America is baseball and McDonald's and Barbie dolls. America is freedom and opportunity and liberty. America is sex and drugs and murderous running backs.
America is tacky; America is dirty; America is utopia. Any decent attempt to define America must reconcile critical realism with the traditional American ideals of liberty and justice for all with the kitsch and nostalgia of pop culture in one great ironic paradox. Yet America is an abstract concept. Any attempt to define America will fall short because, in fact, American culture exists only in theory - it is a mere figment of the imagination, an idealist fabrication, a lie that has been told so many times that it has been accepted as truth.
Americans are constantly putting themselves under the microscope, often drawing premature conclusions about their nation and culture. America, still a rebellious teenager in the world view, is undergoing a constant identity crisis, marked by the need to quantify, determine and elucidate the basic tenets of the cult of Americana in a desperate attempt to define itself. It must be documented, classified and analyzed as proof that there is an American culture. Yet most people learn more about what is considered culture through hearsay than by actually experiencing it. Americans are spoon-fed an idealized version of American culture that they believe some average American is living, but the idea of a "typical American" is completely bogus. The typical American does not exist.
America is a nation that prides itself on its diversity while encouraging conformity. In a land of misfits and outcasts, differences are still far from embraced. The first thing immigrants do is make an effort to Americanize themselves and their children, with only the semblance of culture they are bombarded with as their guide. Thus, they buy into the cultural fallacy. Instead of the culture adapting to the people, the people have adapted to the culture. The United States of America has become AmericaD, pre-packaged and available for purchase. The land of immigrants has even become an exclusive club, with talk of quotas to keep outsiders out. There is a conviction that Americans themselves have become established, that the melting pot has boiled off impurities and returned a single product.
American history has become Disneyfied in the lives of the people. To many, the 1950s are nothing more than a happy-go-lucky time of "Happy Days" and "Grease," of drive-ins and poodle skirts. The '60s are hippies and flower power and free love, the '70s, the Aquarian age of discos and afros, and the '80s are shoulder pads, power lunches and new wave. While this phenomenon may not seem harmful, as most Americans have an awareness of it, the influence of these images increases with their frequency. Modern culture is influenced by people's perceptions of the past, not by the past itself. When the falsified images are perpetuated, the falsifications, in effect, become truth. Even if this idealism and nostalgia are recognized and compared to actual documentation, the false images still have a definite influence, conscious or otherwise. Popular culture only recognizes the past few decades. Eventual-ly, the consciousness of the distorted mirror of the past disappears, leaving only the skewed reflection behind.
America cannot be defined by its geography, its people, their ideals or the stuff they leave behind. Any effort to do so is superficial and would contradict the very nature of America, where Americans become Americans only when they buy into the myth that America exists. ?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.