Saturday, October 14, 2006


"Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet"
-old Chevy ad

Uncle Sam
I'm going to ask a question that shouldn't even be necessary, something that ought to be obvious and easy for anyone to answer.

What is American culture?

Should be pretty simple right? But can you answer that, without long consideration? Japanese culture is not so hard to identify, German culture, Mexican culture. But what is American culture, the USA?

This is a question that comes up in debates when a conservative points out that the radical left is trying to undermine and demolish American culture and values. They say "what are those?" I would argue that the left has been so successful in media, entertainment and education in downplaying, mocking, eradicating, or ignoring American culture that many are hard pressed to even identify it.

Look at television, particularly advertising, and American movies of today, how many are distinctly American in any way? How many celebrate the USA rather than either portray it as a generic country or a wasteland of crime, filth, corruption, and misery? Advertisers are trying to reach a global market, that's why Coca Cola has no dialogue in their Polar Bear ads, simply animation and their product being used by unlikely but fuzzy and lovable creatures. But even local ads, ones not targeted at a global audience, how many are distinctly American?

Part of the problem is that American culture and products are so globally accepted and recognized that it's hard to distinguish. When there's a McDonalds in nearly every city on earth, the franchise stops seeming so very American - particularly when the menus cater to local tastes (beer is on the menu in Germany, for instance, wine in France). Coca Cola is enjoyed everywhere, hamburgers are standard fare all over the world, jeans are worn in every country, and so on.

But there's more to America than the products we make and enjoy, just like there's more to Germany than Beer and Lederhosen. American culture is better understood if we think about what culture is in general. What is a culture for a given group of people, what does that mean?

We mean culture as the defining characteristics of a social group, not the fine arts and intellectual achievements of that group - culture as it's pattern, not it's art. Culture is defined this way by
a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
c. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.
d. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.
For our purposes, we'll use "the patterns, beliefs, institutions, modes of expression, and attitudes for a group or organization." This includes what Donald Carson calls folk music, the music of the people done for enjoyment and personal use, not for commercial sale or religious exercise. Culture in this sense does not include "pop culture" which is simply an aggregate of fads, advertising, and entertainment efforts. Thus, enduring folk efforts such as Home on the Range or Statesboro Blues are part of American culture, but Like a Virgin and Money Maker are not.

With that as an overly brief introduction, music is the first area I want to examine. American Culture is defined by its music at least in part, like all cultures. But the music as I said is not the popular music, it is the music that is part of the weave of America through history and it's meaning, not it's entertainment. When Donald Carson uses the term Folk Music, he doesn't mean Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. He means the kind of music that people come up with, sing, and enjoy on their own, for their families and friends. The music that is sung around campfires and most everyone knows, the music that grows in popularity not by production values, radio airplay, music videos and sales, but by an organic process that spreads through the country and endures.

A song can be recorded and played for a larger audience and yet be a folk music song in this sense, if it's purpose and design is to express a shared cultural ideal, or it is out of a genuinely spontaneous effort. Some Popular Music writers can come up with a Folk Music song in this sense - songs that become part of the national consciousness and will endure into the future long past the fame of the artist.

A song like House of the Rising Sun has been recorded many times by various singers and has made a lot of money for people, but it is not a popular music recording in the sense I want to use here. Popular music is specifically recorded for sales, temporary excitement, and as a business venture. Music can be popular without being Popular Music, if that makes any sense. House of the Rising Sun is a song that is part of American culture and has been for many decades. It's one of the few songs that Americans could sit around a pub and sing like Europeans do, a shared part of American consciousness. The qualities that make it endure are why it keeps being recorded and sung by musicians over the years, and why it is often popular.

What makes it part of American culture is not simply the references to American locations or history, although that helps, it is a part of the memories and shared experiences of Americans through time. American Culture is in part defined by the rough dangers of the cities as well as the frontiers, and the man of experience warning younger men to stay away from trouble is a powerful theme for all people. Since it's earliest known recording in 1928, House of the Rising Sun has been a shared memory for the nation across all boundaries and in all parts of the country as it spread. Unlike a pop song, this one clings to memory and ideals.

BluesmanThe music of American Culture is most powerfully and commonly expressed in country and blues music, the language of the heart of America and it's common people. While pop music makes the big money and gets the most attention, country music is an enormous success because the real thing - not the Carrie Underwood/Shania Twain country pop attempts, but rather the deep country, the twangy stuff that Hank Williams and others produced. This old timey music resonates with the frontier history, individuality, and shared experiences of the country - Songs about Me, to quote Trace Adkins.

Blues are the voice of black south, the songs influenced by African rhythms and patterns, crafted through influence of gospel songs and honed by such men as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and B.B. King. The Blues sing of troubles, sorrows, and hopes, with a potent musical quality that reaches everyone, no matter what their life is like. This sort of music expresses a pattern and feeling in America, a longing for something better, a sorrow for what has gone wrong, and a sort of joy and hope through adversity. Things may be bad, but we've got reason to hope for better; my life has had some rough times, but I'm still plugging along.

The reason country and blues are such a significant part of America where they are a side issue at most in other countries is because they grew up with America and developed side by side with the main streets, highways, cities, farms, and families. You can find country music in other nations, but it's a fascination like Salsa in America - a spice from another culture that they can enjoy. The blues were revered in places like England (indeed, it took the English musicians to reawaken Americans to this uniquely American art) but in America they are part of our history and memories. Like Polka to some European nations or the citar to India, these music forms are a part of the nation's culture and help define who we are.

Old ChurchAmericans are by and large religious people. When asked, most Americans say they believe in God and attend some manner of religious services. The nation was founded largely by religious refugees, fleeing nations where their faith was oppressed. This ideal still clings to the nation's psyche despite deliberate efforts to eradicate it. Pull out a dollar bill and look at it. In God We Trust. God is referenced on nearly every memorial and building in Washington DC. The founding documents of this country refer either to a creator or God directly in many places, the founding fathers were openly religious or at the very least heavily influenced by a theistic, Christian worldview.

Note: I said "religious" not "Christian" for a reason: many of the founding fathers were not Christians, and were clear about it. Many people in America are vaguely religious without being specific - that belief in God is not necessarily the God of any one faith. But the effect is that overall, America is more distinctly conservative morally than much of western culture. Europe as a whole is notably more lax morally and socially (except for places like Scotland). Trends and new ideas starting to find a foothold in America have been in place and part of the legal system for years and decades in Europe.

This aspect of American culture should not be underestimated. To know American Culture is to know that it is religious and tends to be more socially conservative. Americans on the whole are resistant to more liberal social concepts such as Abortion on demand, gay marriage, and so on. Americans in general are more likely to consider themselves Christian than many other nations.

Frontier WomanLike Australia, the United States is largely defined by being a big country that had a lot of wilderness. That spread across the wilderness and the kind of men and women required to settle and tame it has had a profound effect on the history and culture of the country. To be a frontier tamer was to be someone who could face great difficulty, want, and adversity with a grim determination to see it through. It took a kind of man or woman who was willing to take great sacrifice, on one's own, to see a brighter future for their children and grandchildren. It required a kind of independence of nature to follow a path that took a great deal of integrity and determination to see any benefit from.

Turning an empty land into farms, towns, mines, ranches, and railroads required a great many people who would have these characteristics, took these burdens gladly, and suffered so that others could reap the rewards. When the frontier mother fended off rustlers or marauding tribes with a rifle to protect her children and their land, she was unlikely to see the day it finally was tame, safe, and productive. But she did it because she could see that day in her mind and believed in it enough to work for it against all odds and despite her personally not gaining the rewards.

That sort of ideal is at the heart of the American Culture; A personal determination to make a better place for future generations and a willingness to sacrifice to that end. It's how the nation was founded, expanded, and grew. It's why the United States right now is a world leader. The danger, of course, is now that we've achieved our goals we lose it all for lack of that ideology.

Part of what made it possible for people to achieve what they did is a blend of frontier and religion. The Protestant Work Ethic is one name for this philosophy, although some use other names. The concept comes from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and following, an idea that work is noble in and of its self when done to the glory of God. That there is nothing better about being a king or priest, nothing more holy and set apart. Those are merely other callings, other places to serve God. The purpose and intent of the work is what matters, not its content or humble - or exalted - nature. Martin Luther is said to have been asked by a new convert what he should now do? The convert revealed he was a shoemaker, and Martin Luther replied "then make a good shoe and sell it for a fair price."

The point was that you should do the best at whatever you do, be virtuous, industrious, and work not for immediate gain or hope of reward, but for the sheer rightness of doing the job well and to God's glory. Future benefit in paradise can be looked to and hoped for, but not hope for a raise, time off, better stuff at home, vacations, or Working for the Weekend. Your job is what you are called to do, and it is noble in and of its self, be it digging ditches, drawing pictures, brain surgery, or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

This attitude is in stark contrast to many in modern day, who work only because that's what they need to do in order to pay the bills. The work is often done not the best that can be offered, but the minimum that one can get away with. Rest, leisure, and comfort are the highest ideals, not virtue, serving God, and a job well done. The Protestant Work Ethic is what moved our nation to the place it is now, it's what built our cities, laid our highways, fed our people, conquered our wilderness, and more.

WW2 PosterThat work ethic is a strong American Cultural concept - it's in many ways unique from any other nation when blended with the American history of frontier. Americans were able to go from virtually no military or industry to the most powerful military on earth in a few short years, in an expansion and response that stunned the Japanese in WW2. America worked together, hard, with personal sacrifice, to achieve our goals and maintain our liberty.

When America first was colonized, the people primarily came from countries and social classes where hunting was totally prohibited. Hunting was a sport of kings, and the land, and all the animals on it, were owned by the Lord. Poaching on this meant the loss of a hand, if you were lucky - usually it was simply death. People just didn't learn to hunt because it was lethal, unless they were special hunters for the Lord in question. In America, the land was free - nobody owned it. The game was incredibly plentiful and the horizon seemed endless.

Further, America became England's armory, producing guns with plentiful iron and wood. The guns made in America were finer than England's work, especially the long rifle while England clung to the musket for it's quicker loading. As Americans hunted for food and fought Indians to survive, their skill with firearms and outdoor skills began to far outstrip anything on the European continent's stable and tame lands.

A distinctly American love of outdoors, hunting, fishing, hiking and so on began to develop, until today, a strong part of American culture includes these activities. A hint of this can be seen in the hobbies of any archtypically American sports star. Look at the lists for baseball and NASCAR, hunting and fishing shows up so often it looks like a joke, as if they are all working off the same cheat list. America still unlike most places in the western world is still largely open and wild, with plentiful game. Hunting is a key part of the frontier spirit of self-sufficiency and providing for one's self rather than relying on others.

This hunting and fishing aspect of American culture is expressed in the second amendment of the US Constitution: the right to bear arms, one of the most dearly held rights of the American people. But it also finds expression in the way Americans travel long distances without concern or hindrance. Moving between states or coasts is a matter of time and expense, not government notice or paperwork. If you want a gypsy life traveling around, feel free - and find your own livelihood on the way.

The food of America is not very distinct from other nations, primarily because America is largely defined by welcoming and absorbing other cultures and peoples. What's that wierd thing you're eating, a Hee-ro? Tastes great, I'll put them on my menu, just what the heck is that meat log made from? Americans love to add all sorts of odd and new tastes to the menu. Thirty years ago this was less the case, with Mexican or Chinese food being more regional, but today you can go to a small town in Oklahoma and get Kung Pao. Granted, it might be awful, or the Chili might have cinnamon and allspice in it (Cincinnati), but you can get some form of it.

American food though is largely defined by what people have started to refer as "comfort food." Meatloaf, turkey, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Club Sandwiches, any of the food you can get in an American family restaurant or what mom was likely to make - back when moms were cooks and worked from scratch rather than a box and a microwave. American food is defined more by the traditional nature of it than the cultural and ethnic identity. Most ethnic food is made up of different shapes and combinations of the same small set of ingredients most commonly available to those people. Look at Mexican food; almost all of it is made up of the same group of ingredients (rice, beans, corn, cheese, tomatoes, for example) and spices.

American food doesn't follow that pattern because typically Americans had a rather broad range of choices available to them and could make a lot of different kinds of food. This actually is an essay in its self - how it developed and why - but briefly apple pie is a good choice for the ad campaign quoted at the top. It's not that apples didn't grow elsewhere and nobody made pies before (the British make pies of almost everything). It's that in America that was a typical and traditional dessert, the apple pie cooling in the window.

Yes, mom. Mom represents family, stability, morality, and church in American Culture. Mom is the one that keeps the family together and tight more often than dad. But in this sense, I mean mom as a representative of the family. Like many nations, America has in the past had a strong family identity and core, but in America, this took on a different flavor because of the previously listed influences. Going to church as a family was American tradition and is part of defining the American Culture still today. That's why the Simpsons on TV still go to church as a family, because it's part of America traditionally. Granted they display no reason or benefit from this effort, but they still go.

Thanksgiving DinnerFamily staying a unit that meets for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and family reunions is a strong American theme. Look at the nostalgic images and themes that advertisers use and appeal to, especially during holiday seasons. All of them attempt to portray the family together, happy, and comfortable - that this is the ideal state for us, that we all wish we could be more like it. It is the gathering and unity of the family that American Culture is defined by in part.

Because of this identity, American Culture is one of independence - the family stands on its own - and cohesion - individual members rely on each other. In a sense, the family is a miniature example of America at large. We have to take our own burdens, do our chores, and not leave our work to others. If we have troubles, we try to face them alone, but rely on our family when we need to and work together to face what we need to.

From the very foundation of this country to this day, American Culture has been defined more than any other place by the concept and love of liberty. This love was the foundation of the war of independence, it was the rallying cry of World War 2, and is the reason behind the end of slavery and the push for civil rights. It is liberty that is loved, not merely freedom. These two concepts I want to distinguish in this way: liberty is the freedom to exercise rights within a society to the benefit of all and one's self. Freedom is simply no restrictions on one's actions.

The reason liberty rather than freedom (in the way I've defined them) are American is because liberty is understood to be tempered by virtue and the benefit of fellow Americans. Liberty is the freedom to a purpose, not simply freedom. It's the ability to properly and without oppression exercise one's rights - and that's what America is about. From the founding fathers to the latest election liberty in America is not about unrestricted personal action. And that's the liberty America celebrates, loves, embraces, and wants the whole world to enjoy.

National SealAmerican Culture is enormously defined by the nature of this country's founding and growth. America more than any nation on earth is made up of immigrants from all around the world. The very nature and concept of the United States is the gathering of many to one nation, E Pluribus Unum. This melting pot concept was the main thrust of the nation's ideal for over a century, where diverse peoples come together to become Americans, adding their culture and ideals to the nation, but becoming part of that nation in the process.

The melting pot concept was used instead of the "salad" or whatever people say now, because it was a blending of many different peoples together to produce a single result: one united America. Each individual becomes part of the same country, but adds their flavor to the whole, which benefits all and makes for a better total.

That concept has given us Chinese food, Indian clothes, Japanese comic books, German ingenuity and design, and so on. It's the cumulative effect of all these cultures becoming part of America rather than being members of their own community living in America and keeping their culture, language, and identity separate.

The Sultan of SwatOh yes, baseball. Steroids, scandals, and overpaid prima donnas aside, Baseball is very much an American thing, and part of American Culture. Baseball is greatly enjoyed in other parts of the world - Japan and the Caribbean especially, but for America it means more than simply the sport.

Baseball follows a pattern of individual greatness - when at bat - and team effort - on defense. It works toward a long-term goal rather than immediate glory. Baseball rewards a full season's effort rather than a game's wonders. A good hitter manages to hit safely one out of three times, the best hitter in history did it a barely more than four out of ten one year. But that effort, with the others on the team, is enough to make a difference overall.

Baseball is more pastoral, slower paced than many other sports. It doesn't rely on sudden explosions, it relies on more gradual and cumulative effort over a game. A spectacular inning is fun to watch, but is easy to negate by a steady effort. Defeating the opponent requires sacrifice by good players - one that can get a run in at their own expense is greatly praised. Baseball is not just a strong historical part of America, its American culture in miniature, with men from every background, culture, and ethnic origin gathering in a team to work side by side for a common goal.

It's the only sport in the nation that stops in the middle of the game and sings God Bless America. Baseball grew with America, from the mid 1800's to modern days. Like or dislike the sport, it's quintessentially America.

Liberal AmericaIn many ways, the culture of America is defined most clearly in small towns and rural areas. The big cities seem to have a culture apart and of their own, shared in many ways by any big city in any country around the globe. This shared consciousness and experiences makes them distinct from the rest of the country, which in part defines why they often have such different ideologies than the bulk of the country in terms of land mass. Some states, such as Oregon, are very conservative, except in pockets like Portland and Eugene. Because of the concentrated population in these areas, they can direct the entire state, despite being a small fraction of the actual land mass.

Big city culture is similar despite language and ethnic differences all around the world, because each major population center shares many of the same experiences, problems, and advantages. They all have the concentration of population and crime, the same tendency toward corruption of leadership, the same benefits of shopping, high culture, entertainment opportunities, and general layout. Each city is a different shape and structure, but they all have rich and poor areas, areas with greater and lesser crime, areas of ethnic concentration, and so on. The big cities between two nations often have more in common than between them and the smaller towns in their own nations.

It is this insulation from their countries that I believe leads to the confusion over what American culture is - and even the desire to move away from it. The bulk of big city dwellers, sharing a different culture, do not have the sympathy toward American culture that others might in that nation. They may even want a different culture they see as superior because of certain aspects of it, demeaning the American culture they live nearby.

Small Town America is sometimes mocked by the city folks, as the rural folks have their share of contempt for big city life and types. But it is here in the rest of America that the culture is more distinctly American rather than a general Big City culture. Small town America is more likely to be religious than the cities, more patriotic, more likely to cling to family and honor tradition and American history. Small towns and rural America are more work-oriented than leisure-focused, they are more likely to be fans of Folk Music than Popular. It is in small towns that the American Culture is still most strongly noticed and experienced.

Rural areas are where huntin' and fishin' are most often exercised, the effort to feed and provide without a middleman. Going out and gathering food

Look that list over. You can have your disagreements or additions, but which of them is not under assault in the present day? Which is not facing opposition in it's very nature because it is identified as culturally bad?

Look them over. Country music is the home of hicks, sister-marrying trailer trash and mullet-headed NASCAR fans. Losers all, say the leftist elite. The Blues? Please, I gotta be real, and back in my crib we roll with Snoop and Ja Rule. Religion is called oppressive, dangerous - the Christian Taliban wants to force everyone to follow their orders, religion is the source of all ills and evils in the world. Jesuslanders are why George McHitler Chimpy stole the election.

And the frontier? Imperialistic genocide of the noble, selfless Native Americans we all should emulate - cowboys were rapists, murderers, thugs with out of control testosterone who helped the rape of the land. And the protestant work ethic is simply the business owners crushing workers under their thumb, it's the source of slavery, of demeaning work. Apple pie is bad for you, makes you fat, all those transfats, should ban it, look at the fat kids! Eat some Tofu and arugala instead.

Mom is the patronistic phallocracy keeping women barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. The family is a structure designed to mislead kids and indoctrinate them in that horrible religion. Liberty is fine, if you mean "let me do anything I want" but don't shove your morality down my throat! The melting pot is imperialistic, we should celebrate diversity and make sure we print the citizenship test in 97 languages. And we all know how awful baseball is. Boring. Drug use. Overpaid. Slow. And it involves competition, how can you even consider it? Those small towns... well we already talked about Jesusland.

All of the fundamentally American Cultural icons and traditions in America are under direct assault, all of them are under attack. What's left of the family? What's left of the work ethic? The frontiersman? What is left of America if we destroy all it stands for, means, and was built by? How do we maintain the greatness we have if we undercut every single structure that got us here?

This is the meaning of conservatism - not a longing for the mythical "good old days" but a desire to retain that which was good and beneficial in the past. Conservatives don't want to preserve America, we want to maintain the core of what got us here and will lead us to the future. We believe and understand that American Culture at its best is good and should be retained. Conservatism is all about that, that's what we want to conserve, not freeze in time and preserve.

There was a time when movies, books, speeches, and such about America were about its greatness, its promise, and its ideals. They showed America as a land of promise, of opportunity, of growth and a place where a man could be anything, if he tried. American culture was celebrated, America was shown as a place with perhaps troubles, but hope, and better off than anywhere else. Would it hurt us so much to regain at least some of that?

*That's what I get for posting with a horrible cold. I didn't finish a sentance and left off an entire segment on outdoor sports.
[technorati icon]


Anonymous said...

Great essay, C_T!

I was having this conversation with a friend the other day. We moved from a mid-sized college town (Norman, OK) to a very small rural town about 3 years ago. My friend, who lives in OKC, was talking about how he'd like to move to a smaller town, but would miss the 'culture' of the city. My point was that both cities and smaller towns have culture, but whereas city dwellers tend to partake in 'cultural events' such as going to a musuem or a concert or an arts festival, smaller towns are more immersed in their culture as a part of daily life (harvesting crops, hauling hay, hunting, fishing, etc...)

Anyway, great read, I really enjoyed it. I'll take a big steaming bowl of country & folk with a little jazz sprinkled in for seasoning, will pass on the religion, take a large helping of frontier land, a month of Sundays of good hard work followed by a very large slice of Mom's Apple Pie (though I prefer her pumpkin pie, especially with fall coming on), a second helping of liberty from the melting pot, and if you don't mind I'd like to substitute my portion of baseball for a small town Friday night highschool football game!

carrie said...

oh my! America's got the Blues, but it's got so much more JAZZ than that, starting with Ragtime and moving on to New Orleans/Dixieland, Swing, Bebop....Coming back again to the (word)"Blues", what about Bluegrass music? It's another American music that deserves recognition. It, along with country, folk, cajun, rock and roll, r& b and JAZZ is widely recognized as part of "American roots" or "Americana" music.
just one more comment - because America's roots belong to those who left their "original roots" behind (by choice and by force)that which we identify as "American", such as Bluegrass music, also has cultural roots in the British Isles, from the Scots and Irish who came to Appalachia. Likewise, jazz has a rich African heritage, carried within the hearts and souls of victims of the Atlantic slave trade.
it's sometimes hard to pick out American culture because we are such a diverse nation.