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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