Cultural Adjustments

Americans tend to overestimate their culture’s superiority and to underestimate the value of other cultures. I think two processes are going on that perpetuate these attitudes.

The overestimation of American culture is, I believe, trained into us. We are told from an early age that the U.S.A. is the world’s strongest superpower. We have the most powerful military, our economy is the envy of the world, our freedoms are unmatched, we created this experiment with democracy that lives on to this day, and we have the best medical care in the world. The problem with these things is this: some of them are outright falsehoods and others rely on subjective assessments that are not borne out objectively. Beyond that, the “superiority” of American society has slipped over time. We’ve allowed it to slip. Rather than correct deficiencies as they develop, we ignore them and continue making the claim that “we’re number one.” Ignoring deficiencies in one’s culture is a key element of unchecked nationalism and hyper-patriotism.  And that, in my opinion, is what leads to decline and disintegration. I can envision a cartoon in which, through a series of panels, a group of flag-waving super-patriots shout “we’re number one in healthcare,” with each panel showing an increasingly decrepit image of a hospital behind the crowds, until the last image shows a site littered with bandages and needles and broken equipment strewn about the ground; the banner behind it proclaims “we’re number one in healthcare.” It’s harder for me to describe it than it is for me to think it; if I were an artist, I’d draw it.

I am not sure how I’d correct the problem of training us to be blind patriots. I suppose I’d first eliminate the pledge of allegiance from public schools and public events. And I’d do something to minimize the flag-worship that hyper-patriots use to signify their diseased adoration of anything American, regardless of the stench of its immorality and inequity. And maybe I’d insist on replacing the pledge of allegiance with a screening of the response from Jeff Daniels’ character from The Newsroom, in which he responds to the question, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” Or maybe I’d start every public event by stating that the definition of patriotism is “The devoted love and defense of one’s country as it pursues becoming the best it can be in line with its highest values.” That was a definition stated by a member of my church during a discussion of what patriotism means.

I’d call attention to the fact that parents who love their children don’t defend every action of their children when their behavior is unacceptable; they correct that behavior in an effort to mold the child into the best person he or she can be. That is what parental love looks like. The same is true for one’s country. It’s not, “My country, right or wrong.” It’s “My country, striving to be the best it can be.” Or something like that.

Now, as for underestimating the value of other cultures, maybe I’d begin with language. There’s no English translation for the Japanese word kintsukuroi. There’s no English word that means what fernweh means in German. I’ve written about both before, so I won’t belabor them here. My point is that other languages articulate beautiful concepts that we can explain in English only with a sentence or a paragraph. And we’ve adopted so many words from so many languages to create this language we think is so special. I might point out that  far, far more people around the world speak Mandarin than English.

Maybe I’d suggest a two-year stint after high school during which students would spend one year in community service in the United States and one year in community service in one or more other countries. Learn about the world outside our little piece of it. Come to understand the that other cultures are rich with beauty and teem with good people who share many of our wishes and dreams.

I don’t understand the attitude that suggests denigrating other cultures is necessary to uplift our own. In my view, denigrating other cultures accomplishes just the opposite; it tends to degrade ours and turn it into a cesspool of egotists and narcissists. And the absolute refusal to acknowledge the ugly side of American culture is, in my opinion, treasonous; it’s not even remotely patriotic. That attitude engenders fear and hatred and ugliness of all sorts.

Despite my embrace of other cultures, I think I understand the fear of losing our own. I understand that people from other cultures must adapt to ours if they wish to live here, just as we would have to adapt to other cultures if we were to live in them. There’s a fine line between assimilation and transformation, I suppose. I wish there were a word for that sweet spot between having pride in one’s own heritage and honoring the supremacy of the culture into which one injects oneself. If there were such a word, I’d use it.

There, I wrote another entire post without any mention of health issues. Except psychiatric health.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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