Monday, June 14, 2021

The Culture Trap, Revisited

Is a culture from only a few decades past worth preserving?  Is resuscitating dead languages actually helping anyone?

A recent article on AP News bemoans the fate of "Water People" of Bolivia, who had settled on a shallow lake that was drying up already when they arrived a few decades ago.   Read that again - a few decades ago, or within my lifetime.  We are told that they have a cultural heritage of settling on this lake, and when it dried up, well, that was the end of their culture.

It would be akin to saying that my "culture" died off when disco fell from fashion.  We need to revive this important culture!  Bring back Studio 54!

The reality is, the lake was drying up when these folks moved there during the Eisenhower administration, and now it is completely dry.  The young people are leaving for jobs elsewhere and perhaps the older folks should think about doing likewise.

But that's rational thinking - move to where there is plenty, when you live where there is privation and desolation.  Irrational thinking is refusing to leave Flint, Michigan or rural West Virginia, but instead demand than jobs and a Wal-mart be brought to your doorstep - preferably by the Federal Government.

The Bolivian government's solution to this problem?  Have the younger generation learn a dead language that their parents don't even know.  That will solve everything!  Once they are even further marginalized by being made "different" from their neighbors and unable to understand anyone else, everything else will fall into place!

This sort of nonsense goes on everywhere, though.  Here in America, rather than try to help native Americans with economic aid, so they can have jobs, good houses, good schools, opportunities (off and on the reservation) we are told that the pressing issue is to revive cultural traditions abandoned by previous generations, including language.

Up the road a piece from me is an area off the coast populated by descendants of former slaves, known as the Gullah-Geechee. They have or had their own language and traditions, but because there are no economic opportunities there, the young people are leaving for life elsewhere, wanting to be part of a greater society, rather and a marginalized, impoverished minority living in a remote area. The underlying narrative is that these younger folks are not being rational, but selfish for refusing to sacrificing their lives to maintain "traditions" of their "ancestors" - because ya know, that's what you are obligated to do.

And yes, a lot of adult people actually believe this.

And just as with the "Water People" there is a move afoot to revive the Gullah-Geechee language and speech patterns, because that would clearly solve all their economic problems.

It is funny, but if you are a colorful minority (no pun intended) it is deemed essential that you maintain some sort of cultural identity.  On the other hand, if you are amongst the 70%+ of Americans, such as myself, who are of mongrel ancestry, you get a pass on this burden.  No one is forcing me to learn the native traditions of the Swiss, English, or Irish - or whoever else makes up my genetic background.  I am not being induced or coerced to remain on ancestral lands where my great-great grandparents settled. Indeed, as I noted before, my ancestors were quite nomadic, leaving one place for opportunity in another.  When the land gave out in Central New York, they moved to Texas, by way of Tennessee.  That's why when people say, "where are you from?" I answer, "America."

Don't get me wrong - preserving history and culture is a fine thing and all.  But to expect people to survive as living museum dioramas isn't the answer to anything.  In fact, you are sort of sentencing them to a marginalized life of limited opportunity.  Not everyone wants to stay on the reservation or their ancestor's lands and weave baskets for the tourists (even if they fetch staggering prices).  People should be able to do what they want to do.  And if that means leaving home to seek your fortune elsewhere, they should be allowed to do that, and not damned and shamed as betraying their culture.

And it's OK to let cultures - and languages - die.  There is no real reason to "preserve" culture and language unless people who practice that culture and language wish to do so.  Reviving dead languages, well, that seems kind of regressive.  But worldwide, this seems to be a phenomenon, which is not uniting us as a people, but dividing us into smaller and smaller "cultures" who view each other with suspicion.  In Wales, the younger people are revitalizing Welsh, which was dying off for a while, due to the dominance of English.  Quebec, of course, famously revitalized its own version of French.  In Spain, the Basques in the North and the Catalonians in the South are fiercely independent and have their own cultural traditions and indeed, language.

Is this a good thing?  Perhaps in part. But eventually, tribalism turns us from a forward-thinking democratic society into a feudalistic system, where tribes square off against one another, just as warlords and clans do in Afghanistan.  It is the same urge that is driving this "Sovereign Citizen" nonsense, which ironically is what is driving this "Sovereign Nation" movement among Indian tribes.

Dividing ourselves from one another is, in the long-term, dangerous.  It is far easier to marginalize groups of people if you can first convince yourself that they are different than yourself.  And if they go out of their way to declare themselves to be different, well, that makes it all the more easier to do.  What we need to realize is that, underneath all these cultural trappings and barriers of language, we are all human beings, of equal value and merit, with the same goals and ideas, fundamentally.  And one of these is to live our lives as we see fit, and not as museum pieces.

Just a thought.