I have spent a grand total of one week of my life in New York City, and yet can name all of its boroughs and many of its streets. I never set out to study the city’s geography or its history, but I somehow managed to absorb it passively. The same is true of Washington DC, which I’ve never visited, and San Francisco likewise.
For my sins, I follow American politics almost as closely as I follow British politics. My Twitter and other media feeds provide a constantly refreshing supply of news and commentary imported from the US.
And yet I remain embarrassingly ignorant about Australian events, though I’m a dual national. My Australian friends and family will mention the names of important public figures – even, to my shame, the new prime minister, elected in May – and I go blank. This is because, just like the rest of the British media class, I live and breathe all things American, whereas hardly anyone in this country gives a damn about what happens in Australia.
The American news cycle automatically transposes itself on to the global news cycle in a way that is true for no other country. So when, for instance, the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020, some British women I know were grief stricken. Not because they were originally American, or because they have lived in the US, or have any direct connection with the country, but because Bader Ginsburg appeared to be the last remaining impediment against the overturning of Roe vs Wade. For them her death foretold the end of federally mandated abortion rights in the US.
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And so it has come to pass, and the understandable anguish of American women is being felt also in other parts of the world. Protests have been held throughout the UK, in events reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations that took place worldwide during the pandemic summer of 2020. BLM marches happened in places as far flung as Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Iceland – all countries with very low rates of police killings, but which nevertheless drew crowds of young people holding up signs (in English) expressing their solidarity with the progressive US.
A Romanian friend reports a similar phenomenon in her peer group, where young English speakers have been eager to express their outrage at the decision on Roe. As with the BLM protests, it’s possible that these young Romanians feel sincere sympathy for women in distress on the other side of the world, and are also taking the opportunity to link the American scene to their own domestic anxieties. Given the history of abortion restrictions in communist Romania, and the resulting horrors that took place in the country’s state-run orphanages, it is hardly surprising that this issue would resonate.
But I think there are other forces in play as well. The American empire exerts power in many different ways, some of them both subtle and unintentional. I know my way around New York City because I’ve spent a lifetime watching film and TV made by Americans, and Twitter is pushing me towards commentary on the Roe judgment because it is a platform made by Americans. This is soft power at work.
The US is the world’s largest Anglophone country, so we should expect American voices to dominate in any English-speaking context, particularly online. But it is also (despite its internal disintegration) still the richest and the most powerful country in the world, Anglophone or not, and with the demise of the British empire, the US has long been the centre of global cultural and political power. Those of us in its orbit participate in American discourse in much the same way that Australian schoolchildren once sang “God Save the Queen”. When we drool over or react to American news, we are deferring to the mother country, whether we realise it or not.
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It isn’t healthy to focus on American issues so obsessively that we ignore those affecting countries with which we ought to have a closer relationship – in western Europe, for instance, or in the rest of the Anglophone world. Did you know, for example, that the state of South Australia did not fully decriminalise abortion until 2021? Nor did I until I looked it up. As in the US, legislation varies between states in the Australian federation, and access to abortion services can sometimes be very limited. Since 2017, there have been no state-run clinics in Tasmania offering surgical abortions, meaning that women in search of these services are obliged to fly to another state. We share not only a language but a legal history with Australia, and yet most Britons pay little attention to what goes on there.
If you’re tempted to assume that Australia’s remoteness is to blame for this oversight (the “tyranny of distance” as the historian Geoffrey Blainey described it), note that the London commentariat takes the same attitude to the island of Ireland, which is within swimming distance of the English coast. This includes Northern Ireland, where abortion services are still yet to be established despite the 2019 change to the law. This means that women there seeking an abortion after ten weeks must travel to the mainland.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling sympathy for those affected by the judgment on Roe, nor with expressing that publicly. But the UK and US are two very different countries, with two very different legal systems. Given recent events, we should all be glad that this is not the US.
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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness