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American Exasperation and Australian Humor

A few Trump critics I saw at my friend’s wedding chewed over every speech and every new development after the Charlottesville protests; others seemed to have less capacity for continuous outrage, offering little more than an “I know” and a shake of the head, asking how anyone could see any Trump as a positive force.

Meanwhile, Trump supporters I know chose not to engage. One of my brothers, a Trump voter, said he’d expected chaos given that Trump is taking on a broken system. During a long car ride, he told me he figured the news coverage of Charlottesville would just be more of the same, from more of the people who want Trump gone. He never even watched Trump’s controversial speeches (though he may have now after I insisted he watch the raw clips).

What I sensed in that conversation and many others was less a desire to find middle ground than a craving for calm, in a country drowning in political adrenaline.

Empowered, for Good and Ill

On a subway train in Manhattan last week, a petite Asian woman with a thick accent scolded me for not noticing that there was a pregnant woman near the doors who needed a seat.

I quickly got up, effusive with apology. Then I thought: Would that exchange have happened in Sydney?

There was no denying that the woman felt empowered. Once I stood, she started talking to me — loudly — about all the other men in the subway car who had been there longer and seen the mother-to-be and stayed seated. And what could be more American than that?

Australians often remark on the American love affair with individual rights over the collective (it’s what explains American gun laws, they correctly note), and on my trip home, I again saw how much of American life continues to be shaped by that individualist ethos.

Yes, it drives politics. The American propensity for self-empowerment fuels both the white nationalist and anti-racist counter-protester.

But what I found equally striking during this last trip was the degree to which it governs smaller, more intimate interactions. Americans call each other out, often. There’s a comfort with inquiry and confrontation that, coming from another country, seems peculiar — or so it did to me.

Efficiency or Bust

This is a more minor point, but wow, the United States — or rather New York — sure does strive for maximum efficiency.

I almost forgot what it was like to get dirty looks for walking too slowly on Manhattan sidewalks. I found myself feeling self-conscious as the staff at wine stores, restaurants and cafes seemed to eagerly attend to my every need, delivering service that was quick and friendly, consistently, rather than hit-or-miss, as it is in Australia.

I won’t delve into the possible reasons (yes, there are many, and I’m not concluding which is better or worse) but here’s what hit me at one point: Sydneysiders are competitive about anything having to do with sports. New Yorkers are competitive with customer care.

You can come hear me talk more about the U.S. of A. — and President Trump and the media — at the Storyology conference on Saturday at noon in Brisbane, or in Sydney on Aug. 30.

In the meantime, check out another batch of New York Times stories you might have otherwise missed below, plus a roundup of your responses to my last newsletter (especially on the question of whether Australians are quicker to joke than self-reflect).

As always, share this newsletter if you like it, tell your friends to sign up and tell me what you think at [email protected].

If you haven’t done it already, you may also want to sign up for our Morning Briefing: Australia Edition, which provides a daily fix of global news; and if you’re a subscriber, there’s always lots to discuss in our New York Times Australia Facebook group.

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Jahiruddin Mewati, the chief of a small village in Uttar Pradesh, presided over a particularly Indian form of justice.

Credit
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

From India, With Outrage

I ran into the warm and wonderful Ellen Barry in New York as she prepared for her new role as chief international correspondent, roving the world for stories, and her final piece from India is not to be missed. It’s about murder but also foreign correspondence. “Over the past decade, in Russia and then India,” she wrote, “I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system?”

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The path of the eclipse.

Credit
The New York Times

Your Eclipse, Our Eclipse

My favorite bit of New York Times eclipse coverage? This interactive, crowdsourced display of reader photographs from across the United States. See the country and this scientific marvel through the eyes of smart and talented Times readers.

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Photo

Gum chewing isn’t a stimulant or addictive, like cigarette smoking. Its pleasure is closer to that of a pacifier.

Credit
Sam Kaplan for The New York Times

Gum, You Know You Want It

I love the magazine’s Letter of Recommendation most of all when it features odd surprises — like this week’s treatise on chewing gum by the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. Come for the writing (“The sticks, which I prefer, look like wide ribbons of fresh pasta”) and stay for the argument. It will make you crave Juicy Fruit.

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Rock pools at Bondi Beach.

Credit
Don Arnold/Getty Images

Our Australia

As you may have noticed, our Australia team is striving to give you at least one Australian story a day, and we’re still experimenting with tone and subject matter. This week, among other things, we wrote about the crown prince of Denmark walking into a Brisbane bar (or trying to); about anti-gay posters that have begun to appear as the gay-marriage debate intensifies; and about Pauline Hanson’s Burqa protest in parliament. You can find all our Australia coverage at nytimes.com/au.

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… And Your Comments

My last newsletter probed the question of Australian banter and whether it sometimes cuts off more serious conversation. As usual, I asked for your take; and as always, the responses were insightful.

Here’s a sampling, lightly edited for space and clarity. Thanks to all who contributed.

If you look at the profusion of major literary and artistic festivals, it’s clear that Australians are as reflective and aware as anybody else. The issue, as far as I can see, is that we are deeply uncomfortable with emotion, despite having had a Prime Minister (Bob Hawke) who cried on national television.

It’s been a revelation to me elsewhere to see women accused of being highly emotional or crying at work, because Australian girls learn very early on not to cry. The penalty for crying at school or being over emotional is quite severe.

I have read that this aversion to plumbing emotional depths has kept Australian playwrights from international success, because just at the moment the play gets serious, the writing pivots away to something else. It’s like a pulled punch and American audiences, in particular, find it unsatisfying.

— Felicity Carter

There’s a jagged point where good-natured larrikinism becomes something more toxic.

That friendly attitude can become a coded form of attack with which to shut out people, or shut down difficult conversations (particularly those that are critical of the dominant culture). The compulsion to be blokey and tough, to let everything slide off your back for better or worse, dismisses an individual’s experience and opinion. It also allows people to brush off horrible behaviour with the excuse of “just having a laugh,” expecting others to buck up and move on.

Watching from a distance, these lesser aspects of Aussie nature seem to be playing out horrifically in our current politics.

— Tenille Bonoguore

I was born and raised in Australia to a Finnish mum and Aussie dad and I absolutely agree that Australians have a general aversion to in-depth, ‘serious’ discussions in social situations. In Europe (excluding the UK), it’s possible to sit around a table full of people (even relative strangers) and have a raging, heated debate where no one is even close to smiling. And that’s ok — perfectly socially acceptable.

In my experience, this just doesn’t happen with Australians. If the topic strays into serious territory, everyone needs to be smiling and joking. As soon as the smiles disappear, someone will crack a joke and change the topic.

I think Damien’s observations are spot on — we are a friendly people (we prioritize fun and laughter) but that’s mixed in with a touch of anti-intellectualism (because we don’t like tall poppies). Personally, I find this both an endearing and incredibly frustrating aspect of our culture.

— Marleena Forward

I think the Australian focus on humor distracts from giving serious issues of social justice and economic disparity serious attention. I’m African-American and my partner is an Azeri man. Both of us have been awkwardly invited into opportunities to “joke” about Asian and Aboriginal people by white people here in Australia.

It often surprised my companions when I explained that I found no humour in the statements. I was obliged with, “You Americans are so politically correct.” I think some of us are somewhat more socially aware and slightly more socially responsible.

— Sydnye Allen

While there is definitely pressure to put a sunny face on things, I do not think that Australian culture has a blanket aversion to confronting its dark side (e.g., xenophobia, lack of treaty with Australian Aboriginals and taking way too long to apologize for lost generations of half Aboriginal kids who were forcibly removed from their mothers and institutionalized, appalling treatment of refugees in off -shore detention centers, rising wealth differentials).

Many people protest all of these aspects of modern Australia in different ways, through art, plays, novels, movies, petitions, protests.

— Gabrielle Herderschee-Hunter

Generally speaking, Australians are suspicious of anyone who take themselves too seriously, which is seen as sign of self-regard. And we hate self-regard, arrogance, etc. This in itself can be something of a handbrake: if we took ourselves a little more seriously, then maybe the rest of the world would, too.

— Tim Elliott

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