opusWhy Americans Can’t Laugh at American Culture

Just about everyone in the world laughs at themselves, their own cultural stereotypes. Canadians are famous for it (Great White North, Due South etc.) and European literature is full of self-parody (Don Quixote, Monty Python). By contrast, American comedy is always at the expense of minorities or fools (or, toxically, the two combined in one, the essense of racist humour). Asia Times author Spengler provides further examples, and then goes on to note more seriously the implications of this humourlessness on American international relations and cultural insensitivity:

America cannot understand the culture of other nations, because it has no culture of its own. In my November 25 essay I stated the same idea in a different way, namely, that the American tragedy is the incapacity of Americans to understand the tragedy of other peoples. Is America condemned forever to win the war and lose the peace? Will the force of American arms always roll the stone uphill like Sisyphus, while the weakness of American diplomacy always sends it crashing down again? Is there some link between this tragic pattern of American history, and the way Americans see (or fail to see) the world – that is, American culture?


Berkeley Breathed Saves Cats & Dogs

The new book by Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County, Outland), called Flawed Dogs, helps support shelter animals, and asks you to help too. Our rescue dog Chelsea agrees. But where is the new promised weekly Breathed cartoon, Opus?


Immigrating to Ontario

This is an example of a great public sector site. A collaboration of several social service organizations with government funding, this is a great, advertising and hype-free list of everything the new immigrant to Ontario needs to know. Imagine if this had been privatized (big yellow ads for sleazy immigration lawyers, fly-by-night moving companies etc).


Just funny, from David Chess via Wood’s Lot

“In the future, everyone will be married to Britney Spears for fifteen minutes.”


What Business Leaders Think of You

Dave Johnson’s Seeing the Forest has become one of my must-reads. He has a knack for succinctly summarizing some very long and profound articles in a few words, and his reading breadth is enormous. The link above quoting business leaders as calling for employee sacrifices (longer hours, fewer benefits, lower wages) and for an end to the ‘sense of entitlement’ to a salary, may be astonishing to some, but doesn’t surprise me in the least. There’s a follow-up by guest blogger John Emerson about how the Republicans are conning Americans into believing they are better off than they really are by giving them a little personal cash instead of a lot of public services.


Bush in 30 Seconds

Watch the 15 finalists for the Bush in 30 Seconds moveon.org ad contest. Be patient waiting for them to download — it’s worth the wait. They’ll send a chill down your spine. At least a half dozen deserve to get aired.

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24 Responses to ODDS & ENDS

  1. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Ever heard of Al Bundy? Or Homer Simpson?I agree with the idea that Americans are good at ‘kicking ass’ (we don’t even have an expression for that) and bad at diplomacy. But this is not because of the reasons mentioned in this article. The writer doesn’t seem to understand that American culture is (mostly) popular culture.

  2. Raging Bee says:

    What comedians are you listening to, dude? The ones I’ve heard do nothing BUT make fun of American culture – if only because that’s all they know. This Asia Times guy needs to get a few dozen more clues before he writes his next article.

  3. Raging Bee says:

    “In the future, everyone will be married to Britney Spears for fifteen minutes.”That’s the good news. The bad news is, she’ll expect at least twenty minutes of foreplay.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    I guess it’s a matter of one’s cultural perspective. I see Bundy and Simpson as working class Americans being ridiculed. Build yourself up by putting others down. I see the same thing in Will & Grace, where gays and women are portayed as ridiculous so that ‘real’ Americans can feel superior, better about themselves. Where Due South and Don Quixote and Monty Python make fun of ALL Canadians, Spaniards and Brits, American comedy makes fun of OTHER ‘classes’ of Americans. That’s why I find most American comedy so mean-spirited and lame, and why, though I don’t buy everything in Spengler’s article, I think he has a point.

  5. Raging Bee says:

    “I see Bundy and Simpson as working class Americans being ridiculed.”Yes, but (speaking strictly of the Simpsons here) the show makes fun of the people and institutions who oppress and ridicule them. I can’t think of a single person, institution, group or subgroup that has escaped being ridiculed in one episode or another.Come to think of it, none of the American comedy I’ve seen exempts anyone or anything as sacrosanct; and most of the jokes are directed at rich, powerful white people.Besides, how can comedy NOT allow you to “feel superior” to whoever you’re laughing at?

  6. Susan says:

    The Simpsons is a great example of American comedy. The reason Homer is funny to us, in a self-deprecating way, is that most Americans identify ourselves with the working class, regardless of reality. When I was in college, my economics professor asked the class to raise their hands if they felt they were from a “middle class” background. Only I raised my hand, even though every single person in that private college was by definition middle class. Americans identify with the working class in ways that Canadians really can’t understand (as Canada is one of the most middle-class cultures on earth).This is what gets us into trouble, by the way. We believe the “myth” that we are all working class to the point where we fail to recognize the real working class. But the real working class in America does not, as the Simpsons do, have a nice two-story house in the suburbs and attend a clean, bright school with pretty lawns. Working class people don’t have high-paying jobs at a nuclear power plant. Everything about the Simpsons is true American middle class–middle class lifestyle wrapped in a working class myth. And yes, we have a culture–it’s so different from yours, you can’t even recognize it (I say that having lived in both Canada and Britain).

  7. Adrian says:

    And to be fair to the Simpsons, they realize this…or at least Lisa Simpson does. Remember when her hero abandons her to go teach in the inner city? Don’t remember his exact words, but the gist was “sorry, kiddo, you’re middle class.”

  8. Kate says:

    Everyone is so quick to say America has no culture. I think this is in large part because America has so many cultures it is hard to distinguish only one in the bunch. That’s part of our country’s charm — we have a bit of everything. This extends to all aspects of culture, from comedy to art to music to food. It’s pretty spectacular that on any given day I can have a meal from just about any country in the world right here in Chicago. I’d call that culture.When it comes to comedy, it seems to me most critics look only to the popular WHITE stuff and ignore all the rest. There is something for everyone here — that can’t be disputed. There’s more beyond Homer and Al Bundy, even! Plenty, in fact. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that Monte Python or Don Quixote (bringing up lit from 1605 is a bit of a stretch anyway, if we’re comparing it to today’s society) are examples of making fun of “everyone.” Monte Python, at its best, made fun of the upper class, including the knights (like Quixote), and my favorites, academics. Let’s face it; Britain invented classism, so they’re in no way an example of doing it “best.” They manage to justify keeping the royals on the dole with a bit of humor at their expense. Bankrolling one of the richest families in the world would drive me nuts!!As for Americans’ sense of humor, we can take a joke, even when the joke’s on us. Perhaps not the nimrods who are featured on Fox News. Thankfully, they’re not the majority. Look at the continuous success of Saturday Night Live. If any show has managed to make fun of all aspects of American culture, that’s the one. Not to mention In Living Color (how I miss it so!), and then there’s the funny pages!! From Boondocks to Doonsbury, there’s something for everyone.As for culture, I think it’s IMPOSSIBLE to argue we don’t have any, seeing that so much of our culture is appreciated around the world. I’m listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus right now.JAZZ!!! An American contribution, thank you!!

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: I’m digging around trying to find the recent survey that indicated that almost all Americans describe themselves as middle or upper-middle class, and tend to overestimate their relative wealth.Kate: Saying a country doesn’t have ‘a culture’ is not the saying it doesn’t have ‘culture’.

  10. Kate says:

    Dave, I think it IS saying that. “Culture” makes “a culture.” One cannot exist without the other.American culture isn’t a homogenous monolith as so many European cultures once were. I say were because they’re now becoming far more interesting and mixed now that people from other parts of the world are immigrating there. Sort of like Canada, eh? Also, like all cultures, American culture is not static. It is evolving and changing all the time. These are not the days of Beaver Cleaver, thank god. Just as Spain is no longer the place of Don Quixote, the conquistadors, or the inquisitors. Now that’s something to be thankful for! Chicago is now 25% Mexican. A century ago it was nearly that in Irish, then Polish, etc. etc. It is a mixed city as all American cities are. This mix is what makes our culture interesting. It’s also what makes it so frustrating to non-American cultural critics who are desperate to fit us into an old-fashioned European model. It won’t work. And most of us are thankful for that.

  11. Kate says:

    One more thing…I think it’s interesting that Asia Times ends it’s “What Is American Culture” piece by saying our lack of culture is most tragic in our “relationship to Islam.” I’m not going to defend or try to justify all of my country’s actions (MANY of us are trying very hard to get someone else elected this year), BUT our relationship with Islam is hardly worse than many other countries in the past (and many in the present, for that matter). Spain and Islam…hmmmm. Let’s examine that history. Asia and Islam, hmmmm…. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, our world has been, and continues to be, divided by religion. That’s the true tragedy.

  12. Sonny Faulseit says:

    Dave, In this article, the countries we are compared to are Australia, Spain, England, and France. All of these countries are much smaller and have less than half of our population. There is no way in hell that any one cultural system could enclose all of our people and all of our regions. This is why we don’t have a simple “American Culture” To me it seems rather foolish even to try to group all Americans into one thing. Can we do that for Europe? Do all Europeans share a singular culture? No, but Europe can be broken down into a conglomerate of separate regional cultures, like America. Can you honestly tell me that the “grunge” movement in the Pacific Northwest was not a cultural thing. How about the southeast? Do they not have a shared culture? By the way, what great culture does Canada provide the world? I have neven eaten at a Canadian restaurant, taken in a distinctively Canadian Opera or play, nor do I know of any Canadian art movements or genres. Of course, Canadians have offered a lot to specific American culture movements, but how could we define Canadian culture? Hockey and Beer– I am sorry the Germans and Irish trump you on Beer. So, that leaves Hockey! I am sorry but America has contributed Rock and Roll, Harley Davidson, The Western, Hollywood, the Blues, Jazz, Edgar Allan Poe, Contemporary Art Movements. Now, if we were really looking to define truly American culture I suppose we would have to go and talk to some of the many Native Americans living on reservations today–are you going to tell them they are not American and that they do not have a distinct culture

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Kate: The author’s argument is that America has many cultures, but it does not have ‘a’ culture, a set of characteristics that define it, unify it, differentiate it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just different from most other countries. I’m reading a book called Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life that really brings that home to me. That’s why America can’t laugh at itself — because there is no ‘self’, there are just a whole bunch of different ‘selves’ subcultures. The Germans and the Dutch invent, and laugh at, German and Dutch jokes. But if someone makes a joke about Americans in general, (i.e. all Americans), Americans take offense. They band together and counter-attack. And I do agree with your point on the author’s argument about America and Islam.When Pony-Tailed Writer says, above, Besides, how can comedy NOT allow you to “feel superior” to whoever you’re laughing at? that’s my point exactly about American humour. You can’t “feel superior” to yourself.Sonny: Again, the author’s not saying America is uncultured, or has no cultures, he’s saying it has no one enduring, recognizable culture. And again, that’s not a slam, it’s a point of difference. And it has important ramifications. Canada has two cultures, an English and a French one, both different, both quite shallow but as the plethora of Canadian comedians can attest, quite easy to characterize and poke fun at. And, I would suggest, Canadians, like people of most countries, laugh at themselves a lot, where Americans laugh at others, including other Americans, but not at themself, because there is no one ‘self’. An example: When the Phil Collins Spitting Image video came out that ridiculed, via puppets, the leaders of half a dozen nations, the other 5 countries loved it. The U.S. called it ‘an insult to our President’ (Reagan) and many stations in the U.S. banned it.

  14. Kate says:

    I’m not sure I agree, Dave, because I think the author DOES mean to insult Americans and say that our lack of “a culture” is a fault and not just a “point of difference.” There’s no doubt about it, in fact. Just look at his list of what he believes defines American culture (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/EK18Aa01.html). I’d say the list is meant to be judgemental (and funny, for that matter). There is definitely a feeling of superiority over our pluralistic culture, which we’re quite used to, of course. This might be why most Americans could care less about what other countries think of them or their country (and I’m not saying this is good!!!).I’m sure I’ll be accused of being defensive and therefore like all Americans (the grouping of us together is easy when it’s derogatory, I guess), and can’t take a joke. The fact that most people, regardless of their nationality, are much more comfortable making fun of themselves than having others make fun of them (and I’d point out Canadians are DEFINITELY as sensitive as Americans in this way — ), it doesn’t come as much surprise that some Americans were offended by Collins’ video (I have no memory of this being a “scandal” — MTV was the only station showing videos and I saw it there. Perhaps it was made a bigger deal in the international press). It didn’t help, I’d say, that it was Reagan who was being made fun of. No one took offense when Clinton was lampooned, including Clinton himself. (I guess it shows that us democrats have a better sense of humor ;>)So Canada has English and French (you seemed to have left out First Nations…on purpose?) and America has nothing because it has more than two. I’d bet there are MANY Canadians who hate being lumped into your two groups, as they are members of neither (or both, with a smidgen of others added to the mix). Do Canadians of other backgrounds find it funny when they’re excluded, orgrouped in with the majority? Do you think they, too, may find offense when it’s assumed they are part of the monolithic, two-headed Canadian “culture” you define?Yes, we tend to hate being lumped together. This is, no doubt, because we, like your non-French, non-English Canadian siblings, can’t be so clearly defined. Most of us are mutts. Some are not, of course, but are instead the sons and daughters of immigrants. Even some of our immigrants are mixed up. Mexicans are by and large mestizo, mixed themselves, just as are many of the Caribbeans who immigrated here. Does the fact that we have a pluralistic culture mean that we have none? If it makes everyone else feel better, then fine, we have no culture. We have no sense of humor either, and that’s okay too. Most of us don’t laugh for the benefit of others, anyway, which makes us not so different from the rest of human society, I suppose. I appreciate you sparking such lively conversation, Dave. I enjoy reading your blog for precisely this reason!!

  15. Sonny Faulseit says:

    If it makes you feel better, then give the dog a bone. Oh cultured members of the world, rejoice in your superiority. We meager cultureless Americans, who can not even laugh at ourselves, are damned to a life without identity. Whoa be to us beleagered souls, for we do not, CAN NOT, know our one true self. Unlike our great Canadian brothers and sisters, we have abandoned our British daddy, and our French mommy, and now we are orphans adrift in a culture vacuum! The shame is too much to bear!

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Kate: Omitting the First Nations was a serious oversight, and I was wrong to overlook them. I’m not sure their cultures (they have many, diverse cultures) are really ‘Canadian’ — they don’t recognize our boundaries, and are a series of nations and cultures unto themselves. There are many other groups and subcultures in Canada, but none of them is substantial or large enough to be a recognizable ‘culture’ — not yet anyway. Let me provide one more example, and then I’ll give up. A while ago I posted this joke on our international group server at work. The Brits & Australians thought it was priceless, the Europeans loved it but wanted to add their own bits because they felt left out, and the Americans were unamused and demanded that it be taken down as it was ‘inappropriate’ for a business website and ‘an unfortunate generalization about Americans that reflected badly on me’. Sonny: After reading your posts, I apologize on behalf of the author of the article and for supporting some of his arguments. Your posts clearly show an exemplary American ability to take a joke, and not be defensive about any criticism of your country and its unambiguous, homeogeneous, and obviously identifiable culture. It won’t happen again, Sir.

  17. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Maybe I should explain my last sentence a bit more. You see, looking at it from the other side of the Atlantic, I do see one singular American culture. You may not see it from up close – just like we Europeans (despite the whole EU thing) find it hard to see something as typically European – but we see it. The author of this article doesn’t see it either. This is because he thinks in terms of ‘high culture’. He thinks for example that classical music is the highest of high cultures. He is an elitist. What he doesn’t understand is that classical music once was popular culture. In fact, Strauss still attracts a very working class audience. American culture is not elitist. But does that make it less cultural? Is haute quisine more cultural than McDonald’s? I’m not saying Eminem is the Mozart of the future, but the distinction between high culture and low culture is only in the mindset of this author (and many other people who’s thinking stopped in the fifties). Pop Art and Jeff Koons proved that low culture can be high culture. Merchandising proved vice versa. ‘Low culture’ is certainly not less cultural. And that goes for American culture too.

  18. Raging Bee says:

    “That’s why America can’t laugh at itself — because there is no ‘self’, there are just a whole bunch of different ‘selves’ subcultures.”This is starting to sound like hairsplitting. It’s also a bit of a non-sequitur.”The Germans and the Dutch invent, and laugh at, German and Dutch jokes. But if someone makes a joke about Americans in general, (i.e. all Americans), Americans take offense. They band together and counter-attack.”Have you ever heard of Comedy Central? I’ve heard many good jokes, by Americans, about various groups and sub-groups of Americans, including well-off white men like myself, and I’m not ashamed to say they made me laugh, because they were based on astute observations about the said groups. However, the jokes I’ve heard about ALL Americans as a monolithic group have come off as stale, old, and humorless – precisely because they are blind to the reality that, culturally, we are NOT a monolithic group. Good humor comes from good observation, and if a comedian’s observation is hindered by ignorance, prejudice or hate, then his/her jokes will suck.(Do the French laugh at themselves when we call them “appeasers” and “surrender-monkeys?” Are Poles expected to laugh at Polack jokes?)There is such a thing as bad and un-funny jokes. Perhaps you, and the Asia Times guy, should look at the jokes as well as at the audience.

  19. Kate says:

    Honestly Dave, I don’t see how anyone could be offended by the joke you posted. It’s funny and completely harmless. Some people are insulted by anything that makes sweeping generalizations, I guess. Perhaps that’s why you received some negative comments about it.One more little nitpicky thing, though. American culture was long defined as this vaguely British white blob with an African-American blob along side it (not unlike your English-French Canadian “culture”). Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond seeing ourselves as only white and black, and have begun to recognize our diversity and cross-cultural mix. This is a good thing. Yes, it means that some Americans are ultrasensitive (and “politically correct”) and can’t take a joke. But it also means that we’re working toward tolerance (however difficult that is) and acceptance of difference. It’s a grand experiment, this melting pot. If I were to pick one thing I think is absolutely glorious about the US, it’s this. Sometimes I want to move to another country to escape the stupids (they are very, very vocal), but then I walk the dog around my block and talk to my neighbors — native born Chicagoans (of all colors and stripes), Native Americans, Iraqis, Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Polish, Mexicans. And I think how lucky I am to live in a neighborhood where people from such diverse backgrounds have come together to make lives for themselves. It’s pretty great. It’s one of the things I miss when we’re down in New Orleans, which does not have half the diversity. (It does have mormon vampires, though, which makes up for quite a lot. ;>)Here’s to light-heartedness, peace, and joy. It’s all good!

  20. Philip says:

    Funny is a Canadian with a Kucinich Campaign sticker on his blog…(the obvious question is why? Perhaps it is a joke I do not get.)Seriously Dave is pre-occupied with things “American”, if it wasn’t for us backward south of the border types he wouldn’t have anything to write about. If I am catching the drift Americans are the problem of the world consuming and wasting all this and that. But I have to ask are Canadians all that much different? Seriously I have spent quite a bit of time in Canada and except for some more liberal social policies and accents there isn’t a nickels worth of difference (especially if compared against the PNW) between living in Canada and living in the US. Having traveled all over the world I can say that we are more alike than we would like to think we are. The “we” are those likely to be reading this, internet connected.The modern lifestyle full of convieniences and personal transportation, television is the same in Tokyo as it is in Johanesburg as it is in Ottawa as it is in Atlanta. I’ve seen trash compactors in Seoul kitchens, dish washers in Beirut. A global culture of consumption. We all go to the fridge to make a snack as we watch the game. The snack may be different as the game will be, but it isn’t all that different. We are not living as Bushmen or Aboriginies. Most people in the United States tend to identify with their communities the farther away from home one gets the less we identify with it. Our shared national “culture” is our national politics, Some of our best humorists make a living lampooning the “Administration” and we laugh whole heartedly at the foolishness regardless of party affiliation. For some of us if we didn’t laugh we would cry. You know what I have seen this same trend in other countries. Oregano’s west of the Cascades are known as Webfeet. We joke about ourselves all the time (we don’t get old, we rust! We are the original wool socks and Birkenstock crowd). The Seattle arts fair is known as the “Bumbershoot”. We poke fun at Seattlites and Seattle refuses to acknowlege that provincial Portland exists, I mean we don’t have a baseball team or a football team. I would think that as human beings we laugh at many of the same things. Slapstick is funny most places in the world, the high brought low, the sexual dynamic, national traits (regional traits), word play many things make human beings laugh.The author of the article has a point of view, rather myopic if you ask me. But I guess I don’t have a sense of humour to go with my nations lack of a singular identifiable culture <smile>

  21. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip: I was determined to let this thread drop, but you’ve provoked me into one more comment. The reason I talk so much about the US is partly that what happens there affects Canada more than what happens here. The election of Kucinich instead of Bush would have a HUGE impact on Canada, far more than anything we could do internally. Although Canada, for now at least, has a much more sensible federal government than the US, I have railed often about Canadian sins (animal rights, urban sprawl, clear-cutting etc.) and when it comes to the environment, signing Kyoto is the only positive thing we’ve done in a century. I’ve also written an article about Why I Love Americans recently. I care deeply about what happens in America, and not just because of proximity, but because I consider myself a citizen of the world, a world in great trouble. You make some good points about American humour. I think you’re right that at a micro, subcultural level Americans CAN and DO laugh at themselves. But I still see a difference in the way Canadians laugh at ourselves as a people, in a gentle, self-deprecating way — our NATIONAL wishy-washiness, inferiority complex, apologetic politeness, toques etc. That may well be because we’re a SMALL multicultural nation, where the US is a LARGE multicultural nation, and the differences result entirely from scale.

  22. Bruce Hughes says:

    Opus is in the Sunday Express-News in San Antonio, Texas.

  23. Philip says:

    All I can say is most people find what they look for. It’s the nature of the beast. When someone says Americans can’t laugh at themselves They have never watched Dave Letterman or Jay Leno that IS America laughing at itself. We make jokes about our sports, ugly American tourists, national obesity, how about the commercial where the new car owner drives 10 feet to fetch chips for his party? That lampoons our preference for driving where we could/should walk. America is one big f*cking joke, and we know it. We are partying like there is no tomorrow. Just wait until the bill comes due and there are no adults with deeppockets to pick up the pieces.You see what you look for. All Canadians do not wear Toques, a great number of them wear Stetsons (at least they did in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta and when it gets cold enough they opt for something like this. But if you want to make that a national symbol OK. I’ll accept that the SUV (which millions of Americans don’t drive) is our national symbol. If you don’t think we joke about SUV’s then your not paying attention. We are now looking for a sporty tank to one up the neighbors.As for joking about America’s ham fisted foreign policy Where does a 800 lb Gorilla sleep… dude anywhere he wants to! bwahahaha… Do you think Americans ARE their foreign policy (or lack of it?) No of course not, you most likely are like me, you blame the idiot neo-cons who are temporarily in charge. The possibility of Kucinich becoming president is NIL. Dave if you are such a student of our country you would know that. Bush didn’t win the election but almost half of the people who voted, voted for him! The country is divided. I don’t know why but it is. The masters of deception have kept the proles from uniting by tweaking hot button issues. A far left Dem isn’t getting in to the Whitehouse short of another depression like the 30’s. You can afford to support a looser because he represents your political philosophy mostly. Thats OK it is what primaries are all aboot. But you can’t vote and you can’t give money to a candidate. So I see it as a moral support issue. You would have voted for Nader given half the chance. But then again you live in Canada which currently has a decent Federal government. Decent as defined by you. Has Canada passed a higher fuel mileage requirement? Nope not that I have heard but then again neither has Japan or Mexico or Germany or Korea or Sweden or Italy or France. All of these countries could build cars that get 150 miles to a gallon of gas if they wanted to, if they had to. But that isn’t being done in ANY country. There are a hundred things that can and should be done in every country but they are NOT being done it isn’t just America. We are the world leader because no one else wants the damned job. If you ask me it is a lousy job being responsible for everyone else.

  24. Maggie says:

    I found my way over here after catching up on Althaea O., RLP & Fried Green Al-QaedasShhhhhhh | Opus —>http://www.waxy.org/archive/2003/11/24/new_opus.shtml

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