If you've read my other diaries or profile, you will understand that I am originally from South Carolina, lived in Los Angeles but then decided to move to Paris. I'm hardly a cheer-leader for all things America. In fact, there are many, many things about the US that I don't like (and I'll duly record in a separate note). But in the spirit of celebrating the USA on it's 237th birthday, let's take a moment to look at the positive contributions America makes to the world...
1.) Jazz music is a wonderful cultural contribution to the world that is distinctly American. Ella Fitzgerald was a treasure, and anytime I listen to her deep, rich voice I am enthralled and pulled away from the present. I have really become an admirer of jazz music these past few years, and added to a playlist over time featuring a variety of jazz greats.
2.) Another distinctly American innovation to culture is comedy - particularly stand-up comedians (comedians performing before an audience with a microphone doing a solo set). Like jazz, stand-up is a uniquely American innovation that is truly an artform and has added so much enjoyment to my life. I regularly download several podcasts from iTunes that I listen to as I make the 15 minute walk to work each day, or as I do my workout - if you want a good comedic interpretation of the news check out The David Feldman Show, or The Jimmy Dore Show, both available for free on iTunes.
3.) Sometimes you don't realize how good something is until you are presented with the opposite. Such is the case with customer service, having lived in France now for over seven years, I have lived the opposite of what would constitute friendly, attentive, personal service for customers. It's so refreshing when you come to the US to be greeted with a smile, asked if there is anything I need, helpfully attended to by a sales person. There are exceptions to the rule of course (I'm thinking of the long wait times being on hold for telephone queries for example...), but really, American culture is much friendlier and helpful in general and it shows itself in good customer service.
4.) Celebrating holidays large and small, America has perfected combining food with celebrations. Oh sure the French do it as well with Christmas, but apart from that one holiday, the French really don't know how to throw together a big gathering with friends and family for a common celebration around food. Thanksgiving is such a quintessential American holiday, and it serves as a model for all of the lesser holidays that Americans celebrate throughout the year - the 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, birthdays, and even tail-gating at college football games (see below). What Americans really do well is making home-made food, and having individual members of the gathering bring their specialty, so that when together you have Aunt Mabel's potato salad, Uncle Jim's barbeque pork, Cousin Amy's Key Lime Pie, etc... for a true family feast.
5.) Sports are such an important part of American culture (snarky side note: yes, I know you'd never realize it from seeing all of the overweight Americans waddling around), and celebrating your "home team" whether it is baseball, football, or basketball - all genuinely American sports - at the local town high-school, state university, or professional level is quintessentially American. American's love to decorate their cars with personalized touches celebrating their teams, and to wear shirts, hats, and other paraphanelia while having an elaborate picnic before the game. Yes, here in France they do that as well, but it is much more confined to just one sport (rugby in the southwest, and soccer elsewhere), and the fans, particularly for football, can be violent. In the US, it's a family affair, and I defy you to not have a great time at a college football game in the Southeast.
6.) I don't have the actual numbers in front of me, but undoubtedly one of America's biggest exports must be entertainment - whether video games, movies, television, or music - America dominates this industry and is truly the gold standard from which other countries aspire to attain. Just this past weekend was Gay Pride in Paris, and as the two hour parade passed us (we enjoyed the spectacle from a sidewalk cafe table while drinking rose wine - something the French do well, but that's another posting for a later time), 95% of the music blaring from the loud speakers was American. Personally, I love a good summer blockbuster movie, or watching a sappy romantic comedy, or any of the excellent television series that have dominated the critics' listings these past years. Occasionally the French or British have a breakout success, but the USA is the world leader.
7.) This next one is going to shock some of you, granted it's a bit controversial, and coming from me especially, you will be surprised. But hear me out. I am not a religious person, per se. Meaning, I do not go to church, and I do not believe in organized religion. I guess you could say that I'm agnostic or perhaps an atheist. Without getting into a debate about what I believe (perhaps that will be a later posting), let me make the case that one thing America does well is maintain the sense of community through religion. What I mean by that is in the US, I'm guessing 90% of Americans classify themselves as religious, or believers in God, or something to that effect. Of that overwhelming majority, most do not go to church or synagogue on a weekly basis. HOWEVER, most do feel a kinship with others of their faith tradition and participate on occasion at their local church as a social outlet. To be amongst others, their neighbors, and have their kids grow up with other kids in the same faith tradition. Do they believe in all of the tenets of their faith? Undoubtedly some do. But most view church as a social network - a place of community where they can volunteer time to help others and feel like they are part of something bigger.
8.) Convenience. Okay, let's be honest here. Most of us are lazy. We don't plan well ahead. And when we want something, it quickly becomes a "need." America is all about convenience. You need to go grocery shopping at 3:00 AM? On a Sunday? Well, there's a 24/7 supermarket that will be open somewhere in any mid-sized US city. Good luck trying to get anything in France after 8:00 PM most days or on a Sunday. Or on any of the myriad bank holidays they have (and don't get me started on French banks and trying to get "change"...).
9.) This one is going to have to have an asterix next to it, because it was probably true twenty years ago, but anymore, I don't think America is the leader in innovation (*) anymore. America does continue to innovate and make new products that revolutionize the world and how we do things, but anymore, true innovation for the new century is coming from Europe regarding innovative sources of renewable energy, transportation solutions for cities and international travel, as well as medical science research and physics. Even space exploration is the victim of the US government's inability to get its act together. But when I look at the micro-level, at my own little life, I use Apple products religiously, which is an American company (assembled by Chinese slaves) that has revolutionized the way we communicate and organize our lives.
10.) To be perfectly honest, I've been struggling to get to the finish line. Finding ten things America does well hasn't been an easy intellectual exercise (perhaps it would be easier in a conversation with sharp minds), but I guess the final aspect about America that is wonderful is our sense of hope. Perhaps it is due to our origins as a country of immigrants looking for a better life in the New World (or in the case of the African Americans, whose ancestors were "forced immigrants" as slaves, hope has a whole different connotation that as a white American I can't really fully imagine). But whatever its source, we are a hopeful people. We want to believe that the next generation will live better than the previous (even though that is no longer the case). We want to believe in the goodness of others (but at the same time carry a concealed handgun, because, you know, you never know...). We want to be hopeful that the new year will bring new opportunities and fulfillment (but the gyms are curiously less full by March - so much for all of those New Year resolutions). We are a bit naive and childlike in our longing for easy solutions and facile answers to the complexity of life (take a look at our Congress). Even Obama realized that at our core, we are a nation of HOPE - which became one of the iconic images of his 2008 campaign.
So on that hopeful close, let me wish all of my American friends and family, a wonderful 4th of July!