Americans believe they are exceptional, something you can see everywhere. Take how the country views the Olympic Games. Athletes pegged to win gold, like Nancy Kerrigan, deliver disappointment when they come up short and with silver, or worse, bronze. The U.S. is the world’s largest economy, and when Americans travel abroad, they seen constant reminders of home: McDonald’s, Nike and Hollywood flicks. American culture is mass culture. It’s world culture. No wonder Americans feel they have so much to crow about.
According to the concept of American exceptionalism, the United States is distinctly different from other nations. There are various reasons given, such as the country is a classless nation of immigrants and wasn’t built on feudalism. These reasons, however, are faulty. America does have class distinction, and while it wasn’t built on feudalism, it was built on slavery.
I’ve lived outside the United States for a decade. But during that decade, I feel like I’ve come to better understand America and Americanism. I once interviewed famed industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, who lived for several years in San Francisco. He told me that during that time he learned more about Japan and what it meant to be Japanese than he did about the U.S.
Make no mistake, America is a great country. Like any country, it has its share of problems, one of which being its pride. But it’s created so much: jazz, baseball, and, yes, even video games. American mass culture is world culture. There’s one thing that fascinates Americans more than anything, and that’s themselves.
It’s that “can do” attitude which is the country’s greatest strength—and weakness. According to game designer Cliff Bleszinski of Epic Games, a pivotal scene in documentary Waiting for Superman is most poignant. “The thing that summarized it best was the scene when they talk about math proficiency in America and how low-ranking we are in the world,” Bleszinski, who’s currently working on Gears of War 3 told Kotaku. “They then compared it to confidence ratings in our math proficiency which, of course, are at an all-time high.” At one time, America was the best at math; the country put a man on the moon, developed super computers, high-tech electronics like the compact disc. The U.S. trails Asian countries in math and science.
During the last decade, the idea of America—”real America”—has once again become dogma. The notion of “real America” and “real Americans” is dragged out any time there is an influx of immigrants or new civil rights—whenever there’s a perceived threat to the status quo. During the late 19th century, as immigrants streamed from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, the idea of “real America” was used to marginalize newcomers. Over a century later, those whose ancestors might’ve experienced discrimination of their own have no problem saying who is American and who isn’t. Unlike, say, Japan, America was built on an idea. It’s a hodge-podge of cultures and ethnicities. Compared to older nations, its history is short, and America itself is a concept. A myth. In that myth-making, one important idea involves what is America and what it isn’t. Just as important is who is American and who isn’t.
For a culture built by immigrants, excluding newcomers is entirely un-American. However, for the concept of “real America”, this doesn’t come into play and ignores that many quintessentially American things were invented by immigrants, such as blue jeans. So is the concept of “real Americans”. The concept of real Americans is stereotypically related to tropes like guns, country music, and pick-up trucks, but in a broader sense it’s bleeding red, white and blue. It’s patriotism.
The flag itself is fetishized. There is a protocol regarding the respect shown towards it, how it is folded, raised and displayed. Children from a young age pledge an alliance to that flag, putting their right hand over their heart. Given the respect shown to the flag itself, making shirts, hats and bikinis, even, seems anything but. The flag itself cannot touch the ground—if it does, it must be destroyed—yet, it’s totally cool for U.S. flag designs to cover boobs, and then be tossed in the washing machine. There’s a disconnect in how the flag is seen and how patriotic clothing is worn.
“Ugly American” is an epithet used to describe loud, obnoxious Americans abroad. The term is from a 1958 novel The Ugly American that was also made into a film with Marlon Brando.
There are American institutions, like 7-Eleven (started in Dallas, Texas) and Budweiser (started in St. Louis, Missouri), but many of them aren’t even American owned anymore. Here is a list from a few years back of 10 American icons that are no longer American. Even expressions like “As American as apple pie” are incorrect; apple pie isn’t American in origin, but European. The same is true for much of American cuisine. These icons are not really American, but they’re real Americana. There’s a difference.
For the past two hundred years, politicians have latched on and exploited “real America”. Eat Sleep Play‘s David Jaffe, hard at work on the upcoming Heavy Metal, recently told Kotaku how hard it is not to be cynical. “Politicians are getting votes by pressing certain buttons.” One of these buttons, said Jaffe, is a Pavlovian response for Americans that their country is the best in the world. According to Jaffe, “Never mind that many of the Americans who automatically think this haven’t been outside the country, let alone their own state.”
Americans are expected to play by American rules. When in Rome, do as Americans, right? Deviating from them causes criticism at home. When President Obama met with Japan’s royal family and bowed, pundits like Matt Drudge went on the attack. The president bowed “too low”—something that dictated as unpresidential, something that College Republicans underscored with a viral video. The incident was reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s “near bow” when he met the Emperor in 1994, underscoring the State Department’s traditional “no need to bow” rule.
The bowing incident brought memories of one of the most American things the country did after the war: General MacArthur was photographed with Emperor Hirohito, something that humanized the Japanese ruler, previously viewed as divine. This brazen act of American informality ended up being instrumental in helping the country move physiologically from Imperial rule to U.S. Occupation to self-governing democracy.
The words “real American hero” are burned into the mind of any male who grew up in the 1980s. Not only was G.I. Joe an American hero, he was a real American hero, inferring that there were fake American heroes. The 1980s were a fantastic, prosperous time to grow up, free of irony that permeated later decades. Bruce Springsteen was earned. Hulk Hogan was earnest. And Ronald Regan was president. “Born in the U.S.A.”, a scathing attack of the U.S. Government, was misappropriated as a patriotic singalong. No internet meant the stupidity of youth was lost to the sands of time, but it also meant it was, for better or worse, easier to stay on message and control that message. Like me, Jaffe recalled the 80s nostalgia fondly. “When I was a kid, I thought the 80s were awesome,” said Jaffe. “But they also deregulated the fuck out of the FTC, shipped jobs overseas and closed down mental hospitals.” Stuff like that doesn’t seem so important when you’re a kid watching Knight Rider, but it sure as shit does when you’re an adult.
The decade was a culmination of the years following World War II, in which Europe and Japan were left in shambles and when America emerged as the clear victor—undisputed. The United States, which previously had been isolationist and protectionist, owned the world stage. Starting with the Revolutionary War, there are several distinct periods in the country’s history that exemplify American’s gung-ho spirit—whether that be Manifest Destiny or World War II.
In the past decade, America’s love affair with itself has become increasingly cynical. While the 1980s had Born in the U.S.A., the turn of the century had a satirical song from parody Team America. In a post 9-11 world, the country with such high ideals wasn’t living up to said ideals. The rah-rah was still there, but was it still right, correct and just?
When President Obama revealed that a team of Navy SEALs took out Osama bin Laden, the nation erupted in celebration, rallying around the flag. For a generation who’ve grown up in a post-9/11 world, it was release. It was America, Fuck Yeah! Not everyone was out partying out in the street—one guy was drying around on an ATV with an American flag, shooting his gun. While people in the U.S. disagreed with the grandstanding (heck, not everybody was grandstanding), and President Obama didn’t want to “spike the football”, the entire country could perhaps see where the celebrations were coming from. Pundits talked of American persistence—the same persistance that got the U.S. on the moon bagged bin Laden.
“I believe in the idea and the concept of America—so yeah, I believe in ‘Fuck Yeah,’” said Jaffe. “But tearing down that American fairytale is good in the long, because by deconstructing it, we can build a better one in its place.”
Those outside the US had a harder time justifying partying over someone’s death—no matter how evil that person might be. The event came at an important time; the U.S. is seen to be in decline and ineffectual. But for a brief moment, Captain America was back. Fuck yeah.
What Is America’s Fetish This Week? is a regular, obsessive look at the trends and topics, from mainstream to niche, that catch America’s fancy. WIAFTW alternates bi-weekly with its sister column, What Is Japan’s Fetish This Week?
(Top photo: Hot From Hollywood)
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