March 12, 2020

BARAN | Does America Have Culture?

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Do Americans have culture? This question is usually not taken seriously, probably because America — as it is now — is  filled with transplants from other countries and is still a relatively new nation. We tend to laugh at the notion of Americans having any sort of culture. Sure, maybe we don’t have the same rich history as France or Japan, but we undeniably have something. Call it whatever you want; there is something that ties us together and makes us a people.

At Cornell, however, the answer to that question seems to be contingent on the tone of the conversation. If the conversation is praising something about American society, we don’t tend to attribute it to the concept of  culture. If we’re being too loud or don’t know something about another culture, it’s because of our American-ness. If we hold the door with a smile or lend someone money without thinking, it’s because we’re being nice.

On the other hand, if the discussion has a negative hue, American culture exists, and it’s something of which to be embarrassed about. We tell ourselves that we should try to shove our “American-ness” under the table and be more genuine; for example, a recent column in The Sun exhibited how American culture is perceived abroad. Sun columnist AJ Stella wrote that we generally hew to the American stereotypes of being loud, obnoxious, oblivious of our surroundings and worst of all, ignorant, especially towards other cultures. So, when denigrating Americans, we cast our behaviors as stereotypes, which can be considered to be manifestations of culture.

This is a pessimistic view of America and its people. In no world would I say we are a model country with sterling citizens. However, I don’t think we can be characterized as simply loud, obnoxious and ignorant, words with abysmal connotations. What if we used words like overly friendly, eager and boisterous? What if we interpreted our cringe-worthy attempts to communicate with foreigners as misguided — albeit enthusiastic — attempts of being friendly? What if we started to see our loud, gregarious behavior as just enjoying ourselves? The typical American is certainly unique, but it would be wrong to say that our differences are a result of a culture of insufferable loudmouths.

American society does have evil threads in its history. We practiced slavery, wove a system of discrimination into the foundation of our society and tried to erase Native Americans from the country. The legacies of these actions continue today, and they undoubtedly influence any bit of culture that we may have. From what I see, progress in addressing toxic elements of American society is continuing apace. However, the progress we’re making seems to foster a dismissal of American culture and a milieu of America-hate.

Before coming to Cornell, I’d never seen anything like the hostile attitude the typical Cornellian takes towards American society. I don’t quite understand it. This America-hate, in my mind, ignores the good things about the USA. I don’t see why one can’t appreciate America and see its culture while simultaneously working towards  improving it. Personally, my love for the U.S. that exists now is part of what drives me to make a better future America.

No one is arguing that America doesn’t need fixing. Our society has tinges of discrimination, we are environmentally irresponsible and, yeah, sometimes we may act a little ignorant. But America also tries its best to be a bastion of morality and order in the world. Maybe that isn’t our place. Maybe we’re doing a terrible job of it. But we’ll never stop trying. We’re among the most individualistic people in the world. We’re fierce believers in freedom and improvement, and are optimistic almost to the point of stupidity. Ingrained in our society is a burning drive to do better and never quit.

We may not have the ancient architecture of Europe or the traditions that extend thousands of years in the past. But two hundred years ago, Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem while watching my home city get bombarded in a drawn-out fight for our freedom. We have it now, and we use it well. Think about it. Kaleidoscopic lights lighting up a father and son’s upturned faces on the Fourth of July. Muscle cars rolling down thousands of Main Streets. The crack of a bat and the roar from a crowd at a high school baseball game. Hand out the window and sunglasses on while driving down a blue-sky backroad. Thirteen stars and fifty stripes flapping in the wind.

Call it what you want. Call it American spirit.