Wednesday, May 18, 2011

‘United’ States of America? A New York Experience.

Southern Louisiana to New York City - are we in the same country?

As I was walking the streets of Manhattan last weekend, I had a revelation (I know it’s slightly self-indulgent and clichéd to start with that, but I just couldn’t help myself). I had been told from the moment I was accepted into S.O.U.L. that the USA is an extremely diverse country, with different landscapes, people, motivations, attitudes and accents just a few miles (or to use that evil metric system, kilometres) from each other, yet for a long time I just didn’t recognise it. Certainly, I noticed the scenery and conditions change from the depressing, flat, steamy cropland and wetlands of the Deep South, to the tawdry faux-tropicana of Florida’s Gulf Coast, then the awe-inspiring hills and mountains of the Carolinas and the Northeast, to the urban jungle that is New York. It was also fairly obvious to hear the accents change from the lazy, ‘y’all’-riddled drawl of Mississippi and Louisiana, to the obnoxious New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania dialect. But really that’s all fairly facile, taken on appearance stuff that a six-year-old could notice. The cultural change is much more subtle, and far more interesting.

The reason it took until a mild spring evening in Midtown Manhattan, the trees in full bloom, the streets packed with people, (self-indulgent again, but trust me, once you’ve been to New York, it’s hard not to be) is quite simple. New York City, Manhattan in particular, is capitalism personified. In its opulent Art Deco highrises, glitzy shopping strips, myriad limousines, flashing billboards and neon lights, you see the products of capitalist successes, and just what money can buy. A prime example of this is Donald Trump’s tower. Everything in it carries his name and/or trademark quiff somewhere – from the Trumpstraunt, to Donald’s Suites (just as an aside, every Democrat in the US is currently despairing over the Trumpiantor’s decision not to run for President. Because let’s face it, if he had won the nomination, Obama was a sure thing. Nobody was going to vote for a bloke whose defining feature is his ability to shout ‘You’re fired!’ at some poor hapless five-minutes-of-famer without being laughed at for his ranga combover and equally red face). Yet at the same time, you are assaulted by capitalism’s pitfalls – the thousands of homeless, the rent and property prices so high everyone is forced out except wealthy executives and spoilt yuppies.

It’s not that Southerners aren’t fans of capitalism, quite the opposite in fact. If you even suggested something like universal healthcare in some areas of the South, you’ll probably return without your head. No, many people from the South just seem to be opposed to people doing well out of capitalism. What they don’t realise is that under the tenets of capitalism, or at least the laissez-faire style of it that is favoured by so many Americans, that’s what happens. You are supposed to make as much money as you damn well can. Charlie Sheen would call it ‘winning’. New York is a prime example of how capitalism is supposed to work – reward those who do well and screw everyone else. That, in my experience, wasn’t the case in much of the South. Their attitude was that they should have all the benefits of free market competition, like cheap stuff at Wal-Mart (made in China, mind you), but they shouldn’t have to be padding the cheques of those grubby New York execs, because they just don’t know how hard honest Americans have to work, gosh darn it. That in fact brings me to my next observation: New York is a hotbed of political and social liberalism. Most New Yorkers would probably favour wealth equalisation, in the form of sliding-scale taxation, free healthcare, and taxes on pollution, which are condemned by so many conservatives as socialism (I’d like to point out right now that I am not trying to make outlandish assumptions about the politics of the South. The bottom line is that most areas of the South are staunchly Republican, the party which, since Obama has been elected, has had electoral success in branding him and his backers ‘socialist’ for trying to implement policies such as Obamacare. On the other hand, in last year’s drubbing of the Democrats both federally and locally, New York still returned Democratic senators, House representatives, and a governor, with resounding margins). Capital punishment is not practised there, legalised abortion and same-sex unions are, and there is a genuine feeling of connection with your fellow man that I feel is missing in so many parts of this country – something which I have absolutely no doubt is directly related to the fact that New Yorkers use their cars so much less than anyone else in the USA.

There are also no taboos in New York – we went to a comedy show one Saturday night where for the most part we were subjected to racial profiling, lewd sex stories, and anecdotes of alcoholism and cocaine addictions that, if mentioned in many other places, would leave you with an orange jumpsuit and a one-way ticket to the state penitentiary. And although much of the show left me squirming and my sheltered Australian conscience seriously confronted, it would seem that this unfettered style of interaction works far better than the staid, cautious way of approaching issues of race favoured by many other states. When we were in Alabama and Mississippi, and to a lesser extent, Louisiana, there were definite ‘black’, ‘white’, and ‘Hispanic’ neighbourhoods and schools. In Michigan, it was ‘white’ schools and ‘Arab’ schools. I was even told by one family that they were concerned at the level of black students in their school, as they didn’t want the academic performance at their school to drop, as, according to them, the non-white schools in their district were the equivalent to third world. No questioning why, no show of dismay, just a statement of fact. Whilst there are still some signs of segregation in New York, it is far less than the signs that integration is alive and working. The schools we went to were ethnically diverse, people were friends because they liked each other, and we actually saw families of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds – something which was notably missing in many areas we visited, where family groups were far more likely to be quite homogenous. The Big Apple is indeed a world apart from parts of its own country in so many ways. Of course, to be fair, the Big Apple is a world apart from, well, just about anywhere.

I thought I might finish with a cute little anecdote related to everyone’s favourite whipping boy – mass media. New York is the undisputed home of the Western media – the headquarters of most national networks are there, and some international – News Corporation immediately springs to mind. Aussie Rupert has called NYC home since the 70s. They can keep him. However, it would seem that the New York doesn’t have quite the power over national media the world thinks it does. Way back in early February, when Australia and South America were being ravaged by floods, fires and mudslides, the northern half of the US, Canada, and Europe were grappling with the heaviest snow storms since the release of Ice Age, and Congress were coming to terms with the new reality of a Democratic administration and Senate, and a Republican House, we were in Alabama. And what was the headline news in Alabama? A dead tree. No joke. Apparently it was significant tree to one of the universities there, and there was talk that an alumnus of its major competitor had deliberately killed it. In the words of Ron Weasley (note in the following quote, ‘she’ refers to the Alabama media): ‘She has got to get her priorities right.’

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