November 17, 2007

Uncultured Americans

Last night I had a cross-cultural moment, in my own home. Our dinner guests were what the Italians would call "left wing intellectuals" and artistic types. What often strikes me is how being cast in this role as an intellectual can blind from individual and critical thinking and cancel all curiosity. I hear the same old phrases about America and Americans repeated word for word, over and over again. They must all refer to the same, "How to Act Like an Intellectual" manual for the text. Although they have never actually talked to one, due to a lack of spoken English and a fear of integrating with the locals when visiting other Italian intellectuals living in the U.S., they have very clear ideas about who and what Americans are. In a word, uncultured, which for a left-wing Italian means not being well-versed in Italian (or European at best) culture. Tit for tat with Condolezza's firm belief that American values are universal.

Sigh. It is true. We are uncultured (in the Italian definition of cultured) and there is nothing we can do about it. It doesn't matter how many degrees and what level of knowledge, understanding and expertise we may achieve, even in a cultural field, we will never have that odor of intrinsic culture that Italian left wing intellectuals developed from their mother's milk. It is an in-group, out-group thing. We are out, by the very nature of being American. We have no history (only some odd hundreds of years, not thousands) and cannot, therefore, have a real sense of History (capital H). We do not have that culture gene in our DNA. A Fulbright scholar and internationally acclaimed expert in Medieval Italian studies, once confided her frustration at always having to defend the fact that it is indeed possible to study Italian history as a non-Italian and actually be really, really good at it, even the best! This is often received with a shaking of the head in sheer disbelief.

As usual, I listened, nodded and very diplomatically explained that, we do not receive the same bulk culture that Italians do because we have a different educational system that trains us to be forward looking, practical, pragmatic and productive, with critical thinking skills, clear, linear communications and project oriented thinking that serves our countries needs.

"Ah yes," Guilio replied, "you are not taught culture, only to be consumers and to produce," while puffing on his cigarette in our smoke-free home. Clearly not part of a left wing intellectual's ideology. In the meantime, he doesn't produce a new generation of wealth, but lives off the management of family properties.

Just a rant.

a domani,


Judith in Umbria said...

Self-proclaimed intellectuals? Or just ignorant?

I haven't, insofar as one can find out, run into this prejudice yet at least applied to me. When someone says, "But you are different" I say I am different from some Americans and like many others. What is different is that I have chosen to live here and to speak Italian, whereas many other differently-cultured Americans are still in the US or live in Paris, London, Moscow, etc.

I think it is true that there is a large swath of US citizenry who don't mind not knowing much about the world, but I can identify a swath of Italians just as uncaringly ignorant. I would include those visitors of yours who know nothing of US life, thought and perspective and remain unacquainted with US literature, music, philosophy ... fill in the list...and don't plan to correct their deficiency or even admit they have one.
Among my friends and neighbors are many who have no bookshelves, no stereo or even a radio for music, never go to plays or concerts, have never traveled and don't plan to. They all, however, have a TV and often leave it on through the famous Italian family (or even with guests) meals.
Further, I know Italians who are bad cooks, who dress poorly, can't sing, read nothing and believe that "Beautiful" is a correct portrayal of the United States.
Tell them to stuff it, I do.
Oh, and Italian intellectuals are in love with ponderously fancy language, too. I have fallen into a specialty of translating elaborately obscure Italian into decent and clear English.
Pretentious ignorance is just that anywhere you go. And maybe that zone includes me, but at least I'll admit it might.

Roam2Rome said...

Mmm, I cannot count how many times friends, acquaintances, other Italians repeated this same discourse to me, as well.

Though I must admit that this view is also shared by many Italians, and even Europeans, who would not consider themselves left wing intellectuals, too.

Kataroma said...

Wow - I would find it very hard to be diplomatic in a situation where my guests were being so un-diplomatic! To me, it doesn't sound very cultured to make broad negative generalisations about a host's culture. Doesn't "culture" imply having manners?

Just wondering, though, what do you mean by "cultured"? Maybe I don't know the right people, but I don't find Italians to be big readers in general (with exceptions of course) so as someone who has been reading all my life and grew up around readers I generally know a lot more about "cultural" subjects (literature, world history, art etc.) than they do. Maybe they can talk about literature but have they actually read the books they're talking about apart from at school?

Roam2Rome said...

I'm actually surprised others hadn't heard people say these sorts of things before...

Honestly, I heard this more from other Europeans than Italians.

Maybe I've heard it more because I'd join my European friends in gatherings where sometimes there were no Americans, and many did NOT know I was American, and were brutally honest in front of me... I dunno, but I've overheard several Europeans discuss this view often ...too often.

Anonymous said...

this man really rubs you the wrong way doesn't he?
I don't think it's just a matter of culture (or Culture), many left-wing intellectuals (the so called radical-chic) are anti-americans a priori.

jrmartin said...

Hmmm. I've spent a relatively sleepless night pondering the lack of intellectuals in the US. Not that there aren't any, but there aren't any I can actually name. Perhaps I am just becoming stupid with age. It happens.

I "caught sense" in the 60s and 70s, a time when Eric Hoffer used to be a regular on the Johnny Carson show, with Alan Watts the occasional visitor. Bertrand Russel had a show on the BBC. What now hear you?

On the other hand we have a whole television network here in the States devoted not only to faux news but to the exalted elevation of religious drones dedicated to the idea that God's KINGDOM on earth can be recreated with an elected official at the helm as long as the electronic voting machines are adequately programmed--intellectuals and freedom be damned. The kind of thinking that put man way before God used to be called blasphemy. Now what?

Perhaps it's just the muddled signals the US puts out for the world to receive; perhaps the US is loaded with intelligent folks who have given up the good life in favor of pondering philosophical conundrums while holed up in smoky joints with cockroaches waiting to unsqueeze themselves from behind the moldings and cheap beer on tap. Still, I can't seem to locate a single instance of these bohemian places on a map of San Francisco into which I can plunge the magic push-pin, and I live here.

Yes, I'm sure there are intellectuals here, just as I am sure there are Christians who have actually heard of the New Testament and adhere, if ever so slightly, to the doctrine of Christianity as expounded upon by Jesus (you know, the "love thine enemy, turn the other cheek" guy). It's just that the ones with the power have all congregated around selective misreadings of Leviticus with their bloody daggers in hand, becoming the unwitting nutrients in the American Petri dish teaming with the slimy and gelatinous goop of the Imperial new world order.

Yes, I'm sure I'm just stupid. So, therefore...I actually think the Italians are on to something. Perhaps you will be so kind to talk me out of this.

Anonymous said...

I began reading great books and bad books at an early and innocent less-self-conscious age more for the pleasure than to feel tall by making others feel small. I still read for the same reasons, and can't wait to put a book down and rush out to share my gained knowledge with anyone willing to engage in discussion with me, ANYONE. There are lots of people like me all over the globe. No big deal!

In any case, Larc, next time ask your (probably interesting) intellectual friends the meaning of all this knowledge. I think they will agree in the end that they are carrying around a lot of excess baggage. Typical of intellectuals.

Ain't no big deal!


Elizabeth Abbot said...

Well, I certainly got some reactions to this post!

Just to clarify, this is not about how much you read or how much you know, it is about having "culture genes" that come from having sprung from a culture that goes back thousands of years to brilliant writers, thinkers and philosophers, not a couple of hundred years to a bunch of cowboys and indians.

You don't "become" cultured by your force of will, you "are" innately cultured by means of being European.
At least in the eyes of left-wing intellectuals. I think Roam2Rome knows what I mean.

I guess what bugs me is that, in fondo, they just may be right.

hugs to all. E

Rob said...

Culture gene? Gotta love that one!

As with most things in life, if you have an interest in something it will eventually 'define' you if you work at it and allow that to happen.

People often tell me that my love of Italy and knowledge of that culture stems from the fact that I have Italian ancestry. I disagree. My love of the country is innate yes, because of the stories that I grew up with, but my knowledge of the country is entirely self taught, from reading, from visiting there, from speaking with like-minded individuals. There is no 'race memory' that bestows this knowledge on me, and I do not believe that there is a 'gene' or racial aptitude that makes one nationality more culturally aware than another.

That comes down to how each individual culture perceives its history, and how it transmits that to the next generation. It is a learned behaviour, not an inherited one...(if that makes sense).

Elizabeth Abbot said...

sorry, I put "culture gene" in quotes to emphasize that this is not a fact but an idea. Of course there are no culture genes and that we learn our culture from birth from our families, schools and society. But -- although it may not be rational to Americans -- Europeans generally do believe that outsiders cannot "achieve" European culture (in the American value system sense of working hard at it because you want it to happen and ultimately make it happen). They believe that there is a component of European culture that goes beyond book learning and wanting to achieve it that has to do with a State of Being European -- a kind of value added that you cannot have by virtue of wanting it and studying and working really really hard. You just have that special something (I guess a "sense" of history, in addition to the knowledge). does that make sense?
Will work on this from another angle in today's post.

Rob said...

That makes perfect sense Elizabeth.

We have the same thing about being African. Or South African. There is something indefinable that you either have or you don't. Some immigrants become South African within a few short years, others never seem to 'get it'.

It is hard for me to explain but it is there. It is such a dominant element of who we are that most South Africans can spot other South Africans in a crowd, no matter where in the world we are. Something in their 'houding' (their character, how they move in the world for want of a better description) gives them away. And it is common to all the races that call South Africa home, but only seems visible to their countrymen.

If that makes any sense at all pass go and collect $50...

Kataroma said...

Elizabeth - I think that you should say "upper class Europeans" rather than "Europeans" have this "culture gene" (or at least think they do.) Both my boyfriend and dad are Europeans of working class origin (boyfriend is the son of a Dutch crane driver and dad is the son of a Swedish village general store owner) and they and their families most certainly do not consider themselves "cultured" in any way and certainly not more cultured than I am as an American/Australian child of two academics. in fact, boyfriend had quite a laugh when he visited me in the US and some of my friends were going on about how "Europeans are so cultured."

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Rob, perfect sense! pass go and collect.
I recently had a conversation with an African-American here in Rome for many years. She never mistakes an African from an African-American on the streets of Rome, even at a glance.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Very interesting post. Many of my relatives think Americans are "uncultured" and they are from very small islands.

I was born and raised in America. Yet when I was in London, every black person I met asked me which island I was from.

I am looking forward to moving to Rome. To me it's a place where both backgrounds (American and Caribbean) feel at home.

David in the dolomites said...

Yes, I have heard that idea too many times. It is a sign of ignorance, the need to feel special (the same tribal/nationalistic drive that makes people take credit for the actions of their favorite sports team) and the in/out group mentality (clientelismo).

As others have pointed out, the majority of people in every country are provincial in thinking, and Italy is no exception. My visiting friends and family members often have a complex that they are not as cool and cultured as Europeans, but that is only because they have not met very many Europeans.

I work in a university so I am surrounded by "intellectuals"-- they can be divided into two groups: provincial/ignorant/threatened and open-minded/well-travelled. I have learned to quickly identify and ignore the first group and to cherish the opportunity to spend time with the latter.

Thanks for the enjoyable blog.