The Insensitive Australian

"I've seen him in the headlines
And on the evening news.
I saw him on the sidelines
When stones were thrown at Jews.

And marching in Montgomery
Pretending that he cared
I saw him wink
As though some old conspiracy were shared.

He was in the crowd at Dallas
At the close of Camelot.
I spotted him on Campus
When the students had been shot.

In an oriental village
With civilians left to rot
He was hanging out with soldiers
Trading heroin for pot

And he was smiling ... Smiling...
Dory Previn, Dopplegänger

Several years ago, when I was going out with an American, lets call him Chuck, I went to a dinner party in Melbourne. This was around the time of the spate of school shootings in the US.

Now Chuck had never owned a gun, had two children of his own, and was definitely anti-gun. He was no believer in the "right to bear arms", and was ashamed of his fellow Americans who are.

We settled in at the restaurant. It was a lovely balmy Melbourne summer night, the food was excellent and the wine top quality. There was the hum of conversation, and just as I was thinking how wonderful it was to be back home, one of the party shouted across the table,

"Chuck, what does it feel like to come from a society where children kill children?"

In my naivety I expected a stunned silence of embarrassment. Yet it seemed that only myself and my partner were shocked. The other guests wanted to know what it was like too.

I can't remember how Chuck responded. Indeed I'd forgotten the incident altogether until the other day when I was talking to another ex on the phone. One of "they-are-getting-a-taste-of-their own-medicine" breed, this ex (thank god) proceeded to sound off on how Americans deserved the tragedy of September 11.

Somehow Americans are fair game. As another Australian in America commented, "People tolerate slurs against American and Americans that they would be horrified to hear about impoverished, dark-skinned, nations, especially those who consider themselves part of the left."

An article by Melbourne novelist, Olga Lorenzo, a Cuban American on this topic was published several years ago. I remember reading it back then, and an Australian Abroad writer quoted it in a recent net discussion. Olga wrote, "What is interesting, however, about the prejudice against Americans I now encounter because I speak with an American accent, is that it doesn't usually come from the far right, as it often did when I was a child. Then it was most likely to be from ignorant rednecks and Florida "crackers", poorly educated and socially disadvantaged people. In Australia it can come from left-leaning university lecturers of social work, who are so sure of the political correctness of their prejudice that they announce it at dinner parties."

How true. And how sad. Again, "The people I hear say things about "Yanks"such as "I don't understand how anyone can find an American attractive" would never say the same thing - no matter what their private beliefs - about Greeks, or Italians, or Indonesians, or Arabs. Try substituting another nationality for Americans in all the above incidents, and see what I mean."

I have to wonder why my own countrymen have this bigoted attitude. Definitely more pronounced amongst those who consider themselves left-wing and who are university educated, you just have to wonder how they came to almost hate a group of people who are effectively innocent. No one is asking them to like American foreign policy of American culture. I don't particularly like the current Afghani culture and foreign policy. But I would in no way feel self-righteous about insulting an individual Afghani. And I suspect that the Australians who find it so easy to insult the American at the dinner table would go out of their way to be ultra-polite to a Middle Eastern guest. No racism for them!

Somehow it is just plain wrong to be an American. Recently I was accused by a reader for being a "ra-ra American" when I wrote an article about life in New York post September 11. I could not understand it. But then, on talking to the ex mentioned above, and hearing his happiness at our tragedy, I started to understand. These people really don't like Americans. It isn't the foreign policy, it isn't the culture. Could it be part of the tall poppy syndrome? Do they like to see Americans cut down and killed? But even if they do hate Americans, this is a poor excude for rudeness.

Every one has a right to her opinion, but there are times when a little sensitivity is in order. What I would like to ask my fellow Australians back home, is think a little. How would YOU feel if your city just lost 6,000 of its citizens, and was under constant threat of losing more? Who do you imagine these people are who were killed or bereaved? Do you think they were all rich Wall Street brokers (who surely also have a right to life)? You are wrong. The people killed and affected are people of all different ages and races, of different ecomomic means and social position. Some were working, others were homeless living in the subway underneath the towers. Many had children. And now we have the postal workers. Sure, "only a handfull" have died, I read in the Australian press. One article even stooped to attempt to slur saying we had more chance of getting shot by our neighbours' handgun' (illegal here in New York by the way) than by anthrax. I am sure that would be very reassuring to the thousands of postal workers here, who have good reason for concern. I just hope none of them read the Age online.

As for me, I am finding it increasingly hurtful and disturbing too read the press of my country of birth. It is getting that I am not even looking forward to going home this Christmas. How can I listen to people saying things like "A bit of their own medicine", "they had it coming", "they asked for it", and take it lightly when, like my fellow New Yorkers, I am already upset about what was done to our city and its citizens.

I would ask my fellow Australians to show the people of New York and Washington, the same compassion they show the people of Afghanistan. Think please before you say something that might be very cruel to the listener. And if you are talking to a New Yorker or Washingtonian, can you think first. You just might be talking to someone recently bereaved.

Kate Juliff
New York
October 2001