Saturday, July 19, 2008

What is American culture?

If you are from Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, or from any other country one could name, there is a specific perspective one has about you and your country. There is a certain history around which art, dance, music, ritual, religion, language, literature, poetry, architecture, cuisine, custom, and race is envisaged – there is a very clear ethnicity – about you and your mother country. The chances are that you also speak English as well as your native language, or if you prefer: in one's mother tongue. The ability to speak and write English is also very much a part and parcel of your culture and our perspective of you.

On the other hand, the United States of America is a fusion of many cultures. We are made of many different interwoven ethnic threads, a beautiful and complex fabric made of human endeavor, cohesion, interdependence, and of independence, as well. Americas’ portrait of that diversity is evident in our skin color: most predominantly black, brown, yellow, red and white -- the obvious physical traits of humans. We are, among many other ethnic communities, and certainly not all inclusive: African American; South American; Asian American; Native American; and European American. We live concomitant with each other; we have fused into one nation.

And, there are essences that are exclusively American – the very essence of what it means to be an American: the Negro spiritual, the American west, native American music and art, basketball, jazz, the blues, rap, hip hop, rock and roll, country and western music, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Clark Gabel, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, American folk music, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, Mark Twain --“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” McDonald's, BBQ’s, apple pie, Disneyland, P.T. Barnum, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and, of course, our national history and heritage, just to name a few. Each a metaphor for what is America.

All of these very distinct and different cultures, as well as those that are exclusively American, have come together and blended in such a way that in the crossover America has a cumulative one, very sophisticated, and very distinct culture. It is a gift that creation has bestowed on America.

Among the many cultural gifts that one has is the gift of language.

People who speak more than one language are called linguist; if they speak two or more languages they are called bilingual; if they speak only one language, unfortunately, they are called Americans. It is a knot in our cultural thread that we must untie in order for America to evolve. With this bilingual exception, as well as the exceptions of racism, our hubristic militarism, and our propensity for imperialism, America has an otherwise glorious and evolving culture.

As previously stated, however, we do have a troubling aspect to our way of thinking, a cultural enigma: racism. The abhorrence of Americans when Barack Obama stated, “Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English -- they'll learn English -- you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.”

What is very troubling is that this admonition was not given from a sincere desire for Americans to speak English only, but rather came from a deeply seeded hatred -- racism, perhaps xenophobic, or ignorance, it doesn’t really matter for it all comes from the same seed, and that seed is fear, pure and simple. If Obama had said, make sure your child can speak French or German, we would not have experienced the same fearful egocentric response from Americans.

"You know, it's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is 'merci beaucoup!"'

You know, no, I'm serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language that is a powerful tool to get a job. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they're 5, or 6, or 7 than when they're 46, like me.” Barack Obama

We need to encourage and embrace other languages -- even, to a certain extent, revitalize those languages which have been lost.

"When we lose a language," says David Harrison of the Living Tongues Institute in Oregon, "we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown, and the everyday."

We need a new way of thinking. Language is an essential part of culture. When we learn another language we acquire a deeper understanding of that culture. We are able to communicate at a deeper, more profound level, if we can speak their language; and vice versa: their ability to speak ours. Language is very much a spiritual experience. Many times a meaning, an understanding, can only be expressed in that language, or dialect. For example, the particular use of dialect in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures Huckleberry Finn” give the stories a deeper, spiritual, and very essential enrichment that otherwise could not be accomplished. There is not another language that can express the meaning in the same way, not even in pure, correctly written English.

A lack of bilingualism and our destructive racist attitudes are impediments to achievement and the advancement of the American culture that Americans must overcome. It’s a huge tear in the fabric of what is America.