American Culture: Part 1

In the midst of the current debate (I use the term loosely, since it is more accurately described as demagoguery) about immigration, illegal and otherwise, one of the issues that has emerged is the need for immigrants to learn English.  There have been ballot proposals, initiatives; etc all advocated that English be the “official” language of this or that place.  I think it is a waste of pen & ink to write such things since most immigrants strive very hard to learn English, and their children most assuredly do – something most Americans fail to do when we travel and live overseas by the way.

 

Which brings me to my larger point.  I am coming to believe that American culture is an “un-culture” much like utopia is a non-place.  Much of what it means to be American is not built on any positive affirmation of this or that thing, ritual, ceremony or tradition, but rather a radical rejection of something else.   To be American is to be non-Korean, non-Scottish, non-Russian, non-something.  We are bound together by our mutual rejection of other cultures.  I believe this radical stripping down is one of the reason why America both always has needed immigrants (and attracted them) and also why it doesn’t want immigrants. 

American culture is opportunistic when it comes to immigrants.  It wants the skills and resources and work habits that immigrants bring, but not the cultures in which those skills, resources, and work habits were formed.  America is the place where all the prior constraint of culture, deference, family, community, etc. are cast off and a new identity can be forged ex-nihilio.   We are a country where seeking your own happiness is enshrined in our founding documents.

That this is true (and I know of course that it is not universally or completely true in all cases) should be no surprise given our origins.  The U.S. was formed as an act of rebellion – not against an oppressive regime as in the case of the USSR or the French Revolution  – but against a mother country of the same kith and kin.  It was a battle about rejecting responsibility to that mother because we didn’t like the constraints that relationship entailed. 

And so it is that from inception, America has been a country all about doing your own thing.  Hence the thrust for westward expansion – it gave people room to do their own thing without having to deal with the restraints of the more “civilized” east coast.  The civil war was essentially about the south wanting to do its own thing as regards slavery.  Most of American foreign policy has been about creating space for American citizens (especially white) to do their own thing without limits.

Even in the church this is apparent, because much of American spirituality is not about responsibility to others (and especially not to tradition, to our elders or to our culture) but is rather about doing your own thing spiritually.  It is always about removing constraints, which is why White people have a hard time often describing what it means to be culturally White.  It is, both literally and figuratively, an absence of something – not the presence of something.  And this is why immigrants often have a hard time because their culture often binds them to a responsibility, an obligation that flies in the face of this cultural rejection.

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