M

    Thanks Ruvy … I think the NZ issue could be a problem. It’s been spoken about before in terms of Australia and NZ becoming a single nation, but I think the Kiwis fear losing their identity.

    God knows they love playing us at rugby, and they are really bloody good at it (some people say Australia is, but I think they are the world’s best). They love it more when they beat us, which quite a lot. Being the coach of the All Blacks is a more important job in NZ than that of Prime Minister – seriously.

    However, there is already unlimited movement between the two countries and as far as I know, the right of abode in both still exists. We are a bit more than just good neighbours, in reality.

    BTW, I meant to comment on your post on another thread about transplants. I’d assume you have the same policy there – transplants go on a waiting list that can’t be “bought”, if you like, and the surgery and hospitalisation is free.

    My wife works in a world-famous heart-lung transplant unit, and she recently had a wealthy media executive to care for who is very wealthy. He got the same level of care as, say, farmers from the bush who are struggling to pay their bills because of the drought.

    It means peace of mind for most people, which is what you want your citizens to have.

  • SFC SKI

    Great article!

  • MAOZ

    Well, I’m a little rusty on this, but I’m pretty sure Australia (with or without the Kiwis) would get exactly 2 seats in the US Senate — just like every other state. Maybe Ruvy is thinking of House of Representatives seats. I’m not sure how it would get apportioned out. It’s not a matter of having X raw-number of people in your state’s population; not “Got another 560,245 people? Ding! You get another Congressional seat.” It’s what fraction of the total US population a given state has. Say the current form of the Constitution calls for a total of 435 House seats. A state that has 2/435 of the total US population will get 2 House seats. A state with 14/435 of the US population will get 14 seats; and so on. Those relative proportions among states can change over the course of time. That’s why the Constitution calls for a decennial census; the House seats can then be reapportioned among the states to reflect such changes.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    MAOZ,

    The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation (supposedly) with six states, one continental territory and a number of dependencies in the Indian and Pacific Ocean. The Dominion of New Zealand is a separate country. Assuming that all six states of the Commonwelath of Australia and the Dominion of New Zealand joined the United States as states, and the Northern Territory became a territory, that would be an additional seven states, or 14 additional seats in the United States senate. We haven’t talked about the district that comprises the present capital of Australia, Canberra. The representation of such an additional group of states wouldn’t be squat in the house of representatives, basically requiring approximately 50 seats at most. But unless the size of the house of representatives was increased by about 50, the representatives of the other states would sure bitch like hell!

    You are right about the decenniel censuses to determine representation in the house, though.

  • MAOZ

    Okay, Ruvy, I see where you were coming from. My mistake was thinking your concept was that Australia as a whole enter the Union as a single state. In my defense I would note that Stan mentions (and the book’s title includes) Australia as the 51st state, not the 51st, 52nd, 53rd, 54th, 55th, 56th and 57th states inclusive.

    Anyway, time for my beauty sleep. Laila tov, all!

  • Baronius

    Wow, Stan, this article makes me feel guilty for my recent “51st state” comment.

    Americans have a fascination with Australia. Canada’s too close to be intriguing, and it’s in some sense French. There are many Anglophiles in the US, but they tend to be aristocrats (unaware that contemporary British culture is coarser and more informal than American). We never think about NZ. Australia represents a looking-glass world to us, similar and different. Easy to forget about, but interesting to think about.

    The thing you might not realize about the US is that we’re fascinated with other cultures. We take in their emmigrants, steal their recipes, Americanize their music, and drool over their women. There’s only one culture that Americans look down upon, and that’s our own.

    Great read.

  • Bill B

    Way funny, and entertaining.

  • STM

    Thanks dudes … yeah, you were very close to the bone Baron, old boy. But Americans shouldn’t look down on their own culture. It’s something to be proud of of in a way that goes beyond jingoism. Stand up and be counted, just like in the late 60s and early 70s. Bring about some more cultural change. Be heard. Get out there in the streets!

    Put the power back in the hands of the people, where it belongs, and away from big business and lobby groups and lying politicians.

    And Yeah, Ruvy you are right with the supposedly bit … Queensland has been threatening to secede from the Commonwealth for years (it can’t, though), and has also floated the odd insane idea, like flat tax. Must be the extreme hot weather up there that makes ’em hate us (everyone, actually). It is Australia’s equivalent of Texas, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Alabama, Missisipi, Louisiana etc etc – all rolled into one.

    Most of my family is from there thanks to bad organisation on my part and whenever we go up there, my wife turns back into a mad Queenslander about three seconds after we cross the state border. And the hotter it is at Christmas, the more she likes it … a 40C Christmas Day reminds her of her childhood. I just hide up to my neck in the pool all day.

    And the Northern Territory (crocodile country!) and the Australian Capital Territory, although not officially states, now have their own state-style governments as entities within the federal system and share in the federal funding and tax carve-up from Canberra.

    Effectively, in other words, they are defacto states. I still don’t think we could entice the kiwis to join in, though, although a lot of them already live here and add some more good flavour to this country.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    Stand up and be counted, just like in the late 60s and early 70s. Bring about some more cultural change. Be heard. Get out there in the streets!

    Put the power back in the hands of the people, where it belongs, and away from big business and lobby groups and lying politicians.

    An ALP voter, I presume? 😉

  • S.T.M

    Yes, of course … how’d you guess, RJ.

    Just took a punt, did we??

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    “Just took a punt, did we??”

    Not sure what you mean there. You Aussies use a really bastardized form of the English language… 😉

  • STM

    Yes, good stuff too. I was told this week that it was used as code in New Guinea by Australian soldiers during WWII.

    Can you imagine what the Japanese made of terms like, “Look up at sparrowfart”. (Sunrise) If the Americans were bamboozled, the Japs would have been totally stumped; and going back to their English dictionaries, searching in vain for fart and sparrow and any possible connection.

    Took a punt: it’s a kick of a rugby ball that might go where you intended it, and also might not.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    This article is bunkum. Australia has always been very similar to the United States. What’s of particular note is that Australia has always been a dependent culture, which started with England and then shifted to the United States.

    Australian culture is built on a predominantly European and increasingly Asian heritage. And it has nothing to do with so called “imperialism.”

    The reality is, that Australian society is radically different from the United States, especially when you compare the extent of secularism (and when you consider that the abolition of Descartes dualism started here, you fully appreciate that).

    Australian culture is not on the commercial networks. It’s on the ABC and in publications like The Monthly and Quarterly Essay. Hook-p with a Radio National podcast, and I assure you’ll find Australian culture is alive and well.

  • STM

    Maybe you should have pushed through your pseudo-intellectual halo and read between the lines, then Jonathan, as it’s a piece of satire, not a serious story, :)

    And cut the elitist clap-trap. The ABC, The Monthly and Quarterly Eassy? Please, mate, get fair dinkum.

    Real Aussie culture truly IS alive and well. In places like the pub, and the beach, or in the bush, where it’s always been.

    But not at the fu.kin Art Gallery of NSW

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    STM, this kind of joke is pretty common and stereotypical down here. I see it so damn often and it rarely has any substance.

    The reason it’s labeled satire is so as to hide behind its excess. Not because it’s sending something up.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Jonathan,

    Do check out the fact that your fellow Aussie was writing a humor piece and labelled it as such. But from what I’ve known of Australians here in Israel, Stan is right. Your culture is the culture of ths pub and the beach and the bush – and of course, the sheep stations. The museums and the other stuff imported to your shores to impress the British are just that – imports. And yes, your culture is increasingly influenced by Asia – but it is only as “dependent” as you all choose it to be…

    Our culture here – our real culture – is in the synagogue, the shuk, the army, coffee houses, football games, wild parties and the hikes in the mountains and the desert. The papers, the TV, the bars, the museums and all the other crap are just imports from foreigners. But we created the culture of the cell phone, originally known in Hebrew as the “wonder phone” (Pelefon). The teenagers sitting at the bus stop taking to their friends for pay…very Israeli.

  • STM

    It’s a piece of satire on how similar and yet how different we are (which is precisely what you noted, Rocket). Perhaps there are people in Australia who need to get their heads out of their own bums before they disappear completely.

    For the record, the story of the US consul general is true (but then I doubt you’d read the Telegraph), ute-driving, beer-drinking, football-loving Johnno really does exist and in my book is more a genuine Australian than someone who spends half their life basket-weaving in Balmain, at book readings in Glebe or visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art, and my daughter IS starting to speak like an American, which really worries me.

    Like I say, it’s good to see through the haze of pseudo-intellectualism with which some Austalians like to surround themselves, largely because of their abject fear that other cultures might see them as somehow inferior if the true nature of what we are is revealed.

    Well, I don’t feel inferior, and I don’t really give a rat’s arse about what anyone else thinks either. Perhaps that is the true essence of my Australianism.

    Oh, yes, and the fun of it all. Being Australian for me, despite the fact that I work hard, is a bit like being on a holiday that goes on forever. And I’m a Labor voter, too, because I’d like to keep it that way.

    And why should my views be any less valid than yours??

    And if this sounds like an ad-hominem commentary, all I can is: you started it :)

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Man, I really need to develop a sense of humour. I generally, took it the way I take shock-jocks on radio.

    This is what happens when you reply to things in the morning before you have your coffee.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Yeesh, I really should have read the whole article… I didn’t even get past the first couple of paragraphs. My apologies.

  • STM

    Jonathan: Apology accepted, no hard feelings?

    And Ruvy, if that’s true about the mobile phone … let me at the person who invented it. This thing is the bane of my bloody life and in my view, all of them would be better off thrown down the toilet.

    My son manages to lose one every two months or so, along with his wallet and half his wardrobe.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Stan, the first link is the history of the mobile phone, what we used to consider “car phones.” The second is about Pelephone, the “wonder phone” that was handed out for free at its inception. If you read closely, you’ll notice Motorola as playing a prominent role in both, and Motorola is a big firm here in Israel.

    History of the Cell Phone

    Pelephone

    The ball is in your court, mate…

  • STM

    Thanks Ruvy: So they are responsible for so much of the drama in my life. Now I know. The best two weeks I have had in the past six years – I was a hold-out – was when I left the bloody thing on the roof of my car while shoving a stack of surfboards in the back and lost it as I drove off. I put off getting another one for a couple of weeks because the peace and quiet was a godsend (I really get pestered at work and by my family and trying to keep the phone bills down at our place … well, you might as well be King Canute). I go for a two-hour surf and when I come out, I have 20 missed calls and thirty messages, text and or voice, most of them from my wife wondering why I haven’t called her about, say, what we need to do regarding bills for the week, despite the fact she knows I’ve gone to the beach.

    My view is she wouldn’t have to worry about them if she got her own phone bill down from a figure that usually resembles the gross national product of a third-world country.

    They are indeed the tools of the devil. My wife once dropped hers down the dunny (speaking to someone as she was about to go to the loo). I can tell you, I was very tempted to just push the flush button and be done with it.

  • Clavos

    Stan,

    I’m late to the party here, but had to leave you a note…

    This piece is terrific; funny as hell, and at the same time an interesting insight into life in Oz.

    You better keep your little girl away from the TV, or at least the Yank programs. If she sarts ending all her sentences on a rising note, so they sound like questions, it’s too late; she’s already a Valley Girl.

    A fun read.

  • STM

    Thanks again Clav. As you’ve met quite a few Aussies in your travels, I think you know we are somewhere in the middle – a strange mix of British and American culture that has become our own.

    I am glad we kept all the good sports though, like rugby and cricket :)

  • Nancy

    Also late, but better late than never: great fun & very funny! Why don’t you write more?

  • S.T.M

    Thanks Nancy … I just write something every now and then as I genuinely find it difficult to summon up the energy.

    Bad, I know, but I always feel rooted these days (another use for the word).

  • Nancy

    Your commentary on American vs Aussie & the “entrees” & “thongs” had me rolling. That was hilarious.