I left Los Angeles to live in Paris shortly before President George W. Bush’s reelection, and it’s safe to say that I was anything but a cheerleader for all things American. In fact, there are many things about the U.S. that I don’t like. But in the spirit of celebrating Lady Liberty on her recent 237th birthday, I’ve chosen to cleanse my palate from the bad taste of Republican rule and acknowledge some of the contributions that have made America great.
1.) 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 U.S. to be greeted with a smile, asked if there is anything I need, and 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 American culture is friendlier and more helpful in general, and that reveals itself in good customer service.
3.) Jazz is America’s quintessential cultural contribution to the world. 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. Ironically some of the best black female vocalists –– Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, and, of course, Josephine Baker — are as universally celebrated in France as they are in the United States.
3.) Another distinctly American innovation to culture is comedy — specifically stand-up comedy. Like jazz, stand-up is a uniquely American innovation that is truly an art form and has added so much enjoyment to my life. I regularly download several podcasts from iTunes that I listen to as I make the fifteen-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.
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 Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, birthdays, and even tail-gating at college football games (see below). What Americans really do well is making homemade food, and having individual members of the gathering bring their specialty, so that when you’re all joined 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. Americans love to decorate their cars with personalized touches celebrating their teams, and to wear shirts, hats, and other paraphernalia 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 U.S., 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. 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), and 95 percent 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 from Mad Men to Homeland. Occasionally the French or British have a breakout success, but the U.S. 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 (or don’t), 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 U.S., the majority of Americans classify themselves as religious or believers in God, or something to that effect. Of that overwhelming majority, most do not visit worship services on a weekly basis. Most Americans do, however, feel a kinship with others of their faith tradition and participate on occasion at their local church as a social outlet. To be among 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. And if you’re a protestant in the South, plenty of covered-dish socials that further bring the community together (see number four).
8.) Convenience. Okay, let’s be honest here. Most of us are lazy. We don’t plan far 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”…). And after a night of drinking in New York City, your options range from a 24-hour subway and bus system and countless easy-to-snag taxis, whereas in Paris the Metro shuts down around midnight and the taxi stands (no hailing from the streets) are few and far between. Thinking about ordering in a pizza or some Thai food in Paris? My building is code-entry only — no buzzer — so the only option is to trek several blocks and pick it up myself. And while that certainly no hardship, conversely in New York, you can just order a Mountain Dew and a roll of toilet paper in most neighborhoods any hour of the day or night.
9.) This one is going to have to have an asterisk next to it, because it was probably true twenty years ago, but 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 slave labor) 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.
And on that hopey-changey closing — and before you think I’ve gone all soft on you, America — you’re still not off the hook and we’re certainly far from done: I’m looking at you, Tea Partiers.