• Tag Archives culture
  • Yeah, You Betcha

    Samain                        Moon of the Winter Solstice

    Went out on an errand this afternoon as the sun began to set.  At 4:00 pm.  When I hit Round Lake, I saw a car in the rear view.  It had something on top.  A Christmas tree.  We have one of the metro’s favorite cut your own tree places about 6 miles north of us.

    This triggered two memories.  The first, which you’ve encountered if you’ve traveled in the tropics during Christmas, is the jarring sight of Christmas trees, wreaths and lights all atwinkle at 80+ degrees.  In Rio they have applied to Guiness for certification of their floating Christmas tree in the big lake near the funicular for Corcovada (muy grande Jesus).  It’s supposed to be the biggest.  Among a crop of how many floating Christmas trees, I wonder?

    An oddity I realized in Rio was that most of these Christmas decorations have a fir or pine as their exemplars.  That was the trigger with the Christmas tree on the car.  When I took my trip to Southeast Asia seven years ago, I was in Singapore at this time.  Same strange thing.  Christmas trees, wreaths, Christmas tree decorations all sprouting from vertical shopping malls in the air conditioned nation.

    The second memory triggered by the car with the Christmas tree was the sight of golf carts all loaded up on flat bed trucks headed south for the winter season.  Soon we’ll have the rickety trucks coming to town piled high with cut wood sold door to door for fire places.

    We do have a very distinct culture here and it’s visible to me right now, with South America so present to me.

    One guy on the cruise asked me about ice fishing.  Seems the word of our palatial fish houses has spread to the larger world.

    Yeh, you betcha, we’re our own culture up here.  For sure.

  • Climate Shock

    Samain                           Moon of the Winter Solstice

    Brother Mark wrote from Ha’il, Saudi Arabia and asked about culture shock for us as we returned to the US.  I said no, not much, since the Veendam is a floating exemplar of North American Western culture.  After heading to the grocery store this morning, I might modify that response a bit.

    Specifically, I began to compare the 39 degree, gray, windy day here in Andover to the 82-86 degree days we just experience in Rio de Janerio.  While Cariocas and their tourist companions don their minimal beach garb, grab the nearest towel with an outrageous design and slather on the sun tan lotion, I put on my Ecuadorian alpaca zip up hooded sweater with llamas on it, my Usuhaia winter hat and the wool scarf Kate knitted for me during the first weeks of our trip, to buy groceries.

    Geographers and historians warn, rightly I think, about attributing too much influence to climate and geography; still, the difference between a brisk sub 40 degree day and a sunny 85 degree one is substantial.  It affects the mind.  As I cranked up the Celica and pulled out of the driveway, I felt exhilaration and stimulation, a sort of well, let’s get on with it attitude.  My Carioca equivalent woke up, walked outside, felt the warm sun and his mind turned toward the beach, the beautiful women in their revealing swim wear and a night at a salsa bar.  Climate has its impacts.

    Above the Tropic of Cancer sit the big cultural engines of the world:  China, the US, Europe, Russia.  That’s partly because of the imbalance of land masses in the north, 60+ % of Earth’s land is in the northern hemisphere and partly because of the geographic and climatological conditions.  It takes more effort to survive in temperate climates than in tropical or sub-tropical ones.  By that I mean it takes more energy expenditure.

    That having to survive drastically different seasonal conditions would have an effect on culture is almost tautological.  That it has a positive effect is not so obvious, but it seems to have had at least an impact that requires temperate climate folk to work harder to make it through the long fallow time from late October through sometime in March.

    As I went to the grocery store today, I felt this difference vicerally, being only a couple of days away from Ipanema and its sun oriented lifestyle.  I’ve never been a sun focused guy, see my post about not being a beach person, so I find the temperate climate suits me.  In fact I prefer it so much that I have moved steadily north in my life:  Oklahoma to Indiana, Indiana to Wisconsin, Wisconsin to Minnesota.

    So, yes Mark, I did experience culture shock, from a hot one to a cold one.

  • Visa, Visa. Where Art Thou?

    Lughnasa                                          Waxing Harvest Moon

    Oh.  Visas.  I think I shall never see a visa lovely as a tree.  Or something like that.  Anyhow, the Saudi visa saga took an unexpected and unpleasant turn this morning.  Turns out there are two steps to the process for teachers, certification of the degree and qualifications, then, the visa process itself.  This introduces more days, perhaps as much as a week more.

    We’ll find out tomorrow how the school takes this news.  I’m not sure why the school didn’t alert us to this fix since the Saudi visa process is the same the world over, but they provided no help at all.  In fact, we’re still down one vital piece of paper, something from the Saudi Foreign Ministry inviting Mark to Saudi, a piece of paper the school was responsible to produce.

    Dispiriting.  Mark and I had a heated conversation about the appropriateness of my way of addressing the school’s administrator in an e-mail.  Mark felt my wording was rude, boorish.  American.  To my ear the e-mail had nothing unpleasant or confrontational in it at all.  Mark says I don’t understand and he can’t explain it to me.

    Well, maybe.  He and Mary both have a keen sensitivity to Asian cultures and their ways are not our ways.  I’ve only visited and studied Asia, not immersed myself in it as they have over the last 20+ years.  Of course, their knowledge is better than mine.

    Even so, I believe Saudi culture different from Southeast Asian and enough so that whatever slight Mark felt I might have delivered will not be felt there.  We’ll see tomorrow.

    He certainly has a broader and more direct experience of world cultures than I do.  If he turns out more right, I’ll have learned yet another lesson from life.  If I turn out more right, he will have learned one.

  • Cultural Relativism

    Summer                                 Waxing Strawberry Moon

    “The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers.” – Ruth Benedict

    Long ago, back in the Paleozoic 1960’s I majored in anthropology.  Anthropology taught me a lot, shaped my view of the world.  In anthropology, long before it became fashionable enough to merit bashing on the then non-existent Fox News Network, multi-culturalism was an everyday conversation.  Ruth Benedict, herself an early anthropologist and student of Franz Boas, the father of anthropology reflects just that sensibility in this quote.

    Anthropologist’s developed the idea of cultural relativism and it was and is crucial to anthropology as a discipline.  Anthropologists do field work using the participant observer method, which involves immersing oneself in the cultural of another, then writing about it.  Boas and the early anthropologists, among them Margaret Meade, had to undergo psychoanalysis as a preliminary to field work.  This was to enable the field worker to grasp, as best he or she could, the difference between something they brought to the interaction and the actual expression of a different worldview.

    Cultural relativism meant that much as we might like to believe otherwise (manifest destiny, Hail Britannia) one culture’s solution to the way of surviving and flourishing is as valid as any others.  This is the core idea behind multi-culturalism, not merely a liberal tolerance of difference, but suspension of our own values and beliefs in order to accord respect to the other.

    Does this have problems?  Yes, it does.   Critics like Alasdair MacIntyre in his book, After Virtue, say it represents an essential of Modernism, that is, ethical relativism.  MacIntyre suggests we consider Hitler’s Nazi party or, I suppose, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.  Using the notion of cultural relativism are we not bound to honor their horrific outcomes?

    Academics often get caught in the absolutizing of their notions.  It’s either cultural relativism or a solid tradition, like the Thomistic Catholicism that MacIntyre puts forward.  In fact, I think these are more tendencies, ways we lean when assessing data.  Cultural relativism and the thinner soup of multi-culturalism are an inoculant, a vaccine against imperialism, against the unthinking imposition of a more powerful culture on a weaker one.

    Tradition, on the other hand, seems an inescapable and therefore most likely necessary ingredient of the human lived experience.  Within in it we learn how to behave as an American, a Vietnamese, a Hmong, a Trobriand Islander.  We come to assume that the tradition and the culture in which we are raised is normative, and, in fact, it is normative in the vast majority of situations which we encounter.  It is when we cross cultures or traditions that questions arise that we may not have considered.

    Who says democracy  is the only acceptable form of government?  Who says individual rights always come before the needs of the tribe or the state?  Who says marriage between homosexual couples is wrong, ipso facto?  Who says circumcision is critical?  Who says we cannot execute anybody we want to by firing squad, lethal injection or the electric chair?

    It occurs to me that cultural relativism is a necessary defense against the arrogance of power, just as tradition is a defense against the moral relativism that a global perspective seems to require.  To position these two powerful aspects of human life, culture and tradition, against each other goes too far.  Instead, we need to learn the lesson each has to teach us and apply them both with humility and care.

    NB:  Back to Hitler and Pol Pot.  We do not need to accept their violent prejudice as normative even under the notion of cultural relativism. What is necessary in those cases is to go within the culture of Germany and Cambodia, to mine their traditions and to critique them from within their worldviews.  It can be done and can easily be shown to be possible.  Then, we respect culture and yet have an avenue for expression of our deeply held values in a different cultural idiom.

  • America, America

    83  bar falls 30.00  1mph E dew-point 66  sunrise 6:21  sunset 8:11  Lughnasa

    Waning Gibbous Corn Moon

    “The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moment of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    Oh, man.  Just spent time on the phone, then online with a customer service tech for a web-based service to which I subscribe.  There’s gotta be a better way of establishing my bona fides.  With accounts and subscriptions all over the net my passwords, user names and security questions get mixed up sometimes.  In this case I think the problem was partly their end, partly my brain.  I haven’t solved it, but I lost energy for it.

    Instead, apropos of Rousseau above, I made telephone calls to candidates for the Sierra Club. I’m not a fan of the telephone, but a large part of that, maybe all of it, is me.  Phone solicitations, unwanted callers annoy me and I do not want to annoy others.  That’s my rationalization, in fact, it is part a sort of phobia about contacting people I can’t see, in a way that comes as a surprise even with caller id.

    When it comes to politics, persuasion has a key role, but I have developed an unreasonable and idiosyncratic reluctance to persuade–or to be persuaded by–another person.  I’m quite ok with persuasion in writing, public speaking, as part of a protest, but one to one I loose patience with the process.  This is a hangover from the sixties and one it is high time I eliminated.  My work with the Sierra Club this year is an excellent opportunity to challenge these predispositions.

    America.  The Woollies spoke Monday night of America, though most seemed to want to collapse America into the United States, a distinction I try to keep fresh and bright.  The United States is the political entity created by American revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It has and grants legal authority.  The United States is, largely, our government. Congress, the President and the Executive Branch, the Supreme Court, all the state governments and the corpus of laws, rules and regulations these all create and enforce.  We, the people are responsible for our government, not to our government and crucially, we are distinct from our government.

    America exists at the crossroads where a farm elevator rises out of vast fields of wheat.  America emerges at high school basketball games, bass fishing tournaments and baseball games.  America gets together at church socials, VFW meetings and suburban soccer games.  America has a geography, topography, a meteorology.  The United States does not.  America has churches and bowling leagues, softball games and croquet on well manicured suburban lawns.  The United States does not.  America has a history found in MacGuffey readers, Walt Whitman’s poems, Lincoln’s speeches and Frederick Douglass’s.  Moby Dick and Hester Prynne, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.  Sooners.  Gold rushers.  Mountain Men. Suffragettes.  Temperance workers.  This is America.

    Those four corners with gas stations or drugstores or cafes, those long streets with bungalows and those with Victorian era mansions, the cars and trucks on the highways, Country Music and Bluegrass, Jazz and Gospel these express American culture.

    Culture blends with the land to create an idiosyncratic way of living recognized easily by others, but often not well understood by those immersed within it, just as the fish doesn’t think about water and humans give little thought to air.  Thus, the world knows what it means to be American better than we do.

    This question or topic deserves more probing, greater depth.  It goes to the very definition of ourselves in the world.