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What U.S. Culture?

A national salad.

United States culture.

In my past, I’ve heard several people say it’s an oxymoron. Not just those from elsewhere. In the U.S., too. In fact, I think I might have said it myself more than once.

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition says culture is a group identity developed by social patterns unique to the group. Shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and understanding that are learned by socialization. Anthropologist Cristina de Rossi put it another way: “Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things.”

As I wrote this, groupthink came to mind. But, hey, I’m nekulturny, so what do I know?

The U.S. is a salad.

Defined this way, the U.S. has no single culture. It’s mishmash of cultures. The myriad traditions brought to this country by the many from elsewhere who settled here. A great big salad, its ingredients jumbled together, but each retaining its distinct identity.

The U.S. does have a dominant culture. The culture of the earliest European settlers, who put their stamp on everything that was to come. But it isn’t what it originally was because of immigration. To some extent, the flavors in our salad have bled into one another. Tex-Mex. Chop suey, a Stater creation using Chinese cooking techniques.

If there’s anything uniquely Stater, it’s got to be fast food. McDonald’s. KFC. And big. Supersized everything. Can’t forget Disney, of course. Good ol’ Walt.

But there’s something else about U.S. culture (such as it is) that I don’t see in other countries.

Loss.

What makes the Ghanaian people Ghanaian? The English people English? The Turkish people Turkish? Well, you’ve already read what the Center and de Rossi have to say about it. Yet I think there’s something they left out, something that encompasses all the above. A shared history. It’s that shared history that gives rise to everything they describe as culture. Without that, it’s easy for a culture to lose bits and pieces of itself as the years roll on.

Here’s an example. In an article I read recently, the author pointed to a list they’d come across of the 20 or so all-time best old rom com movies. Except for one, they date from the 1980s. The exception is Harold and Maude, from 1971.

I found that startling. You mean to tell me the best rom com movies stretch back only 50 years, and that’s pushing it real hard?

What about It Happened One Night, starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in 1934? Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in The Little Tramp series during the 1920s? Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in Irma la Douce in 1963? Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park in 1967?

Ours is a throwaway culture.

Wow. Talk about feeling antediluvian.

In that sense, U.S. culture is most accurately described as “throwaway.” As generations pass, what came before must make way for what is now, and the past is dead because it has nothing to contribute. The history of film in the U.S. stretches back 100+ years. And the best rom coms of all time (save one) date from only 40 years ago? These great films from the past have nothing to contribute? Whoever put this list together apparently thinks film culture began in the 80s. But it didn’t, and it’s rich and vibrant even if its societal viewpoints leave a lot to be desired.

I’m not saying everything about a culture should be preserved. Some things that have been thrown into the garbage need to stay in the garbage. But one can gain much wisdom from learning what came before because what came before can shed light on, or even provide an answer to, the questions that have arisen today.

History and culture. Two sides of the coin.

Maybe U.S. culture is so flighty because the U.S. doesn’t have a collective history, a collective memory, the history and memories that weld a people together. Think of the countries whose histories go back a thousand years or more. China. Chinese history, the history of this one group of people goes back what, 5,000 years? If that’s not enough history to cement a culture, I don’t know what is. The U.S. has been around for 246 years in 2022. Add to that youthfulness the immigration of peoples from worldwide, and we have what we see today. 

So, if history gives rise to culture and culture is a reflection of history, to have a distinct culture, the history must be a shared one. Which the U.S. doesn’t have. Never did have. 

Which leads me to a question.

Assuming the U.S. as a geopolitical construct still exists a thousand or more years from now (a big assumption), will it then have a single culture reflecting a shared history?

An interesting thought. But then, that’s what spec fic is all about, isn’t it? 

 

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