American Culture: Does One Exist?

I was having a conversation with a co-worker and she mentioned a celebration in Mexico that as a child, on a particular day, people tossed water on one another and at the end of the day they went to the river and either jumped in it or swung across it. It sounded very interesting and from what she could remember, it was a religious celebration pertaining to holy water.

We got into a discussion on Mexican culture and it got me to thinking about American culture. Then my co-worker asked a good question. What is American culture? I thought for a second and I have to admit, it was hard for me to answer that. We are a hodgepodge of immigrants so there is an abundant amount of sub-cultures but does a distinct American culture exist?

To answer this question, I must first define culture.

a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

When most people think of America, they think of a society addicted to material, money, and celebrities and obsessed with sex. There is a sense of arrogance, high-mindedness and greed but also one that believes in freedom, justice and individualism. So if I had to take into account the complexity and diversity of America, could I say that there exist a culture that is distinctly American. The answer is YES. There is a distinct American culture and it was created with a stroke of a pen when Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men."
Our current political climate is challenging those beliefs but this statement is deeply entrenched in the American psyche and is something that is more than a statement… it’s a way of life. It’s the basis on how Americans live.

It is the fundamental principle we use to challenge the government whenever we feel that it is overstepping its authority. It is the one belief that every American, regardless of political or religious affiliation believes. It is the reason that America is a land of so many sub-cultures. People from around the world come here with their beliefs, their values, their dreams and accept that statement as truth. Even while many reject the individualism and the materialism, all accept the premise that they have the right to pursue the life they want as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others.

So the truth is, there is such a thing as American culture. You’ll see it in all the different ways we dress. You’ll see it in all the different music genres that are available to us. You’ll see it in the numerous rags to riches stories. You’ll see it in Civil Rights Movement and in the boycotts of movies organized by Christians. Folks from all walks of life frequent Chinatown, Little Italy and participate in the Puerto Rican Day Parade is proof of American culture.

We do a lot of things a lot of different ways for a lot of different reasons. But we do them with confidence knowing that we are free to pursue this life as we choose. So, as much as McDonalds, rap music, American Idol, E.T., Super Bowl parties and Ipods are a part of our culture. None of it would be possible without most import aspect of being American… FREEDOM!

Now, for some fun.

1. What are some aspects of American culture?
2. What do we as a collective believe?
3. Is there something uniquely American that brings us together?
4. Start every statement with… If you are American…How many can you come up with. Here are some of mine:

If you are American…

1. You believe that marriage is union based on love and not an arrangement made by other family members.
2. You believe that it’s your right to insult a politician but would consider it rude to insult one to their face.
3. You believe that just because a person is born poor doesn’t mean they have to die poor.
4. You stop at read lights no matter the traffic conditions or time of day.
5. Thanksgiving and Christmas is a time to be with family, Easter is a time for Church, Memorial Day is the start of summer and St. Patrick’s Day is a time to drink.
6. Sticker prices on vehicles are negotiable.
7. You actually understand the concept of a working vacation.


12 Responses to American Culture: Does One Exist?

  1. Timmer Says:
    (Just know, I am not trying to be mean or mean-spirited, just well-rounded!)

    First of all, I would say that I think you are correct in using freedom as the base for American culture. However, this doesn't always lead to the greatest results. Allow me to point our the darker side of American Culture.

    I do believe that this is an aspect of American culture that the rest of the world sees and we hate to admit. Basically, it is that our entire culture is built around myth. To use a crude analogy...think of American culture as a building. The foundation is freedom, but the walls being built up from it are all myths. Our entire history is shrouded in myth: from a young school age, we are taught to believe that the Revolution was a unanimous uprising against a tyrannical King, even when Adams himself wrote that George III wasn't tyrannical and only somewhere around 2/5 to 1/3 of people actually supported the revolution. We are taught to believe that whenever the US goes to war it is to defend freedom, though most of the time it's much more confusing than that. And there are many, many more rags-to-rags stories in reality than the Horatio Alger-esque rags-to-riches stories we Americans love so much. Because of these mythical surroundings, Americans are quite choosy in the viewpoints we take and in the examples we use (see own examples, for an example). We have also come to accept this picking and choosing of facts to be quite acceptable in everday argument.

    Because our walls are built of myth, we also tend to distance ourselves from each other and especially the rest of the world. Anyone must admit that this can directly be seen in the staunch individualism that most Americans hold dearly too. Distance from the world can be seen everyday, especially in this us vs. them mentality most have about terrorism.

    I'm going on too much. In short, yes, freedom is the basis of our culture, as is the great aspects of confidence, multi-culturalism, and justice. But let us not forget the seedy side of everyday American culture; which is pride, distance, and vanity.

    I would add, If you are an American...

    8. You do not like French people, despite their help to the U.S. at crucial points in history.
    9. You support stopping genocide, as long as there are profits to be made.
    10. You cannot name more than 10 countries in Africa.
    11. You probably speak no more than one language.
    12. You cannot have a political argument/discussion without raising your voice.
    13. You belong to or support an organization that protects one right, but shuns others (Eg...NRA, ACLU, NAACP, AARP)
    14. You aare jealous of Europeans and Japanese for their incredibly long vacations.

    I am so cynical...sorry.
  2. James Manning Says:

    I don't disagree with you at all. The Civil Rights is a perfect example of the myth of freedom. The fact that people are persecuted for protesting wars that have nothing to do with freedom and the fact that we ignore genocide is all true.

    And I do believe we have to fight to preserve the basic premise of our culture because right now, I don't think many folks on the right really believe in it. There is a law up for debate in Missouri that would recognize a Christian god and would protect the minority from blocking the religious expressions of the majority... but would not protect the minority. It will never past muster but the fact that someone wrote it is crazy.

    So my head is not in the cloud, but we do have something tangible to hold in front of these folks that are trying to make America a theocracy.
  3. Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden Says:
    03 15 06

    James: I cannot offer anything else to this discussion except that your analysis is spot on. We all believe in freedoms and capitalism and that is what binds us and also makes us hostile to one another at times. Ms. Ali's defense of her would be assasins is a pretty good example of idealism having to do with free speech. As I understand it, she is heavily influenced by what the Founding Fathers WROTE.
  4. Little Miss Chatterbox Says:
    Very intriguing discussion. To be honest I think you made some good points. FREEDOM would be the key word for me in describing the American culture. And this whole subject has got me thinking. I may have to do a take-off post on this subject as well.
  5. Timmer Says:
    Good call. I haven't heard about that possible law in Missouri...that is absolutely amazing that it is actually up for debate, given what is written in the constitution. You've said it perfectly again, many folks do not believe in it at all. I suppose it is evidence of a counter-culture of extremist Christian Americans who believe 'freedom' is a code-word for 'WASP lifestyle!!'
  6. Id it is Says:
    Americans by definition have to be tolerant and all-encompassing given that all of us chose to settle in a land of immigrants. 'Differences' are what this country is all about, and living in peace despite those differences, though oftentimes a challenge, is what it means to be American. We've had our share of upheavals; it's Islam today, it was Communism yesterday, and who knows what it will be tomorrow; these separatist agendas will always be there, and Americans are cognizant of that. Over the years, with the diversity that surrounds us, we've become tremendously accomodating and resilient. As a result, reactionary movements and divisive propaganda seldom affect us. Post 9/11 America is proof of that.
    There's also another reason for our steadfastness; our capitalistic pursuits that have us hypnotized; and this dollar trance is unbreakable.
  7. bold as love Says:
    American Culture-- What culture? America is a unique animal, it has spots one day, stripes the next. We free up whole continents, yet enslave ourselves to material bullshit. We gave the world the blues, jazz, country music, rock and roll- then we turned around and produced disco, gangster rap, Paris Hilton.
    We are capitalist, yet we give more dollars charity wise on a regular basis that any other nation.
    Every damned one us us wants to be a Cowboy-whether we admit it or not, yet when we have to, we work together very well.
    We are probally the best on the planet at coming up with more effective ways of eliminating our fellowman- yet we also innovate more life saving products and techniques than anybody in the world.

    We enjoy a standard of living that is outrageous compared to the rest of the world- yet we are constantly waging war on poverty within our borders.

    America is not about culture- We are about doing the damned thing- whatever it is. That's America. Culture is for French fags sitting around with nothing else to talk about or do.
  8. Cynthia Says:
    The heart of America is about entitlement. Everything else is about fulfilling that goal.
  9. TheOneandOnlyInsanely Says:
    If you are an American
    You believe that all people should be given the same rights, privileges, and opportunities, regardless of their race....

    James, I invite you to my blog to leave a comment. I so much value your opinion on this topic.....
  10. The Best [ Ghostface ] Says:
    Mixed blooded

    America is a culture, what is culture?

    food, language, religion, philosophy, written and unwritten rules that govern your society, family, relationships, clothing styles, music, etc. This is culture and America is made up of many cultures so to an American is a person who is born in America the country were all cultures are mixed. America is a mixed culture it is not one culture I mixed blooded and I enjoy it a lot. I really represent America I love being mixed blooded there is nothing like it.

    I am the American

  11. Binding Us All Says:
    You know, when it comes down to it, I wonder if "freedom" is enough to be a culture in and of itself.

    I wonder if Americans have enough truly shared values to remain a thriving people.

    When I see American sectarianism in the form of racist castes, I'm unsure.

    Ever heard people wonder why there isn't a White Entertainment Television?

    It would be interesting to see what kind of programing would be on such a station, and what their culturally affirming messages would be.

    All in all, so far, the American culture is fairly efficient.

    But, can it remain efficient in the long-term?
  12. Anonymous Says:
    Do all Americans believe that America is the only country where it is possible to have FREEDOM?