It is a truism from psychology classes that you can’t stand at the window and watch yourself go by. You also can’t grow up in a country and see it as outsiders see it. And outsiders can’t see it as insiders see it.
If you ever see me standing somewhere and shaking my head and saying “Americans!” it’s not that I suddenly see myself as separate from you. Or rather, it is, but it’s more that I see myself from separate and part of, which means I don’t fit anywhere. The part of me that feels separate from the rest of you, though, is the girl who grew up overseas with an idea of America that you don’t see and probably can’t share. The part that then came here, and adapted her notions, and figured out how you guys see yourselves.
In metaphorical terms, I’m the American that stands at the window and watches America go by. The caveat is that I grew up in a very particular time and place, and though I did see a lot of Europe and had a lot of European and anglosphere friends, I know next to nothing about Asia (though I had Japanese friends too.) Still as far as I know though we share one or two traits with other nations, we’re the only ones who have all of them.
And I don’t mean some individuals in other nations don’t have these traits, or that some here don’t lack them (boy, I could tell you!) but that in general our culture has these traits and theirs doesn’t. And that makes all the difference.
So I thought I’d hold the mirror up to you, because you guys keep trying to fit yourselves into roles that just aren’t there. “We’re Rome!” or “We’re Carthage” or even “We’re the British Empire!” (Which – Francis is right – is the closest and yet not a perfect fit. In nation terms, the British take their laws as seriously as we do, but they’re more flexible. In schoolroom terms, the British might be “in the spectrum” but they’re not full on Aspergers.)
No, we’re none of those. By the Grace of G-d or the amazing concatenation of chance and self-selection, we’re something quite new in the history of the world. And if there was something like us before – pre-history perhaps? – it is long since vanished from memory.
I’m going to list in no particular order the things that still strike the me-that-grew-up-elsewhere as amazing and wonderful about our country. And yet I’m sure I’ll forget a dozen or so of them. Maybe perhaps just enough of this will explain my view that while I think collapse is inevitable, I don’t think we can predict how it will turn out or what comes next. The future is unwritten and being the special nation we are, it’s up to us to write it.
[BTW, I’m too lazy to look for it right now, but there’s a Facebook meme that encapsulates what I am: I’m an Apocaliptimist. I believe everything is going to sh*t but I still think we’ll be all right through it all and it might turn out for the best. (The difference between me and the Libertarians who, like communists, expect their system to emerge spontaneously from the chaos, is that I think we’ll need to work like heck through the dark times to make sure we’re all right at the end.)]
So, here it is what I see when I stand at the window and watch America go by:
-We’re playful. No, I don’t mean just in the sense that we have a sense of humor. That too – and I was fully appreciative of the British humor before I came here, but the British humor has a back bite and a bit of the dour irony that American humor might have or not – but that’s not all. We’re playful even when not making an outright joke. For instance, the first thing that hit me about the High School I attended in the States for 12th grade was that someone had labeled the corridors in hand lettered signs. For instance, the math/computer area was labeled Nerd Alley. And the teachers let it stay up. And no one thought this hurt the dignity of the school/education. In fact, I’m almost sure they had the school’s unofficial approval.
Then there’s the senior prank I took part in, where we kidnapped the secretary’s stuffed bulldog collection, and asked for $5 in unmarked pennies. My counselor called me and very seriously counseled me to give up my accomplices and talked about my making this an international incident.
Right now you’re going “Standard kid stuff.” And shaking your head and going “and?” – And nothing. Those are perfectly normal pranks.
Yeah, they are, in the states. Don’t even try to do it anywhere else.
-We spontaneously organize in clubs and associations. I think we’re losing this now, because everyone is so infernally busy. (But the structure is still there. It would take more than a generation to erase.) It’s impossible to have a club in America – even our writers’ group – without rules that everyone takes very seriously indeed. In other countries – maybe excepting England – this is reserved for associations that are “official” and “important.” Here, if you form a club to give crumbs to ducklings in the park, within three months it will be run according to Robert’s rules of order, (Which I’ve told the older kid should be the name of his blog) with motions and chairs and who knows what.
This is absolutely needed because
-We don’t take orders well. Any of us, really. When I came to the US I kept seeing this sign in every work place “The problem in this place is all chiefs no Indians.” I suppose it is politically incorrect now, so you no longer see it. BUT it baffled me. It wasn’t just that these people were saying that their workplace was unorganized, or that they had issues taking orders, but that they were BRAGGING about it in posters and cross stitch pictures. … and that they were right.
Portugal is famously unorganized. My kids have various colorful expressions for the way things are done in Portugal. Let’s just say they’re convinced that most people drive with a part of their anatomy no one should use. But it’s different. The average Portuguese recognizes his “betters” and assumes that someone else has the right to lead them. They just exhibit a sullen “make me” attitude.
In the States, we just don’t see why anyone else should be in charge. We don’t recognize social superiors, and we barely recognize technical superiors. The forlorn cries for us to respect “the office” of this and that when we can’t respect the current *sshat are a measure of how little inclined we are to do that. In other countries the President or the Premier or whatever is “Important” and you DO respect the office and it rubs off on the person, no matter how much you hate the current clown.
The flip side of this is that we’re all of us forever looking at what we can do. (There are exceptions, of course. I’m not talking individuals, I’m talking the American character as opposed to other nations.) If you face a mess, you don’t sit around waiting for orders to fix it. You don’t even wait for other people to “buy in.” You roll up your sleeves and start fixing what you can reach.
This is why that sign in the seventies was a brag. It was was “We’re all trying to do the best we can, and we’re so good at that we can barely coordinate with which other.” There is no other country where I can visualize “An army of one” making sense.
-This “We fix it” thing is why Americans open their purses and their hearts to help the less fortunate, whether it’s the person with too many kittens to feed down the block, or the victims of the tsunami across the world, in numbers the rest of the world doesn’t even come close to matching.
It’s not just that we’re well off or generous. Yeah, we’re that, but we also feel that it’s our duty, dang it. We don’t wait for the organization or the go-varmint or someone else to do. We’re an army of one, moving in our own uncoordinated way, and moving mountains without even noticing.
And that’s also because most of us at some time were in need and got help, and know better than to wait for officialdom.
I was never more proud than when science fiction forgot its petty inanities and closed ranks to help Dave Wolverton’s kid. Because that’s what we do. We’re Americans. We fix, we help, we move on, and we don’t keep score of who helped whom, and who didn’t. You need help we’re there, a mob with a purpose.
– We are flexible. No, this is important. We change, and the society allows us to change. The sense of humor, the organization, the initiative, all of it adds up to us saying “just because I’ve always been like that, doesn’t mean I’ll be like that tomorrow. And society doesn’t try to keep us in our appointed pigeon hole.
And this is probably why you can become an American. Most other nationalities, while you can naturalize, you’ll never “really” be whatever they are.
Here? Despite the idiots running around hyphenating themselves, you can be an American no matter how funny you look or how strange you sound. (Trust me. I know whence I speak.)
And people will be offended at the idea that you wouldn’t be able to become a real American.
Part of the unappreciated thing by all – PARTICULARLY progressives – is that for all its flaws America is the least racist, homophobic, sexist and any other discriminatory thing you can think of. If you’re an American you are an American, no questions asked. (And all the Americans who think otherwise only think so because they’ve only seen the rest of the world on their best behavior. Listen to them in unguarded moments, in their native language, and the picture is quite different. I wish we could get our oikophobic co-citizens to understand that they really shouldn’t take what people say of their own country at face value. This is why they think we are the worst in the world – because we engage in self-critique, even more than the Europeans.)
-And this is why we have a positive craze for self-improvement. This can get outright silly with New Age stuff and cleansing your aura, but it also means that most of us aspire to being life long learners, even those who aren’t.
Yes, in other countries people go for adult education or learning this or that, but it’s usually very focused, very serious. Here, it’s not unusual to find that someone is taking some very serious subject on the side, in their spare time, just for fun.
For years I belonged to the History Book Club, where my royalty checks should just be made over every month. (My husband said.) I don’t now, because I can poke around Amazon till I find things. But that sort of thing, the History Book Club and the Science Book Club, and the Mathematics Book Club, and heaven knows what flourishes in America more than anywhere else in the world.
I remember when my brother rather condescendingly told me about a book on Chinese History he’d just discovered and offered to send it to me “since you won’t have that in America.” Ah. I’d read it five years before, through the History Book Club.
This is why despite the fact that our secondary education (and primary too, for that matter) suck rotten eggs, we continue to have an educated populace. It’s also why finding out someone “only” has a high school education means nothing. My plumber is an expert on the civil war and its weapons. One of my friends who is “only” a high school education and from a part of the country not known for the excellence of its teaching could give lessons to most of my literature professors.
In the same way that there are second acts in American lives, there are second and third and fourth careers, and a continuing education, and structures to support that, and the fact that no one finds it weird that a computer programmer is “really” a medieval sword expert and a weekend ironsmith.
This makes us uniquely adapted to this world of fast-changing technology, because none of us (okay, again, I’m talking the culture not individuals. We won’t discuss Wisconsin teachers) regards a job as a sinecure or the education as the hoops to jump through for the sinecure. No, we regard jobs as things you do for a while, and learning as the way to get another/different job.
Which is good, because
– The future comes from America. Yes, yes, I know Verne, Wells and all that “invented” science fiction, but the only nation in which it was popularized as a genre, and not an entertainment of intellectuals bent on social critique – the only place it could be so – is America.
Some countries – most countries – are shackled to the past, either in embrace or in denial, and sometimes in both.
Portugal is a tiny country trying to swim through time against the pull of the huge cement sack of history tied to its middle. They can’t do this and that because it’s never been done, or they have to do this because they did that before. I get the same sense about all the other countries I know well enough.
But not America. Oh, no. Not us.
Americans seem to have come here to make things better, and therefore, the future is always better than the past (Yes I realize this makes the glitterati not really American. What you thought they were?)
Americans are mad in love with the future. We’re adult enough to know sometimes there are (d*mnably) rough patches, but by and large “every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better.” And just wait till we finish tinkering and cajoling and inventing tomorrow.
Come and give me a hand. We’ll come out of this collapse thing better than ever, stronger than ever. The future? Man, is it going to be snazzy, and new, and completely unexpected.
Boy, are you going to love it!
You ain’t seen nothing like us yet!
UPDATE: Continuing the series on Writing With Found Objects, over at Mad Genius Club.