One of the things I haven’t covered yet- a detail that made my semester abroad that much more colorful- was that I was in the USA during election year. Tensions were high and the campus was highly politicized. Both the Dems and the GOP had official organizations at the grass-roots level- veritable legions of fired-up, partisan students that scoured the campus for recruits during the day and drank toasts to the bloody demise of their counterparts come night. There was a real sense of vitriol between the two sides. It was as though every four years the country braced itself for a civil war, which is an apt choice of words because the ideological divisions in this country can be traced right back to the fricking Gatling Gun. I’ve always thought that America is really two countries- like two warring spirits vying for control of a host body. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived was the tangible sense of dread people had towards the 2012 general election. Now I’m not saying people back in the Old World of Yurrup enjoy elections, but I’ve certainly never seen the same sense of fear. In the UK some people go about hardly noticing there’s an election at all. But in the US- boy do you know it’s game time.
The US is about as polarized as a nation can get. When I was making my road trip across the country before moving into the dorms, I met up with my assigned roommate Brad and a bunch of his high school chums in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Madison, WI. After grudgingly obliging their demands I say “bloody hell” several times in my normal voice, I was able to pick up a few pointers on the Do’s and Don’ts of living in the Land of the Free.
“Whatever you do, do NOT mention politics, religion, or race,” one girl told me.
There was this sense that to do so was to light a cigarette in a room already doused with gasoline. Any moment things could explode. It was an interesting climate to witness, and any American will tell you that when things kick off, it’s ugly as all hell. And it’s true; in the UK there simply isn’t the same level of hatred that exists between both factions. People just kind of get on with it, and few folks can really be bothered to make a scene.
The memory of that semester that sticks out most to me was the time my bestest of mates Aaron got back from casting his vote.
“Shit’s hit the fan,” he said, lying back on the rug across from where I sat. Aaron told me how an argument about abortion exploded on lower campus outside the voting booths. I’m not sure who started it, but basically what happened is two girls got into a screaming match and one of them called the other a “cunt”. You know the hatred is genuine when Americans use that word. In the USA it definitely carries more weight than anywhere else. Over there it’s strictly a gender-specific word. It’s a word used against women to demean women. In the UK, it’s still bad, but it’s applied more or less equally to both genders (think of it as an upgrade of “jerk”). And in Australia, I hear it’s actually a term of endearment. But no, in the US whenever that word is used it’s like all air is sucked out of the room. Back home, if I were to say it I’d get a slap on the wrist for being vulgar, but if I were to utter it in the USA, there would be a sense of “Did you really just do that?”
As a foreigner, I was pretty much insulated from it all. Come election-day a girl knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I told her I wasn’t eligible, and for some reason I got a real sense of satisfaction in doing so. But a part of me did feel like I was missing out on the party. I wasn’t politically-inclined at all in those days, but I still felt swept up in all the excitement. There was a real sense of hope that came with Obama’s crushing victory, and the dorm rooms were warmed by the glow of progressivism. No offence to Mitt Romney, but he displayed about as much charisma and political insight as a pilchard. I’ll never forget staying up with Aaron all night to watch the live coverage of the votes being counted, and I have such a vivid memory of Obama’s rousing victory speech in the wind and rain of Chicago. It was probably one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and one of the few I’ve really been affected by with a surge of emotion. Our reaction was tantamount to that of seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo performing a slam dunk over someone. “Holy shit,” Aaron said. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you had to give it to Barack Obama; the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest orators in American history.