What is the world's best-known country? Most people around the world these days would reply: the United States of America. Variously known as the U.S., U.S.A., the States or simply America, this is the most heavily populated country of North America, although Canada to the north, which has fewer people than Poland, is far bigger territorially. Second question: who, or what, is an American? Read on and you'll find out.
Thanks to the media, Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry - as well as the Internet - more an more American-flavored information, images and lifestyles are beamed across the globe. But do you really know what America is all about? Not too long ago CBOS (or one of the other polling organizations) asked Poles whose blood would they prefer to get if they had to have a transfusion. The greatest number of respondents said they would prefer blood from an American. Most of those who gave such an answer were probably thinking of people like Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, Michelle Pfeiffer or Tom Cruise without realizing that these are actually a part of a vanishing breed. It is estimated that by the middle of the 21st century (when most of our readers will be OAPs) Americans of European ancestry will be outnumbered by Afro-Americans, Hispanics, Arabs and Asians. But the stereotype of the white European-rooted American is likely to continue for some time. People of that background have long exerted great influence on the country's political scene, business world and cultural life. That will probably continue even after Euro-Americans are outnumbered, although minority groups are expected to play an increasing role in all fields of endeavor.
America the Beautiful
"America the Beautiful" is the name of what might be called the third national anthem of the United States. The official anthem is "The Star Spangled Banner". The second, "My Country 'tis of Thee", is sung to the melody of Britain's "God Save the Queen" with different words. The words of "America the Beautiful" (at least its first stanza) go as follows:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain.
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
It might sound like a lot of idealistic ranting, but in many ways those words reveal what America is all about. It is about wide-open spaces, unlike the congested cities and over-farmed countryside of the Old World. It is about natural beauty the likes of which Europeans had never imagined. And it is about people working together side by side as brothers without bloody upheavals such as the French or Russian Revolutions. Well, OK, there was the small matter of that American Civil War.
Land of violence?
Many Europeans are appalled by American gun laws, which allow almost everyone to own firearms. Nobody knows for sure, but some people estimate there is at least one gun for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Guns are one of the country's most controversial issues. Those that favor them (conservatives, the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry) say it is an American's God-given right to bear arms, as guaranteed in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Opponents say that is an anachronism, however, since the law goes back to times when people had to defend themselves and their families against outlaws, bears and Indians.
Many people in Europe and view the U.S. as a land of violence. That view is partially true - there are probably more gunshot deaths in the United States than in any other civilized country in the world. But these image is greatly over-exploited by the producers of Hollywood's action movies, who try to cash in on spectacular shoot-outs and filmogenic pyrotechnical displays.
The other America
Today's news media and entertainment industry believe that sensation sells, so they tend to sensationalize violence, danger and drastic situations. Educators and parents often complain that the "media and show business hyenas" concentrate on the underbelly of society and repeatedly overemphasize the gangsters, drug dealers, prostitutes, pickpockets, hitmen and slum-dwellers who are typical only of
certain neighborhoods of America's biggest cities.
Much of today's America comprises clean and safe suburban areas, small and medium-sized towns, rural areas and other places where ordinary people mind their own business and live fairly normal lives without encountering the horrors and fireworks we constantly see on TV. They try to deal with their normal everyday issues such as their jobs, their kids, making ends meet, summer holidays, health concerns and so on.
Land of drivers
America's huge distances along with its automotive ingenuity have made the country a land of motorists. Despite parking problems, most Americans prefer to drive to work, and suburban America has been completely designed around the motorcar. In newer residential areas there are no pavements, because nobody walks. Kids ride bikes and grown-ups drive, even if their destination is only 100 yards away. In fact, I know people who back their cars down the driveway to check their post even though the postbox is a mere 20-30 yards from their house.
It is not uncommon to see as many cars parked outside a house as there are members of the family over 16. That is the age required to apply for a driving license.
America is the home of the drive-in movie, the drive-in restaurant (these were the first fast-food places), drive-by banking and even - believe it or not - drive-by funeral parlors. You drive up, pay your last respects to the deceased displayed behind a large window, sign the memorial book and drive away.
A huge number of pop-culture fads, fashions and crazes have come from America. These have included jeans, the yo-yo, the hula-hoop and Barbie dolls, as well as many of today's Internet-related innovations. Cheap raw materials, diverse and imaginative human resources - and a lack of the various constraints typical of the Old World - are probably among the reasons. "Anything goes" is a popular American saying. Another is "the sky's the limit".
Americans are probably such a fad-prone people because of the relatively short history of their country, which celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976. Older cultures have their traditions to fall back on, but newer societies are more rootless and restless, and always seem to be searching for something new. Americans are also known for a certain inborn optimism, reflected by their "can-do" mentality, their friendly smiles and cheery greeting: "Have a nice day!"
Religion and voluntarism
The bias of much of today's Hollywood establishment creates a misleading view of religion in America. Usually anyone extremely religious is shown in movies as an intolerant fanatic, hypocrite or villain. In reality, things are somewhat different.
The majority of Americans are Christians, who practice their religion to a far greater extent than most Europeans do. (Poland and Ireland are exceptions). In addition to some 60 million Catholics and twice that number of Protestants, there are six million Jews and at least that many Moslems. American churches are also social and cultural centers that regularly hold bingo, parish festivals, picnics, shows, bazaars and other fund- raising activities.
One of the effects of religion is the large number of Americans engaged in various forms of volunteer activity. Teenagers, working people and OAPs often help in nursing homes and hospitals, assist the handicapped and engage in similar such activities not for pay, but for the mere satisfaction of helping someone in need. Many financially support various charitable causes.
Melting pot or salad bowl?
America was once called a melting pot. That sociological theory of assimilation meant that people of many different nations were to be thrown into a crucible and melted down into something completely new: the American. Officials, teachers, employers and others pressured immigrants to shed their Old Country ways, speak only English and even Americanize their names.
Since the 1970s, an ethnic renaissance has been taking place. Cultural pluralism has become more pronounced and, rather than a melting pot, America has been compared to a salad-bowl. Salads comprise many different ingredients, but they do not lose their shape or identity. A cucumber remains a cucumber; a radish remains a radish and so on.
Under this new approach, people have been encouraged to take an interest in their ancestral roots and explore their cultural heritage. Today's America is a combination of both these trends: assimilation and ethnicity. Some people are more inclined towards one, others tend towards the opposite extreme and still others try to strike a happy medium between the two.
Mixing progress and tradition
Both progress and tradition, then, are typically American phenomena. Many of the world's inventions and technological advances have come from America. Americans are always looking for better, quicker, more efficient and economical ways of doing things. Hence the constant flow of new labor-saving devices and gadgets of every kind.
At the same time, some things never change. Kids are taught the metric system at school, but who in his right mind would actually want to use it? It's quite probable that well into the 21st century Americans will continue saying how much they weigh in pounds, drinking 12-ounce bottles of Coke, commuting 30 miles to work and complaining when the temperature plunges to 10°F. in winter or soars to 102°F. in summer.
If the voter's right to choose is the measure of true democracy, then America probably has more of it than most other countries (although the confusion of the recent presidential elections put a question mark over this). In Poland, for instance, the voivod (provincial government) is little more than a political appointee and representative of the central Warsaw-based government. In America, the people of a given state elect their governor, his deputy and other members of his cabinet. Judges, sheriffs, mayors, town clerks, even bailiffs and other minor officials are also popularly elected.
Local referenda are held in many places to determine if citizens favor increasing school taxes. The citizens of some towns have expressed their disapproval of businesses (liquor shops, bars, restaurants, etc.) that sell intoxicants by voting to have their town declared "dry". Anyone wanting an alcoholic drink must go to a neighboring community that is "wet".
Cool and casual, and occasionally crude!
America's loose and easy lifestyles have at times shocked Old World visitors, because in general Americans like to go casual. That applies to dress, habits and general attitude. "Drop over" and "Come as you are" are typical American invitations. In warm weather, you can probably expect cold drinks and grilled food off the backyard barbecue.
Americans do not like titles and prefer greeting an acquaintance with "Hi, Tom" rather than "Good morning, Mr. Halsted". They munch fast food whilst walking down the street, and kids chew gum in class - something that drives many teachers up the wall. Many Americans do not have good table manners and push the last bit of food onto their fork with their thumb. To a European, in many situations they may seem awkward and lacking in social graces.
Everything can be true or false
All of the above and much, much more is true. It is also false. Due to its diversified climate, geography and human resources, examples can easily be found to prove or disprove anything anyone says about America. What about you? What are your main sources of information about the USA? Do you think your knowledge is accurate? Hopefully this article has told you a few things you hadn't known before. But, even more importantly, we hope it will encourage you to search for additional information about what is certainly one of the world's most interesting and unusual countries. Good luck in your pursuit!
by Rob Strybel