Sunday, June 20, 2004

On the Nature of American Culture and its Place in World Affairs

One of the amazing things about the Internet is that it has such a fantastic reach. This little blog alone has been read by people as far away as Kuala Lumpur. As such, it irritates me that I have a nasty habit of writing about "we" and "us" when, in fact, I mean America and Americans (the United States of America and citizens of the United States of America if you want to be pedantic – but let us not be pedants if only to save me the effort of a lot of additional typing). I know better than to actually assume that my cultural standards are universal ones but even being aware of this it's hard not to do so out of simple habit and, frankly, for the sake that it is very hard to think about things from a non-American perspective.

It is frequently stated that Americans, as a whole, are fairly ignorant about other cultures. It is often alleged that this is a willful ignorance. While I won't dispute the first point, I am not sure that the second is entirely fair. One of the central reasons that we have this lack of perspective is that we are geographically isolated from most of the world. We are bounded by oceans on two sides and we only have one neighbor that I would describe as being significantly different from us (with apologies to Canadians – be assured that I am not claiming that you are just unofficial Americans).

Although this does, I think, explain why we tend to have a myopic and, frequently, apathetic attitude with regards to the rest of the world, I won't try to claim that it excuses us. I do wonder, however, whether there are two sides to this blurred worldview. I wonder, in particular, how other nations perceive us.

I know that it's practically impossible to ignore our existence. A given American may have no need to think about, for instance, the Seychelles, except as a potentially vacation destination, but I would be equally confident in supposing that it is a rare Seychellian that hasn't given thought to America. We are simply too large of a political and economic presence in the world for people to easily ignore us. It would be a bit like trying to studiously ignore an elephant in one's living room. Be that as it may, I don't think that awareness necessarily equates to understanding. The world can't help but to notice us, but what does the world know of us?

I suspect that most non-Americans encounter us via our media, our corporations, and our tourists. It worries me that our cultural ambassadors are Britney Spears, McDonalds and assorted random yahoos. I have a terrible feeling that other nations have an image of us that is as accurate of a portrayal of the reality of America as Main Street USA in Disneyland is.

Our own school textbooks to the contrary, the view that we are a melting pot isn't quite accurate. Immigrants who come to America do tend to become assimilated, with time (as happens anywhere) and there is a tendency for certain aspects of immigrant culture to get incorporated into the wider cultural milieu. The error is not in supposing that American culture changes as a result of immigrant integration. The error is supposing that there is a single thing that could be accurately called American culture.

We are a nation of sub-cultures. Some of our cultural boundaries are geographical: Birmingham is not like San Francisco is not like New York is not like Dallas, etc. However, where geography was once a good indication of a persons cultural outlook, in modern times the cultural identity of a typical American is going to be determined by a myriad of factors including income, occupation, political view, ethnic identity, geographical identity, and so forth. I suspect that one of the reasons that opinion surveys are such a prominent industry in America is precisely because Americans don't, ourselves, know what America "believes" on any given subject from one moment to the next.

None of this is to deny that there is a kind of meta-culture, in America. So long as it is understood that any statement about Americans is going to, typically, be contradicted by a non-insignificant subset of Americans, I think that we can draw some broad lines of consensus. I believe that we can, in other words, sketch out a kind of American identity.

We love our country. American's really do tend to believe that we are the best country in the world and any challenge to that notion is apt to be rejected out of hand. Most of us, I think, understand that we are not the best in all domains. We are well aware that our education system, for instance, is not the best in the world. Where we fail to be demonstrably the best, however, we feel that we ought to be. Most importantly, it is in the arena of intangibles that we sincerely tend to think that we are without compare.

We are proud of our system of government. We are proud of it even as we have made it a national past-time to criticize the actual members of our government. We love democracy and deplore politics all at the same time.

We feel that we are a just nation. Again, this is simultaneous with our general (and genuine) contempt for the day to day running of our legal system. We esteem the American principles of justice while seeing absolutely no contradiction is hating our herds of lawyers and having nothing but contempt for any number of perceived miscarriages of justice (recall the very divisive anger over the OJ Simpson trial).

We think of ourselves as a society without class in both the literal and the figurative sense. We have a kind of plebian snobbery in our culture. Everyone aspires to the American dream and most of us have immense respect for entrepreneurship (certain feelings about Bill Gates not withstanding). At the same time, we look down upon inherited wealth and we tend to consider refinement of taste to be a kind of affectation. Although we like to be able to experience the good things in life, we expect that a given person will be able to appreciate the common things in life. This is why, I think, the world tends to see our politicians as cowboys and bumpkins. They fail to appreciate that a good politician must, absolutely must, not appear to be above his constituents. Even Kennedy was sure to eat hot dogs every now and again.

Above all else, we think of ourselves as a good nation – as a good people. If there is one thing that hurts us and makes us angry, it is that we are so often hated by others in the world. We have a hard time understanding why. Most Americans are not entirely naïve when it comes to the history of our nation. We know that we have a tarnished past. We are well aware of our treatment of our Native population and know full well that slavery is a permanent blot upon our legacy. We know that in the world of international politics, our government has often failed to live up to our own ideals. We are as inclined to distrust the CIA and the NSA as anyone else. Even as we tend to love our troops, our fictions often cast the Military-Industrial complex as villainous and sinister. We are ashamed when our own people get caught doing something despicable, as happened in Abu Ghraib. Never the less, we do believe that we are a good and generous people and we want our government to live up to that standard.

I think that one of the biggest challenges that is facing my nation in this new century will be that we must learn to think internationally. In truth, we lost that luxury by the start of World War II, if not earlier. Unfortunately, we've been willing to let international affairs be the domain of the experts. It is a luxury that can no longer be afforded. At the same time, however, the world is going to have to accommodate itself to our presence. If we (and there I go with that "we" again) must become cognizant of the world than, I think, the world must learn to see past Britney and McDonalds as well as Earl and Ethel from Idaho. The world is a complex place than we are often willing to admit but we, also, are more complex than the common perceptions of us. Simplistic stereotypes don't do anyone any good.

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