Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Addressing John

One of the best parts about being in respectful dialogue with someone who disagrees with you is that you are compelled to clarify your own perspective. John of Locusts & Honey and I have been in a dialogue of sorts via our blogs around the issue of immigration. In one of his latest posts, John addresses two of my ideas.

First, I wrote this:
Myth - Prosperity is inherently good. Truth - In addition to a lot of good, prosperity leads also to greed, envy, ulcers, and a mile-a-minute pace of life that is not conducive good health.

In response, John wrote this:
If you think that wealth is stressful, you ought to try poverty!
He points out that escaping poverty and attaining prosperity is one of the basic motivators for immigration to this country, which makes the case that prosperity is preferable to poverty. And he correctly asserts that having regular meals and electricity is a good thing. And I agree.

But he has missed my point. I know that prosperity leads to a lot of good, and fully agree with John that poverty is not a desirable state of being. My point is that it is a fallacy to believe that prosperity is good in and of itself. I am not comparing prosperity to poverty here. I am holding up prosperity all by itself to judge it on its own. And my assessment is that inherently, by its own merits, prosperity is a neutral phenomenon. It is what we make of our prosperity that makes it good or bad.

Second, I wrote this:
Myth - there is an American culture. Truth - America is now and always has been vibrantly diverse.

In response, John wrote this:
It's hard to define the self because it's the default 'normal'.
This is a wonderful point! John goes on to say, correctly I think, that it is a good idea to step back and look at one’s self and one’s group from different perspectives, and in so doing one can discover one’s culture. And here I am in the “amen corner” on that, too, in total agreement.

But here’s how we get to the myth: When many people say the “American culture,” I think that they mean the Wal-Mart way of life. (Or, if you prefer, the McDonald’s way of life.) This is what passes for culture in our nation – everything cheap and easily accessible, monolithic and monochromatic.

But really, culture is a rich word, with numerous levels of definition. Here is a quick one from dictionary.com:
1. a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
Other definitions also include the idea of transmission to succeeding generations in the definition. The word is related to the word “cultivate,” which implies the encouragement of health and growth.

Culture, therefore, is a big, big concept. It seems to me that many in America have reduced our culture to an individualized striving to gain and maintain as much material wealth as possible, living in a beige suburban sameness, and accessing the world via automated drive through windows, televisions, and computer screens.

So, I do not think that America is devoid of culture, rather I think that in spite of what many Americans seem to think, America does not have a single monolithic culture. And therein lies the myth. John and I agree on this point more than he lets on, I think. He writes, “All nations are complex entities, the US included.” That’s what I’m sayin’!

Finally, I would like to apologize for a perception that I did not mean to propagate in a previous post, the perception that John calls the “Speedy Gonzalez stereotype.” Please, please understand that in no way shape or form was I intending anyone to read that as negatively stereotyping of Latino culture. Stereotyping is wrong and I abhor the practice. With that said, I completely understand how John got the idea that that’s what was happening here. Just to clarify, I am not implying laziness, but rather a completely different approach to life that very well may enhance our American culture, rather than threaten it. (See the aforementioned “greed, envy, ulcers, and a mile-a-minute pace of life that is not conducive good health,” for example.)

Hey, this is fun! I like dialogue, and I think using the blogosphere to exchange ideas and perceptions is a good thing. I especially like it when a person whom I respect but with whom I disagree is able to articulate our differences in a way that leads to ongoing conversation. John does that very well, and I look forward to more.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

I have heard from several people that USA is far too young of a country to claim an "American Culture". Are we not still a rich nation of mixed tapestries? More than any other nation our nation is made up of a blend not bland.