US Culture and Society: How Do Americans Think about “the Other” and “the African”?

                                                                             Sunday January 5th, 2014

                                                    US Culture and Society:  How Do Americans Think?

                                                A Cross-cultural Perspective, the Individual and the Other

         Culture is the ensemble of beliefs, customs, traditions, thinking patterns, and systems of thought that prevail in a particular society, community, or group. Humans have for a very long time engaged in the study of societies and their cultures in the pursuit of a better way to engage and work together towards a better understanding of themselves and others. Plenty of productions have been released into the world about how people in a particular country, society, community, or a part of the world think and engage the world around them. In fact, much of these productions lead us to understand one another better and to clear up any misconceptions we may have about those usually called “the other” and presented to us through a narrow prism that many a time fails to grasp even the smallest portion of truth about them or simply dismisses them as undeveloped or unworthy of a civilized engagement. Ideology-driven studies apart, many well-wishing forces in anthropology, sociology, and ethnology do try to provide a balanced portrayal of the other and as a result do shed some good light on people around us, introduce them to us as kind and hospitable folks, and lay the groundwork for much friendship and business. African cultures, for example, deserve all the love and the attention. So instead of portraying them as undeveloped people, as is the case in much of orientalist discourse vis-à-vis the African, we should strive to make every effort to elevate African states to the status of a partner and not relegate them to that of a colony. The African cultures are as active as their music. You dance to their rhythms, and as a consequence you realize the magical truth that you have, as a result of engaging the African art and music, spiritually healed and then you feel like you have made a million African friends instantly. The recent economic and geo-political developments as well as the nascent cultural shifts in and around Africa and the world have pushed many a great country to make every effort possible to recognize Africa and the Africans as partners and not merely subjects linked to their European master on war fronts and dismissed as no more beneficial once the African slave-soldiers were no more needed to fight wars on behalf of their masters. In fact, there is an enormous potential manifest in the wealth of human resources available to us here and around the world.  That is only attainable through the recognition of the cultures of those human resources, the people of those human resources, and the merit of the folks who own and manage those resources. When we grant others that which we offer ourselves so readily, we will have accepted their cultures, we will have allowed ourselves the honor and the privilege to build, in 49 sub-Saharan countries, long-term friendships and business partnerships that are really based on trust and mutual respect, and not short-term ravages of the grab of greed.

What a wonderful example the United States Africa Command is setting around Africa. Certainly, it is a sad fact that this great continent has witnessed some of the worst civil wars, tribal conflicts, and genocides in the past two or three decades. Not only that, the populations in many African countries encounter droughts on a regular basis and lack the necessary infrastructure to manage water resources and provide necessary needs to the population. Women die as a result of poor medical attention, and children die early from disease or malnutrition and survive but in poor physical condition. Worse still is the specter of wars and armed conflict which can turn everything upside down in no time. One good approach by Africom is that its mission is a civilian and not a military one. From deterring and defeating transnational threats, preventing future conflicts, supporting humanitarian and disaster relief operations, and protecting global security interests, Africom is receiving much acclamation and good praise. In fact, the situation around Africa now is much better than it was in the pre-Africom era, despite the challenges that rise here and there as is the case now in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has done a great job in the region by reaching out to the African continent at many a level. Now Linda Thomas-Greenfield will take the mantle. She is known to be a good friend of Africa and the Africans, and we expect US presence in Africa to be one of partnership and not one of subordination. The folks in there deserve from us every celebration of African history and every enjoyable turn with the nudge of the local beats and the local drum. The trade routes between the east coast of the US and the western coast of Africa are as open as ever. For centuries, African folks were brought to the US to help build the economy of this new country. They did.  They made great sacrifices, and they now have much progeny and much potential to solidify the bridges between here and there. They then brought with them their foods and customs, their clothes and garb and enriched this new country to the point that now we have an African cuisine, an American cuisine, and certainly a rich African-American cuisine that draws from many sources to give it the taste and the aroma that gives it the enchanting qualities of the soul.

The new US-Africa dialog is deeply ingrained in the spirit of the US culture and society  as a culture of inclusion. It is an undeniable fact. Those in the US who through policy-making strive to exclude others are in no way in sync with the very motivation that gave birth to the United States of America in the first place. Every person in the US now, elite or common person, traces her/his lineage somehow to some period when her/his parents trudged along to land on this territory to make a better living or to start a new way of life, individually certainly and not as part of a scheme by one government or another. This is simply to make the point that dealing with others as aliens is surely un-American, a form of despicable sabotage of other people’s rights, and an ill-wishing form of interruption of the very conduct that makes America what it is: a land where everyone is given a chance, regardless of their faith, color, race, or orientation. That is the essence of the American society and culture. It is an essence rooted in respect of otherness, an essence geared towards people wherever they are from, an essence entrenched in an entrepreneurial spirit that stretches a hand torward others and suggests doing business together.

Now just imagine the cultures of immigrants. US culture and society is a lab of immigrants. It is a lab where immigrant trials and tribulations have produced much coveted knowledge and ingenuity, a wealth of agricultural and industrial know-how, and an abundance of scientific breakthroughs. Millions since the early days strove to find a way out of misery, poverty, and oppression. It is a historic foundation on which the American way of thinking is absolutely based. Movies and documentaries archive and narrate to us the heartbreaking journey of Africans and Europeans alike chased by the powerful religious institution or triggered by a wave of fatal famine or disease. US history draws so much from these immigrant journeys, from these stories of immigration, from these cultures of adventure or flight where people came to America as individuals and not as part of activities undertaken by a government. So no one can claim to have exclusive right to this land. In fact nobody does. The US culture believes in the relativity of value and ownership. If I own a few acres in this colony or land, ownership changes by the mere act of a sale. So there is this conviction among the US culture and society that everyone deserves a shot and a chance, that everyone is endowed with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everything is subject to the forces of the market. Certainly, it does not matter if the buyer or the seller is black, white, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise. Since its founding, this land has been inclusive of everyone who came to it, within the confines of the law. Inclusion no doubt involves recognition of foreigners’ contributions to building the cultural foundations of the US. The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the US Congress in July 1776, is one powerful document that reveals its authors’ deep conviction that it should represent everyone and guarantee the rights of all. A most powerful pillar of the US culture and society is individualism. The individual has certainly the lion’s share in the American culture and society. Respect for the wishes and the aspirations of the individual resonates loudly in every aspect of life in America. In fact, when the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution were working on these two very important documents in the history of the nation, they were heavily conscious that the documents must respect the wishes, the interests, the preferences, and the orientations of every individual in America. They were aware of the social and political foundations of America. They knew the early origins are very individualistic in nature, that early-comers took risks as individuals in search of individual freedom and opportunity. They knew full well that future generations will question the integrity of the documents, if they are found not to represent this diversity of opinion and preference, of the importance of the individual in assessing them and accepting them. And so, they wrote them in such a way that every individual shall feel included and shall have a sense of pride that he/she is important to this country by having a voice in its political processes. US culture and society function on this basic premise that each person, no matter her/his faith, color, or race, or orientation, is guaranteed individual rights. There is a very strong and well-entrenched defense for individual choices, and factions are not given the upper hand to curtail individual rights and freedoms in favor of a collectivistic ideology or way of thinking and acting. This major characteristic, which is individualism, is echoed in President Abraham Lincoln’s statement that when future generations read the words of the Declaration of Independence, individuals “have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are”.

 So the resiliency of the US is very much the result of its culture that reaches out to people as individuals rather than systems. It is this all-encompassing perspective that grants other cultures a large space in its identity that gives US culture and society the appeal it had garnered over the past 4 centuries. Now I can say without a dot of a doubt that the US culture and society has incorporated most if not all the cultures of the world. Thereby, everyone has a right to claim it as her/his own, to cherish it fondly, and to extend in that exercise every courtesy to others to claim it as their own, within the confines of the law.

This was a modest attempt to consider US society and culture as results of the history of the US since its early days. Folks came to this land as individuals driven by private initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit that required a lot of risk-taking. It is a modest heartfelt attempt to portray US culture and society as inclusive and not exclusionary, as a platform where every identity is given a chance to thrive, succeed, and live in freedom, as a culture that recognizes the heritage of the cultures that came to make it, and as a culture that has appealed to millions around the world thanks to its commitment to development projects around the world where “the other” is a full partner and not as a mere dependent.

It remains to say that the American way of thinking has no specific center of gravity other than the concepts of personal freedoms and choices, and that of federalism where power is delegated to other states and localities to manage their own affairs away from any unwarranted central authority to tell them what to do and how to behave. I have written on US political culture and Federalism in the US for your reference.

Thank you.