Once Again, Whose Culture?

Follow-up posts are like newspaper corrections: only a tiny percent of the people who saw the original error will ever notice the correction. Nevertheless, the conversation following that post along with Stan Hieronymus' comments convince me there's another juicy bite to be had from this apple.

I erred in using Zoiglhaus as the point of reference for a more general point I wanted to make. The Zoigl tradition is unusual in that it is a vestige of traditional culture rather than a style. I don't actually have a strong opinion about whether an American brewery should use the name--but am pretty amenable to the argument that because of its special status, care should be taken.

My bigger point was really to argue that Europeans consider American culture on its own terms. If we're using an example, let's return to the other one I did mention in that post--when people born in the United States refer to themselves as "Irish" (or "Swedish" or "German" etc). This surely sounds odd to the ear of someone actually from Ireland or Sweden or Germany, and Irishman John Duffy comments:

Like with my Irish-American interlocutor above, there doesn't seem to be any ability or willingness to hear themselves from the other person's point of view; that empathy is a risk to be avoided. It's like the correct perspective for an American to have is an American perspective and that's all that matters. You could understand it if we didn't live in a world which is much smaller than it was 25 years ago, where we have instant real-time access to each other's cultures and viewpoints. The viewpoint you're defending just seems a bit manifest-destinyish to me. It's not that it's offensive, or that anyone is offended, but it does look like poor manners.

I will defend to the death John's right for this to seem like poor manners. But I do think it's a an incomplete view of what's actually happening. It's the Irish view. But an American does not have, like John, a sole national identity. To demand that we use this lens of national birth is itself a cultural position, one that fails to recognize the actual cultural context of 300 million people living in a place to which their ancestors all immigrated from somewhere else.

When an American says "I'm Irish," it has nothing to do with Ireland. It's an American telling you something about his own identity. That's how we think. Should we think otherwise? That's not really a question that any culture can adequately respond to. Should the Spanish eat dinner earlier? Should Indians have a shorter sense of time? Should Canadians hunt less?

This plays itself out in manifold ways in the United States. Almost nothing that is a part of American culture--the language, religions, art, music, government, cuisine--came from this place. Asking us to mind our manners is a way of asking us to defer to the European definition of identity. And my big point here is just to point that out. It is a European mental model. When we "appropriate" things, very often it is an expression of our identity, not a slight to other cultures. Our parents or grandparents came from a place and we claim that piece of heritage as our own. When Europeans ask us not to use fixtures of "their" culture, I think they forget that it's part of ours, too.

Sometimes that means we do awkward things that offend people and sometimes--many times--we engage in cultural theft (though this is hardly the sole province of Americans). No apologies for any of that. But if we only use the culture of the offended group to adjudicate what we do, we leave out the important element of America's own cultural context, of our ancestors, of our strange, pieced-together shared history. This is a view not often stated nor much understood in Europe, and so as an American I wanted to make it explicit.

Jeff AlworthBeer Culture