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From Sea to Shining Sea

From Sea to Shining Sea

I’ve long been pushing the Big Tent Theory of pop culture, that America ought to be all-encompassing when it comes to culture, that diversity is our strength. There’s plenty of evidence around to demonstrate this theory: rock’n’roll is a melding of musical cultures, the bagel, pizza and the burrito, are the products of different food cultures.

But you see people arguing against the diversity that underlies our pop culture’s ability to absorb ideas and create new trends. The immigration bill that recently went down in flames is one example of a fairly high-minded version of this discussion. There are many arguments that can be made about immigrants: economics, security, health. But one source of anxiety for those trying to control immigration is people coming in from another country, speaking another language, wearing strange clothing, listening to weird music, the funny-smelling food…Listen carefully and you’ll hear the often unspoken logic at work:

If they absolutely must come here, they need to get with the program, speak the language, go to McDonald’s, wear a T-shirt from the Gap. And quite frankly, that goes for that black kid over there. What’s with the crazy hair and the loud music and the sagging jeans? And can’t they speak proper English?

And while it comes as no shock that critics will periodically decry some aspect of popular culture, I also find it a little off. I consider pop culture to be an integral part of the environment in which we live, like the ocean we swim through every day. You might run across some garbage now and then, but I doubt you see many fish complaining about the water.

We live in a cultural ocean. We’re swimming in a sea of Mexican food, dreadlocks, sushi bars, hip-hop slang, mehndi tattoos, and manga. It’s all around us, influencing us, in agreement or opposition, whether we like it or not. And sometimes, the criticism comes from odd quarters. It was a bit like fish complaining that one drop of water is more annoying than another.

This past week I heard the liberal Harry Shearer (of The Simpsons and Spinal Tap fame) on his radio program Le Show read a story about how rap sales are down and closed with the comment, “So, it’s not all bad news.” And I also read the conservative John Derbyshire in the National Review explain this week how he doesn’t watch television and is “TV-challenged” (A tip for John: when you use Bruce Jay Friedman stories and John Cheever novels from the Sixties to back you up, you’re already showing how out of touch you are). Such remarks are common, all over the political landscape.

We celebrated Independence Day here in the U.S. this week, the birth of our nation. Many are taking stock of the Big Picture of America. I’ll put my two cents in: We should give thanks every day for the petri dish of American pop culture. We are a big strong nation that can absorb anything that comes in and figure out a way to make it work. We are many faces, many religions, many foods, many awkward dances at family weddings. It’s what makes us the diverse nation that we are and I think it’s part of what will carry us forward into the future.

When you’re caught in a riptide, they tell you not to fight the current. You’ve got to swim with the water to survive.