Thursday, August 6, 2015

There Are Only Two Cultures

That’s right.  There are only two cultures.  Advocates of multiculturalism and cultural diversity suppose that there are a vast number of cultures but often end up with only two that matter: the dominant, oppressive culture and the oppressed culture to be named later.  That has the effect of compressing all the “others” into one undifferentiated mass. 
I first noticed this when I attended a conference on Ethnic Studies some years ago.  At one panel the chair rose to inform us all of the importance of listening to diverse cultural voices.  He was followed by a Native American scholar, who was followed by an African American scholar and then an Asian American scholar.  Each of them told exactly the same story about coming from a close knit cultural group and being exposed to pressure from the larger cultural at some university.  Each was an interesting, compelling story.  I found myself wanting to sit down to drinks with each of the speakers.  What I didn’t find in their stories was diversity. 
I have always enjoyed literature that plunges me into a world that I cannot otherwise share.  Sherman Alexie’s wonderful stories put me into life on and off the reservation, Junot Díaz has me follow love and loss from the point of view of a Dominican American uber-male.  Isaac Bashevis Singer nourished my soul with tales of Jews in old Europe and New York.  These literatures are treasures beyond price.  They are, however, the stories of the same animal in different circumstances created by the astonishing power of human story telling. 
The problem with arguing that there are many cultures is that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish between one culture and another in order to count them.  Is there one “Native American Culture”?  One thing I have learned from my Native American students is that the culture of one tribe is not the same as that of another and that cultural differences emerge even within tribes.  Likewise, Cuban culture is not the same as Dominican culture, let alone Honduran culture.  I learned that from watching Dexter. 
Just as the divisions keep on going downward, all the way perhaps to a single dinner table, so the mixing goes upward.  Are Cuban three generations in Miami the same culturally as Cubans born and bred in Havana?  My friend Ms. Patel from India married Mr. Guthrie from Scotland.  What is the culture of their children? 
If you want to know how many cultures there are, you need some non-arbitrary way to make distinctions.  The oppressor/oppressed distinction is one attempt to do so, but I think it fails in two ways.  One is that it is hard to tell who’s on first.  The New York Irish were on bottom once, then they were on top, and now?  The real power structures in New York may have little to do with what we call ethnic culture. 
The second problem is that this distinction allows the oppressor to define the oppressed.  What does it mean to be an Irish Catholic?  You might suppose it has something to do with the Latin Mass, but you’d be wrong.  For centuries it meant that you were the ones whose land was taken away by the English, who wouldn’t begrudge you the steam off their piss. 
There is a way to distinguish two very distinct cultures.  I first began to grasp it when I read Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart.  The novel tells the story of Okonkwo, a tribal leader in a fictional Nigerian village.  We see him before and after his native culture is exposed to, and begins to degenerate in the face of, colonial influences.  This presents in stark terms the collision between the only two cultures that there are.  It is not the fact that the missionaries were oppressors that made them distinct in culture; it was the nature of the distinction that made the one oppressors and the other the oppressed. 
Originally there was only one culture.  It was always centered at some here among some us.  We are the people.  Here is the place.  Everywhere else is out there.  Everyone else is them.  The ancient Greek word for stranger (Xenos) also meant enemy.  It’s us or them.  Our temple is the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom; the history of our people is the history of the world.  This culture, which we may call unipolar, has its own logic.  It goes like this:
Why are these ways the best ways? 
Because they are our ways. 
Why are they our ways? 
Because they are the best ways. 
If that strikes you as circular reasoning it strikes you right.  That is its awesome strength.  In this circle, a human soul can come to rest.  All questions are answered by the stories told by the elders.  The circular reasoning at the heart of unipolar culture discourages questioning.  It doesn’t matter if one sacred story contradicts another, say if one story says that human beings were created before the beasts of the field and the other says that they were created after the beasts.  Each story is true in its telling. 
Unipolar culture is not primitive, except in a purely temporal sense.  It probably required more brain power to manage as many stories as possible and to learn the ways of different things without looking for simplifying principles.  As Leo Strauss observed, one needs to learn that the way of dogs is to bark and the way of women is to menstruate and the way of the people to the north is to burn their dead.  Since the human brain is not unlimited in its capacity, the chief editing device was forgetting.  Over time we forget that hero A and hero B were different people and so hero Abe rises in status. 
How a different culture emerged is not entirely mysterious.  Trade was probably the most important driving force.  It was possible for one people to trade with another without regarding the relationship as essentially from the encounters with herds and the flowering of fruit trees in their season.  At some point, however, it occurred to someone that just as we see the world from here, they see it from there and our there is their here.  Their ways are theirs because they are theirs and ours or ours because they are ours.  When in Rome…
Multipolar culture probably emerges in a lot of different places at different times but it becomes fully conscious first (so far as we know) in ancient Greece.  Herodotus’ magnificent history is the best document of its emergence.  Herodotus recognized that no matter where you go, there you are.  He listened to a wide range of stories told by different peoples and understood that there were just their stories.  When possible, he went to check out what he could see for himself.  The sphinx was carved by the gods?  Okay.  But I notice it has chisel marks.  Do the gods use chisels? 
It was Socrates who used his own chisel to cleave the circular logic of the original culture. 
Why does God forbid murder? 
Because it’s wrong. 
Why is it wrong?
Because God forbids it.
That is unipolar thinking.  Socrates spits it open by simply asking:
Is it wrong because God forbids it,
Or Does God forbid it because it is wrong?
If you answer the question one way, you must go on to investigate why God forbids murder.  Because human life is valuable?  Because murder is socially disruptive?  That way leads where Socrates is pointing: toward philosophy. 
If you answer the question the other way, you hold to God’s command by an act of will (or, one might say, surrender).  Only now you know something that the unipolar culture did not.  You know what you are doing.  You know that the law is not something “we” do the way flowers turn towards the sun.  It is something you do when you are refusing to turn the way other things and other people turn. 
Either you view the world from a single center, with a set of ways that define you and set everyone else apart as other, Xenos, or you recognize that there are lots of points of view from which to see the world and other peoples are maintaining their ways as best they can just as you are.  These are the only two cultures available for human beings.
The one, however and however unfortunately, withers when exposed to the other.  That was the lesson of Things Fall Apart.  A better example, perhaps, is Paul Bowles short story, “Here to Learn.”  A young Moroccan woman is cast out of her family because she is raped.  No, it doesn’t matter in that culture that it wasn’t her fault.  Through a series of misadventures, she ends up in Europe married to an American (if I remember correctly) who promptly dies leaving her a rich widow.  Her plight is made difficult by the fact that she doesn’t know what planet she is on.  She knows nothing about the world, that is round, that Europe is north of Morocco.  Having wealth now, she hires someone to teach her about all this.  She learns. 
She resolves to return home to show her family how wealthy she is.  Wealth is one thing that they respected.  When she gets there, the old neighborhood is gone.  There is no trace of it, the houses or the people. 
I am sorry that I just spoiled the ending, but I did so with ruthless purpose: to illustrate my point.  She was born into one of the only two cultures.  She left it.  She can never go back. 

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