American Culture Is Just Swell, but It's a Work in Progress

By Richard Cohen Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 27, 1994 | Go to article overview

American Culture Is Just Swell, but It's a Work in Progress


Richard Cohen Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The Lake County, Fla., school board, complying with a state directive, agreed to teach multiculturalism - but with a twist: that no matter what, American culture is "superior to other foreign or historic cultures." With that, the phone rang off the hook at school board headquarters. The news media, an indisputably superior element of American culture, knows a good story when it sees one.

The head of the school board, a woman with a charming Southern accent, had to defend herself in countless interviews. If American culture is not superior, Pat Hart asked, why are so many people who live elsewhere trying to live here? Not a bad question, actually.

But there are other questions, as well. One is: What is meant by culture? The school board cited "our republican form of government, capitalism, a free-enterprise system, patriotism, strong family values, freedom of religion and other basic values." Trouble is, most of those elements can also be found elsewhere, and some of them - family values, for instance - are reputed to be on the wane in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Still, with reservations galore, I happen to agree with Hart. I, too, think American culture is just swell, maybe even superior to all others. That does not mean that I cannot find worthy cultures elsewhere or aspects of American culture - its violence, for instance - with which I could easily do without. To that, I might add rap music, the grunge look, Muzak and Newt Gingrich. Still, it's not enough to emigrate.

Having declared my love for American culture, I confess to not knowing exactly what it is. It is this thing, concocted by blacks and whites, Asians and Native Americans, Christians and Jews and, increasingly, adherents of Eastern religions, as well. It is more white than it is black, still basically Christian, but in certain industries and places (show biz, for instance) a little bit of Yiddish wouldn't hurt. American culture may well come down to this: In Washington, an erstwhile African-American rib joint is run by Koreans.

Still, I think I know what the Lake County school board was trying to do. It was rebelling against the proposition that all cultures are equal. …

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