Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Advanced Capitalism Without Attitude: A Few Passing Thoughts Upon a Return to the United States

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Having now returned from my speaking tour/working vacation in Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand, I have been thinking about issues large and small that confronted me during my travels. One set of thoughts concerned matters of national culture that are probably impossible to measure, but that are nonetheless palpable to an outsider visiting a country.

(Warning: In this post, I will heedlessly engage in broad statements along the lines of "Americans think ..., while Aussies are ... ." I understand the perils of such broad-brush statements, and I offer them with the acknowledgement that no such statements should be read as assertions of universal truth. I am merely trying to summarize in reasonably concise form a few things that I thought I saw over the last month.)

I will say nothing here about Hong Kong, which is fascinating in its own right. Instead, I will comment on a few aspects of what I saw in Australia and New Zealand, concerning the senses of national pride and modesty that I saw in those countries, especially in contrast to the United States.

For context, I should note that I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. Before the term "flyover country" became a favored put-down for that part of the United States, Toledo was one of those places that simply had no "attitude" at all about itself. Although most people there liked it just fine, and rightly felt that there was much to feel good about in the Midwest, there was no bravado. If anything, there was anti-bravado. We all knew that people did not move to Toledo with excitement, and many teenagers dreamed of moving to New York City.

In other words, Toledo is like virtually every place in the U.S. that is not a truly major city. It is big enough to have its own TV stations and daily newspaper (which continues to win Pultizers), but it is still -- both in fact and, more importantly, in its deep psyche -- a minor league city. (The famous Toledo Mud Hens, after all, are the ultimate minor-league baseball team. See? Even the things about which an ex-Toledoan gets excited boil down to being excellently not-quite-important.)

One result of this local DNA-level modesty was, naturally, a celebration of locals who made it big. I can still name the local high school stars who made it in the NBA and NFL, the politicians who took leadership positions in Congress, and the big-time TV and movie stars who grew up in Toledo. Local news outlets would, therefore, focus on Toledoans who were even mildly associated with national and international events. The attitude, however, was quite clear: We are excited, because one of our own is showing that Toledo is not necessarily as small-time as everyone knows it is. Of course, that very defensiveness confirmed what we feared.

(Contrast this with the local media in Boston, where I went to graduate school. There, the local news focused on Boston and Bostonians, especially when they were on a national or international stage, in a fierce attempt to prove that Boston truly was "the hub of the universe." This arrogant localism was even worse at Harvard, where The Crimson once famously ran the headline: "Pope Shot. Harvard, World Shocked.")

During my very brief time in Australia (both last year and this year) and New Zealand (this year), I could not help but perceive a sense of Toledo-ish modesty in the attitudes of Aussies and Kiwis about their places in the world. They come by this honestly, of course, both because they are geographically remote from both Europe and North America, and because they were once parts of an empire that all but specialized in instilling inferiority complexes in its subjects. Upon achieving independence, the natural response of the former colonists is both to hate and to seek the approval of those who looked down on them. We still see this in the U.S. -- captured, among a million examples, in the 1980's comedy "A Fish Called Wanda" -- and it is easy to see in Australia and New Zealand (and Canada, for that matter) even more intensely.

I suppose that I found this surprising on my travels because both Australia and New Zealand are prosperous, sovereign countries. They have both succeeded to a significant extent in creating relative racial harmony in modern economies that are in every way advanced. Yet one could not fail to notice the Toledo-ism of stories about Nicole Kidman on local news stations in Sydney, or the excited story in the largest newspaper in New Zealand about a Kiwi fashion designer who had won a competition to design a dress for Princess Grace's daughter-in-law. (The designer went to great lengths to point out that -- even though she was based in Australia -- she wanted to be known as a "New Zealand designer.")

In Auckland (population 1.5 million, which is roughly one-third of the population of the whole of New Zealand), people who grew up there joked about the landmark tower (the Sky Tower) that dominates the city's skyline. They viewed the tower as a sad attempt by local politicians to spend local money on something to make their city seem more important than it was/is. That the result so completely dominates the skyline, and is really rather unsightly, only enhanced their sense of grim bemusement.

Even though one can find such modest attitudes throughout the U.S. (except in New York, Texas, and parts of California), of course, the major difference is that Toledoans (and their brethren in New Jersey, Maryland, Wisconsin, San Diego, and everywhere else) still have a "USA! USA!!" attitude about their place in the world. They think that we have the best health system in the world (as fellow Buckeye John Boehner has asserted repeatedly), even though we clearly do not. They think that everything we do militarily is justified and per se moral. In short, they buy into American exceptionalism at every level.

I am not saying that Aussies and Kiwis would be incapable of being arrogant, if the circumstances were different. (I am not, however, ruling that out.) I do find it refreshing, however, to see people who have so much to be proud of, acting modestly and being understated. (Yes, I have seen soccer, Australian Rules football, and rugby crowds. I am talking about a different kind of understatement.) Maybe it is not possible for the world's only superpower not to drip with attitude, but it is definitely refreshing to observe restrained national pride.

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