Culture shock: The times they are a’changing

Nathan Carter

Michael Brissenden has been an ABC political correspondent for more than 25 years, including four years spent in the United States. From 2009 to 2012, he was an eyewitness to one of the most dramatic periods of change in America’s history. His new book, American Stories: Tales of Hope and Anger, was the subject of his talk at Ryde Library, examining some of the many facets of life that are effecting the US public.

Among the audience was Ray Dudgeon, 86, former miner who worked all over the world, including many years in Canada. “I’m always interested in what’s going on,” said Ray, who came to hear “what [Michael Brissenden] thinks is the real situation in North America.”

Yellow Post-it notes marked each individual story in Michael’s personal copy of his book, as he read tales of his journeys and reminisced about some of the many colourful characters he came across during his time in the US.

There was Matt Lewandowski, a Virginia New Republic Patriot “freedom fighter” who was taking part in a 100,000-strong “Freedom March”. Michael spoke of the way conservative figureheads of this movement, such as television and radio host Glenn Beck, railed against “the progressive cancer eating away at the soul of America”, eliciting several loud groans of derision from among the audience.

We heard about Marion Barry, the African-American two-term mayor of Washington DC, nicknamed “Mayor Barely” by the affluent white population and “Mayor For Life” by the black population of the American capital’s depressed neighbourhoods. In January 1991 he had a spectacular fall from grace triggered by a video of him smoking crack cocaine. Despite the scandal, and in a remarkable turn of events, Barry was re-elected in 1995 and served for four more years.

Michael painted a picture of an America experiencing a huge culture-shift, as the Hispanic population grew from just over 35 million to more than 50 million from 2000 to 2010, while the white proportion of the population decreased from 69 per cent to 64 per cent over the same period. Michael suggested that the sheer scale of demographic change was “catching the country by surprise”. “Little towns that had never seen a taco before” were now 30 per cent Latino.

Audience members gasped in disbelief as Michael spoke about the nature of healthcare and health insurance in America: “$800 for an x-ray; $700 for a blood test”. The statistic that “nearly half of all bankruptcies” in the US were due to health insurance costs left more than one listener open-mouthed.

Questions at the end of the talk left the audience hoping for more. Within 15 minutes, Michael condemned the auto industry in Detroit to inevitable extinction, predicted the survival of The New York Times as a newspaper, and suggested that the death of religiosity in the US may have been prematurely declared.