It’s the Fourth of July, and here in Brooklyn, New York, it’s 31 degrees. On the street I can hear the ice cream truck, and without needing to look, I know that there’s kids chasing their shadows in the fountains of cool water that jet up from the pavement in the park across the street. It’s hot, it’s a holiday: the kids are there. I know they are because the sound of soft serve on wheels ringing in my ears reminds me of home. It reminds me of long hot Brisbane summers filled with nothing but bubbling tar on the street, bomb dives into our backyard pool and begging my mother for the change I need for a Paddlepop—rainbow, of course. Last night the sound and fury of firecrackers filled the sky, as it had the night before. A warm up for the fireworks that will erupt over Manhattan to celebrate the birth of these United States.
Except it doesn’t much feel like a celebration. The weeks and days leading up to this year’s Independence Day have been characterised by a deterioration of the conversation, a marked increase in protest, and the peeling back of the curtain, further than it has been peeled back before. Immigration, that thing that built this nation, looks set to be the thing that cleaves it apart. It’s another way I’m reminded of home—a scroll my Twitter feed shows the same things, said by the same people, taking up the same sides, in Australia as in the USA.
It’s a tired, fear-filled feed of hate, ignorance and greed. But playing up to the worst anxieties of the people has worked well in Australia, it’s solidified governments and arguably won elections. The people are meek. We are passive, we let it happen. First the offshoring, then the turn backs, now the endless statelessness of genuine refugees, all because of the domestic political success it brings. We didn’t stop it. Maybe that’s because we didn’t see it. We’re not able to visit the border towns and watch the families wail and weep for their missing. We’re not able to send photojournalists to take the pictures that will shock us to action. Nauru won’t even let the National Broadcaster into the country to cover Australian government business. We are blinded, deliberately, and it makes it easier to acquiesce. Makes it easier to argue that we’re doing these things for the good of the refugees, taken advantage of by unscrupulous people smugglers who care not for their lives. Except we don’t care for their lives either, we’ve comprehensively proved that.
When news of the separation of families in the USA first gathered steam, the response from the press and the people was swift and remarkable to an Australian watching on. Protesters mobilised in hours, raised money for legal aid, and put pressure, real pressure, on Congress and the President. A change in policy, although not the full reversal many hoped for, was swiftly achieved. For what seemed like the first time in this reality TV loop we’re living in, Donald Trump was trumped. And still, the campaign, beyond its initial win, continues. Celebrities are at the border, raising money, recording Instagram stories, keeping the conversation going. Protests across the country last weekend saw hundreds of thousands turn out in support of asylum seekers. In the big cities built on the heart and sweat of immigrants, the rancor at the clamp down on the borders in palpable. We are an immigrant nation, is the liberal refrain. I saw Lady Liberty just the other day, holding her torch high over the city, over this teeming mass of hopeful hustlers we call New York.
But that’s New York. It’s not ‘Middle America’, it’s not ‘Trump’s America’. It’s like the divide the Murdoch papers in Australia have thrown barrels of ink at cultivating. It’s not the ‘good people of Western Sydney’ or the battlers transferred from Labor to Howard to, apparently, Pauline. People urged to cultivate their own lives in a petri dish of hate and fear. In 2012 I was sent to write a profile of a Western Sydney electorate. ‘Ask them about the boats,’ my editor said. ‘Ask them about offshore detention.’ And so, I did. A lot of people shrugged their shoulders, said they didn’t care. Said they cared more about unemployment and childcare rebates and private school fees and house prices. Said it wouldn’t change their vote. The few who wanted to talk about it said all the things you expect: they’ll take our jobs. They’ll suck too hard at the welfare teat. They’ll do both those things at the same time while causing a crime wave for good measure. In a deli on the main drag, two women had competing sandwich counters. One Polish, one Vietnamese. Both were migrants, but only one came to Australia by boat. They are getting too much, the Vietnamese woman told me. The government is giving them houses and iPods, she claimed. It wasn’t like that when I arrived.
There’s a lot to shake your head at about America. Gun culture, healthcare, the measly minimum wage, the continual roll back of women’s reproductive rights, the militarisation of police. As Australians it can be easy to look on smugly at these things and think nothing of the ways we are cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to disregard how our societies have othered the most desperate and needy of people, asking for our help and care.
But online, in the weeds, you see the same language perpetuating the same myths in both places. Right-wing accounts will talk of patriots and traitors, of criminals and gangs and people smugglers taking advantage of desperate people. They never tell you why they’re desperate in the first place. They’ll smatter their commentary with digs at ‘snowflakes’ and ‘SJW’s’ (social justices warriors, apparently that’s a pejorative these days), and they’ll talk about the violence and incivility of ‘leftists’. It’s the same if you’re wading into the Trump swamp or rolling round in the Murdoch mud (in America, you can do both at once, thanks to Fox News). It’s a template for rancor and division. First devised in these United States, and like all the rest of this nation’s culture, packaged up and shipped out to the world. We eat our fill and spit it back out into our own political discourse. But what we don’t seem to have adopted is a sense of any boundaries. Of when we push the inhumanity too far. Why aren’t we more outraged by the way we treat refugees. The way we treat Indigenous Australians. The way we treat people with ‘different’ religious or cultural backgrounds. Americans don’t always push back firmly enough (see the election of Donald Trump) but, right now, there is a critical mass of loud and determined voices that are.
So yes, America feels like it is teetering on the precipice. It feels fearful and hate-filled and hurt-filled. But there is passion here too, simmering along throughout the twists and turns of Trump’s first term. It feels as though this country is more divided than it has been in a long while, but there is agitation for change. There is a push back against the worst excesses of fear. I can’t wait for that cultural phenomenon to be exported.
Sarah-Jane Collins is a Brisbane-bred writer and editor who recently completed an MFA at Columbia University. She currently lives in New York City, after stints in Sydney and Melbourne.