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Common Culture

August 30, 2004

After reading “Brief letters to the editor” of The Times, I read “More brief letters …,” and it got me to thinking: Is there a common experience of Great Britain by Britons?

Not everyone in the U.K. reads The Times, certainly. However, the letters made me reflect on my sense that the nation has a more uniformly held common culture than the United States.

So, the more interesting question might really be: Is there a common experience of America?

Obviously, not for the rest of the world, which holds tightly to a spectacular variety of bad impressions, which makes me want to say to them, “Now, let’s just think about this a minute …”

But I also think: not for Americans. What is the common thread we share?

There is the “popular culture” much studied by demographers and purveyed by “The Media.” However, the U.S. is large and varied, suburbia notwithstanding. There is great variation in wealth and opportunity. (Nevertheless, immigrants from around the world know there’s no better opportunity.)

Looking across America, we don’t appear to share a common education. Historical and cultural knowledge varies so much that instances of its utter lack are regular fodder for comedian Jay Leno.

I don’t see a common religion. A wide range of Christians might protest, claiming that despite the varied practices they’re all basically the same. That’s essentially how I feel about all of humanity. I don’t think religion is what American is really about; freedom of religion, yes.

And we certainly can’t claim a common culture based on race or nationality. Except for the nationality of “American” … which brings us back to the beginning.

Unless you’re simply American by accident of birth, being American is essentially political. I certainly don’t mean being liberal or conservative or Democrat or Republican, but rather being committed to perpetuating the system that allows such political choice, or religious choice, or economic choice.

In other words, dedicated to preserving a liberal democracy — a democracy based on protecting certain liberties. Would you really want to live in a democracy where the majority rules on everything?

Ideally, every political demand we make would be tempered by the expectation that our representatives and leaders are keeping an eye on the soundness of the system..

I admit, it can be hard to respect the thoughts of others when you know they’re very wrong, but that’s part of the game. It’s worth playing.

It can be hard to countenance an opposing argument. I would guess that most people who read political writings read things that simply reinforce the views they already hold. We become part of a choir desperately seeking a preacher.

In the pursuit of “Truth,” though, one might adopt a more scientific approach and seek out opposing views with a mind to correcting or refining one’s own understanding.

Or not. Another view of democratic participation has everyone asserting her or his interests as strongly as possible, and the resulting shakeout is assumed to be good and proper.

Either way, it seems we’re safest with politicians who compromise.

The British Parliament has interesting traditions for embracing opposing views. Crammed into chambers, everyone shouts at each other and grills the Prime Minister, who must have knowledge at the ready and be able to think on his or her feet. Defending one’s position is instructive.

I had more insightful points to make about common culture, but I’m trying to write this while watching the Olympics, and the thoughts have leapt away.

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