One of the fascinating things about living in another country is getting your head around the social and cultural differences at play. Those ‘at play’ differences are everywhere and if you’re mindful, you can find and explore what’s both different and familiar at the same time.
You might imagine that between Australia and America there aren’t a whole lot of differences. But they’re there. When I get asked, the simplest way I can describe it is to say that Australia and America are the same but different.
Little things sure – the accent, the lingo, the endless cricket vs baseball comparisons. Americans and Australians speak the same language, watch the same movies and share a mutual respect and fascination for each other. And increasingly there’s a bridging of the two countries that manifests in small ways, like when flat whites get introduced on the menu at Starbucks.
All that isn’t enough for me. I wanted a wider framework with which to think about how America and Australia are the same but different. In searching for one, I read this book called Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States. It’s written by an American, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David Hackett Fischer.
My homeland might not be New Zealand, but there is much that can be extrapolated from this book about its very close regional and colonial cousin. As such, Australia is mentioned frequently throughout this book.
The basic premise of the book, as evidenced from its title, is that Americans value liberty and freedom, while in contrast, New Zealanders (and by extension Australians) value fairness and equity.
Sounds right. But why? Turns out the answer to that question goes back hundreds of years. According to Fischer, the answer lies in our common British colonial past.
The Brits settled on the east coast of America roughly in the early 17th century. But it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that they got around to colonizing and settling in New Zealand. It is that 200-year difference between the British settling of America and New Zealand that is so crucial.
Fischer describes how the British colonists who settled in America in the early 1600s did so with under the auspices of control, tyranny and an absolutism that went on for generations. Two hundred years later when the British settled New Zealand (and Australia) they did so with different principles and with a much more softened spirit.
The American ideals of freedom and liberty can be traced back to the long battle the earliest Americans had with their British colonizers. More specifically, it was a 6-generation struggle between the yet-to-be-independent Americans against tyrants sent over from England to bring them back into line with their British rulers. The American War of Independence, and subsequent Declaration of Independence celebrated on July 4th, put an end to this tyranny. Fischer explains:
“These many imperial conflicts are little remembered in the United States, but together they had a major impact on its history.. The American obsession with liberty and freedom was in large part a product of that long experience.. That habit of mind found a permanent place in American ways of thinking about the world”.
This is all in contrast to Australia and New Zealand who won their freedom from the mother country without having to fight against their British founders. The path to nationhood for Australia and New Zealand was a gradual one, with no war, declaration, constitution or significant struggle against the British. Freedom and liberty therefore were not strong themes from this time or in subsequent generations. Instead Australia and New Zealand are much more wrapped up in ideals of fairness, equity and social justice.
Case in point, Australians believe that everyone should help themselves, but if you are genuinely in need then the government should be there to provide assistance to you. This explains why Australians are for the most part happy to pay higher taxes to fund services for people with genuine needs, such as hospitals for the sick, services for the disabled and care for the elderly.
To many Americans, this concept is foreign because the prevailing thinking is one of every man for himself. It is accepted in American society that one person can do well without depriving another. Americans pride their constitutional right to freedom of speech while Australians struggle to understand how to integrate it with their preexisting ideals of mateship and fairness.
The book concludes with what is perhaps its most difficult question – is it possible for a nation to be both fair and free? Can freedom, fairness, liberty and natural justice ever sit together? Not an easy question to answer and I’m certainly not going to tackle it. Fischer offers this advice:
“In 1940, that was a problem for the future. In the twenty-first century, it is a question for our time”.
What this book gave me, besides a fascinating history lesson, is a look at the cultural, historical and societal differences between America and New Zealand, and by extension, Australia as well. It provides a summary of the historical literature on a wide variety of subject areas including military and wartime traditions, racial and indigenous issues, government, women’s rights, religion, immigration, even how the different countries have responded historically to various financial crises.
While this discussion is interesting, what does it all mean for expats like me who spend significant amounts of time immersed in American culture and society? How does it help me with the ‘at play’ differences that are fascinating and overwhelming at times?
I owe it to my adopted country to have an awareness and appreciation of what dominates American culture and thinking, and why. It’s what smart expats do. That deeper understanding allows my Australian upbringing to fully immerse and adapt in new and exciting ways – to all that’s the same but different.