Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.

Take Back the Right: Why Liberals Should Reclaim Common Social Institutions

My undergraduate was degree was officially in anthropology. I studied, among other things, the various institutions human beings have created for themselves, as well as various kinship ties, symbols, language, etc. These socio-cultural phenomena are as old as humankind, as old as Homo sapiens. So I must ask, why should these be the sole domains of the more conservative, Right-leaning factions of American society? Why has the right wing hijacked, so to speak, these institutions, and why don’t liberals speak up and reclaim them?

Take the institution of family, for example. Everyone comes from a family, and everyone belongs to a family, and a majority of people go on to have their own family, in whatever shape or form. Family is the oldest form of kinship ties since the advent of Homo sapiens. Throughout history, families were the basis of economic systems, and strove to maintain their continuity in order to pass on their wealth. Marriage was meant to support family ties, often uniting rivals or uniting wealth. Religious epics and tales were written about families: Cain and Abel as well as Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, or the Hindu Mahabharata (5 brothers’ fight to keep their kingdom), for example. Even larger than a family is the institution of a clan or a tribe; once again, these served a similar purpose as the family, and provided an identity to people in a given geographical area.

Somehow, however, in our extremely individualistic society, the Christian Right managed to claim the family as their rallying point. It became their domain, their political and religious motive. They managed to polarize those on the left, characterizing them as self-serving individuals outside of the institution. The liberals, in turn, began to identify family only with conservatism, with extremists, and with the oppression of women. With the advent of birth control in the 60s, many women fought for the right to enjoy their sexuality without procreation as a consequence. This was a necessary step; however, it gave more fuel to the fire for the conservatives to claim the family as their own. By linking sexual pleasure and freedom with individualism, rather than linking them with the natural human experience, sexuality was dichotomized at odds with family values—-unless, of course, one was extremely religious and expected to their numerous children.

But what of all of the family-oriented people who support a more tolerant society? The people who vote left of center, but would rather be at home with the kids instead of at the office over time? The people who are so committed to serving humanity both on a personal level through their family, and on a social level through politics, social work, activism, etc.? Just look at the Obama family: the President’s late, great mother Ann was a huge influence in his life, and she was committed to his well being, as were his grandparents who helped raise him. President Obama himself has often spoken of the importance of his own wife and children, and of the necessity of men serving their role as fathers, given his own father’s absence. Michelle Obama’s mother lives with her daughter’s family in the White House as the “First Granny” who attends to her granddaughters. The Kennedys are another such example—-a veritable clan rather than just the family, they are involved in all manner of political, social, and environmental activism. On a less grand scale, think of all the 60s activists who married and had children, and still continue today in towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Cleveland to attend city council meetings, work with disabled children, teach, or fight for clean water. It is these individuals who go unrecognized by the media and our cultural zeitgeist. We only realize they are there when they have to leave the meeting early to pick up their child from tennis practice. Let’s not forget that America’s greatest activist/“rabble-rouser”, Noam Chomsky, married his childhood sweetheart when young and they were together for 60 years before she died.

Religion is often considered the domain of the Right. We have been conditioned to associate family values with religion. We know of the (Irish) Catholic families, Mormons, Zionist Orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Christians, traditional Muslims, etc., and their large families. Somehow, as a society, we have come to believe that having a larger family equates with more commitment to a family. There could be a grain of truth in this, as it is inevitably more difficult to have a career and to raise five children than to have a career and raise two. But what of the proverbial Indian doctor and Democrat who spends all of his or her free time helping the kids with homework? The Asian-American social worker whose parents come to visit for a month at a time? The gay African-American man who takes in his sister for a while when she is going through a transition? Think of all the working parents who would love to have a much longer maternity leave, and even a paternity leave if the office will grant it, in a society that touts “family values” but does very little to foster them. This is one of the great hypocrisies of American society: it is not a child- or family-friendly culture at all. The very Republicans who seem to speak loudly about family values are the ones who do the least to foster appropriate social policies.

And then there are also quintessentially American symbols that have become associated with the Right. As a friend pointed out once, the flag is one such example. If we see a flag waving in front of somebody’s house, in America we tend to associate it with extreme patriotism, conservatism, Republicanism. Again, we have to ask why? In the tiny nation of Denmark, I saw Danish flags flying everywhere, and I doubt that the entire country is rapidly jingoistic. Flags have been in existence before the Common Era and have been used for a wide variety of purposes: battle, royalty, to represent a particular group of people, and even for prayer—-in the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, I recall visiting a mountain pass decorated with hundreds of prayer flags, and in the fog, it was a very mystical experience. Flags have been used at sea, for communication across great distances (think semaphores), as banners used as a rallying point for a particular social cause. They are used as a symbol, an emblem, a visual representation of an idea that does not require words. Flags alert us to something—-fire, perhaps, or in the modern world, a particular type of e-mail! But somehow, once again, the American conservatives have claimed this basic human institution, as though they are the sole purveyors of sentiment for our country.

It is understandable that, during the post-World War II period and the 1950s, America sought to avoid all the pitfalls seen in Europe and in other parts of the world such as totalitarianism, communism, fascism, the prohibition of free speech. America was reacting to severe European nationalism, but instead, it created a ridiculous sort of nationalism of its own. Our nationalism cannot be based on fear and exclusion; nor should it be based on a foolish lack of historicity and a usurping of institutions, symbols, and phenomena that have served humans since the beginning of our existence. So let this serve as a call to liberals and those who do not lean politically to the right. Wake up, liberals! Reclaim your basic human institutions, liberals! Let’s not make “family”, “religion”, “the flag”, and other words dirty words in our vocabulary. Let us not let the silly connotations of these words created by the Right affect our own true understanding of these words that have mattered for millennia. Let us use our intelligence to attack the ignorance of the Right.