It’s not that easy to see your own culture clearly.
It stands to reason. How can you see through the broth when you live in the soup? There are a few things that help, though. Like travelling outside the country, getting to know some other cultures, and then coming back. That will definitely change your perspective. Another way is to read the work of non-natives who have spent some time in your land. They don’t swim in your soup, so their view is often less obstructed. (This is why one of the definitive works about American democracy comes from Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville).
In the early 20th century, the controversial, unheralded and near penniless British novelist/poet/travel writer D.H. Lawrence spent a few years living in New Mexico. While there, he observed this about us:
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
Now it’s natural to get defensive about this statement. We Americans expend a lot of energy proclaiming our various perceived virtues and innocence. Plus, Lawrence always had a penchant for hyperbole. But, just the same, these darknesses exist within all people and collectively within all cultures. So there are some difficult truths to be found in what he said. As regards killing, we have a longstanding obsession with it as a solution for the things that make us uncomfortable.
Native Americans made the colonists uncomfortable. The wilderness made the colonists uncomfortable. Sexuality, people with dark skin, poor foreigners, self-possessed women, unconventional people, nakedly expressed emotions (from which colonists’ puritanical stoicism recoiled), all of these things made the colonists uncomfortable and make many of their descendants uncomfortable today. In real life and in our popular entertainment, killing people — and killing the continent’s wilderness — has been a go-to solution for this discomfort. Lawrence was not wrong about us being killers.
We also have a longstanding love/hate relationship with the idea of community. Our paradox contains a deep nostalgia for tight-knit small town life, yet a powerful pull towards isolation. There’s no other culture, besides maybe other settler-colonial countries like Australia, where “what are you lookin’ at?” or “get the hell off my property” has such a uniform cultural understanding.
A post-industrial life, sectioned-off and separated, with few true communal opportunities in either cities or towns, has made our cultural tendency towards isolation that much more acute. We now inhabit walled dichotomous niches of perception — increasingly digital in nature. Strictly this or strictly that. Pop fan or metal fan. Democrat or Republican. McDonalds or organic bean burritos. Q’Anon or Russiagate. Dr. Phil or Oprah.
And yet we love
The paradox of American culture has additional layers. Hard, isolate, stoic killers are not all that we are. There is also a well of warmth, love and compassion nourishing our culture. A deeply human drive to stick our necks out for one another. Its expression flows throughout our history. It’s often happened at a smaller scale or taken longer to gestate and flower, but it can be clearly seen in our social and political movements, from the abolitionists to the suffragists to the civil rights activists and all the way to Occupy, #MeToo, the movement for black lives and immigrant rights, and even the crowds who came out for Bernie Sanders (however flawed and compromised he is) during the 2016 primaries. And it’s hiding in plain sight in our arts and popular entertainment as well.
We need “looking out for each other” practice
I said two paragraphs ago that the walls between us have expanded their scope and become digital. Maybe this is a place where we can start sticking our necks out for one another more frequently. I wrote a piece last week about Internet censorship and how it’s being used to try to keep us apart. I also wrote about how it’s not going to work, how our ability to connect is like a genie flying wild through the streets that our rulers desperately want to cram back in the bottle.
What’s inspiring about this free speech crazed genie is that when a dissenting journalist like Caitlin Johnstone got banned from Twitter, people from both sides of the fake wall screamed their heads off together and got her back on the platform. THIS! I thought. This is the right idea. After her reinstatement, Caitlin wondered aloud about the digital fate of those without her cross-pollinated popularity. Who would speak for them? Who would be their Lorax?
What if we created a meme, a hashtag, a whatever? And anytime someone’s been unfairly banned from a digital platform, they (or a friend of theirs) blasted it out like the damn Bat signal. And we all came running like wildebeests, knocking down these fake-ass walls between us. Screaming collectively at the top of our digital lungs for somebody else’s right to speak. And we do it for everyone — whether they’re popular or not, whether they think taxes are bad, or that public schools should be privatized or that we should all go vegan or that we should have gun control legislation or that CIA is awesome or that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest show to ever have been on television :). What if, as long as the person wasn’t being genuinely abusive or hateful, we stuck our necks out for them in this little way, on principle.
I’ve written before that we need to find a way back to one another. Here’s a place we can start. And if you think the bullies are scared now, think how scared they’ll be if we did this simple caring thing consistently.
What do you say? Can we work on this?_________________________________________________________________
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