Georgians are perhaps overly fond of mocking the United States of America for being a “young” nation. Georgians attribute a whole host of negative traits to this deficiency – our lack of respect for tradition, our liberal values, our loose morals, our unwholesome food, and our inability to speak proper English, among other things. Georgians clearly respect the United States for its strength and world influence, but I’m not clear on what else, if anything, Georgians might respect us for.
If I’m being totally honest, this irritates me to no end. My first impulse is always retaliatory, although I have so far managed to refrain from telling any Georgians that their nation is younger than I am, and that the maps I studied in Geography class didn’t have a country called “Georgia” – just a giant USSR. And if I were being cruel/brutally honest, I might even go so far as to point out that the political entity currently known as Georgia has never actually transferred power from one ruling regime to the next as a result of elections, and has not demonstrated an ability to maintain its own borders, and thus calling modern Georgia a sovereign democratic state is highly optimistic, at best – more a reflection of Georgian aspirations than of reality.
But of course two wrongs don’t make a right, and I don’t want to devolve into name calling, and anyway judging Georgia by the length of time it has been a sovereign polity in its most recent incarnation is completely unfair. But by the same logic, so is judging the United States that way.
Georgians are proud that their culture stretches back thousands of years. They point to regional dance, to Georgian foods, to Christianity, to the great Georgian writers and artists, to winemaking, and they make the very valid point that modern Georgia is enriched by Georgia’s past – by thousands of years of Georgia’s past, in some cases. Georgians are proud of being one of the first Christian nations, and of possibly occupying the land that was the birthplace of wine.
America, on the other hand, is a country that was colonized 400 years ago and founded just over 200 years ago. Georgians like to ask Americans what American culture is, or what things are uniquely American, and I for one am sometimes hard-pressed to answer, because so much of what I like about America is the fact that it is a melting pot, which is another way of saying that we just take what we want from other cultures and assimilate it and make it ours.
And that in itself is, I think, really cool and valuable. I think it’s cool that we reinvented pizza, and that New York pizza is significantly different from Italian pizza, and even that Chicago pizza is somewhat different from New York pizza. And you can come along and say, “well pizza is Italian,” but the thing that Italians call pizza and the thing that New Yorkers call pizza are different enough that you could make a strong argument that they are actually different foods.
Also, tomatoes are a new world plant. All of the tomato-based things that you think of as Italian food – all the marinara sauces and lasagnes and so on – those are all relatively modern recipes created after America began to be colonized. Think about that.
But I realized something else, while thinking about this, and arguing on facebook about whether US or UK culture is better – I realized that American heritage is, in a large sense, British heritage, which, in turn, is Western heritage.
I mean, when the colonists left England, they still thought of themselves as British. They named the colonies after British nobles. New York – and this is a little known fact – is named after York, which is an actual place in England as well as one of the names that the Duke of York was known by in the literary parlance. Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth (the connection isn’t obvious, but she was supposedly a virgin), Georgia after King George, New Jersey after Prince Jersey (just kidding).
More importantly, Americans grow up reading English literature. We study Shakespeare in school. We learn British history as part of American history. This makes sense because our Constitution would not exist without the Magna Carta. Our legal system is based on the British legal system, and our common law is based on British common law. We study Blackstone’s commentaries in classes that focus on the development of American law.
Basically the USA didn’t just spring up by itself four hundred years ago and start kicking ass and taking names and mangling the English language. It would be more accurate to say that the UK (late edit – actually this would be Great Britain; the UK wasn’t known as the UK until well after the US gained independence) split off into two branches – the US and the UK – and each branch went in a different direction. An Irish friend asked me why Americans call autumn “fall” – well it turns out that “fall” is the older term that was used in the whole English-speaking world before the US split off, and that the British and Irish picked up “autumn” in the meantime whereas the US stuck with “fall.” One could surmise that there are a lot of little cultural things like that – that US culture isn’t just a random set of recent inventions, but is actually a legitimate descendant of UK culture and that UK culture has changed just as much in the last 235 years as US culture has.
But I would go even further than that – America is not just an offshoot, even a coequal one, of British culture. You see, Americans see ourselves as the pinnacle of Western culture. This is arrogant, but not necessarily unjustified – when people nowadays talk about Western Imperialism, they’re mostly talking about American Imperialism, unless they’re talking about the historical impact of British or French imperialism. But the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish empires are over; the American empire, in the minds of many, is only just getting started. America, for better at the worst, is definitely at the top of the heap. For the time being.
Even further than that: Americans view ourselves as the vanguard of modern democracy, as the people destined to carry the ideals of the Republic of Rome to all corners of the earth. In a sense that’s why we harbor fondness for the UK, and let them ride our coattails in world politics and speak of a “special relationship” – we know that our democracy owes a lot to theirs, but we also feel that we got there first (especially since they still have a monarch – what’s with that?). In a sense that’s why the French are our natural foils – they’re allies in that they’re democratic, but the French model is different from the American model in a number of interesting ways that are too intricate to get into here but lead to a sort of mutual disdain. But more importantly, that’s why Americans see ourselves as the inheritors of ancient wisdom – as the natural and ordained heirs to classical thought, to Greek and Roman understanding of science and art and culture. When we study world history in school, we study a very Eurocentric version of world history – it tends to begin with a brief mention of ancient Egypt, then go straight to Greece and Rome, gloss over the Dark Ages, and then pick up again with the Crusades. We rarely mention that the Crusades sort of woke Europe up because we invaded people who were way smarter than us – which is to say, the Muslim world.
And I say “we” because even though I wasn’t there, it’s so ingrained in the American psyche that these events in Europe are part of *our* history that it’s very difficult for me to think of the Crusaders as others. Americans learn a Eurocentric version of history that ends with Europe’s greatest achievement of all: giving birth to the United States of America.
So the American version of American history – American heritage – is this: We came out of Africa, dicked around in the Old World for a few thousand years, and then finally decided that that was bull shit and sailed across the ocean to found the greatest fucking country ever to grace the face of the Earth. And here we are today, a shining beacon of democracy, the end.
And this is something that we never really think about or question – and in fact, most people in America completely ignore their history lessons anyway and have no fucking idea that any of what I just said happened, but for those of us who actually listened in class, we basically just had to accept the narrative arc of American heritage. And it’s found in philosophy, in politics, law, history, geography, math, science – Americans have a way of very blithely assuming that any achievement made anywhere in the Western world was done for our benefit and carried to our country by our ancestors because the countries they came from were inferior.
In the Cold War we used to talk of “Brain Drain” – the idea that all of the USSR’s best scientists would always want to come to America because we were so clearly a better place to live and work, and that Communism would fall because America was so awesome that we literally leached other countries of their talent until they collapsed. It turns out that this term was coined to describe European flight to America after WWII. So you see, we even have a narrative explaining why we actually deserve all of the ideas that we appropriate from other countries – we won them fair and square, just by being better.
So if you’ve ever wondered about where American arrogance comes from, this is it. Everything we learn in school is sort of geared towards it. I don’t even think it’s intentional, in most cases – I just think that everyone wants to paint their country in the best light possible, and when you’re the most militarily and culturally dominant nation in the world, that light is blindingly bright. Blinding – a word I pick because it’s a double-edged sword. Pride goeth before the fall.
Still, I don’t think that Americans have less of a sense of history than Georgians or other people who happen to have occupied the same physical location longer than Americans have. I think Americans, if you really press them, would say that America builds on the achievements of successive societies, from ancient Greece to modern Europe, and that we really are the heirs to the Republic of Rome, the Magna Carta, and every other Western achievement that culminated in our founding.
But to me, what makes America really great is that we are a nation of immigrants. I don’t look at the history of Germany, Slovenia, Italy, or Puerto Rico – the places where my grandparents or great-grandparents were born – as more mine than that of America. In fact, by immigrating to America, they chose to adopt American heritage as their own. They brought their languages, their foods, their religions, and other traditions with them, but they decided that they and their children would be a part of a new kind of nation – an elective nation – a nation that they belonged to not because of where they were born but because of what they chose to do with their lives. They took their destiny, and their history, into their own hands.
So to me, if Americans are iconoclasts, if our values are liberal and our view of tradition is dim, it’s just because we happen to be a self-selected group of people descended from those who chose what traditions to follow, who chose to uproot their lives in search of something better. The history of America and its people, to me, is a constant inspiration to try to make something – anything – better.
And really, these are views of American culture that tend to be deeply ingrained, but that you might not ever think about until you leave the country for a significant period of time and see where other cultures get their pride from. America’s comes from our view of ourselves as the heir to, and pinnacle of, all European achievement, ever. Georgia’s comes from occupying a piece of land for a really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really long time.
I also want to take a moment to just point out that the idea that traditions can be ancient is illusory. If you’ve ever played a game of Telephone, this should be abundantly clear. I like to talk about how things like pizza and marinara sauce – things that are considered quintessentially Italian by most people – antedate Columbus’ voyage to the New World. I make the same observation about ghomi, a Mingrelian staple food made from cornmeal. Now, sure, ghomi might have been made from something other than maize flour before maize made its way to the Caucasus, but the point remains: we have no way of knowing how things tasted before we were born; we can only guess. We have no way of knowing what language sounded like before voice recorders, or what dancing looked like before photographs; we can only rely on descriptions. Interpretations of our religious, legal, moral, and philosophical texts change from generation to generation, in turn yielding interpretations of those interpretations, until the modern version is so far away from the text that the original people who produced the text would not recognize the modern interpretation at all.
Traditions are reborn with every instantiation. Traditions are a game of telephone that can never come back around to the first person to whisper in someone’s ear. So that’s why I find it hard to view Georgia’s traditions as somehow more legitimate, valid, worthwhile, or even ancient than American traditions, which is in turn why I find it preposterous that Georgia is somehow more rooted in history than America.
Well, this post ran long. A few things I want to mention: one, Georgians don’t tend to know where words in their language come from; two, the first semi-historical event to happen in Georgia is the visit of the Argonauts. Medea came from Colchis, or prehistoric Georgia, and ended up poisoning a princess and murdering her two children before summoning her dark goddess and escaping in a heavenly chariot. Georgians don’t make a tradition of any of this stuff, and with good reason, but it just goes to show: having a connection to the history of a piece of land has ups and downs. Third and last, Christianity came to Georgia less than two thousand years ago, so does that mean that Georgians inherently have less history than Jews, whose religious heritage goes back over five thousand years?
Things to consider.