Friday, July 23, 2004

Human Culture

Elsewhere on the net, in the midst of political discussions which sometimes turn to anti-americanism (claims of, denials of, justifications of), someone posted this link, an example, perhaps, of anti-europeanism. I have to be honest. I didn't read the whole thing. There are some interesting points, but... it trudges. It plods. It is, in a word, dull.

There is a kernel of a good idea in there: pretty much everyone is provincial. Almost every day in Japan I hear on the news about dozens of people killed in some international transportation tragedy, only to have the report end abruptly with some variation of "no Japanese citizens were aboard." Oh, well, it's ok then. Later, I talk to someone in Canada and get to hear about the same thing, except there were a couple of Canadians involved, which makes all the difference.

So, right, it's natural, and not all that bad really, to try to find links with other people, and one of those links is shared nationality. But at some point, like when you take interest in Canadians buried in a landslide, but not Frenchmen, or Scots, or Tuvaluvalics, it begins to get silly.

But I'm getting away from my topic. Bruce Bawer's piece fails, for me, because, after noting that Europeans are just as prone to nationalistic blinkering as Americans are so often accused of being, it immidiately retreats to chest thumping about how great America really is. Yes. America good. Super country. Wonderful people. Great cultural values. Independent thinking. Liberty. All that.

But. But, "the arsenal of democracy, and the center of humanity’s common culture"?

The U.S. may have been the first and most enthusiastic of modern democracies, but it is not the only one. The behavior of the U.S. in defense and support of democracy internationally is not, as far as I can see, substantially different from that of other western nations. Self interest, a bit of idealism here and there, sometimes misinformed or misdirected, sometimes hesitant, sometimes over-eager. The main difference is not that the U.S. has some monopoly on the moral high ground, but that they are the biggest and baddest and the best of the western imperialist running dog devil freedom fighters for liberty and justice for all.

About that "common culture," I think Mr. Bawer made a mistake there, though I can understand why. This "common culture" he is talking about is a vague, nebulous thing. The U.S. is not the center of humanity's common culture. It is the center of American culture. American culture, in the form of TV, literature and music, gets exported around the world, but that doesn't change the fact that it is American culture. (That doesn't make it good or bad, just American.) A culture doesn't broadcast from a center, it has to be shared. And in the sharing it changes. Russians and Japanese and Americans and no doubt Tuvaluvalivians, play 'rock' music, and there are commonalities, but it's not all the same, and it is certainly not all American.

I'm not sure there is really much of a common culture. If there is, it is the one that mixes across boundaries. It is not something we can locate, or box up and sell. It comes from the places between places, no place, and all places at once.

Including America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But then what's being called here the common culture is not even particularly American. What resemblance does the average Hollywood movie, or US TV's Potemkin village style depictions of American suburbia, have to the lives of ordinary Americans? How do their concerns and viewpoints inform anything to come out of the US entertainment industry?

There is an American culture but it has no more to do with mainstream film, television, music and publishing than it has to do with greasy burgers and oversweetened caffeinated fizzy drinks. Which is why it always amuses me when critics of this globalised non-culture are accused of anti-Americanism. If they were being Anti-American, they'd be protesting flicks by John Sayles or Hal Hartley, not McDonalds. Nobody said the people who boycotted Nestle were being anti-Swiss.

Sorry if that's not very illuiminating - I was trying for brevity.