One explanation quickly attended the news of gross American misconduct in Iraq. When our personnel were caught abusing and humiliating Arabs in Saddam Hussein's former torture prison, Abu Ghraib, the facts and photographic evidence
disgusted millions. It especially appalled Arabs and Muslims around the world who already suspected us of massive insensitivity, ignorance, and arrogance. It also shocked many good Americans who wanted to believe that only an isolated few could do this – only an aberrant few young G.I.s so gleefully posed with their naked prisoners.
Let's for a moment go along with the innocent hopes and say this fiasco did not come from any chain of command. While officers at and above Abu Ghraib may yet be proven guilty of neglect or criminality, the
fact remains that we Americans all get tarred together. We have a collective cultural insensitivity issue as gauntlet before us.
It's an old issue: we good guys believing
ourselves above and beyond Old World ways. Stephen Spender wrote a classic book, Love-Hate Relations, on these New World hopes. Recounting conflicted issues in American imaginations as diverse as Emerson, Twain, Pound, Hemingway, Henry James, James Agee, and Edith Wharton, Spender's book acknowledges, yes, we're different. We're often
superior militarily and technologically – yet we can still stumble into the world's oldest idiocies.
Is this some inevitability of human nature? It might be, but imagine if American
culture in fact differed in another way from those of previous history. Imagine if some Americans had a sensitivity to others that enabled them – us – actually to walk in others' shoes, to see through others' eyes. Imagine if we could quote others, refer to them, and so locate ourselves accurately in relation to them – accurately, subtly,
brilliantly, wisely. This gift has been given us – less through our writers, more through our musicians.
Our writers – Spender was right – deserve some credit for flexing democracy, but
look how much more our musicians have crossed boundaries, bridged gaps, and defied convention, orthodoxy, and stereotype. Look how they've modeled imaginations more open, skills more able to reach and relate to "others." Remember how: Black slaves put African work songs into the context of white European puritan and Calvinist hymnals –
Scotch-Irish folk tunes melded with frontier gospel harmonies –Texas swing riffed off from Cajun traditions of accordion, banjo, and harmonica – Irish railroad chants grew up from Stephen Foster and other minstrel ditties – Delta blues picked up from English ballad narratives – jazz veered off from the neat brass arrangements of German and
Czech bandstands – Dixieland, then ragtime, then Broadway show tunes and Tin Pan Alley segued off from all the previous – folk music revival set in – and rock'n'roll arrived in its glories before morphing into rockabilly, heavy metal, rap, grunge, hip hop – an unabashed intercourse long cognizant of best debts to nearby cultures.
In contrast, look at our official culture – our schools. Look especially where teachers think they are teaching tolerance, or diversity, or multicultural understanding. Even then you'll virtually never see them do anything remotely similar to what our musicians have long done.
You'll virtually never see teachers – much less students – locating themselves and their issues in terms of "others." Our schools cannot teach other cultures because, whatever varying content comes into any curriculum, our schools teach everything from within the dynamics of one repetitiously similar culture. Neither teachers nor
students see themselves as inhabiting any particular culture – because all operate under the guise of objectivity, or all operate in specialization conceits – even "creative writing" isolated from most all other departments. All learn forms of systemization. All accrue facts, methods, and hierarchies in a continuous ethics of
information consumerism. This culture may enable students to deliver opinions – to flaunt "themselves" – but they seldom locate even their most privileged and elevated "selves" as performances from within institutional and commercial culture. Thus teachers and administrators love their incremental and modular systems where everything adds
up. They love testing that measures acquisition levels. Like our shopping malls, like our advertising ethics and larger corporate culture, our schools wantonly, promiscuously, and firmly serve any and all promises of elevation and closure.
Essaying Differences says our official culture – our schools – could well listen to the dynamics in our traditions of musical borrowing, imaginative indebtedness, and cultural inter-relatedness. Students could learn to assert themselves in relation to
could well connect to other cultures as if they, too, inhabited something as rich, contradictory, and problematic.
The guards, military police, contract interrogators, and National Guard
military intelligence personnel at Abu Ghraib had learned from our prevailing commercial culture to abort their abilities to see "others." They could imagine no "other" cultural depths, resonance, or humanity among those they abused and humiliated. They could only see the Arab men they stripped naked as their own sexual jokes. Whether or not
by tacit or direct command from higher-ups, the Americans at Abu Ghraib reduced everybody around them – themselves included – to farce. Our schools have a major role in this imaginative impoverishment. They reduce all when they but mirror the commercial culture around us all.
Essaying Differences notes that our musicians learned a literacy for a very different humanity. To some good degrees our film makers have learned related arts
of crediting, quoting, and incorporating others. Our clothing designers, chefs, architects, and many others, too, have expanded cultural literacies, We can take a lesson from the current international disgrace we have exhibited, and look again to the arts where we can admit and connect more of our cultures.