My husband stalked into my office this morning to ask me a question. “Why is it that in the United States, where we can draw on the cultural traditions of dozens and dozens of ethnic and national groups, we have so few cultural traditions?” he wanted to know.
I had no answer. All my life, I have been jealous of friends who were firmly planted in cultural traditions. My friend Anne, who broke into a run when she heard Greek music a block away (by the time we caught up she was dancing, laughing, arm in arm with people she had never met, but knew). My friends the Kavanaughs, who sing and play Irish music together. What would it look like to have a festival where we all put on a national costume that meant something and danced old dances to music we all knew, then ate time-honored foods and told stories about our shared history?
I am not sure Turkey Day rises to the purpose.
Sure, we wear sweaters and eat roast bird and watch pigskin fly through the air. But we have lost our innocence, and we know Thanksgiving represents a series of glossed-over crimes and urban legends that we are now trying hard to reinterpret as simple gratitude.
Then there is Christmas, which we tried valiantly to pry away from Christianity and make a secular holiday. Jewish Americans were happy to go along, many adding a Christmas tree to their holiday décor as postscript to the menorah. But those who owned it first screamed about putting Christ back in Christmas, or back in the manger in the creches swiftly removed from the public square. In the end, retailers prevailed, stealing large chunks of Thanksgiving to start the holiday buying spree and assailing us with all the stuff we had to buy if we were truly going to have a proper celebration. I will never forget my small cousin’s dismay when the family schedule was rearranged: “But when are we going to have Christmas?” he asked, meaning when would the presents be opened.
Culture is also food, music, art, clothing, language—but the food that is quintessentially American is, we have decided, unhealthy. And to my knowledge, nothing has replaced the greasy burger or the apple pie a la mode. We eat the Impossible, and for other meals we borrow from other traditions, because food is the last bastion of acceptable cultural appropriation. Language has been politicized ad absurdum.
When it comes to music, nobody can deny the Americanness of rock ’n’ roll or country-western, but the truly American form is jazz, and there are fewer and fewer places to hear it live. At least in the popular imagination, our visual arts peaked with abstract expressionism, pop art, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Film has become, way too often, the reimagining of franchises. The excitement of the space program fizzled out with a thousand budget cuts. Jeans manufacturers are going bankrupt; ball caps mean too many things; sneakers require a mortgage. The great American pastime of baseball has been declared too slow.
What was I missing? Serious studies of culture in the United States call it diverse and then explore its hyphenated subcultures. On a travel site, I found a general list of American cultural traditions that were better defined as traditions “bred from the American way of life”: driving everywhere; not taking maternity leave; working way too many hours; tipping for services; eating fast food; eating large portions; constantly striving to look young; celebrating the Fourth of July.
We used to gather on the Fourth of July to hear readings of the Declaration of Independence. Now we just barbecue, then either gather to shoot off fireworks or sit home and grumble that the fireworks are scaring the dog. On Memorial Day, people will plant flags or commemorate lives lost in our service. All holidays (which we now understand as days off work) are marked by big sales.
Our most recognizable cultural attribute is the acquisition of wealth and stuff.
Are we worse than other countries? I think so. We are the place where capitalism is least fettered, if that is a word. It is certainly a reality. All the regulation in the world has not stopped Jeff Bezos from making about $13 million an hour, or from breaking records by increasing his net worth by $13 billion in a single day: July 20, 2020.
What used to be American (and even the word is problematic, because in our arrogance, we steal an identity that should be shared by many other countries) is on the downswing. Churches draw fewer followers. The nuclear family we draw as a tall stick figure, a shorter stick figure in a triangle skirt, and two little stick figures is changing shape. Small-town America was gobbled up long ago by Walmart and the highway strip mall. Small, indie businesses are in even greater jeopardy since the pandemic. And patriotism?
We are a nation of immigrants. The original nation of nations. But those we finally embraced—the Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European—have lost many of their own traditions after generations of assimilation. And the new immigrants, we have decided to hate. As for the small interpersonal rituals that glue a society together, we are down to “God bless you” when a stranger sneezes. A practical nation whose citizens are always too busy, we stick to our private rituals, nothing communal. Clubs and associations with elaborate rituals look ridiculous these days; we stick to virtually mediated meet-ups.
The pursuit of dollars makes it possible to pursue individual or family pleasures that are bound to differ from your neighbor’s menu of interests. Community used to thrive in neighborhoods too poor to afford these fancy, individualized pursuits, but these days, it is dangerous to sit out on your porch and chat with passersby, and there are too many gunshots to make a potluck picnic sound like fun.
Even the most innocuous, purely ceremonial act of a democracy, the formal counting of the already-counted ballots, is now gone. “That ship has sailed,” sighs my husband. “If we’re lucky, it will sail back into port and stay there, but that tradition is now broken.” We cannot even agree on what it means to be American, let alone develop a shared culture that extends beyond what we buy for ourselves.
And then we wonder why people are self-centered.
The United States is an extraordinary nation. Not an exceptional one, but an extraordinary one. It is not based on blood or history or religion. It is based on an idea, and on the rule of law. But if we do not agree on the implications of that idea or how that law should be interpreted, what are we?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.