Thursday, February 2, 2017

What is Culture, Anyway?

Mel Brooks' National Anthem:  "Let them all go to hell, except cave 76!"
There is a lot of talk about culture these days.  Fox News talks about "culture wars" and our European neighbors fret whether refugees can assimilate into their culture.   Of course, the answer is, they can and they can't.  When an immigrant population is assimilated into your culture, your culture changes, as does theirs.  And we have a lot of experience with this in the United States.

The fear is, of course, that if you let a lot of Muslims into the United States - or France, or Germany, or the UK, that they won't assimilate.   They will continue to speak their language and live in isolated communities.   They will put up Mosques with ugly minarets which will blast recordings of prayer calls through the cheapest Radio Shack speakers known to mankind - at full volume, of course.   Muslims for some reason do have a tin ear, when it comes to music.

And then they will demand Halal foods at the public school cafeteria.   And you will feel like your country is being taken over.

But of course, we have been through this before.   My neighbors came over here as "refugees" from World War II.  Born in a Nazi work camp, they were Polish, but had German birth certificates - unwelcome in both lands.  They came here and settled with their parents in a largely Polish community.  They put up a Polish Catholic Church, whose bells rang out every Sunday.  They shopped in Polish delis and spoke Polish to each other.

But of course, within a generation, they had largely Americanized.  Polish people are part of American culture, and Polish cuisine is part of it as well - thankfully - as it is pretty darn good.   Right now in the UK, they are getting all antsy about Polish people "taking over" and starting Polish delis and restaurants.  This is the same country that absorbed Indian and Pakistani populations pretty seamlessly.  If you liked "getting an Indian" (sending out for Indian food), all I can say is, visit that Polish restaurant before you pass judgement - you may find a new addition to your culture that is quite desirable.

But we've been though this time and time again.  By the time my Polish friends came to America, the anti-Catholic hysteria had largely died down (but still was prevalent).  The Irish and Italians had paved the way there.  But there was a palpable fear back in the 1800's that the Catholics would "take over" America, and we would be beholden to the Pope.  The Papist riots of the 1800's often resulted in people being killed.  Such was the fear.

When we elected our first Irish Catholic President, back in 1960 - the year I was born - there was still concern that he would pledge allegiance to the Pope over the Constitution.   And of course, they killed him, just to be sure.  We haven't had a Catholic President since.

I grew up in a Catholic town.  They didn't insist on kosher meats in the cafeteria or halal foods.  But every Friday, we served fish in the cafeteria at the public school, to accommodate the largely Catholic population.  I hardly felt intimidated or that the government was "endorsing" a religion.   Particularly since being Protestant meant you were part of the upper-class and in charge of things.   As I noted before, my family had Irish-Catholic roots, but decided to posture itself as "Scotch-Irish" Protestants, because that got you into the country club and the executive suite.   Religious belief runs deep in my family, as you can see.

So maybe the Muslims won't destroy America.  In fact, America may destroy them.  I noted before the horror my Indian Hindu friend had when I told him his daughter would grow up to be an American, and by age 16 would be dating boys, speaking with a horrible American accent and bugging Dad for a new cell phone and a convertible.   "No, No, No!" he said, waving a brown finger at me, "My daughter will be a proper Indian girl!  She will attend Indian boarding schools!"   And maybe I scared him a bit, as he moved back to India, never to return.   Too bad, too, because his wife made a ripping good Vindaloo.

But why do we have cultures in the first place?  Why do we, as human beings, speak different languages, wear different clothing, have different accents, cultural ceremonies, habits, and religions?   Why is it that even in the USA, which has a largely monolithic culture, you can distinguish an Mainer from a Bostonian from a native Virginian from a Georgia, a Texan, a Wisconsinite, and so forth, just by their distinct accents?  In this day and age of world-wide television with its standardized "midwestern" accent, why do people still talk distinctively, even within the same country?

The answer is simple and complex., Culture is merely a way of distinguishing one group of people from another.  It is part of a survival instinct goes back for eons, so that people of one tribe can differentiate themselves from the people of another tribe by their dress, their talk, their habits and traditions as well as religion.

And it is why we feel uncomfortable around people who look different than us (including skin color), who speak a foreign language, dress differently, or even have a different accent.   Our brains are programmed to be wary of people not like us - people of a different tribe or group, who may wish us more harm than good, at least back in the old days of cave men.

Mel Brooks, in his 2000 Year Old Man sketch, summed it up succinctly.  In that comedy bit, he posited that the world's oldest man was born and raised in cave 76.  They had a national anthem that went something like, "Hooray for cave 76, to Hell with everyone else!"   And that pretty much sums up tribalism in a nutshell.   Old Mel Brooks - a real genius, if you think about it.

We are wary of strangers because in the not-too-distant past, strangers would smash your head in with a rock and then take all your goods and food.   People who willingly went up to strangers with their arms outstretched in the spirit of goodwill didn't live to reproduce.

So that is why so many religions require you wear a funny hat, or a face veil, or odd underwear.   They want to distinguish you from the other people, much as armies wear distinctive uniforms so you know which is the bad guy to shoot at and who is the good guy not to shoot at.   Why do you think the penalty for wearing the opponent's uniform was death by firing squad?   Confusing people is against the rules of war (and there are rules, oddly enough) and that's just not fair.

Culture is how we separate ourselves from one another.   And culture can be a wonderful thing, but trying to preserve culture is akin to shoveling water.   The French actually have a government department devoted to preserving French culture and language.  They found that people were letting English (a language that spreads like a virus) creep into everyday life.   Words like "Le Weekend" were being used casually and in the press.   They needed to put a stop to this, lest France become something no longer French.

The Swiss are up in arms (as were the French) about face veils.  And like the Italians, concerned that Mosques, Minarets, and the aforementioned cheap-ass speakers at full-volume, five times a day, were turning their charming little towns and villages into, well, something not Swiss or Italian.  The concerns are valid, of course, until you realize that what we deem to be "French culture" or "Italian culture" or even "Swiss Culture" is really something dynamic and not static.  The French have been influenced by the Romans, the Gauls, and the Anglo-Saxons, just to name a few.   Their culture today is a combination of factors, not some purebred Frenchness that existed since time began.

Don't get me wrong, I like the Frenchness, and don't want to see it change one iota.   But the risk is, trying to preserve culture that you turn your country into a cultural museum instead of a dynamic society.   And frankly, with so many Algerians and whatnot already living in France, albeit many in isolation, you run the risk of creating cultural ghettos, more than anything else.

I am not sure what the answer is, only that we need to recognize that the instinct (and it is an instinct) to fear the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the foreign, is a natural instinct and people should not be castigated for being humans and being subject to human frailty.   Overcoming this instinct requires real effort and faith, and that is not a commonplace thing.

We should also recognize that cultural assimilation is not a bad thing, provided the people being assimilated are willing to assimilate and compromise with the native culture they are being immersed into.   Honoring cultural heritage is a fine thing, refusing to change or being close-minded is not.   Culture, as I noted before, can be a trap.  It is all too easy to immerse yourself in a cultural identity as a means of creating an identity for yourself.  Rarely is it a beneficial thing for the individual, however.

And quite frankly, rarely beneficial for our society as a whole.   We are all made in the same machine, regardless of the color of our skins, our language, religion, costumes, or funny hats.  Using culture to divide us, into us versus them, is fatal for all of humankind, in the long run.