Cultural themes in US society and their deadly consequences

White flags on the National Mall representing deaths from COVID

In the US in recent weeks there has been a disturbing milestone – over 1 million deaths from COVID-19 – and several tragic events, i.e., mass shootings in New York and Texas. Although quite different in nature, these developments, I believe, highlight central cultural themes in contemporary America related to individual freedom of choice and to attitudes towards authorities, particularly as represented in science and the government. The events are disturbing and tragic but also worrisome in that the power of these cultural themes appears to be growing, with potentially catastrophic future impacts on public health and safety.

A recent article in the NY Times highlighted the fact that Australia’s Covid death rate has been one-tenth of that in the US. The article points to a “lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.” That trust, present in Australia, absent in the US, was “fundamental in getting people to change their behavior for the common good to combat Covid, by reducing their movements, wearing masks and getting vaccinated”. While Australians followed community rules, sharing a mutual concern for others (“mateship”), many Americans insisted on their personal freedom not to wear a mask or to get vaccinated. For many in the US that individual freedom of choice trumped all other factors, including social responsibility.

That obsession with personal freedom to act, despite potential dangers to others, is a cultural theme that carries over to gun ownership in the US. There is strong evidence that the widespread lack of restrictions on owning firearms of all types, including military-style assault weapons, leads to more and more gun deaths, including suicides. Efforts at the federal level to institute restrictions have failed repeatedly over the years. At the recent convention of the NRA (National Rifle Association), NRA leaders and attendees responding to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, were, according to an article in the Texas Tribune, “unified in their belief that the shooter’s access to guns was not to blame”. Instead they pointed to cultural issues:

They attributed this attack and others to a broader breakdown in society wrought by the removal of God from public schools, the decline of two-parent households, a perceived leniency toward criminals, social media and an increase in mental illness. They described feeling ostracized for their beliefs, and not just those on guns. For their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For their objections to gay people serving as teachers. For their belief in disciplining children through spanking.

Instead of restricting sales of guns, NRA adherents focused on cultural issues and “framed any attempt at curtailing gun rights as chipping away at their freedoms”. But just like refusing to be vaccinated puts others at risk, the insistence on the absolute freedom to own guns makes them so widely available that it seems inevitable that public safety is at risk, as the raft of mass shootings has shown.

Folk Music Blendings

guWe all know that one of the best ways to connect across cultures is through music. Its power to connect and blend cultures is second perhaps only to food. A recent piece on NPR about the Australian singer Gurrumul has led me to reflect on other musical blendings I have encountered recently. Listening to the music of Gurrumul at first gives you the impression that it could be North American folk music. In fact, it’s clear that his work is within a universal folk tradition. But he rarely sings in English. Mostly he sings in the indigenous language of his people, the Yolngu, of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It’s not just the language that’s distinctive. He sings about the everyday life of the Yolngu. He has written, for example, wonderful songs extoling the orange footed scrubfoul (a strange bird indigenous to the region – see clip below) or about the rainbow python, who in the Yolugu mythology created the world. One of his rare songs in English is “Gurrumul History (I was born blind)” in which talks about himself and his family and about his experiences as a blind man, including traveling to New York City.

Another amazing blend of styles, cultures, and languages is represented by the music of Abigail Washburn, an American claw hammer banjo player and song writer. As she explains in a TED talk, she originated wanted to study law in China, but decided instead to pursue a career in music. She has spent a considerable amount of time in China and sings in both English and Mandarin. Shortly after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Washburn and Dave Liang of the electronic group The Shanghai Restoration Project, went to Sichuan and created Afterquake an album to raise awareness and funds. She recently created a theatrical work entitled Post-American Girl in which she explores her connections to China and to different types of folk music. She also has created a shadow puppet version of her song “Ballad of Treason” with puppeteers from the ancient Muslim quarter of Xi’an:

A final blending is the music of Bostonian Shannon Heaton, who plays Irish style flute, sings, and composes. She also sings in Thai, having studied abroad in Thailand. She does an amazing job combining Irish traditional music and Thai folk styles in a rendition of the Thai song Lao Dueng Duen (By the Light of the Full Moon):

How to insult: Shoe or Vegemite?

vegemiteTo express unhappiness with a public figure, such as a President or Prime Minister, one of the non-verbal methods sometimes used is to throw something at that person.  In 2008 an Iraqi journalist hurled both his shoes, one after another, at President Bush, in protest against the Iraq War. In many cultures, showing the sole of one’s shoe is an insult, as is throwing a shoe.  There is a long list of shoeing incidents listed by Wikipedia, mostly directed at politicians in the Middle East and India. This week it was Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who was attacked, but not by a shoe – by a Vegemite sandwich. It was thrown at her by a school child as she was visiting a school. It’s hard to tell if there was anything symbolic in choosing a sandwich – most likely it was just what was at hand.  Gillard is deeply unpopular at the moment in Australia and the sandwich toss may be a reflection of that fact.

What’s Vegemite?  If you’re Australian you wouldn’t need to ask.  It’s as popular there as peanut butter is in the U.S. or Nutella (a chocolate nut spread) is in Germany.  Like those foods, it is a sandwich spread, made from yeast (a by-product of beer brewing) and vegetable paste. Generally, I think of food as a great way to ease intercultural communication, but in the case of Vegemite, unless you ate it as a child, you are not likely to be a fan, as the video clip below between President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard illustrates:

Speaking of food, there was a wonderful article this week in the Guardian on how much an average family spends on food per week, with great pictures – amazing range of cost and volume of food consumed.

Dingo and Baby

Recent news report from Austrialia that a coroner 32 years after the event rules that in fact the dingo did take the baby.  This is the famous case of Azaria Chamberlain, the baby who in 1980 was reported by her partents to have been snatched away by a dingo, the oldest known member of the dog family.  There was disbelief at the time that a dingo was capable of carring off a baby and the parents were suspected of either killing their child or letting her die from neglect.  The mother was convicted of murder in large part due to her body language after the event.  She did not show the kind of grief expected to have been generated by the loss of her only child.  On object lesson in the importance of non-verbal communication.  It’s not Meryl Streep’s greatest moment in film, but the her representation of the mother in court in the 1988 movie, A Cry in the Dark, demonstrates the problem.