Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Joining Another Group


I've decided to become a Philistine. The urge came upon me quite suddenly, sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant yesterday, as several thoughts and recent experiences coalesced in a sort of Aha moment.

It started with the politically incorrect observation that the fork is objectively a more useful utensil than chopsticks. The fork is more versatile as an eating utensil, and at least as useful as a weapon. The fork is also much more useful on its own than is one chopstick; and while two forks would work as well for lifting food as do two chopsticks, a single fork, in conjunction with a single knife, adds a dimension to eating that two chopsticks simply cannot approach.

Millions -- nay, billions -- of people do quite nicely with chopsticks, but this isn't really an argument in their favour. Chopstick users in situ make their way with bowls held up directly under their chins, so the food can be shoveled into the mouth with little opportunity for droppage or splashage; which is fine where that is the cultural norm. But here in America, where the traditions are rooted in Europe, and where we consider it rude to shovel food in that way, chopsticks are really more for showing off than eating. You can eat pho with chopsticks if you don't have to carry those slippery noodles very far from the broth. You cannot gracefully eat it, though, with chopsticks while sitting in an upright position with your bowl on the table in front of you. Noodles will drop back into the broth, they will splash, and you will make a mess. So Westerners in Asian restaurants who insist on eating with chopsticks are really just showing off the fact that they have learned a not-too-difficult skill not indigenous to their own culture. 

This thought conjoined with the observation that almost everyone I know with any pretensions toward intellectual accomplishment either has, or pretends to have, a deep interest in spiritual aspects of exotic cultures. Native Americans philosophies are fashionable throughout the western US and Canada; pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, or at least a cartoon version of them, are revered in the part of the country where I live; and superficial south-Asian and east-Asian cultural familiarity has long been de rigeur throughout the country, the more so now that China and India are becoming economic powers in the Western tradition. Maybe knowing a smattering about Confucianism or Buddhism makes their rise seem less threatening. 

I don't have any real problem with people knowing things about how non-Europeans look at the world. And certainly people who are themselves creatures of those non-European cultures are to be expected to know something about them, just as my mother knew something of the Italian culture she grew up in, and just as I know (and care) much less about it. It would be strange if a person whose parent came over from China knew nothing about how the Man On The (Beijing*) Street looks at the world, even if that person can't really articulate a difference between that worldview and, say, Roman imperialism. Exotic spiritual perceptions -- exotic, at least, to my Eurocentric-American world -- can tell us something, if only by comparison, about ourselves, and given a certain critical cultural mass, such as is present in south Texas vis-a-vis the Mesoamerican outlook, can even become a part of the American outlook. American culture, after all, though called a melting pot, is really more a chunky soup than a fondue, and if you put enough cilantro in, the overall flavour will be changed.

This isn't a bad thing. My gripe is with people who feel the need to force a change based on some perception that the exotic cultural outlook is somehow superior to our own. I always think of a woman who was part of a group of law students I went to Mexico with years ago: a middle-aged woman who vociferously and unrelentingly acquainted all within earshot with her belief in the innate superiority indigenous Mexican culture has over whatever version of American culture she grew up with. I am pleased to say I did not tell her to shut the fuck up, the whole time we were in Mexico, though my Mexican friends wondered to me why she was so down on her own cultural heritage, intimating that it was either false, or condescending.

American culture, such as it is, is superior to every other culture. It is a melding, a merger, a combination of cultural attributes from hundreds and hundreds of cultures from around the world. It is better than any other because it has been infused with the best parts of almost every other culture on earth. With our initially north- and west- European heritage, our ancestors (well, not mine, specifically, because they weren't here then, but my adopted ancestors, the Founding-Father types) built political, economic and social systems that are currently the envy of the world, and in the centuries since the first Native American died of smallpox, those systems have been modified by the beliefs and mores of many, many others. When people come to America from India or Syria or Nigeria, they bring with them the culture they grew up with. They, and their children and grandchildren, hang on to those parts of that culture that are important to them, while discarding less important parts and adopting the ways of the people they now live amongst. They influence the greater culture, and the greater culture influences them. The cream, so to speak, rises to the top, and as a result we have, I assert, objectively the best of all worlds here in our uniquely American culture.

I've lately been reading a book called Empires and Barbarians, by Peter Heather. A well-written book, though, surprisingly, horribly, horribly edited, at least in the book club edition: misspellings, unexplained technical terms, poorly concealed seams where blocks of text have been moved about, repetitive segues, badly-conceived maps, and worst of all, references to plates that aren't included in the book. In it, Professor Heather examines cultural changes in the context of migration, especially in late Roman times. I'm inclined to accept his explanation of how such changes come about, even though I'm only halfway through the book, because I see it happening around me; but that's not why I bring him up. I mention this book because of something I read in it a few days ago, concerning the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England. (He probably wouldn't approve of the word "takeover" here, but I use it denotatively, not connotatively.) What he said, if I understand it correctly (and I think I do) is that the indigenous Roman Britons, upon sufficient contact with increasing numbers of Anglo-Saxons, became Anglo-Saxons themselves. They chose to identify themselves as part of that group. 

I think that is a remarkable thing, and one that I heartily endorse. I see people from all parts of the world choosing to make themselves American, and I applaud them for doing so, not least because of my belief that uprooting oneself and travelling to a strange and distant place is one of the most difficult things a person can do, and so those who do it are just the kind of people we should encourage to join our little group.

And in a perverted support of that concept, of self-determination (a perquisite of our European heritage), I have decided to join another cultural group myself. I have decided to become a Philistine, so that I don't have to pretend to appreciate all the humanist cultural gobbledygook that my fellow Americans inflict on me every day.

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