Thinking About American Culture – What Is It?
Quite a bit has been written about “cultural preservation” recently. Does that mean “pickling” culture in the same manner one preserves cucumbers in brine to prevent spoiling? A process that stops all biological action and thereby freezes the process of decay or – God forbid – growth? I started thinking about “culture” as it applies to the great American ethnic “melting pot.” S
ince the land mass of the Western Hemisphere consists largely of North and South America why are only U.S. citizens referred to as “Americans” and not Mexicans, Brazilians, Canadians and others? Even a Uruguayan is an American. Carolinians and Chamorros are Americans and they are not even in the Western Hemisphere. It was Magellan that caused the confusion since his landfall in 1521 resulted in the Marianas archipelago and the Philippines being the only western oriented societies in the Asian portion of the Eastern Hemisphere, at least on this side of the Date Line and north of the Equator.
There is no counterpart eastern oriented society in the Western Hemisphere that I am aware of. What is culture anyway? Bacteria grows in it. Anything made by man and depicted on a map is referred to as culture. I think it’s safe to state that people think of the word in terms of past traditions and a desire to maintain them. Some people want to “freeze” a tradition as it existed somewhere in time and often recounted by grandparents while believing it to be something to protect and preserve against all attempts to introduce change. This frequently takes place through legends, song and dance and its good that it’s done.
I’m a product of 19th century women having been influenced by my grandmother and I try to instill some of those values in youth which, hopefully, will be carried into the 21st century. It may be a losing battle. On the other side of the coin, today’s young students will one day think back on the classroom culture of today’s computer lab and wonder how anything could be accomplished on such primitive machines. So culture changes along with one’s mindset and the march of time.
The dictionary defines “culture” as: “the development and refinement of mind, morals or taste. The condition thus produced; refinement. A specific stage in the development of a civilization. The sum total of the attainment and learned behavior patterns of any specific period, race, or people.” Nehru once said, “Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” Matthew Arnold in the Preface to Literature and Dogma wrote: “Culture – the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.” Selected tools for cultural enrichment are: education, exposure, travel, language, etc.
Opportunities for such enrichment can be experienced in: museums, libraries, zoos, universities, lectures, theaters, concerts, ethnic customs, cuisine, religions, observatories, planetariums and other people, places and things and, of course, profuse oratory contests, (of which American politicians and some writers exhibit an abundant measure).
Do people confuse “culture” with “traditions” or are they one and the same? One of the problems of assimilation into the “American culture” – what ever that may be – is that you probably have to be in the country for the process to take effect. For a new immigrant savoring the essence of liberty, a metamorphosis takes place. I have yet to meet one who was not extremely proud of his new citizenship. People who immigrate to the United States and are physically present in the environment are exposed to all manner of influences both positive and negative within the American scene. Some try to resist the erosion and dilution of the ways of the “old county” but the process soon catches up with them – just inquire about the effect on their children. One thing about America is the freedom permitted to try to compete at being the best of anything you can be. Regardless of what the endeavor might be: basketball, singing or pickling prunes – if you reach the top of your field in America – you are probably the best in the world. That’s American culture. Americans freely elect the most powerful man in the world as their leader and then verbally attack him with impunity.
The culture of America is freedom and liberty and the tool is citizenship. The right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought. That’s why so many people want to stay in the Northern Marianas after their work contracts expire and choose to remain illegally. That’s one reason why U.S. and CNMI immigration officials now have – and always will have – a problem. How did this come about? It’s America’s fault – America is to blame with its culture of freedom – that “mental narcotic” of the spirit that all people seek – independence. How did it happen in the Northern Marianas, an area dominated for more than 400 years by the Spanish, Germans and Japanese colonialists before finally exercising their own free will in choosing their own destiny?
A destiny sanctioned and encouraged by the United States. Here’s how. At the conclusion of the Second World War the United States, not desiring to appear as having annexed the islands by virtue of "victor's rights", placed the islands under the supervision of the Security Council of the newly formed United Nations. For a nation to acquire additional territory, a government must either annex an area by force of arms or by purchase from a sovereign government.The Northern Marianas was not a permanent legal possession of Japan at the time of the war as it had only been entrusted to Japan under a mandate by a group of countries through their organization – the League of Nations.
Therefore, the United States could not strip territory from defeated Japan at the conclusion of hostilities since the islands were never recognized as a permanent legal possession of Japan. You can’t take something from someone if you recognize that they didn’t own it in the first place and the United States did not recognize Japanese sovereignty over the islands.
The people of the Northern Marianas by 78.8 percent of the votes cast in a plebiscite held on June 17, 1975 elected to accept a negotiated Covenant with the United States. This became U.S. Public Law 94-241 when enacted by the United States Congress and became effective little more than a generation ago on April 1, 1976. There may still be some people within the Northern Marianas unfamiliar with the obligations and responsibilities that are inherent in U. S. citizenship, an honor bestowed upon the islanders by Presidential Order. Unlike other nationalities seeking U. S. citizenship the people of the Northern Marianas were not required to possess any knowledge of American history or appreciation of the principles of democracy as most Americans perceive them to be. Most foreigners seeking U. S. citizenship must study a variety of subjects related to American history, pass an examination and swear an oath of allegiance. This was not required of the people of the Northern Marianas. Nor during the period did the Trust Territory Government conduct comprehensive educational programs for self government. Civics and the duties of citizenship was not taught in the public schools.
To have done so during this period of the early seventies when political preferences were being explored – and to have openly advocated U. S. Commonwealth status from among the other options available to the people of the Northern Marianas, namely, maintaining the status quo and remaining a Trust Territory, independence or free association with the United States – would have raised the ire of the English, French and Soviet delegates to the United Nations and precipitate a charge of colonialism against the United States. The political education program, what there was of it, had to be impartial. So, in the early years, this may have resulted in an educational deficiency among some in the Commonwealth as to the history of American democracy and, indeed, an appreciation of the uniqueness of the Northern Marianas within the American political family. No other United States territory or insular possession has a similar relationship. Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and other Pacific possessions were all acquired under circumstances far different than that of the Northern Marianas. A lot of blood and treasure has been paid to preserve American freedom, much of it right here on Saipan. Today people risk shark attacks in the Florida straits, sneak across the Mexican border, stow away in freezing aircraft wheel bays, falsify documents, marry for green cards, try to purchase illegal passports, enlist in the military or hide in dank holds of rotting foreign ships only to get dumped off American shores to “swim for it.”
Others attempt to bribe officials and some perhaps even murder to try to get into the United States. Why? Because it’s the best country on earth in spite of it’s imperfections. Once while associated with the American Embassy in North Africa I had a Tunisian acquaintance who visited my home every evening about dinner time and, of course, was invited to dine with my family. The entire conversation consisted of his condemning America. One night I got tired of it and told him that I resented his comments while enjoying the hospitality of my home and damn near threw him out of the house whereupon he promptly apologized and said, “I don’t mean to insult America, it’s just that the country falls so far short of its great potential.” Then he said, “we look at it from a distance and think if there is no hope in America – then where is there hope?” How many nations can you think of that offer “hope” and opportunity?
With few exceptions most of them offer despair and poverty. Returning to culture in America and the thoughts of Carl Sandburg: “ If she (America) forgets where she came from, if the people lose sight of what brought them along, if she listens to the deniers and mockers, then will begin the rot and dissolution.” I hear people talk about preserving their Irish American culture, the Indian culture, Eskimo culture, Afro-American and Hispanic culture.
America freely permits and, indeed, encourages such efforts. But I don’t hear much about American – American cultural preservation. Being part Scotch and German, I’m a melange, (a polite French word for mongrel), but I have never been to Germany or Scotland – don’t know anyone there and have no inherent affinity for either place – can’t speak German and have a hard time with Scottish, (or is it English), so I don’t have any “old country” heritage to preserve. I guess I’m just a common, ordinary American – American at liberty to think and say what I please with a bar of attorneys, a court of law and the great American judicial system to protect my right