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How do Americans look at the world? Is there a characteristic American way of thinking, an American culture? Through what filter does information reach their brain, and by what mechanism do they respond to it? Last week’s essay (Why America is losing the intelligence war) blamed deep-seated characteristics of American culture for the failure of American intelligence.
That begs the question of whether American culture can be characterized in any general way (apart from the well-worn bon mot that American culture is an oxymoron).
Writing of English culture, the poet and critic T. S. Eliot famously described it as follows: “The reader must remind himself as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the term culture. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August [the start of the grouse shooting season], a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.”
After the fashion of Eliot, I have complied my own list of characteristic features of American culture.
1. Driving slowly in the fast lane. Americans consider it their privilege to amble along in the fast (left-hand) lane, while swifter drivers overtake in the near-side lane (for which European policemen would arrest them straightaway). Clumps of slower drivers impede traffic and set the stage for pileups. This is the sad result of misguided egalitarianism. Americans believe that they should be able to drive wherever they wish, whereas class privilege rules the road in Europe. Faster cars belong in the fast lane and nudge slower-moving vehicles out of the way.
2. Burnt coffee at exorbitant prices. The most popular cafe chain, whose name decent people do not pronounce, burns its coffee beans to produce what Americans mistakenly believe is an authentic European taste. Proper coffee, by which of course I mean Italian coffee, is bittersweet, not burned. Americans evidently hate the wretched stuff because they drown its flavor in a flood of milk, in the so-called “latte,” something I never have observed an Italian request during many years of travel in that country. By contrast, Italians drink cappuccino, mixing a small amount of milk into the coffee and leaving a cap of foam. If Americans do not like it, why do they buy it at exorbitant prices? They do so precisely because the high price makes it a luxury, but an affordable one for secretaries and shopgirls.
3. Dishwater masquerading as tea. Order tea from an American, and you will receive a cup of lukewarm water and a tea-bag. No beverage on earth is more revolting than this. This and the previous item bring to mind a riposte attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Waiter, if this is coffee, then bring me tea. But if this is tea, then bring me coffee.”
4. Wood-flavored wine. Americans know as little about wine as they do about coffee. California winemakers throw oak chips into vats of fermenting chardonnay in order to simulate the effect of aging in oak barrels. That is true only for the cheaper wines, but the dearer ones taste just as woody. The American idea of a “big wine” is to suffuse cabernet sauvignon (properly used to produce a delicate wine) with the taste of oak. At best, American wines offer a soporific sort of smoothness, but never achieve the quirkiness, eccentricity and character which make European vineyards an enchanted realm.
5. Shopping-mall architecture. Most middle-sized American cities have disappeared into a suburban morass, while shopping malls have replaced the old town centers. Americans in most parts of the US have no other place to congregate. Even churches are relocating to shopping malls in order to accommodate the habits of their congregations. Unlike European cities (and older American ones) the public aspect of cities is entirely absent: churches, public buildings, monuments and so forth. The omnipresence of purely commercial architecture depresses the mind; Europeans accustomed to viewing well-proportioned buildings in their daily perambulations find it difficult to spend more than a day or two in such places.
6. A consensus national restaurant menu (Mexican-Italian-seafood-podge). A generation ago, one could be sure of obtaining sawdust sausages, Scotch eggs and pork pies in any British pub (and often a ploughman’s lunch with Wensleydale cheese). Today, one can count on finding pizza, tacos, fried shrimp, Caesar salad and cheeseburgers in any American restaurant, as the American melting pot transforms various national cuisines into indistinguishable blobs of grease and dough. Unification of American cuisine is not much of a loss, as the local cuisine was wretched to begin with, but the result is nonetheless disheartening. Anti-globalists have made a target of the purveyors of fast food, but the chains have homogenized other cuisines, such as seafood, Italian, Mexican, steak and so forth. In the place of texture and flavor Americans receive grease and quantity, which helps explain why they are so podgy.
7. Chewing tobacco. What more can one say? Heinrich Heine, the greatest poet of mid-19th century Germany, wrote, “Sometimes I think of emigrating to America, but I am frightened by a country where human beings chew tobacco.”
8. Hand-me-down high culture. Not to possess a high culture is no shame; the Pilgrim Fathers of New England rejected Western high culture as they found it in favor of a radical return to ancient Israel. Like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, the Americans of the 19th century decided that a high culture suited their new respectability. Americans who would not recognize an allegory if it ate them alive by inches, and cannot read a line of Dante Alighieri or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, gush over Herman Melville’s confused and overwrought Moby Dick. American scholars who have not heard of the 16th century Lazarillo de Tormes claim that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a work of originality. Harold Bloom, the defender of the “Western Canon” against the barbarian hordes of deconstructionism, enthuses over Walt Whitman’s onanistic (in the literal sense of the term) excuse for verse. Bloom dismisses the critics of the left as “resentniks”, but is resentment not the other side of the coin of pretension? In any case, these are the embarrassing pretensions of two generations past, the putative classics beloved of American conservatives. University students today are more likely to wade through the works of black and feminist writers as a counterweight to the “elitist” high culture of Melville and Whitman, that is, if they are not occupied with courses on film and comic books.
9. Gullibility. If Americans will buy chardonnay saturated with oak chips to the point of resembling turpentine, burnt coffee disguised by sweet hot milk, chain-restaurant parodies of Italian food, and hand-me-down literary classics, what will they not buy? Itinerant European academics turn up on their shores in emulation of the gypsy Melchiades in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, from Paul de Man on the left to Leo Strauss on the right.
Man thinks with his entire being, not with mere abstract powers of ratiocination. Tactile, gustatory, olfactory and sentimental habits bear on our view of the world more than the philosophers we might have read in school. Culture is the glue that holds generations together; paradoxically, American culture makes a virtue of the ephemeral. Americans in consequence cannot imagine the frame of mind of those for whom a cultural connection to the past has become a matter of life and death. This sometimes charming, usually harmless trait of American culture turns into a tragic flaw in the context of America’s encounter with Islam.