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31 December, 2006

Pinnochio (On Imperialism and Culture)

(Okay, Little Light, this remains all your fault. And Holly over on your Shoring up the Levees entry touched on what I wanted to say here, but I'm going to have a go at it anyway.)

One of the issues is that a huge chunk of middle-class white America doesn't think it has a culture.

It sits around its Thanksgiving turkey with its Diet Coke and its football game, and doesn't recognise itself in George Bernard Shaw's "Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature!"

Some of it is a fish in water problem, just not seeing the whole being fully steeped in it, but that's not the whole of it. "Culture" is portrayed as something colorful, something different, something exotic and exciting. "Culture" is the sort of thing that needs to be preserved from middle-class white America, which will otherwise swamp it under with the customs of its tribe that it takes for the laws of the universe. And "culture" is something that somehow, our ancestors lost, boiled away in the melting pot like so much alcohol, leaving a thin hint of flavor and no real kick.

I've run into a stunning number of people who start delving into the cultures and customs of minorities in the hope that they can find something interesting in themselves if they only become other enough. They've swallowed enough "You need to shop around and buy what you need to be whole" that they want to buy other people's customs, other people's gods, other people's traditions, other people's specialness. Because "special" is "exotic" and "exotic" is "on display" and "on display" is "for sale, if I can only find the price".

And some of the white privilege outrage, the "How dare you not teach me your sacred songs" or "How dare you not include me in your rituals" or "How dare you object when I co-opt your terminology to my own agenda", some of that is "How dare you prevent me from becoming real".

There's a horrifyingly smug arrogance in the presumption that these things are available for the asking, for the buying -- the idea that these things only exist to serve the hunger of the self-declared cultureless -- and that hunger is in part rooted in this strange notion that there can be people without a culture. There are desperate people out there looking to latch on to anything that can shape and constitute an identity for them, and a fair few of those identities belong to other people. (And many of the remaining are ideologies, many of them fundamentalisms: things that provide answers, meanings, guidance, and above all a direction in which to push.)

Somewhere in there, there needs to be work on building ways for everyone to be real. Dealing with -isms and -phobias is one side of that, dealing with the way people are unpersoned and turned into objects -- the same objects whose sucked-out reality is being used to patch the hole in the souls of imperialist vampires. But the other side, the getting people to be able to be real on their own, without depending on poached culture, stolen resources, or ideologues, that matters too.


Brooks Moses said...

There's a common thread in a lot of American culture of "I've got to get out of this town", as a goal to look forward to when one reaches adulthood. The place where we grow up is often portrayed as small and confining and stifling, and something that needs to be escaped from in order for us to find our true selves and our potential. There's a sense, sometimes, that people who don't move away from their hometown (particularly rural hometowns) when they graduate have somehow failed.

I wonder if that might be related to some of this. Culture and hometown are often pretty closely tied, and a lot of the escape from a hometown is also escape from home culture. And so "mainstream middle-American" culture becomes seen as something stifling that needs to be shed off and escaped from, not something to be embraced.

HeartShadow said...

damn. as always, I think you're brilliant. can I eat your brain, too, in my vast brain-eating spree? :)

I wonder how culture can be re-written to include the self-declared cultureless. or if the seeds of their destruction are written right into the culture itself. hm.

Agla said...

I remember arguing with my idiot brother about this-not this post, but this idea. The Simpsons was on, and I can't remember how the conversation got onto it exactly, but I said that it was part of modern American culture.

Ian immediately started laughing at me and said that of course the Simpsons wasn't culture, it was a TV show.

Gah. Ignorance.

I tried to define 'culture' but he wasn't listening because he had just found another way to make fun of his 'freaky retarded sister'. In the end I gave up.