What Is American Culture?

Yesterday my son and I were flicking through television channels and we hit a stand-up comic from India who was trying to make a joke about “American culture” or the “lack” thereof. In his routine he was defending the Americans as “actually having culture” to his father, who could not see beyond hotdogs.

The audience wasn’t laughing and Buster felt badly for the guy. “They’re not laughing,” he said.

“No,” I answered… “he’s got an audience of white Americans sitting there earnestly asking themselves, ‘wait…what IS our culture?’”

Buster thought for a second and said, “well, outside of Jazz and baseball…hotdogs…barbeque…what is our culture?”

Later that evening, I was watching a Terfel concert and the orchestra was playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, and I turned to Buster and said, “American culture is this: we hear Ride of the Valkyries and think, “Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da Wabbit!”

And there is nothing wrong with that! Chuck Jones’ brilliant Wagnerian parody, What’s Opera, Doc? is a splendid example of American culture, as is his other “what-fresh-existential-hell-is-this” masterpiece, Duck Amuck, wherein Daffy Duck finds himself and his ego at the mercy of an unseen illustrator, who is a real “stinker.”

I haven’t seen these cartoons in years, and I’ve been enjoying watching them for this post. They display a quintessentially American proclivity, which is to dress down the fuss-budgets, and stick a pin into the inflated head. It is an utterly American trick to take something “great,” like opera, and to play with it – to treat classicalism to an affectionate (and humorous) tweaking with the knowing wink that we are being ridiculous and extraneous and a little naughty. It is quite an American thing, to take an Ayn Randian sort of question and ponder it under the persona of a pretty buoyant (to a point) Daffy Duck, taking it to extreme conclusions one might never reach without – ahem – some sort of medical/herbal assistance.

And, it’s simply having fun for fun’s sake.

Before politically correct cartoons became the order of the day, our children were exposed to The Barber of Seville as explained by Bugs and Elmer, Rossini’s music splendidly choreographed with flowering hair tonic, sassy clippers, a preening, cross-dressing senorita, hatchets, guns, swords and cannons.

“Welcome to my shop, let me cut your mop…yyyyyyyes, you’re next, youuuu’re so next!”

Okay, so I’m a sucker for cartoons…I can’t stand what the humorless prudes and nanny-staters have done to them. In fact, when asked to name the 20 folks screwing up America – they were #1 on my incomplete list:

Whoever decided that Saturday morning cartoons should be used to “educate children” to “be nice” to each other, and that Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, if shown at all, could not be shown being shot, blown-up, erased, squeezed into tiny spaces, sent flying from a cannon, played like violins, dropped into glasses of water, blown to smithereens by Martians, unfeathered unto nakedness, or tricked into playing “Believe Me If All (Those Endearing Young Charms)” correctly on the piano, thus being sent to heaven wherein they wear halos and pluck on tiny harps. They can, however, be shown in drag. Whole generations are growing up being thought of as too delicate to watch cartoon characters being shaped into musical instruments, and they’ve lost exposure to thinking outside the box.

Actually…what our kids are losing is exposure to the concept that “anything you can imagine, you can do.” That all thoughts and feelings – even the kind of fresh and audacious ones – are okay to have. They’ve been denied permission to think in ways beyond the proscribed platitudes of “tolerance.” And they haven’t been allowed to simply think like human beings who occasionally get fed up with each other, and to work it out in their imaginations rather than sitting and stewing in online echo chambers full of seething resentment.

Of course, the online echo chambers are also quintessentially American. “Let’s find people who think like we do and spew invective at anyone else…”

Hmmmm…maybe the hyperpartisanship and drastically divided blogosphere is a direct result of our kids (and ourselves) being denied the opportunity to work out our frustrations in silly and fun, ultimately good-natured ways…like cartoons.

Bugs took down every pretentious elitist by mocking them, he jeered at Hitler. Daffy Duck’s pretensions and greed made us look at ourselves with both critical understanding and shrugging self-forgiveness. Watching him grasp and splatter his way through life, we could be a little more generous with each other – we recognized a human condition.

American culture has always been – up until pretty recently – a culture that could laugh at itself, even as it took on heavy responsibilities. From the earliest revolutionaries – from Ben Franklin on – we’ve been able to look at the world and ourselves and dream big but with a wink to keep egos in check. Thus, the man who wrote: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in the world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” was also the man who wrote: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” without fear of losing his face.

Chesterton said: “…solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

Americans have always had that lightness, and perhaps that’s why it has been easy for some to misjudge American backbone or resiliency, or resolve.

Maybe the war on terror would be going better – or we’d be more unified in our vision – if Bugs were, today, allowed to put on a dentist’s smock and implant a few sticks of dynamite into Osama bin Laden’s mouth? Or if he could walk up to a John Kerry and smack a hat over his head and down to his knees? If he could go hunting with Dick Cheney?

“Ohhhh Bwunhillllde, youwe so wuvwy…”

“Yes, I know it…I can’t help it…”

“Ohh Bwnhilde, beee my wuuuuv!”

Only Americans would seriously analyze What’s Opera, Doc? Only an American would write an exhaustive (and wonderful) analysis of a cartoon baseball game, starring Baseball Bugs.

Perhaps American culture is suffering because she is no longer allowed elegant and clever satire unless it is laced with a poisonous and snide irony. Human beings like Jack Cafferty and Keith Olbermann can combust on the air like punctured cans of hairspray, but Bugs and Daffy and Elmer aren’t allowed to shoot Saddam, or make fun of Ted Kennedy, or Ann Coulter, or Kos.

That’s a damn shame, too. Maybe next election, we could have a referendum on loosening the strictures put upon a great American medium, and we’ll all learn to share a chuckle, once in a while.


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