Sometimes when we think about culture, it conjures up lofty ideas of some higher order far away from ordinary life, intellectual pursuits that remain the exclusive realm of smart, high-brow people. Yet what is culture, but the very essence of the everyday life of a people and how they relate to each other?
In July, along with a group of six friends from Hungary, I took a roadtrip across the United States of America. We landed in New York, purchased a Dodge Caravan for 2,000 US dollars and, over the course of two weeks, drove to Los Angeles, covering some 5,500 miles across 18 states. What we saw of America during these two weeks, gave me a much richer appreciation for the US and what it’s about.
If often the object of glorification, the United States has just as often become the object of contempt. Whatever one’s disposition, the „America” portrayed in the mainstream media rarely resembles the real one. Embarking on our summer US road trip, I longed to see something more than the mass media caracature, something more of the real America, how people live and how they think. For that purpose, a road trip serves much better in my opinion than, say, a typical tourist visit. Visiting a bar, a local shop, or even a gas station can tell you just as much, or probably more, than a guided tour of the Empire State Building.
Bear in mind that we took only a two-week trip, but we crossed the country from New York to Los Angeles, traversing the southern states. Two weeks are far from enough to say anything definitive about a country, so my observations are subjective and anecdotal, but we covered a lot of miles, talked with many people, and took in a broad snapshot of American life in the summer of 2012. So here goes.
Save for two cities, which I did not like that much (sorry, Miami and Las Vegas), I have only positive impressions of the United States. The architecture and the atmosphere were neither alien, nor rigid; it seemed “European” in a sense, and yet, somewhat different to our custom. The typical observation, that everything is bigger in America, well, it’s true. That holds for the buildings as well as the portions of food (if you need a diet, do not spend your vacation in the States). The structure of each town or city is, however, unique. Nothing could be further from the truth than the frequent criticism that everything is generic, one and the same in the United States.
But what struck me most about the United States, and right from the start, was the kindness of the people. This was not something forced or affected; it was all natural for Americans. Our used car broke down repeatedly, and I cannot recall a single occasion when somebody was not trying to help us fix it or get to help who could. Wherever we went, I cannot recall a single occasion when someone did not take a moment to talk to us. One of the most astonishing of these was a young man at a gas station somewhere in Alabama, who repeated dozens of times that he really appreciated that we had come from so far away, from Hungary, to visit the United States. Another man, working at the fire department of Savannah, GA invited us in for a spontaneous tour of the fire station. They received us with this sort of kindness and goodwill in a completely natural way, and it was everywhere present, particularly, I would emphasize, in the South, where the people are often characterized as simple or even backward. After meeting them, I am fonder of them than ever.
Americans value work. They don’t simply pay lip-service to the value of work, as some European cultures do. They really mean it. They value all sorts of work. It does not matter if you are cleaning the street in front of a fast-food restaurant or managing a portfolio at a hedge fund. What matters is that you have a job and you work at it, you appreciate it and others appreciate your work as well. Absent from everyday America was that sense of smugness or condescension about stations in life that we find elsewhere.
Accordingly, Americans like to live their life in their own way and do not like it if someone wants to tell them what to do, or wants to meddle in their affairs. This is, again, especially vivid in the southern States. Taxes here are low (compared to European levels, extremely low), and the people want it to stay that way. The “individualism” that I witnessed differs from the one described as despicable by the apostles of modern Gnosticism, who profess that individualism in any shape destroys civilization and its imaginary spiritual order. Similarly, what I saw was not the individualism of the welfare states, where people live alone and only care for themselves. People in the United States have their communities and hold them in high esteem. Even in New York, which could very well be the most individualistic city, in our sense of the term, that we saw on our trip, communities remain lively. In my view: the American individualism of “don’t tell us what to do” is something closely akin to the Hungarian culture’s sense of individualism.
I would argue that American individualism is something healthy, if it weren’t for the contemporary negative connotation of the word. It is also not true that Americans are greedy, that they only care about money. Money itself was not an issue, according to my experience. They care most about their freedom, and it would be a tough job, if not an impossible one, to take that away from them. They want to get what is due to them, nothing more. Suum cuique. That is why they scorn high taxes and government intervention more than western Europeans do.
As long as this particular part of American character holds strong, as long as they are determined to hold their ground and defend this sense of personal liberty, I do not worry a bit about their “downfall” or “decline”.
I know well what you’ve seen of America in our mass media. Forget all that. Americans are a liberty-loving, God-fearing, welcoming people. America’s political and economic system might have shortcomings and structural problems (show me a country who does not have problems), but what really matters is the manner in which people relate to each other. And in this sense, America is not just Big. America is Great.