This Is How We See Ourselves
In 1998, I was working at a nonprofit in San Francisco. An Irish guy, whose name I can't recall, was our temporary receptionist. On a slow day, we gathered near his desk to talk about Ireland and America.
He told us that Americans knew nothing about Ireland, but he knew everything about America. "I know McDonalds and Hollywood. That's America. But you don't know anything about me. Americans think Irish people walk around barefoot all day."
His perception of our country's culture has stuck with me ever since. It infuriated me.
At a sidewalk cafe in Montagnana, Italy in 2000, I chatted with a group of men who wanted to practice their English. "America... It's like Hollywood, right? It's like CNN."
No, I explained, it's not. There are average people in America. There are people who don't own fancy homes, who are just like you. We aren't all movie and television characters.
Like an anorexic who sees fat in the mirror, I believe that our country suffers from cultural distortion. Not only do we transmit an exaggerated view of ourselves to the world, we have lost sight of who we are to each other. Rather than looking for similiarities, we declare war on ourselves during every election cycle. Each side believes the other to be evil, mentally deficient, treasonous and scary. We have dehumanized "the other", stripping ourselves down to demographics. Rural versus Urban, North versus South, Democrat versus Republican.
Arguing is not the issue. This main question has to do with how we, as Americans perceive ourselves and how we, as artists see our country. It is larger than how we perceive our audience. It incorporates how we approach them. Do we declare war on them to "wake them up?" Do we comfort them and validate their status? Do we see ourselves as parasites, living off the scraps of mainstream society? Or have we quit on America entirely, turned our nose up and looked to other countries for "real culture?"
These are important questions that artists and writers must ask themselves. How we see each other, individually and as a whole, will determine our role in seeing this country through its troubles. Perhaps our work can even play a role in healing it.
But first, the artist and writer must determine if this country and its citizens are worth healing. Just about everyone uses American society as a scapegoat. Blamed for the sub-prime housing mess, the economic collapse and the budget deficit, we see ourselves as lazy, obese and spoiled. Is it any wonder we are also demoralized?
“Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being," wrote Thomas Carlyle. With government confidence at historically low levels, it is vital that artists and writers step in to act as witnesses. We have the unique ability to remind people of their humanity. We don't need to be spokespeople for them. Instead, we can inspire people to lead themselves.
Economic instability is perilous for any country, and we don't want to travel further down a horrifying road. The stakes are high, but this is one way through which artists and writers can empower themselves and others during this challenging time.
(Next up: Another use for culture)