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Shattered illusions: how the bubble of American exceptionalism is bursting

Solicitors are not permitted, boomed the voice out of loudspeakers every few minutes the morning I arrived at Los Angeles International Airport 20 years ago. What do these people have against lawyers, I wondered. But then, the ’90s had been the golden age of lawyer jokes; banning solicitors didn’t seem the worst idea in the world.

In my hand at baggage collection was an American $20 bill procured from a currency exchange in Sydney before getting on the flight, with which I planned to buy a bottle of water. (This was back when passbooks, not PayWave, were how most people banked.) “Don’t wave money around,” whispered my world-weary brother, who’d been living in the States for a year. I still remember the jolt that ran through me, and the lesson I carried forward: America was a place where you needed to be alert. It was August 2001.

Schools are becoming a political football. Parents, especially those who work outside the home, are at breaking point.

Schools are becoming a political football. Parents, especially those who work outside the home, are at breaking point.Credit:Getty Images

I’ve been thinking about that day at the airport recently, after hearing a friend’s observation that America is not a rich country, but rather a poor country with a lot of rich people in it. Suddenly a lot of things made sense. Why renewing your driver’s licence here is a Hobbesian obstacle course more difficult than even the trickiest parallel park. Why your healthcare is tied to the benevolence of your employer. And why, if US states were countries, they would, at the time of writing, make up 13 of the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks – alongside Panama, Kazakhstan, Kuwait.

The recent edict from the White House, where the inhabitants are enjoying the same gloriously swampy summer’s day as I am here in Washington, DC, is that most international students will not be allowed to stay in the country once university starts again in September. The reasoning is that if they’re not in classrooms due to COVID restrictions, they don’t deserve a visa.

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