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March 8, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»usa

The Ambitious Culture

Had an Ugly American Moment the other day.

You know what I'm talking about. One of those experiences where you find yourself fitting the American stereotype, that of the insensitive boor. My favorite example comes from a visit to Mexico when I was in high school. I was on a bus in Cancun with my girlfriend of the time, trying to be unobtrusive, when a southern couple got on the bus and rode for a few blocks. They were loud and obnoxious. Soon enough, they had to get off, and pushed the button by the door to signal the driver, at which point he (like every other bus driver anywhere in the world) took note but did not immediately screech to a halt.

"Push it agin," the woman said to her husband, at a volume that carried through the entire bus. "I don' think tha little guy heard you tha first time." That was my cue to try to look as not-American as possible. Which for me is a range that starts at Kentucky and ends at about Ohio, if we're generous, so I wasn't very successful.

I don't want my international readers to think they are getting off easy here. Other countries certainly have their own Ugly Stereotype moments. I'm just most conscious of the American variety. Surprisingly, considering the breadth of its workers, we have relatively few incidents at the World Bank, I think. Everyone is generally aware that A) at least one person in a given conversation does not natively speak English, B) it is much easier to extend the benefit of a doubt rather than take offense, and C) no-one wants to be that guy.

My transgression wasn't anything offensive, really. We were working on some documents for the conference in Belgium, including the commitment cards. See, one of the really cool things about this conference will be cards passed out to the participants, on which they'll write personal commitments to anti-corruption, ranging from the personal ("I will not buy gas from companies known to use bribery in their operations") to the organizational ("My company will not use bribery in our operations"). This is a brave move, all things considered, since we'll be collecting the cards and publishing selected commitments on the web site (that's part of my job there).

But the language that explains this was somewhat controversial--for example, the word "ambitious" was thought to have heavy overtones, and was cut. So while we're discussing the text, my manager commented on how this is really a way of making the political personal, as the saying goes. I suggested that we actually write that on the front. I think I said something along the lines of "We can get participants to realize how important this could be."

"Oh, that's very American," said another (American) colleague. "To the Europeans, it's going to sound like we're moralizing, and they'll just toss them." There were nods from a couple of people around the table.

I'm not going to say that I was hurt, really, but I guess I was surprised. While I know that Americans are considered "blunt" by many people, I had never really thought of this kind of assertiveness as being American. Or more precisely, it would have never occurred to me that such language was particularly assertive or self-righteous. I think for Americans, that kind of rhetoric is just considered a way to get the topic out for debate. In a way, maybe we automatically go for the hard sell. I had a similar experience with B-SPAN promotional cards that we placed in the cafeteria, one of which read (in reference to our mailing list): "18,000 NEW FRIENDS."

"But I won't actually get 18,000 new friends from B-SPAN," said one person.

"No," I admitted. "I guess you won't."

After we finished the conference card meeting, I mentioned this to a friend--the one with the interesting folk sayings. She compared my choice of language to her university professors in France. "They were very distant," she said. "We would never call them by their first name, or go to have a drink with them, the way that I can here. Americans were much more informal, and I kind of respected that. But it has its down sides, also."

Then the conversation turned to Walter Reed, and I guess we got off topic. The point for me is that, when we discussed this back in my college Communication classes, I had never really bought the idea that (interpersonally speaking) there are communal and individualistic cultures, but this event brought the lesson home for me. When I think about it, most of the writers and role models that I try to emulate share this kind of aggressive, almost hyperbolic use of words--and there's a real implication of individualism implicit in that. This is a new way to think about how I write professionally (or even casually).

Of course, being an American, I tend to agree with my coworker that I find these tendencies to be admirable. After all, isn't the problem with corruption too often that people tiptoe around it? Shouldn't our rhetoric be a little more aggressive?

Probably not, if it dissuades others from joining us. And in this case, that's what really counts.

February 1, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Ask an Englishman

Warren Ellis tells Newsarama why his novel is set in America (emphasis mine):

Why set it in America? Well, aside from the rich comedy purposes, it can be said that from a certain perspective America is the experimental petri dish of the Western world. America remains an astonishingly good idea -- and those rights held to be self-evident, that had never ever been written down before and which shaped every Western revolutionary society and republic that followed...it's those freedoms that turned the country into both an engine of innovation and an inarguable nuthatch. That's always worth studying.

December 18, 2006

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Live from New York

I've been to New York City a few times before, while I was in college. But visiting with Belle is different, because she packs our vacations full. Now, of course, it's all a blur. Good thing there are digital photographs, to preserve all my most embarrassing facial expressions!

Belle is a Sanrio fanatic. Total Hello Kitty overload. And ever since they closed the Potomac Mills store, I think she's been a bit in withdrawal. She claims that she was underwhelmed by the New York Sanrio Outlet, but I think she's just trying to make me feel better about it.

I, on the other hand, was definitely underwhelmed by the Nintendo World store in Times Square. Of course, I don't know what I was expecting: free Gamecubes at the door? Lots of white plastic and blue lights.

I think I'm scarier than the allosaurus, personally. But here's a funny story: neither of us had ever been to the Natural History museum before, and we started with the animals from Asia. We were looking at some kind of Indonesian deer when Belle turned to me and said something about how "lifelike" they were.

Well of course they're lifelike, I said. They used to be alive.

"What? No," said Belle. "You're pulling my leg."

Apparently she'd never really spent any time with taxidermy. We should all be so lucky. I think I like it better her way, though: I imagine teams of highly-trained artists carefully sculpting a life-scale model of incredibly banal wildlife, implanting each hair by hand.

I just liked this phone.

Before heading off to catch Almodovar's Volver (great flick, be sure to see it when it gets a wider release), we stopped off at this dessert restaurant, which we passed on our way to Lombardi's famous pizza. It's called Rice to Riches, and they only sell delicious rice pudding.

A lot of design went into it, obviously. You can't see them from this angle, but there were these elaborate Flash animations running on screens above the pudding bar, and all of the signs are a little sardonic. My favorite slogan hung over the bar was "Eat all you want--you're already fat." But this sign located outside was also a nice touch:

Shallow observation: New York is very different from DC or where I grew up in Lexington, KY. It always strikes me as three or four different cities that just happen to coexist over top of each other. There's the hipster New York where you can buy cupcakes at 11pm and then go eat at Moby's vegan restaurant. There's the grounded neighborhoods around the airport in Queens. And then there's the surreal sections of Manhattan like Times Square, where the city isn't just a hyperactive commercial parody of itself, but has actually become a parody of the parody of New York commercialism. The fact that all of these are only a few miles from each other is pretty amazing, as is the fact that they haven't declared war on each other yet.

April 13, 2006

Filed under: culture»america»south

What's for dinner (and breakfast, and lunch)

One of the best reasons to travel is to eat new foods, including the foods that you thought you knew but turn out to be radically different (hint: there is no General Tso's Chicken in China. It's also really hard to find a root beer there). This Argentinian travelogue (via Making Light) is a brilliant description of the meat-loving country and makes my mouth water--although it does imply that any visit I make there will be sans my lovely and brilliant--but vegetarian--girlfriend.

They speak Spanish there, don't they? And I've got some vacation time coming up...

September 5, 2005

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

The New Racism

I guess it was a couple of weeks ago that so-called researchers scratched themselves and announced that genetically speaking, women just ain't too good with the thinkin's. As that link to Alternet notes, this study is partly the work of Richard Lynn, a white supremacist and scholar of dubious virtue, if any. I love the fact that two of his other works include "The Intelligence of the Mongoloids" and "Positive Correlations Between Head Size and IQ." My girlfriend will be proud to know that the latter, if true, makes her smarter than just about anyone else I know.

My progressive female counterparts appear to be able to handle themselves just fine, which is no surprise to anyone. But isn't it interesting that just after Lynn clawed his way back out from under his rock, his protege Charles Murray also decided to expose his pasty skin to the light (or, considering that the link leads to Commentary Magazine, the dim flourescence of cave fungi)? Wherever Murray goes, he drags The Bell Curve along with him, allowing the Right to insist that it's not racism, it's genetics! And then Katrina has hit, and all of a sudden there are an awful lot of commenters along the same lines--those people wouldn't be poor and flooded and dying and looting if they weren't so intrinsically and genetically inferior.

Isn't that a funny little coincidence, how those two popped up together?

Well, maybe not. At least, it's no great shock to me. It's been pretty clear for some time that racism in America is alive and well. Like all creatures engaged in a Darwinian battle for survival, it has altered itself significantly in response to competitive pressures (I highly recommend Jon Ronson's Them! on the topic), but it's still here. The Bell Curve, like Intelligent Design is another attempt to shoehorn 18th century thought into 20th century science. And as much as I like to pretend that it's just the mouthbreathers with the sheets and the crosses and the GOP membership cards, there are an awful lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum (albeit increasingly common to the rightwards) who are uncomfortably thrilled at the idea.

If you're interested in the original debunking of The Bell Curve you might do well to see Eric Alterman's three-part miniseries (here, here, and here), which covers the basics. Steve Gilliard also covers Curve-apologist and idiot-compulsive Andrew Sullivan, who originally pitched the book while editing The New Republic. Steve mentions an angle that has always seemed a little suspicious to me as well--the fact that these studies always manage to confirm social prejudices, down to the slightest detail.

After all, wouldn't it be amusing if it worked the other way? If the implicit Eurocentrism of these "studies" was turned on its head? Say that (instead of results denouncing Black deviation) scholars released papers talking about how White people have a lower-than-normal level of sexual attractiveness, and tend to be weaker or clumsier than other people. When you stop using "White" as a synonym for "normal," you start to realize just how far out these claims really must be. Because the average cracker, myself included, has a subconscious adverse reaction to that kind of challenge to our hegemony, don't we?

The New Racism doesn't want to say that Blacks and other minorities should be shipped back to their home countries or treated as second-class citizens. No, heaven forbid! The end goal is perhaps more insidious. It says that the stereotypes about minorities are correct, and fit the current status quo--and because those stereotypes are genetically-determined and immutable, we should make no effort to fix the resulting injustices. In fact, the New Racism argues that it's not injustice when minorities end up trapped in the superstructure. Black people are poor and stupid (but athletic!), Asians are smart and submissive (but tiny!), etcetera, etcetera. Nothing we can do about it. That's just the way things are.

In all of this, the goal is to promote not action, but apathy. Whereas previous generations of racists (including now-beatified Chief Justice Rehnquist) explicitly set out to deny Blacks and other minorities the right to vote or to act freely, the New Racism prevents its adherents from seeing the racism there in the first place. Common to their attitude is the assertion that discrimination is no more, and racism is dead. They don't necessarily mean to do harm--but they won't do anyone any good, either. And so whatever progress we've made will simply halt here, if they have their way, while it should be clear to anyone who simply takes the time to ask that there is still much work to be done.

Indeed, as I've said, some of the worst offenders I've met really should have known better. They're the people who insist that Black people are just naturally more athletic. They're the people who extrapolate deep lessons about Asian culture from anime and kung fu movies. They're the people who laugh at Black comics because a taboo has been crossed, not because the humor is an intersection between fantasy and the uncomfortable truth, as if it were the equivalent of a fart joke. Even having friends who are minorities can't stop these people from finding well-meaning, utterly poisonous generalizations in the world around them--those are exceptions or illustrations of the rules, to the New Racists. It's easy to fall into the trap of these arguments. I worry about it myself.

The Bell Curve is like the canary in the mine shaft, but inverted. Whenever it pops up again into the fresh air, you can be sure that we'll also see a revival in a particularly grotesque Social Darwinism. Unfortunately, I think these attitudes may simply be a part of our particular nation's capitalism. They are part of the dark side of the American Dream: Horatio Alger only makes sense if everyone really is equal, and to admit to inequality is to start down a long road questioning the basic values of American life. Where is that large automobile? This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!

This weekend, I helped Belle sign up students for the ESL program she coordinates. I sat across the table from people who didn't speak much English, if they spoke any at all, and tried to work through the forms with them. My Spanish is clumsy, so communication was rocky at times, and it would have been easy to see the other as the root--ignorant immigrants versus the benevolent and educated American. It would have been easy, and it would have been lazy, and it would have been wrong. Because when you stop thinking of people as just deviations from a racial profile (genetic or otherwise) you can see them as a distinct and interesting person worthy of your help. Likewise, the victims of Katrina (and of our society's racism/classism) aren't looters, or refugees, or thugs. They're people just like us with problems we need to solve, and we can't do that until we clear the Bell Curve smoke from our eyes and see them clearly.

Future - Present - Past