I meant to blog this the first time it was on This American Life, and the repeat reminded me: Chuck Klosterman on how not to do cultural studies.
… the creators of “I Like America” had made one critical error: While they had not necessarily misunderstood the historical relationship between Americans and cowboy iconography, they totally misinterpreted its magnitude. With the possible exception of Jon Bon Jovi, I can’t think of any modern American who gives a shit about cowboys, even metaphorically. Dramatic op-ed writers are wont to criticize warhawk politicians by comparing them to John Wayne, but no one really believes that Hondo affects policy; it’s just a shorthand way to describe something we already understand. But European intellectuals use cowboy culture to understand American sociology, and that’s a specious relationship (even during moments when it almost makes sense). As it turns out, Germans care about cowboys way more than we do …
As I rode the train from Munich to Dresden to Hamburg, I started jotting down anything I noticed that could prompt me to project larger truths about Germany.
An abbreviated version is as follows:
1. The water here is less refreshing than American water.
2. Instead of laughing, people tend to say, “That is funny.”
3. Most of the rural fields are plowed catawampus.
4. Late-night German TV broadcasts an inordinate amount of Caucasian boxing.
5. No matter how much they drink, nobody here acts drunk.
6. Germans remain fixated on the divide between “high culture” and “low culture,” and the term “popular culture” is pejorative.
7. Heavy metal is still huge in this country. As proof, there’s astonishingly high interest in the most recent Paul Stanley solo record.
8. Prostitution is legal and prominent.
9. When addressing customers, waiters and waitresses sometimes hold their hands behind their backs, military style.
10. It’s normal to sit in the front seat of a taxi, even if you are the only passenger.
I suppose I could use these details to extrapolate various ideas about life in Germany. I suppose I could create allegorical value for many of these factoids, and some of my conclusions might prove true. But I am choosing not to do this. Because– now–I can’t help but recognize all the things Americans do that a) have no real significance, yet b) define the perception of our nature…
When I returned from my tour, many people asked me what Germany was like. I said I had no idea. “But weren’t you just there?” they inevitably asked. “Yes,” I told them. “I was just there. And I don’t know what it’s like at all.”