Our Evolving National Character: Are Unique Cultural Attributes Gone?

Paul Starobin has a great essay in the current Atlantic on how American culture is less distinctive than it once was but it still remains different in certain ways. Unfortunately, the parts that have faded were attractive to foreigners and those that remain are viewed w/ disdain.

At the inaugural Silicon Valley Junto meeting we discussed Americanism as an idea (see notes from meeting). What makes someone American is a murky topic. Perhaps we would point to the things Starobin opens with:

Let’s try to think of an original American tableau—the sort of scene, not happening elsewhere, that shows just how very different we are from all others. We might point to the wide-bottomed twelve-year-old, fresh from his double cheeseburger with fries, plunging into the neighborhood pool. Or to the pasty-faced workaholic, hunched over his computer in a lonely cubicle late at night. Death row comes to mind (few other countries routinely execute criminals), and so do images of people freely doing things that would land them in jail elsewhere. No other nation is as legally tolerant of Holocaust deniers, flag burners, and users of the N-word—not even our progenitor the United Kingdom.

Enter: globalization.

But in a shrinking world it is getting harder to think of distinctive American scenes without invoking the Grand Canyon or Maine lobster. It is particularly striking how few of the cutting-edge things in American society are uniquely American. Male teenagers the world over ogle the same pornographic images on the Internet. Circles of friends swap digital photos on their mobile phones in London, Moscow, and Hong Kong just as they do in Los Angeles. Worried about our video-game addicts? It was a South Korean who recently dropped dead after playing the battle-simulation game StarCraft for nearly fifty hours straight. Much of what Americans may now think of as culturally or technologically novel has already happened elsewhere: the kind of WiFi system that San Francisco aims to establish in its public places already exists in Tokyo….

If American culture and society are losing their historically distinctive cast, perhaps it is good news—at least for our foreign relations. America has long stood out from the crowd, in ways that seem to have complicated as much as helped our relationships with other states. If a global culture is slowly emerging—if our values have blended with others through some subtle osmosis—we might expect our international relations to become less fractious.

Of course this has not been the case, both in international relations and in Europe’s appreciation for our culture. So…is American exceptionalism all just hogwash? Yes.

Our remaining exceptionalism resides in our culture’s striking combination of deep religious faith and nearly libertarian social permissiveness. These qualities don’t rub elbows easily, and their twinned presence separates the United States from nearly all other countries, rich or poor.

He then goes on to talk about the surveys about much much other countries hate us…with a couple exceptions.

In international relations—as sometimes in personal ones—too long an acquaintance can be an irritant. But except for some testy episodes in the 1970s in which America sided with Pakistan, the United States and India have little history to mar the honeymoon atmosphere. Indians, unlike those hectoring Europeans and smoldering Chinese, seem content to take America as it is, without judgment. This is a relief. As much as we want to be liked, we are happiest when we are allowed to be our natural selves. In that we are exactly like everyone else.


1 comment on “Our Evolving National Character: Are Unique Cultural Attributes Gone?
  • As I often point out to arriving foreign exchange students, who otherwise would never think to ask, we have drive through banks. These are unique in their own right, but at any drive through bank, in any american state, you are entitled to a sucker; One for each person in the car. If you do not receive a sucker you are entitled to a formal complaint, at which point a sucker will be mailed to you. ONLY IN AMERICA!!!

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *