An Elegy to American Culture

Here are a couple of paragraphs from my book, Where the Roads Lead (link below), a memoir of my pilgrimage to Rome, walking from Barcelona. Toward the end of the book, it seemed appropriate to include some thoughts about what the experience meant to me.

The lessons are still in their formative stages and slow in coming, but one thing I found while walking through a few European countries: I’m strengthened in my feeling that one’s culture is worth preserving. That nebulous thing composed of shared history, values, beliefs, and language is irreplaceable and important enough to do everything in one’s power to maintain. We’re all on the Earth together and yes, we’re all human, and of course we all fly through the Universe on the same small planet. But there are very real and, more importantly, very valuable subsets of humanness and divisions of the planet that have generated pockets of creativeness and ingenuity because of the environment—physical, spiritual, and existential, the basis of culture—in which a group of people found themselves. One’s culture is nothing to apologize for, be it Spanish, French, or Italian; Catalan, Provençal, Haute-Alps, Lombardy, Tuscan; or of Barcelona, St. Michel l’Observatoir, or San Gimignano. More, as I was walking through small European towns I found myself feeling envious of the residents who have a deep, ingrained culture through a shared history of countless generations of their families living in one place. Whenever I return to the States after an extended period of time in Europe, I feel engulfed by a cultural void. Here’s how I described my feelings about walking through Galicia in my previous book about walking the Camino de Santiago from Montserrat in 2012:

As I think back with help from the photos I took, I felt and can still feel, an attachment to the country that I’ve never been able to muster for anyplace I’ve lived in the United States. When I was a child, my family moved frequently, owing to my father’s job, so I never had the opportunity to develop feelings of home for a geographical location. Even when I got older and my family stopped moving so much, I didn’t feel any attachment to a city, a state, or even the country in which I lived. I chalked this up to having lived a transient lifestyle, never settling in one place during those early years of life when we develop attachments to the land, a region, or a culture. Feeling an attachment to a region was not even in my capacity to imagine in the past. But here, in Galicia, it was easy to comprehend how people could feel oneness with their pueblo and with Galicia, how one could feel that, absent their homeland, they would be incomplete.

I had never had that feeling, but nevertheless, I missed it and envied Gallegos and all Spaniards for having it.

This feeling of emptiness was especially apparent when I returned from my first failed attempt to live in Spain and landed an employment contract in Phoenix, a city that can best be described, in my humble opinion, as a giant, new, gleaming, effervescent shopping mall. I know there is an old part of that town that actually maintains its long history, but the Phoenix I experienced had been inundated by all things bright and shiny and above all, uniform. It’s a microcosm of what the United States is becoming—sterile, without soul, without a history its people can admire and hold onto, and with a future that is anyone’s guess.

The U.S. is a ship without a rudder that goes whichever way the tides of other’s cultural forces push it. Since we want to readily admit, and even take pride in the fact that we have no cultural base worth preserving, we will almost surely founder on the rocks of multi-culturalism, which means in essence and in practice, no-culturalism.

People are, deep down, tribal animals. That in itself is not a good or bad thing. We prefer to be among those who are like ourselves, who share our values and beliefs, and this has helped to keep humanity from extinction. We enjoy occasionally dipping our toe in other people’s pools, but left to our own devices, Polish people prefer to hang out with Polish people, Vietnamese people socialize with other Vietnamese, Russians with Russians, Afghanis with Afghanis, Nigerians with Nigerians, and so forth. This has absolutely nothing to do with skin color; it’s a matter of shared cultures and being able to communicate and truly understand each other on a level deeper than words can convey. Each person stands on the cultural soil cultivated by generations of his forebears. Shared experiences, beliefs, world views—culture—become embedded in ones DNA. For this reason and this reason alone, each has an unstated, genetic understanding of others within his own culture.

Bruce Tuckman came up with a model of group dynamics some fifty years ago that is still taught and used as a framework for managing groups and projects. He listed four stages that a group goes through: forming, storming, norming, and performing. (Management models always have to have some pithy rhyme or sequence structure to make them memorable.) I see this same dynamic in the progression of the culture of the United States. We left the forming stage by the end of the eighteenth century. We went through a terrible phase of storming until the latter part of the nineteenth century. But somehow we got mired in the norming phase. Much of the populace refuses to allow it, as if norms—socially accepted values by which we identify our culture—are an evil that must be eradicated.

A Judeo-Christian culture brought America to where it was in the mid-twentieth century. Highly imperfect, but certainly not something that should be thoughtlessly jettisoned like so much flotsam from a ship’s bilge. Our main problem seems to stem from the fact that European civilization, for whatever reason, is particularly adept at and energized by self-criticism. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but let us not conflate self-examination with self-flagellation. It was not America’s natural resources that brought and continue to bring immigrants here. It was not ideal weather or ease of life. What draws people to American shores is the result of our European culture, a culture that created, among many other advantageous circumstances, an environment of respect for property, individualism, and the rule of law. Although implemented imperfectly, these vitally important criteria have created a pretty good place to live. I’m not alone in that opinion; hundreds of millions since the founding of this country have demonstrated their agreement through their actions. People have risked their lives to come to America.

To be proud of your heritage and culture is in no way to disparage others, but we seem to be engulfed within a popular worldview that forces us to violently tear down everything we’ve built, as if half the populace of our nation needs to go through “re-education camp,” as if our entire culture—repeating the disaster of Mao’s Communist Revolution—has to be literally destroyed in order to correct some perceived imperfections.

Nature abhors a vacuum. No less so, human nature. If the majority of people of the United States continue to deny that this country has a culture worth preserving, to try to maintain a cultural void, accepting any and all without defending our heritage, those who value their culture and take pride in their heritage, and who have the willpower to impose it will step in to fill that void. It has happened over and over throughout history.


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