As an Australian with ancestors in the Netherlands and British Isles, my family, my friends and I are firmly rooted in a cultural entity commonly known as “the west.” This definition generally refers to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States and countries in western Europe. While not all my friends and family are entirely descended from western European ancestors (and at some point we’re all cousins from eastern Africa anyway), much of the cultural landscape which we in the “west” inhabit is based on ideas and culture that originally came from western Europe.
When we discuss the United States, we invariably think of it as a member and even a leader of this “western” bloc of nations. American political, historical and cultural conversations rarely venture outside their own borders but when they do, talk invariably turns to Europe and “the west.” Progressives like Bernie Sanders point to Denmark as an example of how the U.S. might function as a social democracy, for example. Reactionary conservatives use the same comparison to warn against the development of a “resurgent socialism” in North America. Activists look to Australia as an example of how restrictions on gun ownership might curb crime and violence. During the coronavirus pandemic, American commentators have often compared their country’s response with the likes of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain and New Zealand.
On the surface, this makes sense. Americans don’t travel abroad nearly as much as Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders or Canadians — the gap year is an unknown concept here, and less than half of Americans own a valid passport — but when they do it’s often back to the Old World or other English-speaking countries (or cruises and resorts in the Caribbean). “Western” governments are all geopolitical allies of the United States, which played a major role in protecting those societies from expansionist fascist and communist powers in the 20th century.
But beyond those somewhat superficial similarities, the United States is an obvious cultural, political and historical odd man out in this group. It is the only one without a national health service. It retains a gritty frontier mentality, with a large civilian population armed for the explicit purpose of resisting a tyrannical government. With the exception of Ireland (by my count), it is the only one that successfully fought a revolutionary war for colonial independence in the modern era. Instead of parliamentary systems that encourage coalition governments like those in Australia, France and the United Kingdom, the United States’ congress is split into simple left-right factions. And unlike all “western” nations except Spain (again by my count), the United States has fought a civil war over that left-right divide in the modern era. It is the only country in the group that imported slaves from Africa on an industrial scale. Compared to the rest of the “west,” the United States has virtually no social safety net. Its richest citizens are much richer and its poorest are much poorer than any other “western” nation.
As a current resident of the United States, I often find myself frustrated by the dichotomy between this country and the rest of the “western” world. Why is there so much income inequality here, and why are black and brown communities over-represented among the ranks of the poor? Why do Americans put up with this national scam that masquerades as a healthcare system? Why must I think twice before speaking up if someone says something barbarous on public transport, for fear that the offender might be armed? Why do I not trust the police, and why are the police pawing their weapons at every traffic stop?
In short: I thought I was living in a “western” country, and had come here expecting a similar set of values and standards to those I had known in Australia and western Europe. But the more I look around me, the more I realise: the United States of America is not a “western” country at all.
So if it’s not “western,” what is it? Well, the clue is in the name: the United States of America. The United States is a republic of the American continent, and even a cursory examination reveals that its culture, politics and history all have a lot more in common with its fellow American republics — from Mexico to Argentina, and everywhere in between — than it does with the rest of “the west.”
I think this frame of reference can be helpful for Americans looking to improve their society. For example: I doubt Bernie Sanders would ever be able to replicate the Danish system in the United States. But there are policies, ideas and historical precedents floating around throughout Latin America that policymakers might find more useful than trying to manufacture analogs from “western” societies with completely different histories, culture and politics.
Here are just a few similarities between the United States and its American neighbours:
Revolutionary Overthrow of a Colonial Power
The U.S. revolution was the first of its kind in the Americas and, by the standards of the revolts to come, it was pretty tame: tax complaints from a wealthy, local-born, European-descended elite (in Latin America this revolutionary landowning class were known as criollos) snowballed into a full-blown independence movement. Power moved out of the hands of a European king and parliament and into the hands of that local elite. But despite its relative tameness, the rhetoric and ideals of the American Revolution set minds and pulses racing back in Europe and throughout the Americas.
Simon Bolivar was the George Washington of northern South America. However, he only found success against the Spanish viceroyalty when he added emancipation to his list of demands and at last drew the vast ranks of Colombian and Venezuelan slaves to his cause. This, of course, makes his revolution a far more radical affair than the whites-only freedoms won by Washington and Co. up north.
And then there’s Haiti, where Bolivar was finally convinced of the need to abolish slavery. Ending in 1804, Haiti’s revolution was the second in the Americas, and arguably the most radical in revolutionary history. In it, plantation slaves threw off their chains and, after winning a bloody civil war and rebuffing a reinvasion by Napoleon, established their own independent nation. They were led by Toussaint Louverture, a bonafide man of the people and all-round badass who was himself born into slavery.
These are just some examples of the American continent’s rich revolutionary history, and the legacy of these tumultuous events has marked each society in different ways. By comparing U.S. history with that of its southern neighbours, I think historians, politicians and journalists can learn far more than if they were to continue studying nations of “the west.”
Of course, there are big differences in the causes, courses and results of all revolutions, including between those of the United States and its sister American republics. However, I would argue that the central place held by the French revolution in the U.S. imagination — from historically illiterate opinion columnists equating Twitter mobs with Robespierre’s guillotine to socialist magazines named after a vicious sect of revolutionaries — does not do American discourse any favours. In 1789 France was an ancient, fiscally precarious monarchy rooted in the Middle ages. It spent its revolution fighting itself and its neighbors and emerged under Napoleon as a modern military machine that waged war on Europe for the next 16 years.
By contrast, the United States started its revolution as a disgruntled frontier colony, took its independence by force from an intransigent crown and emerged a fractious-yet-modern democratic republic. This arc bears little resemblance to that of France — but its basic contours resemble other revolutions on the American continent, from Mexico to Argentina.
We’ve already touched on this topic above, and I don’t have too much to add here as I’m even less of an expert on this history. But it’s helpful to point out that while no “western” country — even colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand — imported slaves on a similar scale to the United States, countries like Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Jamaica and, of course, Haiti are filled with the descendants of enslaved people. Among American nations, the United States was not particularly notable for its use of slavery, nor was it exceptional for the timing of its abolishment — Chile abolished the practice in 1823, the post-independence Mexican government occasionally clashed with slaveholding Texans in an effort to enforce abolitionist laws and Abraham Lincoln didn’t proclaim emancipation until 1862.
The struggle to come to terms with the painful legacy of slavery is arguably the defining cultural and political feature of life on this continent, from the south side of Chicago to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and, most recently, the demonstrations that began this week in reaction to the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd.
Last year, the New York Times podcast “1619” made a laudable attempt at confronting this history and its modern effects, but I think its main failing was that, like most cultural products of the United States, it failed to account for the legacy of slavery beyond U.S. borders. Slavery was an American phenomenon in the continental sense, not the national sense, and I think its effects could be better understood if the U.S. spent more time in cultural conversation with its southern neighbours.
All over the Americas, the history of indigenous people turns to cataclysm upon contact with Europeans. Again, the United States fits the trend here — the ranks of Apaches, Comanches, Sioux, Cheyenne and others were decimated or even wiped out in much the same way as the Aztecs, Incas, Muiscas and untold others throughout the continent.
As it struggles with the fallout of this painful history, the United States can find inspiration elsewhere in the Americas. For example, take Benito Juarez. He was born in the early 19th century to Zapotec peasants in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and didn’t speak Spanish until he was in his early teens, but in 1858 he was the first indigenous man to be elected to that country’s presidency. More than 150 years later in Bolivia, Evo Morales — his country’s first indigenous president — oversaw passage of the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, the first legal bill that invested the natural world with rights in a human court of law.
Of course, politics and personalities are not everything — storytelling and cultural treatment matters, too. One of the most striking movies I have seen in the last decade is “Embrace of the Serpent” (Abrazo del Serpiente), a gripping 2015 Colombian film starring actors from indigenous communities in the Amazon and spoken mostly in their own languages.
Despite these examples of relative success, indigenous communities across the Americas are underrepresented in positions of power and over-represented in the ranks of the poor and disadvantaged. But by paying more attention to one another and sharing knowledge, the indigenous and non-indigenous communities in the United States and the rest of the Americas might make some progress here.
Visitors to the United States and Latin America from the “west” are often confronted by the stark differences between the living conditions experienced by the poorest and wealthiest members of society. According to World Bank estimates, the U.S. is the 55th “most unequal” society in the world. This makes it an anomaly among fellow “western” countries like the U.K. (100th), Spain (101st), Australia (103rd), Canada (108th), France (128th) and the Netherlands (145th).
However, the U.S. fits right in the middle of neighbours like Colombia (16th), Mexico (31st), Chile (37th), Peru (46th), Bolivia (49th), Argentina (54th), Haiti (56th), Uruguay (67th) and El Salvador (73rd). The closest “western” country to the United States is Italy, a long way down the list at 89th.
The social safety net has been ebbing away for half a century in the United States, and has rarely gotten off the ground in much of Latin America. However, relatively recent initiatives in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Colombia show that the arc of history might be starting to bend.
Incidentally, this spread roughly holds true for homicide rates as well, with the United States ranking at 94th in the world for murders per capita. This puts it on the lower-middle end of the spectrum amid Latin American countries, but far higher than the closest “western” country (Canada at 152nd).
The Americas has a long history of immigration. While immigration to the U.S. and Canada continues today, arrivals from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia to the rest of the Americas dropped off in the latter half of the 20th century. However, for centuries Latin America drew sizable immigrant populations from southern Europe, China, Japan and the Middle East, as well as the forced migration of enslaved Africans.
For the United States, this ongoing immigration — especially from elsewhere on the continent — makes it unique among its sister republics, a great continental melting pot that has produced some of the most compelling art and culture in the world. Take salsa music, for example, a now-ubiquitous feature of latino culture that emerged from a mix of traditional Cuban “son” and African-American jazz in 1960’s New York City. By recognising its true place as a republic of the Americas — and not a “western” nation — I think the U.S. could play a central role in the cultural life of the continent.
American nations generally split the powers of their government between the courts, a president with executive authority and a legislative body. This stands in contrast to many “western” nations like the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Spain and Canada (which turns out to be the odd one out after all — a lone “western” social democracy on the American continent). All of them have a monarch as their head of state.
American governments are not all the same, of course, and one element that sets the United States apart from its peers is its radical decentralisation of powers, giving states a lot of discretion to enact laws, follow policies and collect taxes that suit the temperament of their citizens. Most other American governments are quite centralised by comparison.
While this decentralisation does make for a rather chaotic and unwieldy system, the ability for states to experiment with seemingly radical ideas — the legalization of marijuana being a prime example — has been a resilient engine of democratic innovation.
One area in which the United States does have more in common with “western” nations is gender equality. Before COVID-19 sent everyone indoors, massive feminist movements were gaining steam across the globe using a stirring Chilean protest song as its anthem. The U.S. has a rich feminist history dating back more than 150 years, and I imagine it must have a lot to offer this latest incarnation of the women’s rights struggle in Latin America.
You might come away from this list wondering if I ought to pack up and move back to safe, secluded, decidedly “western” Australia. Americans often ask a version of the same thing, which is, “Which country do you like better: Australia or the United States?”
My answer usually boils down to the following: Australia is a better country to live in for lots of boring reasons, while the U.S. is has the edge for lots of exciting reasons. Like other “western” countries, Australia has great and affordable healthcare, great and affordable education, safe streets, stable politics and a robust social safety net. In a word: Zzzzzzz. Meanwhile, the U.S. is filled with cutting-edge arts, raucous and unending debate, roiling energy for social change, endless opportunities for professional growth and reinvention, great countercultural movements constantly sloshing across its cultural and political landscape — just like the rest of the Americas.
As a (still) young guy from a stable country and blessed with options, I have never really been drawn to life in safe and secure societies (though COVID-19 is testing that). I found a taste of that “edge” during an exchange program in Colombia, and I’m finding a version of it here in the United States, too. I’m learning to love it for what it is.
The United States and the rest of the American republics have a lot to learn from one another. However, in recent years the former’s dealings with the latter tend to boil down to paranoid reactions to northward migration, a useless war on drugs and outdated Cold War rhetoric. This turns ordinary Americans away from their southern brothers and sisters — in Latin America, you meet very few Americans outside of the resort hot spots.
Once, in a time before Trump and his wall, H and I checked into a Mexican hostel together. The hostel owner shrugged at my Australian passport — “Another one,” he said — but his eyes lit up when H handed over her U.S. document.
“We never see you guys out here,” he beamed, and then his face fell a little. “It’s a shame, really. Seeing as we’re neighbours and all.”
I recently published a book about a year-long bicycle trip from Canada to El Salvador! You can order “The Guest: A Backroads Journey by Bicycle” here.