Some Generalizations about Generalizations

A close-up of bleeding heart flowers.I don’t have a copy of Albion’s Seed on hand, a book about how regional cultural differences in the United States can be traced to regional cultures in England which were brought to this continent by colonists, so I’m working from memory, so please pardon any minor inaccuracies. Fischer makes few references to the native people who occupied the land taken over by the English settlers. (Fair enough, it’s not his subject.) One reference he does make, and I believe it had been in the context of the settlement of the western bank of the Delaware, is to an Indian tribe that had been “peaceful” and later became “warlike.” Fischer’s interest is in the persistence of cultural traits, not in their changes. Still, it echoed a general tendency to characterize the indigenous cultures of North America as either “warlike” or “peaceful”, as inherent characteristics rather than seeing a tendency to fight or not as being dependent on circumstances.

A former boyfriend, whose parents came here from Taiwan, liked to tell an anecdote. One day, his father asked him what he thought were values in Chinese culture and, more importantly, their relative importance. My boyfriend ranked honesty at the top of the list. His father shook his head in disbelief. “Boy,” he said, “Are you ever confused.” However, my boyfriend’s error had an obvious origin, his parents themselves. Being raised by Taiwanese parents in the U.S., he associated his parents values with Chinese values. His father, a scientist, valued truth and honesty above social tranquility. Despite having been raised in a Chinese culture himself, his father’s own personal values did not mirror perfectly those of the culture in which he had been raised. Logically, we know that his father must have been influenced by the culture in which he grew up.

Within a period of two years, around the age of thirteen and fourteen, I attended three different schools, all located within less than an hour’s drive of one another in Northern New Jersey. Yet each of these schools had their own distinct subculture. Religion was an easy-going, multi-cultural affair in the first, the second school, almost solidly Roman Catholic, approximately half Italian and half Irish, was the only place in the United States where I’ve felt out-of-place as an atheist, and, in the third, religion appeared not to exist at all.

When reading about the gun debates in the U.S. on political sites, I often feel as if I’ve fallen through the looking-glass. What world are they talking about? It’s really quite disorienting. I’ve never really seen myself as being gung-ho about gun control, yet the pro-gun people baffle me. They seem to think that I must be in favor of draconian bans because I don’t like guns. What’s to like? Who are these people? They’re like phantoms that exist only on the internet and t.v., because I’ve never met one of these people in person. Then one day, I saw a state by state breakdown of gun ownership. New Jersey was dead last. That gun culture, that supposedly American gun culture, it’s not my culture.

New Jersey, the state in which I was raised, is an outlier in a few other respects. It is usually ranked first or second in terms of wealth. It is the most densely populated. It had, last I checked, the highest average level of education. Perhaps these facts don’t conform to the stereotype of the state. A friend of mine once told me that the state of Baden-Wurttemberg is often joked about with the phrase, “We can do everything except high German.” I think New Jersey should steal this and adopt as our motto, “We can do everything except good taste.”

Another received notion about the United States is our puritanical attitudes towards sex. Yet every summer, my family went to Provincetown.

Where is Provincetown is an easy question to answer. It’s all the way at the end of Cape Cod at the very tip of Massachusetts jutting into the Atlantic Ocean at 42 degrees North by 70 degrees West. But the more interesting question is what is Provincetown. By definition it is a small coastal New England town, but culturally Provincetown is a concept, a living idea, an institution of free thought, imagination, creativity, fun, freedom and equality. Provincetown is a continually evolving libertine phenomenon. It is a work of art with hundreds and thousands of visitors adding their own unique brush stroke to a collective portrait of a community. It is truly like nowhere else. (Steve Desroches)

Those puritanical notions are very American, yet so is P-town, ironically founded by actual Puritans.

At the same time, I am most certainly American. Despite regional differences and sub-cultures, it’s not entirely unintelligible to talk about an “American” culture. I never feel so American as when I’m traveling abroad.

I think it’s important to understand that any culture is complicated, containing both primary currents and counter-currents. Although I enjoyed Fischer’s book greatly, and it helped explain why the American culture I hear so much about doesn’t resemble very well the American culture I grew up in, he also, I believe, overstates his case. Culture does change over time. The culture I grew up in has changed dramatically over the course of the last four decades and it will continue to change. Generalizations will always be just that, generalizations.

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