On America

Image courtesy of Josh Johnson, Unsplash

For all our variety, we Americans have a some ingrained, commonplace qualities, ways of thought and behavior that most of us share. One of the best ways to see these decidely American characteristics clearly is actually to leave the country. On a recent time abroad, I had a few insights and thought to share them here.

When abroad, looking back at the USA, we can take in America all at once. From a distance, perhaps borrowing the eyes of our foreign friends, we appear earnest and honest. We Americans are more truthful than we think. We don’t give ourselves credit, which could be empowering.

We are also consistently naïve. And in our naivety, we sometimes do enormous geopolitical harm, nation building, or nation crushing or very simplistically attempting to reengineer cultures we don’t even vaguely understand. Such was the story Graham Greene told in his masterful book, The Quiet American.

Helping Americans to look in the mirror

And boy do we like to party. Having spent a great deal of time abroad has helped me to find humor in our aggressive, almost violent, hedonism. America is a place that has a love/hate, a kind of virgin/whore or Puritan/pornographer relationship with so many common and deeply humabn behaviors.

One of these is money. Without a doubt, we’re a country of lavish greed and lavish philanthropy. We are a few winners and a lot of losers and money is how the score is kept.

American culture also plays a worshipful and repulsed melody around all things sexual., We create and export the world’s most bombastic religious organizations and mega-churches, where sexual impulse is the devil’s voice and our bodies his playthings. There is a special self-loathing in American sex, but also a desire to binge. Places like the Las Vegas strip are a sexual assault onthe eyes. America fuels the world’s largest porn industry and seems to almost completely conflate hyperbolic sex with hyperbolic gunplay in our blockbuster movies.

We fetishize violence, fake or real, in comedies like Team America: World Police, or in actual expeditionary warfare. Gun ranges, fairs, stores are in many places as common as fast food chains. Take a drive across our country and you’ll see what I mean. When I’m not abroad and simply on a long domestic road trip, the culture shock of rural America can be as strong as the UAE or Kenya or Cambodia.

Mark Kurlansky, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We Americans also love Martin Luther King and Gandhi – Mark Kurlansky, an American author, wrote Non-Violence, a gorgeous biography of this revolutionary. At times in our history, America has rolled deep on the Peace Train. If you dig in both cities and rural counties, you’ll find that spirit of fierce reconciliation, the justice warriors, the underground railroads of those who love hardest.

Some of us are self-effacing heroes and some of us are attention junkies, and some of us magically combine the two. We have philanthropists who donate millions to charities and do so strictly under condition of anonymity. And we have charity givers who put their name on every stadium or college campus building they can get their hands on. Per capita and in gross currency, we are the most philanthropic country on earth.

Our generosity is noble, worthy of celebration, I think. But we also love almost anyone who successfully hogs the spotlight, no matter how unworthy in character, conscience or behavior. Our people are attention seeking at unrivaled levels. We are a nation of exhibitionists and voyeurs. We routinely build platforms for Warhol-esque “fame megaphones,” and we attempt to give every person their 15 minutes of fame through social media.

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

— Andy Warhol —

We don’t just have hospitals, universities, stadium benches, public parks and private venues. We have branded and dedicated places by the millions, all a little amuse bouche of immortality. Some of us maybe deserve this worship. Some most certainly don’t.

Image courtesy of David Todd McCarty, Unsplash

We brag. Boy, do we love to brag.

A group of my friends has spent enormous amount of time discussing the genres and categories of bragging as hashtags, such as the #humblebrag, the #travelbrag or the #douchebrag. Americans self-promote like no one on earth. If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it. So we ask for what we want, from everyone, everywhere, all the time, and wonder at our alienation.

We even flaunt experiential wealth. The last Tzars flaunted their palaces full of Fabergé eggs. We flaunt bungie jumping or wake boarding or stays in the most lavish hotels.

And even as we brag, we loath the braggarts. We essentially battle for attention and hate ourselves for the battling. We are fast, loose and sloppy, contributing to tidal waves of embarrassment and mistakes in our pursuit of attention.

And America has the largest concentrations of wealthy innovators on earth, the most powerful combination personalities, the dreamer/doers. If you have ambition, we are a nation of sink or swim, no safety net trapeze acts. We clap our hands bloody for the one in a million flawless acrobats and ignore the pile of broken people where the net might have been, where it would be for instance in much of Europe.

Our sea to shining sea is no doubt a magnet for ambitious entrepreneurs. Here, particularly in the Bay Area, creativity thrives, but a very specific kind of creativity, a results obsessed kind. We’re not good at rudderless wandering, which offers its own unexpected rewards. Our history does not burden us so heavily with shame and stigmas around failure as other parts of the world. We lionize those who try and fail. We’re genuine when we ask, “Why not?” Not all the failures are able to stand again, but a surprising number do.

Image courtesy Justin Veenema, Unsplash

Coming to terms with all this might mean smashing the kinds of clichés and typecasting we build up in order to grow comfortable around one another.

Why not embrace those walking contradictions we all know and love out there? The guy who participates regularly in a Vipassana meditation group, and NRA meetings? Perhaps you’re a transgender vegan pacifist, and a bodybuilder. Characterization is more a way to limit self and others, rather than grow or explore. “You do you” is as American as any expression I can imagine. We’re good at letting people invent their character and we reflect their choices back at them.

Our country’s celebration of diversity over uniformity, of extremes over moderation, somehow leaves me optimistic. I like living in such a beautiful mess, such a mix of friction and contrast. How about you?

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Raman Frey

Raman Frey

Good People and Meaningful Conversations www.ramanfrey.com