Comments on Culture

why so angry?

October 5, 2009
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My, the talking heads of the media are angry these days. The visceral reactions to the healthcare reform debate remind me again that we have a bit of an identity crisis in the U.S.

I’m reminded of a lecture on moral psychology that explains the dichotomy between the values of our two major political parties: Talk. Here, Dr. Jonathan Haidt postulates that conservatives and liberals have different sets of values which drive their decisions and reactions. Haidt says liberals value fairness and inclusiveness for all, even if it means disrupting social order, while conservatives value social order and tradition, even if it means sacrifices for some. These are fundamentally different approaches to community.

Considering this, it might be fair to say that the people of the U.S. have conflicting values: personal success and the success of the community. I find this conflict interestingly timed. In the last month, I’ve heard talking heads frothing angrily on U.S. news programs. They say it’s not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes and choices of others. They say large social programs are un-American. In the same month, I also heard voices external to the U.S. comment on how America is known for taking care of one another, and for having a government that cares about its people.

The external voices cover seemingly disparate cultures, but both involve people who feel their communities have been failed by their government. The first is an article called “Shattered Somalia,” and the second is a documentary about Mexican border communities emptied by migrant labor, “The Other Side of Immigration.” In an interview in “The Other Side of Immigration,” a man who had returned after working for over a decade in the states said that the problem is Mexico. It is crazy. The corruption and lack of resources and support for the people make Mexico crazy. It doesn’t take care of its people the way the U.S. does, so people have to leave. Considering the angry rhetoric mentioned above, I was almost surprised to hear the U.S. described this way. (more…)


Tasty disclaimers

August 26, 2009
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It’s something we hear about a lot, in the news, movies, and while we travel. Americans are perceived by the rest of the world in certain romanticized or despised ways. United States citizens are aware of this very general idea, but we don’t talk about it much.

I asked an Anthropology professor a long time ago if one could specialize in American culture. She replied that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AMERICAN CULTURE, only American cultureS. We are too varied and diverse a people to all fall under one “American culture.” Interestingly, though, every non-academic person I’ve told this to says, “Huh? Of course there’s an American culture.”

I wondered, why are the pro’s missing what the laypeople see? Why is the discipline whose job it is to identify patterns of behavior—values and norms shared by groups of people—missing this seemingly obvious group? Why don’t anthropologists study American culture? (more…)