My Grand Unifying Theory of American Culture

note: yes I’m aware that the pomposity of this post’s title suggests my grandstanding is verging on self-parody.

That said, I do think it’s a neat little theory.

PS: no offense to my Canadian and British peeps out there.

America is often characterized as a nation of immigrants.  Some say immigration is precisely what gives America its unique dynamic and success.  Of course, this is raises an implicit question on the value of the descendants of immigrants – do their contributions diminish over time, so that after 4 or 5 generations that dynamism has entirely diluted out?  Can that essential character be renewed or merely replaced through a fresh influx of immigrants?  If so, doesn’t that make America just a massive Ponzi scheme?

A corollary observation about America is that in each generation there is an impulse to restrict immigration on the next wave of immigrants.  Liberals in particular decry proponents of such policy with such labels as short-sighted, unenlightened, bigots, hypocrites, reactionaries, etc.  Crucially, they see the impulse as a function of traits that would go away if only these folks were better educated or more virtuous.

I think we’re looking at it wrong.  Immigration, though closely correlated to what truly lies at the heart of the dynamic, is incidental and fails to explain the aforementioned anomalies.

Close, But No Cigarro

I believe America is, above all, a nation of translators.

Now I don’t mean just linguistic translation – though of course that’s a component of it – but more importantly cultural translation.  I can’t speak Korean worth a damn, but my ability to translate between the underlying mindsets of Korea and America is the story of this blog.

And you don’t have to look as far as the border to see cultural translation in action.

Consider The Great Gatsby, the story of a noveau riche Midwesterner desperate to translate his wealth into acceptance among the rarefied old money set.  Jay Gatz and Nick Carraway weren’t the first and won’t be the last country bumpkins struggling to learn the language of the big city.

And whereas Gatsby was merely a character, literature itself often serves as a form of translation.  The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass served to translate the abstract concept of slavery into terms northern abolitionists into a concrete evil, kindling the moral outrage that fueled the Civil War.

And just as a single volume can have multiple translations, so can the same content be treated in multiple ways.  Consider Philip Roth, one of the greatest and influential American writers of our era.  His Portnoy’s Complaint and The Plot Against America portray the same childhood experience growing up Jewish in the suburbs of New Jersey during World War II with nearly identical content but strikingly different tone (comedic neurosis versus dark paranoia).

The medium is not limited to literature, but all narrative art can serve to translate an abstract niche into a tangible experience accessible to the rest of the world.  The music of Bob Dylan made accessible the ideals of the hippies, The Godfather the world of organized crime, The Joy Luck Club the struggles of Asian women, The Wire complexities of urban decay.

But take the abstraction still one step further, and translation goes even beyond art or narrative.  Mark Zuckerberg translated the concept of one’s social circle into a software platform, giving us Facebook.  Ditto Google for research, Twitter for communication, and Amazon for shopping.

In my career in software, I quickly learned that my programming skills are on par with my peer group.  My greatest asset was the ability to bridge between my team (IT) and the one we supported (Ops).  We used different terms (or worse yet the same terms with different meanings), held assumptions, and pursued different goals.  I brought business value by translation between one business domain and another.

The Happy Medium

Translation obviously benefits the 2 endpoints being bridged by allowing them closer integration with one another.  But its real value is that it enriches the translator.  Translation is fundamentally an act of empathy, and that empathy – more than the individually bridged endpoints – is the glue that keeps a diverse society from pulling itself apart under its own internal contradictions.

That enrichment of the translator itself is the closest thing to an objective explanation why a diverse society is preferable to a homogeneous.  It’s still a kinda fluffy line of reasoning, but better than the way social liberals often baldly assert as a given that there is value in diversity.

And I’m not talking economic value – Adam Smith and utility curves, differentiation of skills, consumption preferences, etc – but of societal value.  Thomas Jefferson certainly didn’t list the value of diversity as a self-evident truth, so where’s the evidence?

From the perspective of one coming from a homogeneous society the value of diversity is in fact not apparent a priori.

Let’s assume translation does not enrich the translator.  Then diversity is twice inefficient: once for the discrete endpoints which are out of sync with one another, and again for the translator who could have been productively occupied otherwise.

This is the traditional Confucian view: better to have everyone on the same page so you don’t have to waste time flipping pages.

Only if you assume that the act of translation itself provides spillover benefits to the one performing the action that you see value that makes up for the opportunity cost of whatever they decided not to do instead.

Korea on the Brink?

Korea is starving for translators.  Thus far, their hiring frenzy can be accounted for by simple utilitarianism: as the economy grew, they had to do more business abroad, much of it in English.  I’m not yet sure whether they’ve caught onto the more ephemeral values of translation as detailed above.

The count of foreigners in Korea recently crossed one million, but nearly half are Chinese (and a third of those are ethnic Koreans), and that’s out of an overall population of over 50 million.  In a country so homogeneous if your perspective differs from the standard held by the locals, they not only have difficulty imagining your particular perspective, but they often push back against the suggestion that any other perspective could rationally exist.

This inability to imagine another’s perspective is the basis for my software project on the romanization of Hangul: Koreans can’t imagine someone struggling to learn the letters and pronunciation the way they did.  My software is premised on my being an outsider looking in (by the same token, I would struggle to write equivalent software for teaching English to Koreans).

OK Fine It’s Grand.  But is This Theory Unifying?

OK, so look take a step back and review the case for making translation the prism through which to view American culture.  How does this framework hold up against immigration, and does it address the anomalies raised above?

Well, for starters its clear that translation is a superset of immigration since every immigrant must perform some degree of cultural (if not linguistic, as with Brits and Aussies) translation.

But translation casts a significantly wider net too, encompassing not only culture but geography, lifestyle, arts, and technology.  And greater depth, too: Philip Roth’s multiple, contradictory accounts of growing up Jewish in Jersey doesn’t square with the singular nature of immigration.

Moreover, it resolves the question of inter-generational dilution.  If you focus on the “immigrant” characteristic then the dynamism can only decrease over time, whereas the ability to translate can not rise or fall across generations.  Or you can move laterally from your parents and translate along a completely different direction entirely.

Finally, it reconciles the tendencies of those older and fully assimilated to close off immigration from the new generation.  The immigrant narrative suggests that such attitudes are a function of vices (ignorance, hypocrisy) that are independent of immigration itself and can therefore be cured.

By contrast, let’s take the concept of translation to its final level of abstraction and look at the reactionary: they are the ones who successfully translated the world of yesterday into today.  Then their interests are diametrically opposed to the new generation of immigrants who might translate today into tomorrow.  They want to preserve the status quo lest their earlier works, knowledge, and expertise fade into obsolescence.

This is perhaps a somewhat more pessimistic conclusion – that reactionaries are an structural byproduct of dynamism itself, not an ill that can be eradicated like polio and illiteracy – but at the same time we have a framework for understanding it and therefore grappling it realistically.

And it coheres the entirety of immigration, dynamism, and conservatism into a single unified theory.

Grand, innit?

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2 Responses to My Grand Unifying Theory of American Culture

  1. susan chung says:

    What a beautiful description of the ” translation” of language as the translation of culture which can promote understanding among the different immigrants, different generations,different forms of arts and technologies! I like your point about the translator himself who will grow in personal maturity and happiness through the process of translation,
    The ability to translate in this meaningful way requires high degree of maturity and loving feelings to accept the all ” different ones” other than oneself; for example,young children tend to see ” anything different than mine” as bad. They will like the food only the ones they used to eat and will look down on people who eat ” other things”.Koreans have been so proud of the fact that they are ” all same blood nation”.
    After reading your blog, I realize how childish we have been by sticking to sameness as a pride
    because of their inability to accept the ” different blooded “.I believe the Japanese are the same way in this regard.I believe they treat Korean immigrants in their country as second class citizen just like Koreans treat Chinese or South Eastern laborers working in Korea in similar way. In that sense, America is a great country allowing the ” different people with different culture and value system

  2. susan chung says:

    continued from above;
    learn to translate each other resulting in the best synergistic results while enjoying the process of bravely breaking out of their trditional box. I think not too many people in Korea or America can understand your point about the value of translation, If I did not immigrate to America and have not lived with so diverse people outside Korea, I might still believe the ” supeority of one blood nation.”. As a child psychiatrist , I see the sad phenomena of children from “different blood”to be rejected and ended up being adopted away to all over the world.Fortunately, now many single women accept these ” fatherless children”as their own and raise them by themselves proudly instead of sending them away in shame.The society has been changing slowly ,but still did change. This, I believe, could have resulted from some brave young women translated their value system to the rest of Confucius dominated rigid folks.
    I am so impressed with your determination to do the translatory works between your ethnic Korean roots and acquired Western system.

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