We American seem to be a funny lot; I am finding this out more and more as I talk to people from around the world. On of the characteristics of our culture is our obsession with all things faddish. We love our fads and hold little to no loyalty to any particular aspect of culture. As we are a nation of immigrants and have no lasting history compared to other nations and societies this perceived inadequacy becomes more apparent. If we take a peek into our short history there are many instances of our obsession with fads. The real problem is we never stick to, or incorporate a fad into our national identity; instead we constantly shift our attention to the next latest and greatest thing out. We are a nation of innovators; our history is full of advances, discoveries, and inventions we have brought onto the world stage.
We are a nation of people with short attention spans, impatient expectations, and unwillingness to stay the course on anything. Those are harsh words, I can hear you say… well they are… true, sad but true. What is a culture? A culture is a group of norms within a society that have distinct characteristics that make them stand out. These include, but are not limited to, language, food, theology, taboos, and ideals. This will be the focus of my observation into our obsession with fads. By looking into each facet of the definition of a culture I have laid out, you see we have not stuck to any one point when a newer one has emerged.
Let us look at language. We adopted the language of our founding culture, English. Yet we were not content to keep it the way it was. We added different meanings to some words, invented a few others, and finally developed a unique slang that is constantly evolving and mutating to suit the current fad we are emulating. 30 years ago if something was new and fresh it was cool or hip, 20 years ago it was rad or awesome, 10 years ago it was fly or dope, today it is sweet or slamming. Youth counter-culture will always have its own slang, but our society is so obsessed we bleed this into our normal everyday language. We do not keep the same expletives or associations to words and there meanings, which make learning the language very difficult…even for those who grew up speaking it. I am not stating we have a stale and stagnant language, but rather keep the rules for the basic language the same and have this be the standard used as the standard before we run into problems where we are speaking the same language, but can not communicate with each other.
Food, the best part of any culture! American’s diets change about as fast as our clothes. Not only what we eat, but also how we eat and how we try not to eat. I suppose not having traditional dishes more then a couple of generations can be blamed for this, or the desire to have everything instantly and not willing to take the time to actually cook anything anymore. This is not so much a society problem as it is a science problem. As soon as a scientific study is published we flock to its findings, and the government does the same. Ear liver it has iron, we need more iron. Don’t eat liver it has too much fat and cholesterol. Eat oatmeal it cures cancer. Don’t eat oatmeal it contains too much starch. Cut carbohydrates form your diet they make you fat. Eat more carbs our body needs them to digest meats and proteins. Eat all fruits, vegetables, fiber, fats, snacks… We have so many diets no wonder a recent study found 2 in 3 adults in this country are fat and only getting worse. Our obsessions with diets and food fads have lead to no discipline or foundation for healthy eating habits. With new crazes hitting the market every 2 years we seem to not stay on any one long enough to see real results. Go to any nutritional doctor and they will tell you a healthy, modest portioned diet coupled with moderated continuous exercise it the only way to take off weight and keep it off, yet we never listen, fads are more interesting and make you hip, cool, in the know, slamming… fat!
Theology is a sore spot for most of us Americans. We love to be loved, and hate to be hated. Basic fact about religions, they all have an ‘us and them’ message; a group to emulate and a group to shun. There is no politically correct religion. In our obsession with tolerance and inclusion we have created an agnostic society where we cannot even agree to disagree. Our founding fathers were from a time where governments and religions ran hand in hand and they did not like it, so they created a separation clause in our government. Yet we always elect devout people to positions of power. We do not allow persecution or people for their wacky beliefs, yet we ridicule them in our services. The faddish part of our belief system is we are not satisfied with a concrete basis for it. We modify and alter a religion to make it more accessible, easier to follow, easier to understand, easier to live with, easier to live within. Religion is not supposed to be easy, it is a discipline, a training of the mind to follow a set of principles that goes against our nature to achieve an understanding of our place and purpose in a world we cannot control. We create sects and branches of religions and cults to keep up with our fast paced and ever changing belief system and level of acceptance. If we stop to think about it, God has only changed his mind two or three times, and just because a meteor hasn’t slammed into our planet killing 75% of us doesn’t mean he approves of our changing of the old rules into something easier to follow.
One of the best parts of a culture are its views on taboo, the things that are considered to be bad, wrong, or against the norm. In our faddish society the level and severity of taboo is as solid as a pool of quick sand. There are too many to list, but this I will point out. Our fads fly into the face of our taboos and challenge them, sometimes in very disturbing and wrong ways. We all can agree seeing children as sexual objects is just plain wrong… unless you work for Madison Avenue ad agencies. Kelvin Kline proved this a decade ago with its revealing clothing and perfume ads featuring juvenile looking models. We can agree women are to be respected and treated as equals, yet they wear clothes with names across the rear ends drawing attention to the one area they seem to not want people to stare at. We value respect and dignity, yet all the faddish art in our culture assault good taste with music lyrics never covering these themes, television shows celebrating decadence, comedies spewing disrespect. Our fads seem to skirt around the edges of out taboos, is this to challenge the validity of them, reinforce them, or evolve them into something different? I do not know, but some things need to be scared and some feared, we seem to lack a consistency in many areas, including this one.
Americans pride themselves as being idealistic. We hear constant themes of high morale fortitude and character in most of our national rhetoric, yet here too we allow fads to keep the message from staying consistent. Our key ideals are truth, justice, equality, and personal freedom of choice, yet we tend seem to add and subtract subsets of these main points constantly. Politics is the arena where ideals are hammered out and tested, yet is has fallen victim to the hot button topics of the day. When a faddish political issue surfaces it hijacks the entire process until it is played out and then we return to normal, until the next fad comes along. Ideals are tied to values, and here lies the problem… our values are constantly shifting. As outlined above we value on thing for a while and then shift to value another. One year its youth culture we value, the next its the senior culture. We value hard work and devotion, then the seasons change and we value liberal views on many things. If our values are changing with the fads, then our ideals will be changing and we are left looking like we are sitting on the fence.
I am a realistic person, I know the pendulum of change is swinging and our culture, along with all other cultures, are in a constant state of change… but the difference is our base is in fads, while theirs is in history and tradition. From the decadence and excess of the 1920’s, to the prudishness of the 1930’s, to the isolation of the 1940’s and the idealistic and involvement of the 1950’s and the turmoil and change of the 1960’s to today our only history is that of change. This is not bad, but it does lead to problems. We are a nation with a growing identity crisis. We feel challenged to prove ourselves to the world again and again. We are not satisfied with our own image and have very little to look back on and cling to. Maybe this is the reason we infuse our culture with so many fads it make you dizzy to think about it. It seems we have a culture that is paranoid schizophrenic coupled with an identity crisis.
How do I fare when put to my own test? Well, I had long hair in the 70’s it was in fashion. I had long hair in the 80’s it was cool then. I had short hair in the 90’s… was in the military but would have if I could have had long hair. I have long hair now. This seems to be a constant I seldom deviate from. Clothing, well if jeans and t-shirts are faddish, I have been following the trend for 20 years now, good fashion is never out of style. My taste in foods, well I seem to follow my taste buds more then fads here, I have been eating Latino, Asian, and traditional Native American foods since I have been introduced to them, all at a very young age. I have fallen for the video games thing, but not to the degree most have (I play few games, and not too often). I have finally gotten into fantasy football… 6 years after its instant popularity. My TV and movie tastes have remained the same since junior high, preferring hour long dramas and mysteries to sitcoms and ‘fluffy’ programs and westerns and epic movies to feel good films and teen angst films. Does this make me a boring and dated person so resistant to change I live in a bygone era all by my self? No, I just follow my own beat, always have and always will. I stick with thing that are tried and true. I try new things out all the time, if they work and are worth keeping I will adapt, if they aren’t I toss them. I do not let fads dictate where and when I should go or do anything. I understand fads are mostly flash in the pan ideas any way. Never but the first type of anything… let them work the bugs out first and refine the process to be more efficient and valuable. It is a pragmatic and realistic approach. If I am going to change something, it will be for good real reasons, not because all my neighbors and friends are doing it.
Here are a few things to thing about. America led the world in public transportation prior to WWII, now we lead the world in automobile emissions. America led the world in innovations in the 1950’s and 60’s, now we lead the world in buying innovations from other nations. America led the world in human rights and social equality, now we are accused of infringing on both by many other nations. America led the world in democracy and personal freedoms, now India is the world largest democracy and China’s personal freedoms are being expanded upon every year. It seems we like to point the way, but never stay the course once a new issue is spotted on the horizon. If fads can be a value or an ideal… then this is most likely going to be our legacy to the world in another two hundred years. Most of the nations and societies we interact with are at lease five hundred years old, we are only two hundred, as the cliché goes… time will tell.