A Question For Our Times

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Maybe it was just a single experience, but here’s what happened:

Whenever I drove east away from the exquisite Malibu coastline, I’d stop at this supermarket with different foreign food stands inside, a buffet of desserts like chocolate mousse and Tiramisu, and enough market goods to feed a city. The place was one of my favorites, with great service and enough variety to keep my road-trip from ever growing stale. As I entered the store today, however, I realized things had changed.

The foreign foods were still there, shrunken into smaller alcoves and fighting for signage. The desserts existed, but now had names like Kunafeh and Basbousa. There was Turkish ice cream and couscous and some sort of potato-mayonnaise-egg concoction that was, frankly, fantastic. The noise inside was deafening, with a hard smattering of kh sounds throughout. Employees wore clothing casual enough that there was no indication that they were employees, and the atmosphere leaned more toward bazaar than supermarket. Employees did not smile, nor look up at the customer, but rather, stuck hands out for the cash and then returned change without a word.My purchase was a transaction, not an interaction, and the idea of the cashier saying the phrase “have a nice day” or “thank you” was about as likely as the lion-shooting dentist staying in business. Hundreds of customers clustered in the dining area, spread out across tables, sprawled upon floors, lay out on the sidewalks, and littered the grocery aisles.

I’ve traveled a bit, so places like this don’t rattle me the way they did when I was too small for the rides at Disneyland. However, when I come back to America from a foreign land, there is always this feeling that American culture is both diverse, and at the same time, consistent. While we differ politically, culturally and economically, there are some collective norms that pervade the nation. We have a customary way of handling transactions. We greet people and thank people in subtle ways that recognize their humanity without invading their privacy. Living here in the states, one gets used to this feeling of American culture, where cashiers speak, where customers don’t stop to eat in the aisles, where pushing and shoving ones way to the counter is frowned upon andwhere the din of the marketplace is not threatening to your eardrums.

For decades, we’ve asked immigrants to assimilate, to learn English so they can be successful here, to make themselves aware of the laws, of capitalism, and of the cultural idiosyncrasies that define America’s melting pot. We recognize the contribution of immigrants and how America was built upon the backs of immigrant populations. We’ve learned that diversity provides the massive benefits of perspective, of innovation, of ideas. We’ve learned foods from other cultures enhance our homeland’s palate, designs from foreign nations add to our national fabric, and that the dreams of immigrants augment the country’s creativity. Having a global population within the nation’s borders has surely enriched the American way. And yet, what happens when those who come to America want to change the American nation into the nation they left? What if they want to use the foundations of freedom and capitalism to create a platform for their own cultural, religious and national interests? Is there a requirement that all those who immigrate adopt and accept American customs, and if so, what are those customs?

Perhaps Americans should simply accept that there is no true American culture. Perhaps we should understand that America represents an ideology, which permits everyone to pursue their own interests, even if those interests are not comfortable for the current American population.   And if people choose a lifestyle that is anathema to the Founding Father’sideals, if they pursue cultural norms which are anti-social, unfriendly, and transaction based, if they begin purchasing land and supermarkets and political positions, if they begin to create laws that abridge freedoms and cultural norms the way we have always known them, well perhaps that is the evolution of our nation and we should accept it as the natural state of the world. Then again, where assimilation ends, imperialism begins.

When a culture passes beneath Lady Liberty’s torch, it hears the promise of this nation – you are free to pursue happiness here, to take your ambition and create your own way. But too, it hears another promise – that this country will not impose its will upon you, that you are free to bring your ways into the melting pot to thicken the steel of our national ambition. This second promise means you won’t encounter resistance when you bring your economic, cultural, and religious ideas. It means you can bring your old ideas to this new country and add them into the milieu of the American way. It means the marketplace of ideas is open to all thinkers. And then there is this little thing called democracy, where, if your ideas can gain leverage, if you can convince some folks to agree with you, you can begin to change things. Over time, those changes add up to influence, and then to grander visions, and then to leadership. With enough people buying into your ideas, you can change the country into the thing you want, rather than changing yourself into what the country wants. This promise of opportunity was there at the nation’s inception. Today, however, it may be there at the nation’s demise.

It may offend some people, to think that someone could believe the nation’s evolution can be considered the nation’s demise. But when the ideals of a country change, when a notion like freedom bends and breaks beneath the demands of cultural interests, when the American dream of ambition and opportunity is transformed into an international dream to convert America into foreign ideals, when America’s ability to change the world becomes the world’s ability to change America, then yes, perhaps America’s demise is imminent.

My ideas about American culture have been wrong – that is what I learned in that marketplace today. Our national identity is about freedom and our cultural identity is based on who is here, more so than any concrete concept. We say, Come do as you please and we will not pressure you to do otherwise. Today, many immigrant groups are growing large enough to change the American way, to make things more like the homeland they came from.   Today, diversity means, rather than making America’s customs their own, they are bringing their homelands’ customs and ideologies to us There is no doubt the country is changing. The question is…who will determine its direction?

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By ccxander