Politica: Travels with Oriana

John Steinbeck in his Travels with Charlie & A mural in Carthage, MS, photo by Oriana Schwindt

No, I haven’t forgotten about updating my perception and presentations about the USA, but I have been feeling increasingly inadequate for the task, given that I have only spent a couple of weeks there in the last 10 years. Like too many expats, since last elections I have been addicted to the newscasts, almost as if they were the soap operas that my mother and her girlfriends used to watch afternoon in the afternoon.

Today I ran across this post, “I Went to All 50 States to Find America’s Heart: I found something else instead” by Oriana Schwindt. In it she begins to recount what is a young woman’s experience of traversing the USA. Like John Steinbeck’s road trip from Maine to California with his poodle some sixty years ago, found in Travels with Charlie, her story is both rich in humor and skepticism. I will be following what Schwindt has to say, although it seems a bit dismal at the outset, I’d like to do hit the road myself if I could get my expired driving license renewed.

When looking at my previous work on the USA, what is most obvious to me now is how Donald Trump pretty much articulates to a T, all of the USA core values that we interculturalists have previously identified as “characteristically US American”. This reminds me of two things.

First, the classical maxim, corruptio optimi pessima, a line from my high school Latin class, which translates as “the corruption of the best is the worst of all”. We honor our values, because we claim that they are integral to ourselves. They make us upright and whole. We also love our values because they provide utilitarian formulae that can be applied in many ways to get us what we want. While we have carefully taught ourselves and others always to assume positive intent on the part of those who speech and actions are different from our norms, cultural dynamics themselves are neither good nor bad, but quite neutral. Thus, their outcomes depend on how we interpret and use them, and for what purpose, one context at a time.

There are crooks and cons in every culture (and in each one of us?), and they are usually most convincing when they come costumed as cultural intermediaries, advertising their propositions in the language and imagery solidly resident, consciously and unconsciously, in their targeted audiences. Uncritically and too easily. we assume that the seller's intentions are aligned with ours as we place our trust in the echoes of familiar rhetoric.

Secondly, it's an historical fact that civilizations and their cultures have dwindled and died of starvation when their fields were never allowed to lie fellow from time to time, and, there was no crop rotation to keep the soil from exhaustion. Diversity is the salvation of both agriculture and human culture. There could be no better warning for the USA, whose rich human diversity has yielded magnificent harvests, while at the same time powerful efforts are continually made to homogenize it. Our pride-and-joy values can be deadly weapons when “single-story” interpretations are dogmatically proclaimed. We need to both tell and listen to the stories that see values from multiple perspectives. Brava to Oriana and others as they make adventurous forays into our everyday realities.

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