View from Australia: Life in August

By Jonathan Bradley

I tend to think most stereotypes people hold about Americans are wildly unfair. The idea that the nation of the Ivy League is uneducated, or that the country of William Faulkner and Frank Lloyd Wright is uncultured is clearly absurd. But there's one stereotype of the United States that I've long suspected to be secretly true, and that is that the place is, to put it midly, completely insane.

Oh, it hides it well — and wears it well too. In fact, America's insanity can be one of its most endearing and admirable qualities. What other country would consider deep fried butter a delicacy, or, for that matter, think it an intelligent idea to, as it did in 1775, go to war against the most powerful empire in the world so as to hang on to its right to set its own taxes? What other people would declare the pursuit of happiness to be a god-given entitlement, to then entrench the idea that anyone can say whatever the hell they feel like into the very text of their constitution, and then turn around and decide it might be fun to make sure each of their fellows can own as big a stash of firearms as he likes? And then to declare that right in language so impenetrable that folks would spend the next two centuries debating exactly what they originally meant?

The American insanity is, in short, a conviction that it has the ability to pursue extraordinary ideas from which a more moderate people might shy away. Sometimes those ideas are great, like republican democracy, and other times they're horrendous, like slavery. (Sometimes, they're both, like "Jersey Shore.") But for all America's ever-present residual insanity, there is a time when the crazy really comes out in the country and while these episodes last, the nation puts all claims to good sense in a shoebox on a high shelf, not to be brought down until an adult returns to the room.

We have a name for these occasions. That name is "August."

Blame it on the heat, or the strange mania deriving from the unremitting stretch of baseball game after baseball game, but on the eight month of each year, America always manages to bog itself down in a new morass of absurd behaviour. Remember August 2010? Back then, a New York Islamic group wanted to convert a former Burlington Coat Factory in Lower Manhattan into a community centre. The group already used the building to pray in and had nothing to do with terrorism, yet because their proposal included a prayer centre and was four blocks from the site of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, cable news rabble rousers stoked up a fuss about a Ground Zero Mosque. Politicians rushed to denounce the project, protesters descended on New York, and the nation found itself caught in a gripping debate about whether religious freedom extended to building a religious building in the biggest city in the country.

But as the weather grew colder and the days grew shorter, something strange happened. The community centre's opponents grew quiet and the nation began to talk about other things. The Islamic group continued to ready their project at the same site it had always intended except now... nobody cared. Sanity returned.

Or think back to August 2009. Get this: During that month, Democratic congresspeople returned to their districts, eager to sell their constituents on a plan to expand their health care coverage, making it cheaper and more easily available. But at town hall meetings in the thick late summer heat, these representatives were shocked to find their plans had made the American people furious. And the fury tended toward an inchoate fear. The government was planning to take away Medicare, some thought. Others were convinced that the Feds would force senior citizens before death panels. Public response to a policy proposal is called democracy, but the bizarre reaction to the Affordable Care Act in 2009 was just strange. And, sure enough, as the days grew shorter, the public's enthusiasm for health care reform didn't build, but these unusual convictions — that the government was intent on killing its citizens — began to dissipate.

That's how these August insanities work. They build to a fever pitch as summer ends, but once Labor Day passes, things in America settle back down to normal. Remember the terrorist attacks of 2001? Do you remember the scandal that occupied the entire nation's collective mind in the month before those attacks? You probably don't. It had nothing to do with al Qaeda or foreign policy or Osama bin Laden: in August of 2001, the media sincerely believed, despite a lack of evidence, that Congressman Gary Condit may have murdered a government intern called Chandra Levy.

And 2011 has been no exception. The crazy began early this year, as Congress undertook a serious debate over whether the government should default on its debt. Congress eventually agreed the US should continue paying its bills, but would only agree to permit it to do so if it sucked trillions of dollars out of an economy already weak from a lack of demand. Then, one of the politicians who thought the US should have defaulted, Michele Bachmann, won the Iowa Straw Poll, suggesting she might actually need to be considered a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Her rise was only halted when Texas Governer Rick Perry decided to join the race; he showed his bona fides by suggesting the governor of the Federal Reserve had committed treason and proposing that large swathes of the federal government that had existed for almost a century were actually unconstitutional. Congress has been out of session, except it's been holding pretend "pro forma" meetings just in case President Obama tried to exercise his constitutional authority to appoint staff to government departments and judges to courts. Obama, for his part, didn't try, and instead escaped to Martha's Vineyard.

He might have returned to the fray too soon: Yesterday, the President got into a spat with House Speaker John Boehner over whether he should give a speech to Congress about the nation's unemployment problem on September 7th. Boehner, in an unprecedented rebuff, suggested Obama might prefer to talk on the 8th, when his speech would interrupt the first NFL game of the season instead of a Republican presidential debate. In typical August fashion, fingers were pointed, the president acceded, and pundits debated who had won or lost the tiff. Really.

And now it's the first of September. Congress is coming back to town, and it is due to finally talk about jobs, and maybe work out a new budget. I don't want to jinx anything, but I'm holding out just a little hope that things will settle back down to normal.

And August?

Thank god it's over.

1 September 2011