Thursday, November 09, 2006

I am an American!

Anchoress brought up a subject that I have touched on before – American Culture. I talk about American culture fairly often, a trait begun by a chance encounter in 1985. A friend of a friend invited me to dinner with a small group. This was a pleasant gesture, since they were all mid-20’s grad students and I was an 18 year-old soldier. We had a nice afternoon of seafood with more people joining the circle as the evening went on, including the boyfriend of the girl who had invited me, a Frenchman in his mid-30’s who taught at the college the others attended. It was only a few minutes after he arrived that I heard his reply to a statement I had not heard,

“Of course, there is no such thing as American culture, let alone cuisine.”

This elicited a chorus of nods and muttered agreement from the students – and my ire. I immediately interrupted,

“What about baseball and football?” I asked.

“You cannot win cricket or soccer, so you play easier games.”

“Baked beans, scrapple, corn bread, and hush puppies are certainly American!” I argued.

“And no civilized person can eat any of them.”

“OK, you made me do it – jazz!” I said.

He shut up. I had met this man before, but that time he had been complaining about Europe – how expensive everything was, how hard it was to get a good job, the cars were small, taxes were high, etc. Yet he was more than willing to criticize the nation that he found warm, welcoming, and fruitful. Infuriatingly, the other Americans with me had just sat there, agreeing with him. Including a woman pursuing a master’s in American History!

Since then, I have been a proponent of the simple fact that America does have a unique culture and it does have unique, if obscure, cuisine. Anchoress points to a very clear element of American culture; cartoons. Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and the like are very much a part of the American psyche. This is largely because of the American media culture; America produces a vast number of feature-length films each year and Hollywood has dominated world cinema since the 1920’s. Some people even claim that it is wrong to call American movies ‘foreign films’ in any English-speaking market, since they are the dominant films in all such areas. American films also dominate most non-English markets. Even in nations with a strong local cinema, like Italy or France, film makers are relying on government subsidies (sometimes large ones) to make films and use quotas to limit the number of American productions that can be seen in theaters or on television, yet are still seeing American movies strip away hundreds of millions of euros in revenue from their local markets. Despite the sneers you sometimes hear that Americans only like explosions, not real film, it appears the rest of the world trusts our opinions; films that do well in America are eagerly anticipated overseas because they trust our taste in movies.

So the various regional identities of America (Northeast, Mid-West, South, California) are tied together with movies and TV; and this obviously viable culture (witness the popularity of not just our films but our TV overseas) means that non-Americans find it rich and valuable, too.

Our music is also a world-wide constant, with everything from jazz, rock, and rap being the obvious choices. But American music like Gospel, the Blues, Country, and even various forms of Folk music are widely heard and often wildly popular overseas. I’ve heard Australian Country (pretty good) and South African Country (also pretty good), French Rap (didn’t care for it) and Hebrew Rap (not too bad), and who can forget the Red Elvises?

Popular fashion is also often dominated by American trends, especially on the street. American clothes, especially American trademarks, are immensely popular everywhere, and the American ‘urban style’ is widely copied in Europe. Nikes, hoodies, and such are everywhere, but so are cowboy boots.

Of course, American cuisine is rich, varied, subtle – and ignored outside America. Heck, its ignored in American commercial cooking – you know, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc. The traditional American foods, like sweet potato pie and fritters, are only cooked at home, usually. The mainstream commercial kitchens produce things that, while American, lack the richness and subtlety of things like key lime pie (the real stuff) or seasoned collards with a plate of hoppin’ john. The commercial food of America is burgers, hot dogs, French fries, and milk shakes. Although good, these are rather blunt dishes. They are despised by others… yet, they are also stunningly popular with a new McDonald’s opening all the time – in France. American fast food is coming to dominate French daily casual lunches in urban areas, and American fast food is also beginning to spread in England, Russia, and Brazil and already dominates the casual daily food market of a stunning number of countries. Overall, McDonald’s are present in over 100 countries. Interestingly, Thomas Friedman has pointed out in his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention that no two nations with McDonald’s have gone to war with each other. Anthropologists have pointed out that the culture imported by McDonald’s in Asia has led to a number of improvements in food service ranging from faster service to cleaner bathrooms.

I will do no more than mention (and link) the world’s favorite soft-drink, Coca-Cola.

So American television, movies, music, clothing, and food are everywhere, found in virtually every nation on Earth, popular in the majority of them, and dominating in many, especially in Western and Asian nations. So it seems that not only does America have a culture, but it has a culture that is being adopted by non-Americans at an amazing rate. Some say at a frightening rate. While many decry the ‘Americanization’ of the globe, there is an element of this spread I haven’t mentioned yet. The spread of the English language.

There are some who call the spread of English language hegemony and liken it to the loss of identity of people who adopt it, regardless of their reasons. The French are well-known (well, to me and other wonks like me, at least) for trying to strictly limit the use of English in an attempt to stop the spread of the language. Despite their sometimes-extreme opposition to English, the language continues to spread.

So far from having no culture, America has a rich, vibrant, varied culture. The world flocks to our movies and televisions, listens to and sings our music, wears our fashions, and speaks our language, all because they find it rich, welcoming, and valuable. So the next time you hear someone, especially an American, say ‘there is no such thing as American culture’, ask them these simple questions,

“Which is your favorite, Coke or Pepsi? Hot dogs or hamburgers?” Rock or rap? Star Wars or Star Trek?”

I’m sure you can think of your own.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tolerance is the only acceptable American culture. The next time you see suburbia raised males acting as if they were raised in the inner city? You are witnessing a kid who is only allowed to take pride in a culture of finger pointing, calling females Ho’s and Bitches, and intimidating others with his make believe Gat.

Bad behavior is not a culture, and shaming anyone who should be saying, get over it whiner is only perpetuating it. The best example of getting over it can be seen post WW2. We dropped Japan to her knees, and yet they were in the top 3 economically 35 years later. If Japan acted like the Hip-Hop culture Ichiro would be sticking his middle finger at us and spewing his, I am the victim, and you did this to me crap. Any French Professor telling me how to feel shame can make love to his Soccer ball. We left the Kings recess activities behind us, because anything approved by the King sucked!
AKA Baseball