The Nacirema are a large and diverse group of people who live south of Canada and north of Mexico (spell the tribal name backward in case you haven’t figured out who they are). In the mid-20th century, Horace Miner wrote a clever parody about the culture of this tribe. The nickname continues to have some currency among anthropologists and their students. It’s a clever way to get Americans to think of their culture as a culture: contextualized, changing and not at all natural.
Because the Nacirema are such a large and diverse population, I ask students in my introductory cultural anthropology class to avoid referring to Americans as a whole. Because of the many and deep differences across regions, urban/rural, class, age groups, genders, ethnicity and more, I ask that any mention of Americans be preceded by several adjectives.
I have long held to a belief that the only thing all Americans share is knowing what crayons smell like. I have learned much, therefore, from reading Cracked Bell by Tristram Riley-Smith, and I may have to acknowledge that all Americans share an attraction to the concept of freedom.
Riley-Smith is English. He earned his doctorate in cultural anthropology at Cambridge University and did his fieldwork in Nepal. In 2002, he moved to Washington, D.C., working in the British Embassy. Over the next few years, he cast his anthropological gaze on America, taking the pervasive value of freedom as his focal point.
His book provides deep insights for those who wish to understand the United States. In seven chapters, he explores the theme of freedom in America from different angles, all wide angles that allow space for Riley-Smith to draw on his very deep well of knowledge about my country. He knows far, far more about my country than I do — a citizen steeped in its history from childhood and nurtured on its popular culture. I stand in awe of the range of Riley-Smith’s data: historic documents, movies, one-on-one interviews with Americans throughout the land and much, much more.
Chapter one tackles the question of identity. Riley-Smith raises the question of how can and does a sense of identity as American exist out of so much difference? He discusses how the education system shapes a shared sense of identity, as well as “rituals” such as summer camp and mass devotion to sport teams. Yet freedom and opportunity cannot and do not successfully bridge the deep divisions of race and ethnicity and the dispossession of American Indians and the poor in general.
Riley-Smith goes on to tackle six more big issues, bringing to each of them startlingly original insights. Chapter two examines consumerism, with Riley-Smith taking us down the corridors of excess and into the aisles of Walmart where the freedom to consume in fact shackles us all. Other chapters address religion, innovation, the wilderness, war and peace and law.
Riley-Smith isn’t as naive as Mork, who came to America from another planet to learn about our customs, but his observations are just as crisp and memorable. This is not a book you can whiz through in a few hours. I had to stop frequently, put it down, and think. It’s worth the effort.