Does the Simple Nature of Americanism Allow It to Integrate Better?

Is American culture more casual and simple than most European cultures?

In English there is no formal version of "you". Our national food is the hamburger. In the Bay Area t-shirts are acceptable work attire in many industries. The overarching theme in Americanism seems to be mutual admiration for the process of re-inventing who we are and what we do. It’s not about interpreting implicit signals, as Pascal Braudry argues is essential in French culture. It’s not about punctuality or professionalism, as some would argue is essential in Swiss culture. If you’re Irish and immigrate to America, you’re now "Irish-American." If I immigrate to Ireland, I’ll always be American. In short: Americanism is about the freedom to invent whatever darn identity we want.

Several commentators have theorized that one reason many Europeans despise George W. Bush is that he lacks the sophisticated eloquence Europeans expect in their politicians. He uses simple language, he clears brush in Texas, he listens to an iPod while riding the bike. It’s easy to impersonate George W. Bush. If he’s a symbol for an American, it’s easy to act American.

Do these simple, universal attributes allow America to better receive immigrants and thrive on diversity? Some of Europe is really struggling on the integration front, particularly in the Muslim community. I wonder if it’s just harder to become an authentic citizen of that European country.

There are a few counter-arguments I’ve thought of, but I’m curious what you think.

10 Responses to Does the Simple Nature of Americanism Allow It to Integrate Better?

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    I am no expert on European culture, but what strikes me about your argument is how the fundamental distinction you draw applies everywhere.

    I see the issue not as complex versus simple (I believe that the protocols of The OC may be as complex as the court of the Sun King), but as constraint versus choiceb.

    When you tightly constrain a system, you circumscribe your potential choices and courses of action. This can cause distortions and problems–the Euro, for example, takes away from individual European states the use of montetary policy to affect the economy. The same applied to the earlier Bretton Woods agreements to peg the world’s currencies.

    In contrast, the United States has always been about soft constraints. And if you really disagreed with your neighbors, you could always head for the frontier and do as you please.

    Even today, thanks to America’s plentiful land, wackjobs and kooks populate the mountains, working on manifestos and other deviltry. Yet even those wackjobs and kooks are recognizably American–no one tries to call the Unabomber unAmerican, only insane.

    As long as we value choice over constraint, it will be easier to become American, simply because anyone who wishes to be American can simply declare themselves to be so.

    In that sense, the current movements to criminalize immigration, and to set up “moral” constraints represents an attempt to “Europeanize” America–a prospect that would horrify their proponents.

  2. Bekka says:

    America has always been a melting pot for different cultures, hasn’t it? It’s easy to be integrated and receive immigrants not because Americans are casual, but because that’s what our country is made out of– immigrants. There aren’t centuries of tradition and culture that are strictly “American” like there are in older countries like France or Switzerland. So yes, Americans may be more casual, but that’s because it’s essential. Without this acceptance of everyone, everything, and the creation of something new, the USA wouldn’t be here today.

    I agree though with your theory on distaste for Mr. Bush. He does encompass the *typical* American, which puts him on an average level if you will among his fellow politicians. In other cultures where monarchies have reigned, having a leader who is on the same step as their country just wasn’t good enough. Leaders were akin to gods in many cases (something Bush most certainly is NOT.. though he may think otherwise), giving them their great political power, a sense of superiority that lives on in political figures today. Still, that anti-monarchy bug that’s infected our country since the revolution I think played a major part in Bush’s election. He was normal, and that appealed to the American masses. Domestically, that seemed like a a fine idea, and you know the US, we obviously make the best decisions, right? So what if our little Texan boy doesn’t look so good in the UN, he looks good on the home front.

    But hey, we’re only Americans, what do you expect? :P

  3. Aggie says:

    I haven’t been to Europe; however, I’ve lived in Mexico.

    There is no formal version of “you” in any English-speaking nation, not just the United States, so I don’t think that is a good example.

    As a vegetarian for 30 years, I don’t consider hamburgers the American food.

    Some areas in the U.S. are more casual than others–for example, Colorado is more casual than much of Texas or the east coast, from what I’ve seen. But even here, in most businesses, you have to dress more casually than in a t-shirt. The same is probably true in many businesses in California. Again, this generalization doesn’t bolster your point.

    I think that Europeans despise Bush because of who he is–not because of his everyman qualities. After all, in real life he’s the rich son of rich parents. They’re used to the U.S. having a few less-sophisticated presidents–but were Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan, and Nixon as despised as Bush? I don’t think so, although I’ll have to research it.

    Bush is either stupid and misled by his advisors, or evil. Choose one. If you live in the U.S., it’s easy to ignore your neighbors because most of your neighbors are other states. In Europe, most of your neighbors are countries which have invaded you or which you have invaded in the past. That might make it easier to remember how horrible war is and to despise someone who chooses to act like an ignorant bumpkin while he disrupts the world with an unnecessary war.

    I don’t think that the U.S. thrives on diversity. That’s such an optimistic viewpoint. I’ve been attacked by other citizens for being who I am, and I’m a native.

    Since I lived in Mexico, I have trouble referring to us as “America”–Mexicans resent the term because they consider everyone who lives in North, Central, and South America to be Americans. Why should we appropriate the term? It’s an ethnocentric thing to do.

    Visiting other cultures makes one aware of the strengths and drawbacks of one’s own culture, which is why it’s good that you’re traveling. But I hope you’ll spend part of your gap year in service in a third world country. That’s probably the most useful perspective a talented young person who grew up in the richest country in the world could gain before entering college.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Aggie greetings from Madrid. Some quick responses.

    >
    > Some areas in the U.S. are more casual than others–for example,
    > Colorado is more casual than much of Texas or the east coast, from what
    > I’ve seen. But even here, in most businesses, you have to dress more
    > casually than in a t-shirt. The same is probably true in many
    > businesses in California. Again, this generalization doesn’t bolster
    > your point.

    The comparison isn’t intra-U.S. — it’s U.S. versus Europe.

    > I think that Europeans despise Bush because of who he is–not because
    > of his everyman qualities. After all, in real life he’s the rich son
    > of rich parents. They’re used to the U.S. having a few
    > less-sophisticated presidents–but were Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson,
    > Reagan, and Nixon as despised as Bush? I don’t think so, although I’ll
    > have to research it.

    I agree most hatred is probably due to things other than his everyman qualities….but the amount of time that’s spent focused on Bush’s words and speech (“Bushisms”) is far disproportionate to the actual “problem.”

    >
    > Bush is either stupid and misled by his advisors, or evil. Choose one.

    I’ll be blunt in my reaction to this sentence: this represents the absolute worst of the state of general political discourse in the country.

    > If you live in the U.S., it’s easy to ignore your neighbors because
    > most of your neighbors are other states. In Europe, most of your
    > neighbors are countries which have invaded you or which you have
    > invaded in the past. That might make it easier to remember how
    > horrible war is and to despise someone who chooses to act like an
    > ignorant bumpkin while he disrupts the world with an unnecessary war.

    I don’t see what this point on Iraq has to do with the nature of citizenship in the U.S. and Europe.

    >
    > I don’t think that the U.S. thrives on diversity. That’s such an
    > optimistic viewpoint. I’ve been attacked by other citizens for being
    > who I am, and I’m a native.

    Everyone gets discriminated against during some parts of their lives. But the U.S. IS diversity. We’re a nation of immigrants. In Silicon Valley, for example, the majority of tech CEOs are foreign born.

    >
    > Visiting other cultures makes one aware of the strengths and drawbacks
    > of one’s own culture, which is why it’s good that you’re traveling.
    > But I hope you’ll spend part of your gap year in service in a third
    > world country. That’s probably the most useful perspective a talented
    > young person who grew up in the richest country in the world could gain
    > before entering college.

    I agree!

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. Everyman says:

    Dear Aggie,

    I have also lived in Mexico almost all of my life, but I am an American citizen. I suffered discrimination as well – from the Mexican side. Because I don’t look Mexican, some of the most hateful and vicious comments have been used on me and my family by the Mexican people while I was growing up.

    Even in New York, where I currently reside, when I try to strike up a conversation with the Mexicans who dominate the service industry here, all of them look at me kind of funny: who is this white guy trying to talk to us about our hard journey to the U.S.? So I’m disciminated by Mexicans HERE IN THE UNITED STATES.

    How does that make you feel?

    Regardless, we are a culture of immigrants, and tolerance is what I love about this country…as opposed to others, especially Europe. The people of Europe have become so afraid of globalization and integration that they are shutting off the Muslim world from entering. Turkey will never be part of the EU because of this.

    Do not have trouble using the word “America” when describing our country. Out of all the countries that conform the continent, from Canada to Argentina, NONE of them have the ACTUAL word “AMERICA” in their name. Therefore, using “America” is just a simple way of abbreviating “United States of America.”

    If you read up on history, you will learn that it was the English who first came to the States that coined the word of “America” to describe the 13 colonies. No other culture, from the Mayas to the Incas, from the Spanish conquistadores to the French armies, EVER used that term to designate their countries. Therefore, the term has been in our history for a long time, and so it is our right to use that word.

    Ben, while I am happy that you think it’s a good idea to spend some time in a third world country that would most benefit of your talent, you should do it under an organized manner so that no destructive thoughts are set in your mind. Many people who want us to visit third world countries feel guilty that somehow we are personally responsible for the way people live there, and they want to make us feel bad for something that is so beyond our control, it’s ridiculous.

    If you do visit a country, I know that you are intelligent enough to realize that we are not the cause, but we should always want to be the solution.

    Love,
    Everyman

  6. Several commentators have theorized that one reason many Europeans despise George W. Bush is that he lacks the sophisticated eloquence Europeans expect in their politicians.

    Occam’s Razor applies here. One reason that Europeans despise Bush so much is that he openly disdained the US’s carefully constructed alliances with Europe in order to launch the Halliburton franchise in the Middle East. You don’t have to cast about for subtle sociological reasons why the French would despise a politician whose operatives trashed his opponent in a national election by insisting that he “looks French.” (Imagine how most Americans would feel about a French prime minister who dissed George Bush because he “looks American,” as if that was self-evident proof of his inferiority.) Bush also loudly pisses all over organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations (e.g. the recess appointment of John Bolton, which translates very clearly into any language as “fuck you, world”) — both of which embodied the myth of the American moral center, no matter what you have to say about the particular shortcomings of those organizations. Donald Rumsfeld tossed out the Geneva accords as “quaint” and outmoded, a remnant of an irrelevant “old Europe,” and then charged ahead in instituting torture as US policy.

    It’s not just about the iPod.

    In short: Americanism is about the freedom to invent whatever darn identity we want.

    Americanism is about the myth of that freedom, which is less true now than at any previous time in US history. Having a national myth is crucial, but surely when the economic realities of a country drift farther and farther from the guiding principles of the myth, it’s time for some soul-searching. Soul searching is precisely what the GOP dismisses as the strategy of losers, and probably treasonous.

    He uses simple language, he clears brush in Texas, he listens to an iPod while riding the bike. It’s easy to impersonate George W. Bush. If he’s a symbol for an American, it’s easy to act American.

    There’s a difference between using “simple language” because you have a simple, straightforward agenda, and using simple language in highly complex ways to attain occluded ends.

    George Bush uses simple language for several reasons. He comes from Texas, where intellectual pretense is frowned upon and distrusted. He uses his famous nicknames for people to put them in their place, as bullies do. He uses apparently simple language because it connects with his base and makes him seem like a Beltway “outsider,” when the machine that Rove and DeLay built for the GOP is the ultimate Beltway-insider machine, to the point of making one of the two political parties in this country seem like irrelevant outsiders. (A goal the Democrats have given him great assistance in accomplishing). Bush and Rove are also masters of hiding complicated political agendas in phrases so simple and memorable that they could have come from a schoolyard. “Flip, flop,” “cut and run” — these brilliantly deployed phrases have had the effect of making nuanced and complex considerations in politics themselves seem untrustworthy. Since statecraft, the building of lasting alliances, and diplomacy all depend on masterly handling of nuance and complex issues, the GOP approach has proved disastrous in terms of the US’s international standing. If the end result of their efforts was proving to be fruitful, one might excuse them for dumbing down national politics to a schoolyard-bully level. Since the facts on the ground in places like Iraq suggest instead a massive practical failure of policy, Bush and company are destined to go down in history more like the alcoholic fathers who dismiss their family’s concerns with crisp phrases like “It’s my way or the highway.”

    As an ad agency, they’re brilliant. Apple should hire them. As national leaders, they’re an international disgrace.

  7. Americanism is about the myth of that freedom, which is less true now than at any previous time in US history.

    I do want to clarify what I say here. In some ways, the myth of the self-made American is more true now than at any time in history — because of the Internet, DIY digital businesses and tools, and other “flattening” aspects of the networked era.

    So, on an individual level, the myth of Horation Alger has been supercharged. But on a collective level, the rich are getting much richer while the poor are getting poorer, while class barriers are getting higher and the middle class is shrinking (and will shrink drastically once the Boomers discover that their 401ks were an instructive economic experiment that did not prove viable for sustaining them in the middle class through retirement).

  8. Mike says:

    Wow, its quite telling of some peoples idology how one little example about the simplistic nature of the general American culture is reflected in the current president can give birth to pages of dissertation that have nothing to do with the original topic!

    Ben, although I haven’t traveled much I think your general premiss does touch on one of the main qualities of Americanisim, to be who you want. If someone doesn’t have to spend a lot of resources just trying to ‘fit in’ to the culture those resources can be better spent on something more productive or rewarding to the individual. Of course, if ‘fiting in’ is what is rewarding to the individual then that person is free to do so. This is one reason we have such an abundance of sub-cultures here in America.

    Oh, and English does have a formal version of ‘you,’ if by formal you mean singular. It’s just fallen out of style over the past few hundred years. ‘Thou.’

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Steve, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t want to rehash the tired arguments about Bush. We agree on some and disagree on others. I’m more interested in the nature of being accepted as a bona fide citizen in America and Europe. I agree that Europeans may not like Bush for significant reasons independent of language, but given the state of political discourse in this country, and the popularity of “Bushisms” and the like, I’m inclined to believe that most people don’t think about the matter in as complicated a fashion as you appear to.

    On the “myth” issue, I think part of the myth is you can achieve any economic level you want (which I agree is becoming less and less the case), but part of the myth is simply projecting an identity independent of economic status, and having people accept that. Hyphenated racial labels is a perfect example of this.

  10. I was born and raised in Denmark and France, went to school in England during my teens. Lived in Canada and New Zealand in my early 20’s and moved to America in my mid-20’s and am now 32.

    I have found being American very hard. It has been the biggest culture shock for me. I find that I am less accepted in the US than in any other country I’ve lived or travelled to.

    If I use a word that’s “not American” like say, washroom instead of restroom, I get hours of teasing or comments or looks from the person I said it to and automatically, I’m different. A wall goes up.

    If I have something to say that might be different than others, my accent makes me seem snotty or that I’m degrading the person I’m talking to so my comments are often put off as “she’s stuck on herself” or I’m told to “go home.”

    Europe is based on tradition and ceramony – they like things done a certain way because it’s been that way for hundreds of years. They also believe if you choose to come to their country full of cutoms and rituals, you’d incorporate them into your life. Muslims in lots of places in Europe for example, shut out European Life and this causes a conflict because there is a fear that the traditional way of life could cease to exist. This is a huge problem in Denmark at the moment.

    But, on the whole, I think Europe is more tolerable to differences. They don’t get their knickers in a knot as quickly over smaller things. It takes awhile for it to build up for them to make a deal over something. It’s like America is a teenager – quick to judge and fuss and Europe is the older parent – understanding of different things but pushed far enough and you’ll have things to deal with.

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