The Human Condition:

American Culture, American Character – October 28, 2012

Culture is the stories we tell for and about ourselves. Those stories in the past have taken the form of novels, magazine articles, song lyrics, movies, jokes, and shared anecdotes. Today we must include Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, blogs, and—to use the new word—“memes.” Behind those stories and memes, shaping and driving them, is a commonly held set of values, expectations, and dreams. And if you can understand what a person or a people holds dear, expects to happen, and dreams about, then you have solid clues to that person’s—or the people’s—character, to what they will choose to do and how they will react to both stresses and to opportunities.

Call the next 2,500 words my love letter to the American culture and character. That’s a big subject for a small space, so expect some prodigious thumbnailing.

First, our culture—or rather, the “popular culture,” expressed in the most obtrusive song lyrics, action movies, and bestselling novels—is going through some kind of disruptive transition right now. Raunchy song lyrics, blatantly pornographic imagery, violent explosions, adolescent defiance, and brutal disdain for the old societal values are all underlying currents. It seems that the perceived relevance of a novel or movie plot today is directly proportional to how close the world comes to blowing up and how that situation frees the main characters to be violently destructive, abandoned, and vicious. The dominant image: the bulbous red lips with tongue sticking out, à la the Rolling Stones. The dominant challenge and response: “What are you rebelling against?” and “Whaddaya got?” à la Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

This disdainful hedonism has been sixty years—two, maybe three generations—in the making, if we take the year of the Brando movie, 1953, as some kind of starting point. That’s almost my entire lifespan. I think the roots of this wildness can be traced to the sudden release of pressure, like popping a champagne cork, when the weight and strain of the Great Depression and World War II were lifted from the American psyche. We suddenly found ourselves on top of the world with our new industrial power providing plenty all around and no one left to beat except the Soviets and Red Chinese—and they were a grim, gray, robot- and antlike people safely half a world away. The fizz of this sudden release might have died out in a single generation if two scientific developments hadn’t intruded. One was the prospect of global nuclear war, with the promise that tomorrow might never come.1 The other was the invention and marketing of the Pill, with the promise that uninhibited sex need have no real consequences. Both developments rocked the psychic and cultural landscape.

But in the longer term—the sweep of history, if you will—the culture of youthful rebellion and apocalyptic abandon are still an aberration, a diversion, a departure from our true natures. If we count from the Plymouth and Jamestown colonies in the early 1600s up to the end of World War II and its aftermath in the 1940s, this nation had three and a half centuries to form a distinct culture. And that culture wasn’t based on “It feels good, and the world’s ending anyway, so let’s do it!”

North America under colonization by the English, Dutch, and French was a vast, empty, rich, and violent landscape.2 The colonization effort created stories, dreams, and aspects of character that had never before existed in the world. The promise of endless land and opportunity experienced during that colonization—and the state that developed after those early colonies broke away from the mother country—shaped the nature of the people who settled here.

1. We All Came from Someplace Else

Every human on this continent—even the “native” Americans—either in person or at some point in his or her ancestry, arrived in North America from someplace else. Some came as seekers, strivers, and dreamers. Some came to escape persecution or personal defeat. Some came following a game trail across the Bering land bridge. And some came in chains as slaves.

But whatever our motivations, none of us found exactly what we were expecting. Except for the very few who stepped ashore carrying a royal charter and a bag of gold, everyone who came here had to struggle and adapt, had to learn to survive, had to make his or her way in a strange land that was never quite as advertised. We are all either the immediate products of that struggle, or we carry the genes of people who struggled and survived.3

Americans carry a selection advantage. We are not among the frogs who will wait quietly in the pot for the water to boil. We have a shorter than average fuse and a built-in tendency to say, “This sucks! I’m outta here!” We carry—if not in actual memory, then as part of our cultural heritage—the idea that things can get better, and that it’s worth the risk to move on and find that better time and place somewhere else. We do not worship tradition. We do not submit gracefully. We are hopeful. We are strong. We are not afraid. And we’re pretty much free of envy and jealousy.

With this heritage, we have a penchant for, and a fascination with, the resilient character, the cat who lands on his feet, the taker of chances, the jack of all trades, the artful confidence trickster, the Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, Al Capone, and yes, even Bernie Madoff. We don’t necessarily want to be them, much less become their prey, but we understand and tolerate them. We recognize their nature, at least a bit of it, in ourselves.

2. We Have No Natural Peasant Class, No Aristocracy

In most of the rest of the world—in Europe and Asia and, yes, even in South America—the culture sustains unconscious awareness of a large, background population of people who do not count, whose days are presumed to pass in torpid normalcy, whose dreams and aspirations can be dismissed, because their lives will never change. These are the peasants, the rural dullards, the stay-at-homes from which society raises its army of taxpayers and cannon fodder.

The existence of a natural peasant class also implies the existence of a naturally superior aristocracy, the better families and hereditary landowners, the people with an inborn nobility and unearned gifts, from which society develops its statesmen, churchmen, scholars, cavalrymen, and officer corps.

America never had this duality.4 In the extreme East you might hear some reference to “Boston Brahmins” and the “Old Knickerbockers.” Elsewhere you hear derisive comments about “Mr. and Mrs. Gotrocks”—who are usually the nouveau riche and not an established, hereditary class. They return the compliment by talking about “the great unwashed”—but with the uneasy feeling that they themselves are only about three wrong moves away from the trailer park and vocational education.

Everywhere, in every city and town and countryside, America does have its rich and poor. But the lines are fluid, and no one naturally “belongs” to either class. For every wealthy family whose sons now go to Harvard and whose grandfathers made money in furs or oil or newspapers, you can count half a dozen more whose grandfathers were small farmers or shopkeepers and whose sons just made a killing with a new app in Silicon Valley or with a new way of leveraging finance on Wall Street. And for every family clinging to a bit of hard-scrabble land up in the hills or a patch worked out on the plains, you can find a dozen more opening car dealerships and managing restaurants. Our mantra is “You can’t keep a good man down.” We value enterprise, spirit, opportunity, and initiative.

America has no disposable people who can be dismissed as naturally less worthy, less sensitive, with less future potential than anyone else. And we have no naturally valuable people who can boast presumed gifts of talent, knowledge, and gentility. Everyone is exactly what he or she can make out of life, given the opportunities at hand and his or her own imagination and dreams. And so as a culture we value providing readily available tools and remedies: free public school education and usually affordable higher education; easy access to capital through credit, loans, and mortgages; recovery from personal disaster through health and property insurance and bankruptcy protections; freedom to travel, to think and speak, and to try something different. It’s not a coincidence that Americans write, publish, buy, read, and follow the world’s share of self-help books and guides.

3. We Come from Small Towns

In the rest of the world, the life of the country is played out in the capital. Englishmen go to London to make their name and fortune, as the French go to Paris, the Russians to Moscow, and the Chinese to Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong. The provinces are known as a backwater if not a place of exile.

In America, at least until the latter part of the 20th century, people lived in small towns. And since World War II, with the rise of the automobile, even people who work in the cities have chosen to move out to the surrounding suburbs. Yes, aspiring writers and actors and hopeful lawyers and bankers have all followed their dreams to the cultural and financial capitals of New York and, lately, Los Angles. But our nation’s political capital, Washington, DC, has never been an object of pilgrimage—at least until the late 20th century, when the national government, its bureaucracy, and its influence started to balloon.

Small-town life is different from city life. For one thing you know your neighbors and feel connected to them. You volunteer to help them raise a barn or serve at a pancake breakfast. You join the business and charitable clubs, the fellowships, the church choir, and the volunteer fire department. If you feel isolated and alienated in the big city, the problem is likely your surroundings. If you feel disconnected in a small town, the problem is probably your personality.

It’s only in the 20th century, starting with the Great Depression—or perhaps a bit earlier, with the temperance advocates for Prohibition and the reform-minded journalists, called “muckrakers,” who worked for social justice—that Americans have looked to Washington to solve their problems on a national level. For three centuries before that, the Federal government was far away and usually not very effective at solving local problems. Americans looked to their neighbors for safety and a helping hand.

4. We Respect a Person’s Privacy

While everyone knows what’s going on in a small town, Americans tend to draw a curtain over matters that are considered private. These include—or used to—a person’s religion, politics, financial situation, historical antecedents, and hereditary background. The spirit that a person can move on to a new place and make something new and different of himself depends on this sense of delicacy.

We wrote into our founding documents that a person can believe and worship as he chooses, say what he thinks, publish what he believes without retribution, and act in the expectation that before he can be punished, the case against him has to be proven, in public, with a jury of his peers. These are not dusty sentiments written on parchment two hundred years ago and largely forgotten today. They are values that we are still actively debating, testing in the courts, and redefining in new ways as the world changes around us. Also, they are not mystical, hieratic concepts that we common folk leave for our judicial betters to decide: everyone has an opinion, a point of view, and a personal sensitivity about where the needle should lie along the spectrum between casual tolerance and social control.

In this atmosphere, the first question an American asks about a man or woman is rarely “What religion does he follow?” “What party does he belong to?” “How much money does he have?” “Where do his people come from?” or “What race does he belong to?”5 With our rough-and-ready frontier heritage, we tend to ask instead whether he’s reliable in a crisis, able to pay his way, hold his liquor, provide a steady hand with the horses, and willing to coach Little League. We ask if she’s a gossip or a minx, raises responsible children, and whether she can stitch up a wound and supply a cake for the bake sale.6

The American character—and the cultural stories we once told about ourselves and should be telling again—is practical and pragmatic, impatient with formalism, ambitious for success and advancement, independent, tilted toward fairness, respectful of education and demonstrated worth, willing to trust proven competence, small-D democratic, and grounded in common sense. We value what works, because we’ve had to depend on it. We’re willing to try something new, because you never know until you try.

We’re not the best people in the world, but we’re pretty damn good. We still think there’s a future worth working toward and a world of opportunity waiting for us just over the horizon. We might entertain ourselves on Saturday night with movies about churlish adolescents lusting after supermodels and blowing up the world, but such stuff barely touches our minds and hearts. Come Monday morning, we roll up our sleeves and get back to work.

1. See Never the Devil You Know from October 14, 2012, for thoughts on nuclear war and other apocalyptic thinking.

2. As to being “empty,” well yes, perhaps 7 to 10 million native Americans were already living in this vast open space. But for the European settlers, they were a grim, gray, Stone Age people out beyond the edge of the woods—an impediment rather than actual, rightful landowners. The American colonization, at least from the European viewpoint, was not at all like the Vandals and Goths coming into the settled areas of the Roman Empire, or the Mongol hordes invading the plains and developed civilizations of India, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
       As to being “violent,” the forests of North America were a wild and stony wood, as yet untouched by ax or plow. The Europeans, who had long ago harvested their native forests for timber and fuel and now lived among trees that were carefully nurtured in “plantations,” had never seen anything like the dense forests of the eastern part of the North American continent. And when they got to the Great Plains—with their sudden tornados, torrential floods from thaws and storms far beyond the horizon, and herds of millions of stampeding bison—they marveled at the raw, untamed power of the land.

3. See We Get the Smart Ones from November 28, 2010.

4. Well, yes, in the Old South the black African slave was dismissed as a person of no account with no future by the slave owner, who thought of himself as a naturally superior being. But that was not a common view throughout the country. In fact, enough of the population abhorred the notion that we fought a war over it which killed 600,000 Americans.

5. Or not, thank God, so much anymore. In the past, skin color and physiological features have meant more, especially when dealing with those we considered “the Other.” Today, we—or at least, the best among us—tend to listen for tone of voice, reliable values, sensible advice, breadth of spirit, and level of education more than we look for gene pool and country of origin.

6. Yes, I know, these are rather sexist examples—and throughout this essay I’ve been writing “he” when I should have been using “he or she,” or liberally substituting “she” for the third person pronoun. But I’m reflecting three centuries of attitudes here, and it’s just recently that men and women have started to shrug off their past sexual stereotypes. Only when we can casually ask if a mother will coach Little League and a father provide a cake for the bake sale will we be totally free of gender roles.