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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

There is a fashion among scholars of America to characterize the “American character,” a fashion that waxes and wanes, writes a dean of social historians, Peter Stearns, in his new essay “American Selfie.” Sometimes sketching a national portrait fits the cultural mood–say, during the bluster of the Cold War–but at other times Americans seem such a disparate assortment of types that trying to describe any one American character seems foolish. Sometimes the portraits depict bright figures–say, Americans as ambitious do-gooders; at other times they expose dark forms–say, Americans as ambitious narcissists. And sometimes the sketches show American character undergoing dramatic change, usually for the worse, while other times they depict a stolid American character that, for better or for worse, has been constant since the nation’s founding.lexington_minuteman_its_in_the_eyes.jpg

In “American Selfie,” Stearns addresses in particular my book (after which this blog is named), Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character (2010), which he treats as the latest effort to describe an American character of enduring continuity. I appreciate that Professor Stearns felt the book worthy of such attention. My purpose in this post is to address two particular criticisms that he raises. The first, which I dispute, is that Made in America ignores or dismisses evidence of profound change toward less associational life and fewer personal connections, a loss of community. The second, which I largely accept, is that Made in America, like other books arguing continuity, insufficiently explains how a singular national character can stay so constant so long.

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In the aural kaleidoscope that is American music, one genre owns the title of “American Standards” and has been compiled into the “Great American Songbook.” These songs–“Stardust,” “One for My Baby,” “Manhattan,” “A Fine Romance,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Just One of Those Things,”and on and on–propelled by immortal performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, were heard around the globe to the glory of American music in the mid-twentieth century–and they still are. But should they own the title of “American?” How much do they actually represent America and its distinctiveness?

Kern-Gershwin

Jerome Kern & Ira Gershwin (source)

Instead, as many commentators have noted, the Great American Songbook is full of musical compositions that seem closer to the Old World than the New and of lyrics that more often call to mind airish literary soirees than earnest church suppers or neighborhood bars. I listen incessantly to the Great American Songbook, but still wonder about the deservingness of the title. (more…)

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Family Farms vs. Americanism

Although much of today’s debates around immigration reform is, on the surface, about legalities and economics and human rights, we know that below the surface–and sometimes above it–a lot of it is about cultural assimilation. Resisters worry that recent immigrants, usually meaning those from south of the border rather than those from, say, Europe, will not assimilate to mainstream American culture. And some on the immigrants’ side worry, at least privately, that the new arrivals or their children will assimilate too much and abandon their native cultures.

An earlier post reported evidence that recent arrivals from Spanish-speaking nations were assimilating at least as fast as those who had come from Europe a century earlier. Now, a new paper in Rural Sociology addresses the issue of immigrant assimilation from a wholly different angle: the continuing cultural distinctiveness of German-American farmers in the Midwest.

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Do Ideas Matter?

If you go to the Boston Review Web site, you’ll find the slogan “Ideas Matter” gracing the top of the homepage. Since I write a column for the magazine—and even wear a BR T-shirt announcing the slogan—I am not unsympathetic to the spirit of the claim. But in the social sciences, the idea that ideas matter has always been controversial. How much do ideas really matter? Do they affect individuals and societies more or less than do material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments one way or the other often address broad historical issues, such as the economic rise of the West. Does the credit go to the Protestant ethic (Max Weber) or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)? Do differences between Asian and European societies result from Confucianism versus Greek thought, collectivism versus individualism, late versus early industrialization—or something else? Disputes over individual differences in behavior are similarly polarized…. (See the rest of this post at the Boston Review site here.)

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Artful History

In a Christmas Day review, film critic A.O. Scott wondered what “future archaeologists, digging through the digital and physical rubble of our long-gone civilization in search of reasons for its collapse,” would make of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the new Scorcese-DiCaprio “bacchanal of sex, drugs and conspicuous consumption.” Is the film a “diagnosis” of our pathology or  “an especially florid” example of it?

Trying to understand what a work of art tells us about its times is a task not only of art critics, but also of historical scholars. If a historian a century or two from now examined the cultural artifacts of the last several years – say, Beyonce’s latest release, a Twilight Saga movie, a pulp thriller about a serial killer, performance art in museums, reruns of Friends, a major Broadway production, or “Wolf” – how well could he or she describe the lives of average Americans today?

We can ask a similar question looking from our own time back to the 19th or 18th century. While a future historian will have all sorts of “hard” data about our era – business transactions, traffic records, news databases, government statistics, polls on what Americans think, maybe even NSA files, etc. – little material like that is available to describe Americans’ experiences before about the 1920s or so. We do, however, have a lot of art from long ago: songs, paintings, and particularly fiction. What can art tell us about life in an earlier America and about people’s thoughts and feelings in those times? (more…)

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Knights of COlumbus

Knights of Columbus, North Ridgeville, OH

As we approach the 4th of July with all its patriotic celebrations, it is worth adding to the list of American accomplishments the creation of hyphenated ethnics: the Italian-, Irish-, Jewish-, Mexican-, Chinese-, etc.- American. The immigrant experience in the United States has entailed making both sides of the hyphen. Of course, we understand how immigrant groups (and forcibly incorporated groups, Africans, Native Americans, and southwestern Hispanics) became “Americanized.” They and especially their children thoroughly learned English, fit into Anglo institutions, adopted Anglo views and values, and so on. (See this earlier post.) But it also striking how the immigrant experience in America also entailed defining what it meant to be the adjective, Italian, Irish, Jewish, etc.

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Social scientists trying to understand what makes Americans tick often turn to cross-national surveys to compare Americans’ opinions to those of people in other countries. Such surveys show us, for example, that Americans are generally more religious, more patriotic, and more suspicious of government than are people most elsewhere.

Patrick Vinck_UC Berkeley

A recent conference devoted to designing such international surveys made concrete an important point that I had perhaps appreciated too abstractly: There are deeper differences underneath the different answers Americans give. The very assumptions behind the questions that are asked, whether the questions even mean the same things, differ profoundly from nation to nation.

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