The United States of America [USA] is a complex country made up of people from every nation in the world, and without a unifying ethnic heritage nor shared extended history; though a relatively young nation established as such in 1776, the land’s indigenous people inhabited the region for well over 10,000 years.
European settlers crossed the Atlantic, beginning in the 16th century, to the eastern regions of what is today known as USA. Among competing would-be colonisers, England finally won out — and, after two centuries and by revolution, USA became an independent (and famously insular) nation. Agriculture, particularly tobacco and cotton, became the focus in the east; the western half of the region, or frontier, was settled by self-reliant pioneers, which, along with cattle-ranching, gave way to the ‘cowboy’ archetype. All of these factors led to the decimation of the native population and a slave trade of hundreds of thousands of African people, culminating in a civil war and a major disruption to social cohesion — issues largely unresolved to this day.
The “American Dream” represented by USA, arguably no longer viable, was rooted in this ‘pioneer’ or ‘settler’ mentality: immigration was encouraged, value placed on independence and self-sufficiency — with the inherent opportunity, through a strong work ethic, to reinvent oneself and achieve one’s goals. Today, the socioeconomic reality is dual-income households and multiple jobs, with an ever-widening income gap.
An estimated 90% of the indigenous people in what is today USA were either killed directly by early colonists or indirectly by imported diseases, their land and children stolen, and are few in number today as a result. Former slaves brought from Africa, and their descendants, were ultimately freed by law following a major civil war, though laws protecting against discrimination didn’t begin to appear until more than a century later, and inherent issues of racism remain largely unresolved. Reconstruction following the civil war was inadequate at best — with social cohesion never restored and increasing tribalism to this day.
USA is often referred to as a ‘gun culture‘ by the rest of the world, and gun ownership is constitutionally protected — a foreign concept to most other nations, based in the country’s revolutionary past and need for a militia. Highly controversial despite multiple and rapidly increasing rates of mass shootings, it corresponds to deeply rooted cultural underpinnings of independence, self-sufficiency, freedom, and a general distrust of authority; a history of several wars within US territory, and an overall militaristic trend; high crime and substance abuse rates as well as as well as recent terrorist attacks, leading to generalised insecurity; and, overall breakdown of social cohesion — which may have been unrealistic from the start, given the way that the nation was developed.
New York, one of the most diverse cities on the planet — due to the immigrant nature on which USA was built and NYC as the primary point-of-entry — may be thought of as a microcosm of US culture; when the country is culturally mapped, however, it stands alone as a separate cultural “island” for this very same reason of extreme diversity. It is home to the headquarters of United Nations, the concept for which was initiated by USA as a peace endeavour following WWII — but with which USA also has a very mixed relationship.
The ‘Hollywood Effect’ of USA is that, through internationally distributed film (as well as other media), unrealistic and romanticised imagery of the culture is often portrayed. USA has contributed greatly to the world in terms of arts, science, and similar pursuit and, as a culture based on independence and self-motivation, has encouraged innovation. The ‘American Dream’ of escaping hardship and reinventing oneself, of success and prosperity through a strong work ethic, gave many around the world a sense of hope. But in order to more accurately understand the culture, it is also necessary to get beyond the surface image — and look at its underpinnings.