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Friday, July 29, 2005

American Similarities (Or Not)

Yesterday I posted about the question of whether or not Americans can be considered a coherent ethnic group. I said no, but I do have a caveat, in that Americans share a particularly strong national culture that manifests itself quite clearly outside of our borders. One of the interesting things, I think, about spending so much of your life being an American expatriate, as I have, is that over time you develop almost a sixth sense at being able to identify other Americans on the streets. I always found this quite strange in London, that I could be walking down the street, or on the Tube, and look at people and know instantly that they were American. It didn't matter if they were white or black or whatever, it was the way they carried themselves, their body language; I could just look and think "Americans". And then, often enough, I would walk by and hear them speak and I would be right. So, last night, I was amused to read this old article by David Rieff, whose 1994 book, Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, I have been thinking of picking up for some time.

And yet a dual paradox informs the American situation in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The first concerns how a country by tradition and disposition considerably more self-absorbed than most had become the animating spirit of the global consumer culture that, albeit with variations, more and more predominates from Guangdong to Berlin. The second offers the spectacle of a nation whose official ideology is, increasingly, what is somewhat oddly called the "celebration" of diversity while remaining culturally, though not, of course, racially, astonishingly homogeneous, not to say conformist, in its attitudes. All one has to do is watch a group of African American tourists on a tour of West Africa or Central American immigrants returning home for Christmas to observe how American they seem and how irresistible this Americanization seems to be, even in cases when people are ideologically committed to a sense of difference or are such recent arrivals to America that it might have been more reasonable to expect them to belong more to their countries of origin than the American inner cities to which they have migrated.

If anything, the puzzle is how wide the gap still is between the great simplifications of identity that America still imposes on both its native-born citizens and those who have immigrated to it recently--the phenomenon has been much noted by visitors from Crèvecoeur forward; it began with the homogenization of various European groups and is not only being extended, for all the talk of the end of the assimilationist model, to other, non-European immigrant groups--and the current vogue in the United States for identity politics and what might, instead of celebration, more accurately be called the fetishization of diversity. In any case, this much vaunted American diversity, as anyone who has visited a truly diverse place like India can attest, is more incantation, pious hope, and construct leeched of all force, than reality. That it serves as a bromide is apparent enough, given the fact that what is being propounded is a diversity in which all contradictions are reconcilable. A billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles encapsulated the matter nicely when it asserted, "Let our differences show in our foods, not in our attitudes.?"

Although I find this somewhat amusing, I am not sure that the central thesis, that Americans are all essentially alike and talk of 'diversity' is so much sound and fury, really stands up to much scrutiny. The differences between Americans blur outside of the national boundaries, but that is always the case with differences that seem meaningful at ground level. How many non-Hindus in the West really care much about the intricacies of the caste system? In the central arena, America in this case, the intricacies of American heterogeneity do matter, even if the cultural differences between different groups might seem slight when set against the differences between, say, a Korean and a Somali. Indeed, this piece is very much of its time, of that period in the mid-90's where America, after the great internal battles of the Cold War, seemed to be in a sort of political and cultural stasis. Although Rieff is to the Left, his argument here reminds me of another argument put forward in the Clinton era by the neocon columnist David Brooks, that I originally quoted from in December:

We are living just after the cultural war that roiled American life for a generation...Each force on the bohemian left - from the student radicals to the feminist activists - awakened a reaction in the bourgeois right, from the Moral Majority to the supply-siders. This last spasm in the long conflict was a bumpy time, with riots, mass movements, and a real breakdown in social order.

But out of that climactic turmoil a new reconciliation has been forged. A new order and a new establishment have settled into place...And the members of this new and amorphous establishment have absorbed both sides of the culture war. They have learned from both "the sixties" and "the eighties." They have created a new balance of bourgeois and bohemian values. This balance has enabled us to restore some of the social peace that was lost during the decades of destruction and transition.

As it turns out, he was wrong wrong wrong, as anyone who was in America for the collective froth-mouth session of the last election will know. Rieff, too, is wrong, because although most Americans do indeed share a common civic culture, this does not mean that political or regional or religious or ethnic or sexual differences don't matter. They do, of course, and in as much as America is the world's pre-eminent political and military power at the moment (although the almost surreal corruption of our political class seems tailor-made towards ending that) the real world reconciliation, or not, of differences between Americans has a global impact.

|| RPH || 10:02 PM || |