October 21, 2009
One Word on “American Culture”
I guess I’m still a little steamed about that idiot Bill Donohue, but I think there’s a larger issue here on the romanticization of the 1950s Norman Rockwell-style faux Americana that so many on the Religious Right want to label as “authentic American culture.” (Here’s a particularly horrifying spectacle, replete with the breathy sigh that Rockwell “captured in intimate detail what America used to be.” No, no he didn’t. Rockwell painted an America that never was.)
Is there an authentic “American Culture?” I think there is — but not what the Religious Right wishes it were. Here, let’s try a thought expermient: you have to describe “American Culture” to an outsider, but you get just one word. What’s your word? Mine’s after the break….
Obviously, reducing all of America to one word is the ultimate overgeneralization, but it seems to me that McDonald’s is quintessentially American, for good and for ill. It highlights our (mostly) free-market economy, our sense of egalitarianism, our basic liberties. It defines our consumer-driven, high-stress, there’s-never-enough-time-in-the-day work lives. It showcases globalism; there’s now a McDonald’s in 122 countries. And those franchises are, roughly speaking, homogenous; Pulp Fiction notwithstanding, McDonald’s food — for good or for ill — is roughly the same anywhere around the world. (That’s the appeal, of course.)
And McDonald’s represents the warts of American culture, too. The rock-bottom-cheap ingredients and assembly-line production have largely displaced hand-crafted and distinct local dishes, both here in America and abroad, such that eating locally grown foods that are prepared simply is now a high-end specialty fad. (You could insert the debate about Wal*Mart here with equal force.) You can’t escape McDonald’s, but that interconnectedness probably makes this a safer world. And like most Americans, McDonald’s are pretty tolerant of minorities — even atheists.
And yes, I’m a bit of a food snob, but there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t love McDonald’s french fries. And that, too, is quintessentially American; even those who hate us often find something about America that’s admirable.
That’s my one word for America: McDonald’s.