18 January 2010


An area of particular interest to me is how nations view themselves. I feel I have lived on the front-line of this issue as a Peace Corps volunteer for 3.5 years (in Jamaica) and spent extended stays overseas in other places and capacities, from rain-forest hovels to hanging out in seven-bedroom houses.

First, it might be useful to understand how each of us knows of our respective culture. Picturing an iceberg is one way to conceive of our individual cultural knowledge: It is like an iceberg in which the bobbing above-the-waterline 10% of culture in our daily awareness is material culture: clothes, dance, music, art, architecture, etc. But, the greater portion--the below-the-waterline 90%--is hidden from our conscious awareness and includes our conceptions of time and space, beauty, courtship, child-rearing, and conceptions of insanity, adolescence, health, death, and so very many other areas--in fact, all other areas of culture.

For example, proxemics--the practice of interpersonal bodily distance--is culturally determined. I have visited places where people stand and converse close to my face, usually an uncomfortable prospect for Americans (and others?). How about eye contact? Some cultures reserve direct eye contact for friends or family. Otherwise, it is considered rude behavior. How about the classic Maya: Did they consciously think about why they hung a jade pendant between the eyes of newborns so they would become cross-eyed; or tied headboards to infants' foreheads to create a sloped cranium from nose tip to the crown--other than cross-eyed and pointy-headed was seen as "beauty"? Who can gainsay it (probably not the classic Maya)?

Unless we consciously think of these culturally-determined behaviors (with the caveat that there are always individual differences), they are not in our awareness and knowledge of our own culture and, in fact, of our own selves. The culture each of us was acculturated into determines much of what each of us is, even if we do not realize it. I am never more aware of this than when overseas. I cannot escape it: I am thoroughly American (as everyone else whom I have met overseas seems to know all too well) even as I think I am supremely unique. Unique, yes; but only within the parameters of American culture.

The reason I bring up the Iceberg Conception of Culture is that it is so very difficult for us to understand our own culture (and our very selves) while we are operating within that same culture. We are like fish swimming in the ocean of our respective cultures not (usually) aware of the medium of the water, the determining influence of our own culture.

The seminal book for this discussion is the 1958 classic,
The Ugly American, which the New York Times revisited last summer (<http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/books/review/Meyer-t.html?_r=1>), and whose title entered the lexicon about the role of the U.S. abroad. The main theme is that Americans do damage because they do not have cultural expertise in those places in which they operate (in the book it is Vietnam before Pres. Johnson's build-up).

The "ugly American" is not the last word on Americans overseas, as it has been my experience (and some of you have said this, too) that Americans as individuals are generally liked (not so governmental policies), while some are obnoxious, demanding, and intolerant. (
The Ugly American was sent by Pres. Kennedy to his top staff and influenced him in creating the U.S. Peace Corps to counter that very image.) On the other hand, as was the case with me personally, Americans will treat the maid or servant the same as the aristocrat--we tend to be more egalitarian than most. I am not exaggerating when I say I have personally played out this very scenario, when, an English aristocrat sent his liveried driver to deliver my then-wife and me to a "little dinner" of about 17 served by a staff of several and attended by some top politicians in Jamaica. I probably broke the unspoken code when I spent too much time speaking to the drink servant who was from Ascension Island, located in the middle of the northern South Atlantic, the only person from there I'll probably ever meet. (I got plenty inebriated.)

Just last week, for my A. P. Human Geography course, I assigned, as I have for the previous four years, chapter two of
The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy (2004), by T. R. Reid, Washington Post bureau chief who has been assigned to extended stays in London and Tokyo. (As a result of the latter stay he wrote a book I highly recommend, if you want to understand Japan and really all of East Asia--Confucius Lives Next Door). In The U.S of Europe chapter Reid writes of the attitude the Brits have vis-a-vis Americans, especially the fun they have at our expense, nearly a national past-time, he claims. He describes, for example, public entertainment such as the stage show, Jerry Springer: The Opera (with vignettes such as my step-brother's girlfriend is my father), and the television show, The Lardburgers, about obese, profane, wife-beating, gun-toting trailer trash. My students get quite incensed.

Perhaps the message here is that the iceberg bobs with an entertainment center planted at the apex. What we think of ourselves and others is presented to us by media. The deep structure of culture that we each embody is now mediatized in postmodern reflexivity. We are, and they are, who we see on screen. Are we conscious of it?

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