Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Where is America?

As a foreign-raised American I am constantly perplexed by the different images of "What is America" that people propose and use as premises for heated debate. For instance, Rural America is that ideal where an overalled straw chewing farmer is sitting atop a John Deere tractor; Melting Pot America whose characteristic image is a black and white photo of a little Polish woman at Ellis Island; Hollywood America where good guys always win with glitz, glamour, and a good line (even if the 'good guys' are increasingly adulterous toadies); America the Brand Name where we are Starbucks and McDonalds; America the Fanatical where we are a crazed Red Sox/Raider/Lakers Nation; America the Chosen Land where a democratic republic and/or protestant Christianity and/or the Right to Self Determination are God's gift to the earth; and on and on. Which are we?

It is interesting to see the relationship between an American's core conception and how it informs political (as well as economic, religious, social, etc.) views: I live around a lot of Melting Pot Americans who believe America is about doing Yoga, lunch at PF Chang's, dancing at local Pow-Wow, sipping an afternoon cappuccino, attending public lecture on Post-Colonial Post-Structural interpretations of Melkite chronicles in Syriac and then heading to a local Taqueria with live Mariachi. These tend to unilaterally oppose the Rural-Americites on principle (I cannot count the number of times I have overheard comments dripping with hate about "Bush Country"). If you think "America" is really about being a multicultural melting pot of hip-ness, an area of racial hegemony (which of course means white folk) is simply not really American.

So, I was intrigued by an article in this week's Economist about Cerritos, CA (Los Angeles County):

... Such single mindedness [referencing a 96% approval of the state of City-run public services] is particularly striking given the city's diversity. In 1980 whites comprised more than half of the population. These days Asians do (and a very diverse lot they are, too -- see chart below). ... Yet the newcomers have not formed ghettos. The last census showed that whites and Asians were more intermixed in Cerritos than in all but 16 other American cities. Whites were even more mized up with blacks and Hispanics.

So, granted this is not by any means a perfect cross section of American races -- but overall (factoring issues other than race) its a pretty good representation of Suburban America; which is a lot of America. Does Suburbia have a popular culture image? If anything it is either malls and parking lots or inexplicable Columbine-violence and Rage-Against-the Machine disconnectedness. Peaceful, truly international, racial integration in a middle class suburban city; but it runs car dealerships and voted for George W. Bush; but it roots for the Dodgers.

Perhaps the fact that there is no easy stereotype for these, the-most-of-us, no easy free-throw to buy political capital, no defining image that captures the media life of this demographic, is proof of the fact that this is where the most of America is living, apparently unconcerned with its lack of profile, and probably laughing along with the Economist's ironic summation: "bland, car-oriented and suburban". America, know thyself.

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