America the Beautiful

EDITORIAL, 23 May 2011

#165 | Johan Galtung, 23 May 2011 - TRANSCEND Media Service

Reality is ambiguous, yin-yang.  There are dark sides and bright sides.  Take the United States of America, for instance: the majority view in the world seems to be that the US Empire is dark and the US Republic bright; a place to visit, to live.  But, there is yin-yang in the yin and in the yang, daoism informs us; brighter sides to the empire and darker sides to the republic.  And, in the yin and the yang there is also yin and yang, and so on, ad infinitum.  One measure of maturity is how many such levels of analysis one masters.  To call critique of the US Empire “anti-americanism” reveals level 0:  USA is just good and that is it; anti-americanism being a mental disorder.

And yet it is both possible and meaningful to be anti-hitlerism without being anti-German, anti-stalinism without being anti-Russian, anti-US fundamentalism and imperialism without being anti-American, anti-expansionist zionism without being anti-semitic, anti-Jewish or anti-Israel, anti-quislingism without being anti-Norwegian, anti-Japanese militarism without being anti-Japanese; knowing well that roots of pathologies can be found in the deep culture of the normal, good, positive.

Elementary distinctions, but easily sacrificed at the altar of polarization.  USA is all good or USA is all bad, tertium non datur; no third, fourth, or etc., possibility.  Aristotle sends his best regards; he has had much success in that little peninsula on the Asian continent called “Europe” (“darkness” in Assyrian).

But that begs the question: what is so bright, good, positive about the USA; trying to avoid “America” for one country, an insult to Latin Americans.  It is as unsatisfactory to be only positive about the US Republic as it is to be critical only of the US Empire.  There have to be reasons, the bright and the dark have to be spelt out; the latter in a constructive way, the former to make it even shinier.

So, what is so extremely attractive about the USA to so many?  We all have our answers.  Nature is one: there is extreme beauty in many places; maybe more along the coasts and the mountain ranges than in the flatlands, but they also have a charm.  And fences are low or absent, making the beauty of gardens and farmlands available to the traveling eyes.  But all of this can also be found elsewhere.

The economy, the land of economic opportunity, of the American Dream?  Today?  Hmm…  The military, the land of strength, force? Today? Hmm…  The politics, the land of uncorrupted democracy?  Hmm…  Culture, in the sense of exceptionalism?  Hmm…  Let us leave all of that aside.

But we are getting closer.  Culture in the sense of an incredible creativity: indeed yes.  In classical, modern, postmodern arts; in pop of all kinds.  Borders broken down, fences lowered.  Culture in the sense of science likewise.  Innovative technology.  And let us add a very important factor: the public is in it, culture plays up and down to the public, sharing with them, not enclosing arts and science as separate niches in society as markers of class territory.  In doing so the USA has not only created new culture that has caught on all over the world, but made culture for mass, not upper class, its consumption a world pattern, like they once did for cars and the other conveniences of the 20th century.  Elsewhere, mainly for elite consumption.

And yet these patterns are now found all over, largely thanks to the USA.  What is USA specific, what is unique, what is that IT?

It is the people, stupid! The Americans–apologizing to Latin America–Americans, the beautiful.  How?  What?  Why?  Let us try.

Starting with a basic: nobody in the world is so easy, not stuffy to talk with as an American.  Open, first name basis, fences down, body language and verbal language charming, direct eye contact.  After 14 minutes personal matters are out in the open that would have been kept secret 14 years in other cultures–no names–or forever.

Americans make you feel at home, as one of them.  Universalist, generous.  But there is more to it.  There is a two-way conversation, not only outsiders asking about the USA but also Americans interested in where one comes from and “what’s cooking”.  And about you, as a person, in a positive way, what do you have to offer, “What’s inside you”.  For a possible New Beginning in the USA, a rebirth–very attractive, leaving the past and the old country behind, like in heavy immigration times.  Something may work out, and often does, in fact.

Of course there is class; with huge differences in economic power, killing power (often highly illegal) and decision power.  But less so in daily behavior.  Americans differ in housing, from mansions to trailer parks, and in their cars; but often dress the same, eat the same and share tastes and life styles, like church and washing cars on Sundays.  Basketball.  Coaching children.  Love of nature, wild animals, national parks.  McDonald’s, KFC.  Coke.  Coke.  Cocaine.  Talking English more or less the same way.  Even African Americans– slaves, lynched, segregated–today; not so even a short while ago.

In all these senses a remarkably class-less society of successful refugees from that stiff upper lip North Sea island whence they came.

And used to receiving, welcoming, probing foreigners; millions and millions of them, from all corners of the world.  Accommodating class, accommodating nations.  With exceptions, fearing those they treated worst lest they might one day treat them, the WASPs, the same way: First Nations, African Americans, Hispanics–meaning Mexicans.

A place to breathe.  Easy to live.  Always something happening, with everybody feeling they are in the center of events.  A country of enthusiasm for a long list of (often dubious) “only in America”s.  Not strange they rally to its defense when they perceive it as threatened.  And yet, in doing so they may eliminate their greatest asset through secrecy, suspicion and police state measures. Pray it will not happen.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 May 2011.

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6 Responses to “America the Beautiful”

  1. As always, Johann is enlightening, informative, and edifying. One small correction, though, to “… refugees from that stiff upper lip North Sea island whence they came …” Namely, the largest European ethnic group or country of origin of the USA’s ‘colonials’ is German, not English. I suppose if you count the fact that Saxons settled a large part of England, then you have to admit that even more of us USAers are Saxon (German) descended than one could have imagined heretofore. What one fails to mention is that USA is basically an expression of Euro-White supremacy.

    And then there were the Vikings … ;-)

    • Johan Galtung replies:

      Yes, Germans no. 1, Italians no. 2; used to be English-British no. 3, Irish no. 4, Polish no. 5. But that is not my point in “whence they came” in 1607 (to Jamestown VA) 1620 (to Plymouth Rock MA); they were from Devonshire and East Anglia via Leyden; and they set the tone, defined the themes.

      Fischer’s Albion’s Seed is superb on all that. I have seen no good theory of how Americans became the way they did–“melting pot”, maybe, yes, but that pot had the linings indicated. Anyhow, they turned out differently from all melting pot ingredients–maybe more Italian? (bu less tricky).

      Vikings. They came to the place around year 1000 or so, must have found it uninteresting (nothing to rob?) and left. You find blond people along their routes from Scandinavia around Galicia and Sicily to Constantinople at the time; no blond American Indians have been reported. Worth an editorial.


  2. […] Traduzione di Miky Lanza per il Centro Studi Sereno Regis Titolo originale: America the Beautiful Stampa questo articolo Non ci sono […]

  3. I agree with Mr. galtung.

  4. From an expatriate Polish-Czech American, who has lived quite freely (thank you) most of his life outside “the land of the free.” Here in Asia, I have been studying the yin-yang of it all, just by breathing in the air. Yes, it, too, leads one to certain truths, but very seldom to solutions.

    Paths to take, yes. Destinations to reach, not quite yet.

    Within that context, I believe Dr. Galtung has found and expressed the trait that distinguishes the U.S. from other cultures, “It’s the people, stupid!” But if the people are so fine, then what went wrong with the country? Having spent my formative years in a different U.S., recalling backyard gatherings where my second generation parents would invite our multi-ethnic neighbors to a barbecue over my father’s hand made outdoor fireplace, I remember a different world. Yes, the people themselves are still, somehow, very fine, though it seems they don’t get together for neighborhood gatherings anymore. Now, homes in a typical American suburb are as isolated from each other as prisoners at Guantanemo.

    So what went wrong with this culture of fine people? My personal interpretation: “It’s the money, stupid!” More accurately, what others call hyper-capitalism, neoliberalism, and so on. I still prefer Pure Capitalism: when one travels to the U.S. that is what one sees, it’s everywhere, on every street, on every face. Ergo, 101% pure, undiluted, untouchable, lasting as long as those radium deposits in Fukushima. More indestructible than religions. Capitalism is the second (to salvation) human base impulse, so well refined, orchestrated, propagated, proselytised. . . and now being used against a desperate, naive humanity. As trees continue to fall here and there. As do humans . . . all over the globe. And with this, now globalized, economic system, there are greater tragedies yet to come.

    In those days of my childhood, I doubt that any of the visitors to our backyard had even one share of stock in hand, nor were any invested in a stock-based retirement fund. Way back then . . . when Americans still worked for a living and saved for a future. Now, I find my old high school friends, who were teachers of public schools, driving Cadillacs, taking Caribbean cruises, gambling in Vegas: having all the money in the world to burn due to “smart investments”, both personal and those made by their labor unions. Or, for those who were less smart, living off of credit card debt. In a word, a society corrupted by money, and the plaintive song of “Even More, Ever More”. A society that really has no sincere collective interests (for that would be “socialistic”: an obscenity in the ever-competitive U.S.) nor need to challenge anything, whether it be blossoming wars in the Middle East or intrusive searches at airports, all in the name of National (in) security.

    What’s wrong with the U.S? Quite simply, as Johan has frequently pointed out – it is broke, and yet not quite broken. It is still acting as if it were the early 70’s. All those fine people, now suddenly infected with the embrace of the dollar and an island-like-mentality of deeply ingrained Nationalism. (Is there a more nationalistic country in the world?) All drunk on the maya of the marketplace. A nation of Walmarts, bargain sales, 120 channels of infotainment (the new opium of the masses), and mounting fears. What’s wrong with the U.S? Well, perhaps it’s stems from the fact that it greatest pastimes (besides spectator/gladiator sports) are: consumerism, entertainment, and comparing (bank) notes.

    Its philosophy is money. Its future is bankrupt. Its wealthy classes are at the wheel. Its military is well oiled (so to speak), and actively engaged in attempting to save a sinking ship of state. Its politicians are all well paid salespeople for corporations (how else could they get elected?). They are delivering what the people have been taught to need, endlessly. While the hapless masses continue to pay for their short-lived pleasures with their grandchildren’s future.

    Yes, the people are still very fine. They are well worth a warm, sincere embrace. Except for the fact that they unwittingly nurse a system that, as Johan has predicted, is rapidly collapsing. Not just a fading military empire but also a rusty economic paradigm that has outlived its purpose. It has to collapse, as it can no longer afford itself. Nor can Americans, or others, afford to live for much longer under its mesmerizing, futile power. God bless them, God bless us all. For I truly believe the true Americans (the ones whose spiritual “frontier” does not stop in California, nor even Hawaii) will yet see us all through. For the true America is not a country, or a people, or a culture. It is an ideal still being born.

    But they and we must find a way to put the genie/(dark) genius of Pure Capitalism back into the bottle (along with all those nukes), and then to put it on the shelf, along with the other books of history. Until then, our shared future appears to be impossible.

    Sorry Mr. Fukuyama, I’m afraid history is still a long way from its end.

    If you look very carefully, tenderly, you can see a better future in the eyes of the children. Do have a look, now and then.

    Robert Kowalczyk
    Kyoto, Japan

    Ps. Thank you Johan for the very fine article.

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