Author’s note: The ideas I explored in this essay–long ago, at a time before the phrase “identity politics” became current–those ideas are still under vigorous dispute, on both right and left. I think it’s time to republish it here.
Our Own Day Here
Suppose…that you knew that your culture would disappear, and that no one who came after, not your children nor anyone else’s, would speak your language, sing your songs, hope your hopes, or comprehend your concerns? What would be the meaning of your life?
“Spengler” of Asia Times Online
Well, I do know that “my” culture will eventually disappear. Cultures, like organic entities–including us, of course–live and die, yet something continues–not something corporeal, probably not even any literal personality aspects–but something does continue, carried on by currents of memory and love. The Greeks of Attic times are long dead and gone, and their political entities no longer exist; the Greeks of this millennium do not understand the Greek that Homer sang in–but the ancient ways continue in our ways; their art exists not only in our museums and translations but in the way we make art for ourselves; their political and scientific philosophies form the underpinning of our nations and their economies. Yet Greece is dead; the present-day country is a minor entity at best, a backwater in European terms; and the people do not even look like their putative forebears, who were tall, lithe, and often light-haired. Greece is dead, but Greece lives on forever, or for as long as humans shall dwell on Earth. Likewise the ancient realms of China, likewise the cultures of the Jews and the Arabs…one could say, after all, that much of what passes for “Islamic” culture nowadays is really the persistence of pre-Islamic, perhaps Bedu, habitudes. Old Africa lives on even in American pop music, and the elegant stutterings of rap artists reflect the cadences of both Homer and the traditional African griots, and shine them onto issues and sentiments of contemporary life.
To insist that cultures must continue belies a spirit blinded by an intensity of egotism or insecurity, or, of course, both–which is perhaps why you see conservative and religious cultures shouting this insistence the loudest. The more liberal, the less self-centered, accept that mutability defines life, defines, in fact, the universe; and that just as we ourselves will die, to be remembered and thus to influence our survivors, so must cultures. Greece is gone, the Tang Dynasty is gone; and they live on. Not in present fact, but as a background of habits of perception that define–and too often limit–our vision.
The free man, a Buddhist might say, is one who sees the world without looking at it through the screens of history, personal or cultural; and who thus can look at the screens themselves to understand their meaning, their import, their usefulness to souls like ours moving through a world like ours. This man (or woman, of course) has no culture and all cultures, and will taste of the best of history and of the present moment at the same time.
Give up on trying to control culture, and culture remains there around you like the wind or the sun, which you can step into or shelter yourself from at will, and which sustain you regardless of your sense of ownership. Since everything we do involves others in it, even this nonacceptance of the limitations of culture will create or refine culture as we practice it, and so expand for all the freedom the practitioner initially seeks only for himself.
One could say that the process of civilization has in many ways been the process of successively freeing ourselves from bondage to culture. From the clans of the cavemen we moved on to city-states, then nation-states, then nations; there was a parallel movement in our conception of our place in the universe and our concept of God, from the local gods of animists and pagans to the master personage of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition to (anachronistically, I know) the Hindu’s All-Soul, which represents the defragmentation of a single soul pitted against itself by a sort of psychotic delusion of separateness. Then there are the gentle anarchists of Buddhism, who say that what you see is what you get–if only you let yourself see it–and that compassion brings peace to others as desirelessness brings it to you.
True, we have almost always replaced an earlier clannishness with a later one, but in most cases we have, while doing so, expanded the inclusiveness of the clan, and reduced the categories of exclusion. King Arthur is said to have unified the city-states of Britain, and the Yellow Emperor those of China (though the task had to be redone); more recent years saw the unification of Italy and the confederation of a collection of North American territories into, eventually, the United States (and Canada too, eh?). Then there are the brave but perhaps premature attempts of the League of Nations and the United Nations to create a planetary inclusiveness, which so far has eluded us. The clan impulse is still strong. Yet it is after all persons who are members of clans who are leading this effort and doing the difficult, frustrating, and sometimes murderous work, in a grand effort to transcend culture the way religion teaches us to transcend ourselves. Shall I be “culturally pure,” as dozens of retrograde movements have sought to be? One thinks, of course, of the Nazis, who tried to extend cultural purity to the genetic realm as well, but almost every conservative or reactionary movement serves to express clannishness. That is, after all, what they seek to “conserve”: an arbitrary identity that is valuable to them only because they were born into it, and for no other reason–a rationale they themselves often put forth for their proposals. All calls for “ethnic purity,” whether in small tribes or great states, whether political or religious in nature, express the same egotistical frenzy, and they are as limiting to those that call for them as they are dangerous to those against whom they are directed.
Why limit oneself to what one was born into? Should I deprecate the value of women before God because I had old-school rabbis in my ancestry? Should I consider it heretical to hear the views of some other child of god because he was born under different symbols from those that were on my parents’ walls? The Nazis banned not only Jews but the works of Jews, thus depriving themselves of a treasure trove of art and science and, yes, compassion. The French recoil in horror from the casual coarseness of hamburgers while praying to us to buy their excellent cheese, and irritated Midwesterners inversely (and perversely) consider the famously-randy French effeminate because they eat more cheese than meat.
That this rabid attentiveness to cultural purity stems from nothing more than a habitual neurosis is shown in the behavior of converts (to whatever cult or cause), who often strive even harder than those born into a practice to convert all others to it–to confirm the wisdom of their own decision by enforcing it upon those who, by the very fact of disagreeing with, or even merely ignoring, it, question its validity. We must, if we are to survive as a culture, outgrow this notion that only decisions we have taken, whether by thoughtlessly accepting an accident of birth or by our own later choice, can be valid. The monstrous egotism of this is self-evident–except to those enthralled by the delusion of godly righteousness it gives them.
Religion, which we often blame as a cause of this phenomenon, is more a facilitator of it. As arms facilitate mayhem, so religion becomes a tool for justifying the actions we take to enforce our egotistical self-perceptions upon others, by bringing “god” in on our side.
There was a passionate American who once sang:
Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
Language-shapers on other shores,
Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left wafted hither,
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more than it deserves,
Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
I stand in my place with my own day here.
That was Walt Whitman, writing in the late 1800s. It’s a sentiment that meshes well with this one from the Buddha, speaking 2,000 years ago:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
To respect and to worship are two different things. In a way, to worship a tradition is to murder it, because then the culture that it expresses can no longer mature, which is to change. That which is pure is irreducible, and can no longer change–except to be diluted into something else…something inevitably bigger.
This is perhaps one reason that conservatives, at least in Western cultures, have traditionally borne an antipathy to cities: cities are where people, and thus ideas, mix freely and so interbreed, resulting in what the right sees as intellectual miscegenation. A better name for the process is, of course, evolution–another word anathema to reactionaries. For over half a century, US conservatives have promoted suburban sprawl as the “best practice” of urban development–precisely, I say, because it keeps people isolated from each other in cars and in widely-separated homes. It is no accident that these “uncommunities” contain little or no public space, and that the primary conduits for cultural information there are generally right-wing corporate media. One is far from bookstores, newsstands, or just other folks hanging around the town square or the coffeehouse patio talking about life; and certainly no conversations spring up on the bus or train or sidewalk where none of these exists, and people move about each one alone in herds of cars, listening to right-wing radio talk shows.
Conservative Muslim countries often make intense efforts to isolate “infidels” (when they must let them in) in ghettoes–luxurious ones for Westerners on contracts, the usual slums for menial laborers. Some countries–Saudi Arabia is one–have very nearly turned themselves into large “gated communities,” in effect–as has the ultra-paranoiac North Korea. It is telling that the concept as well as word “ghetto,” although originating in Venice, was formalized for the Jews in the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia, and that a common term of opprobrium for Hebrews there (and in parts of Western Europe a few decades later) was “cosmopolitan.” While Judaism has its own deep currents of conservatism, the nature of Jewish discourse–rabbis are teachers, not priests, and may be disagreed with vigorously–forces even the most crabbed of conservative Jews to listen to new ideas and consider them…if only because argument is habitual, while passive acceptance is not. Jews have partaken of every culture they have lived among without ceasing to be Jews in some way, and it is because of this habit of consideration and rational acceptance that they have been feared by reactionaries everywhere–and also why they comprise a preponderance of Nobel prize winners in the arts and sciences. (Nearly 20% of laureates, from 0.5% of the world’s population.)
The Japanese also remain steadfastly Japanese while absorbing other cultures’ practices in ways that often seem comical to Westerners, and in fact they devote the entire katakana alphabet largely to the writing of foreign words adopted into the language. They are, of course, notorious high-achievers….
Anglo-American culture itself is the result of a melding of two prior cultures, the Anglo-Saxon English culture of Beowulf with the French culture brought over at swordpoint by William the Conqueror. This resulted in an enrichment of the language with multiple terms from the two languages (“liberty” and “freedom,” “fraternity” and “brotherhood”) allowing for finer shades of interpretation and expression than were previously available. Likewise, the Euro-American melding of a Judaic sense of historical momentum, brought in through Christianity, with the Hellenic spirit of scientific inquiry, resulted in a psychosocial amalgam that drove the acceleration of technological development which has, for good and ill all at once, built the complex world we live in now, and the conveniences of which even the most hardshelled conservatives partake of with enthusiasm. None of it would have occurred in a culture obsessed with its own purity.
To accept that cultures grow, change, die, and feed future cultures is to accept the possibility of betterment in the world. It is to accept that languages adapt to cultures and technology; it is to accept that ideas we once thought sufficient to explain the world are suddenly, we notice, smaller than the realities we now can see; it is to accept that beliefs we have held dear may be voted out of office in the great democracy of the Cultural Evolution.
It is to accept, after all, that we can do better than once we thought we could.
There is really nothing to fear in that.