Culture 5 – America, In The Looking Glass

“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Mahatma Gandhi

To continue chasing this question of “Do Nations have a Culture?” it’s only seems fair to now look at us, or perhaps that should be at The US. To do this, we will need to make use of a couple of Fundamental Principles, some laughs, pictures, and at least one cartoon.

First is Fundamental Principle 6: There will always be Missing or Incomplete Information. The idea in this post is to try and find information along the way that’s gone missing, or was intentionally buried, which could prove to be very helpful, enlightening, and lead to better understanding.

The next is Fundamental Principle 7. Do you remember it? We should revisit it, as we’re going to need it.

Fundamental Principle 7:

7A – Everybody Doesn’t “Get” Something;

7B – Most of us “Get” that we don’t “Get” Something, and take steps to compensate – we learn it, delegate it, hire it, or marry it (or sometimes vainly try to ignore it);

7C – But some don’t “Get” that they don’t “Get” Something, but think they do, and short of a miracle, never will.

Depending upon the Something, we can easily flip-flop between 7B & 7C.

The Something this time is: Cultural Lenses (Fundamental Principle 16f)

If you follow the thread of that final thought in the previous post, you might catch a hint that one could point a finger at another’s misinterpretations, misunderstandings, or negative perceptions of America based on their cultural lenses. And you would be partially right, because they do have cultural lenses.

But, wait for it – here comes some missing information – so do we. And the devious truth with cultural lenses is that they act like polarizing magnifiersthey conveniently magnify some things while making some other things disappear. That we are all completely clueless that we are wearing cultural lenses is one missing piece of information. The second piece is that these unknown cultural lenses create additional missing information in the things they hide. In other words, we are dealing with the infamous but real unknown unknowns. We’re busted. In this case, We Are All Fundamental Principle 7C.

So, let’s try to perform some sort of “miracle” by taking off our cultural lenses, or at least trying to clean them with some heavy-duty moist tissue, and looking more closely at ourselves in the Looking Glass in order to see a bit of what we are missing, and what others undoubtedly see.

The last post looked at The Little Ice Age and The Reformation in terms of the impact they had on people migrations, especially those across the Atlantic to join the colonies in North America.

Most history tends to focus more on these migrations to North America, heavily influenced by Reformed Protestants stemming from England, Scotland, and The Netherlands, as the primary forces that helped form the original patterns of American identity.1 Included in these ‘patterns’ of our culture were risk-tolerance, individual and religious freedom, and a free-market economy. In this post I want to peel away some stuff and look deeper at the latter two of these.

Pennsylvania was the first of the colonies to evolve the characteristic pattern of religion in modern America: a multitude of religious denominations, none of which wanted to claim the status of THE Church (‘The Kingdom of God on Earth’ (KoGoE), or of the State, or Colony, as it were. See the previous post). While it was sometimes argued that religious coercion would discourage colonial settlement and was therefore economically bad, a net result of both of these forces was to cast a foundational value of individual freedom and liberty, especially individual religious freedom. However, this freedom was completely and intentionally different (so we are told) from the religious toleration that was often seen in Reformation Europe:

Toleration is a grudging concession granted by one body from a position of strength;
Freedom and Liberty provide a condition in which all groups exist on an equal basis.2

Language and time being the fluid things that they are, this distinction now seems to be eroding considerably. Or perhaps the distinction is just becoming more of the dust on our cultural lenses. (I wonder if the Conventional Wisdom of a minority’s emphasis on gaining more toleration doesn’t just subconsciously reinforce another’s position of strength, rather than level the playing field. Unless the real objective is to displace the other from their position, real or perceived.)

Take freedom in general. If we were to picture the relationship between the Amount of Freedom (from none, 0%, to complete, 100%) horizontally and the Social and Cultural Benefits vertically, we would probably see something like this:

Gladwell Curve - Freedom - DoodlecastPro-2015-03-27-14-36-02 crop

This pictures what historians and philosophers have told us for eons, that if you have no freedom (to the left), you end up with an authoritarian or totalitarian state, and if you have complete individual freedom (to the right) you end up with chaos or anarchy. The safest place to be for everyone, so we conclude, is somewhere in the middle where the benefits of an individual’s freedom are moderated by the individual’s own responsibility to the greater (clan, tribe, society’s) good (upward responsibility), with a balanced measure of top-down regulation added (larger groups imposing responsibility downward).

An individual’s sense of responsibility is initially planted by the family (nature), but it is nurtured by the larger groups the individual is affiliated with: family, clan, tribe, and society. In other words, this is the “And/And” action of Regression to the Cultural Mean, and our resulting behaviors (individuals and groups) reflect our underlying attitudes and values.

To get more specific, take that general picture of freedom above but place it in the context of a free-market economy where interactions among individuals take on transactional, business-like characteristics (Fundamental Principle 1).

It takes only a few bad actors at the extremes of our sketch above, such as Ken Lay of Enron who let their selfish, negative sum attitudes (-∑) drive their behaviors, who then get publicized and paint a very negative picture of a free-market economy, at least how we are perceived to practice it – a picture painted both to the ourselves and the world. The number of good acting, beneficial, value-adding people and businesses far outnumber the bad, but they tend to get ignored in the US and are never to be heard of in the rest of the world. Since through other cultural lenses the world has learned and believes a free-market economy is supposed to bring all sorts of benefits to everyone (size of our economy, size of the middle class, quality of life of virtually everyone), what conclusion will they then draw? And since we’ve exported the TV show Dallas and untold Hollywood movies, should we really be surprised? We take these as satire or sarcasm, but without balanced information (there’s our missing information again), they take it as reality.  Believe me, they do.

From experience in living and working abroad in two different cultures (and traveling in scores of others), we discovered that their initial expectations of us as Americans were rather distorted if not low, and it took some time before barriers were broken and better, although still limited understanding was achieved.

Part of the issue is universal: neither they nor we have a crisp, clear understanding of what a predominant American culture really is for the ordinary American. The best description I have come across, and one that seems valid over hundreds of years, is the following:

An ordinary American is, in the fullest sense – self-interested and covetous of a sweet deal, but also capable of outrage in the face of greed and unfairness. (BusinessWeek, 2013).

First of all, absolutely everyone in the world is self-interested to a degree (see previous post), particularly when it comes to survival, and also interested in a sweet deal, especially when most of the “deals” in the world are of the zero sum type. So, these two do not really distinguish us from anyone else, except perhaps in degree.

What does distinguish us, I think, is the combination of these two with the last two characteristics: outrage in the face of greed (greed, and corruption, are two behaviors easily recognizable as negative sum), and outrage in the face of unfairness (the denial of justice, a behavior which is also easily recognizable as negative sum). It is these two, which have their roots and basis in the founding principles of America, especially Equality of Opportunity (that is, elimination or minimization of negative sum outcomes), that the world thinks of first. But then they read about and experience all of the exceptions, and they don’t see behaviors that match what they expect from all of the historical promotion (marketing) of America’s principles.  In other words, our Practiced Behaviors don’t match our Professed Behaviors.

Now consider the second cultural pattern above: what should the Cultural Mean of behavior look like for a society that is founded on freedom to practice a religion of choice? To us, it appears it has come to mean to be able to choose which church, synagogue, or other to attend once a week and which doctrines to believe in.

To the rest of the world, especially with non-Christians, it doesn’t end there. They have access to what they believe are the tenets of the Christian religion (not the important ones about the color of the carpet or where the organ is placed), and they are generally well informed about the Ten Commandments (for a start), and forgiveness and grace and the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy, pride) and in particular the commandment to

Do unto your neighbors as you would have them do unto you”

(a little play on the original words there, as we are to Do first, and then let them respond afterwards). This shouldn’t be too hard for a culture and society that’s willing to take more risks and is supposed to be more ‘other’ oriented (justice-wise). Right?

So, in the world’s minds and based upon their understanding of the tenants of our dominant religion, they would expect to see the following picture of our Practiced Behavior more or less consistent with a predominantly Christian society, especially one in which there was the freedom to practice one’s faith:

Values Consistent Behavior - DoodlecastPro-2015-03-27-14-33-04 crop

But the behaviors they read about or see in the media, what they often hear from people who travel to the US, and what they predominantly experience when we travel into their cultures, especially when the politicians we’ve elected to “represent” us have an uncanny habit of often embarrassing themselves and us whenever they visit, is probably more like the following:

Values Inconsistent Behavior - DoodlecastPro-2015-03-27-14-39-15 crop

While we consider ourselves to be a Christian nation (as do many nations in Eastern and Western Europe), there are two hidden issues (missing information again) that we can see only if we remove our cultural lenses:

-What convenient definition of “Christian” are we using? and
-What behavior is consistent with that definition?

I can see a Top Ten List of silent but working definitions being practiced (and not just in the US):

I must be a Christian because –

1) it says so on my birth certificate.
2) I live in the USA (or wherever).
3) I am not Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim.
4) I celebrate Christmas.
5) I go to church on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter.
6) I go to church regularly and am involved serving voluntarily.
7) I accepted Jesus and was baptized.
8) I read the Bible.
9) I understand what a changed life in Christ is supposed to mean, and I try my best to live up to that.
10) I consciously behave and live my life 24/7 according to the principles Jesus taught and lived.

What the rest of the world sees are too few people at Levels 9 & 10 (active), and too many (mostly sincere) people from 1 through 5 (passive) and from 6 through 8 (luke warm). A lot of belief but little “doing.”

Why is this? I think that churches for 2000 years have placed too little emphasis on teaching and expecting (discipling) adherents to live out (behave according to) the fundamental tenants of human interactions basic to the faith in everyday life. We concentrate more on the task of getting people “changed” and not enough on the follow-up of what it means to live out the “change” and grow in it.

There is additional buried information that has very significant influence. The rest of the world also has access to the broader historical record, none of which we can change and much of which speaks against Christians generally and certainly makes our credibility suspect. A major reason for this is because it is not our history; much of it happened before America’s founding. But it is their history, Europe’s and the Middle East’s, as they lived through it.   Christianity’s previous record on toleration, either of Christian deviance or of other religions, might kindly be termed unimpressive. The Eastern Orthodox churches generally have a better record than the Latin west, first because the east-west split occurred in 1054 before the western organized crusades began in 1095, and second because power was taken out of their hands by the Muslim invasions by the Ottoman Empire (establishing their own KoGoE). Indeed western Christianity before 1500 must rank as one of the most intolerant religions in world history; its record in comparison with medieval Islamic civilizations is embarrassingly poor.3 What they “see” us doing (Practiced Behaviors) is much more consistent with what they experienced over two millennia, than what we “say” we are going to do (Professed Behaviors) through what we stand for.

If we are supposed to be changed people with particular values and principles, then we must act that way. What we fail to teach and too few people successfully demonstrate in the world, is that one can indeed be incredibly successful as well as influential doing it! And not only are there plenty of people in the world looking to see it, there are also plenty of people in America hungering to experience it.

One point of all this is that there are indeed Cultures of Nations. And the second is that the unique Professed Culture of Our Nation ought to be the Practiced one visible to the rest of the world.

The Bottom Line (thank you Walt Kelly, you were right in more ways than one):

Pogo - Met the Enemy 1965.21.12

Next: The Effects of the Culture of Nations

Notes: The following book, The Reformation, is highly recommended.
1 The Reformation, xxii.
2 The Reformation, 543.
3 The Reformation, 676.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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