While I am in no way an anthropologist nor an anthropology student (even if I did take a couple of intro classes in grad school), I am fascinated by the concept of culture. I don’t know where it comes from and this is not the moment I am going to explore it, but I enjoy looking through the windows of others’ societies to see how they live their lives in ways that are both unique to them and common to so many of us. As I have been reading about America and exploring our history and culture on my podcast, I have come to appreciate our differences and similarities even more. Due to to our vastness, the nuance that you can find in our people is amazing.
Why, then, I often wonder, do we assign a monoculture to a group that’s not like us?
I know the answers to this question involve one’s ignorance, prejudices, or hate. It’s even to think of, say, Black Americans as acting or living a certain way when you’re a racist; it’s simple to assign characteristics or behaviors to Latinx people when you’re xenophobic; and when you don’t know much about another country, it’s easy to make assumptions based on what you see in the media. Thankfully, there is travel as a way to erase that ignorance, and if you don’t have the privilege or luxury to travel to France or Morocco or India or Japan or anywhere else, there are plenty of travelogues to read or shows to watch.
Sometimes, though, the monoculture is the result of politics, a way of seeing a supposed “enemy” in only one way so the government or a particular political party can gain or maintain power. That can be easily wrapped together with racism and xenophobia, as we have seen throughout our history when it comes to countries with predominantly non-white populations. In fact, we wrap entire continents into said views–I have lost count of the number people who act like Africa is a country or anyone who comes from a country south of the United States is a “Mexican.” But then there’s the Soviet Union.
I spent the better part of two years taking a look at how Americans viewed the Soviet Union during my Fallen Walls Open Curtains miniseries, and came across so much media that basically described the average Soviet citizen as a bloodthirsty commie zombie ready to destroy America on command. At least, that is, until Rocky Balboa defeated Ivan Drago … I mean, until the mid-1980s when Gorbachev came to power and enacted Perestroika and Glasnost. Then, the media turned toward building a bridge with the USSR. The Russians (never mind that there were multiple Soviet republics, they were all Russians) liked blue jeans and Coca-Cola and rock and roll just like us!
Of course, looking at the people of the Soviet Union through that lens is just as ignorant because you’re grafting your own cultural identity onto them and therefore dressing them up in your own monoculture. To truly remedy the ignorance we all had about the people of the Soviet Union, we would have had to actually go there and meet people from all over the place. But that wasn’t possible for the average American in the 1980s (and is still well out of reach these days). Thankfully, we got A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, a project conducted by 100 photojournalists on May 15, 1987.(more…)