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Culture and Prosperity

After Mary Katherine's recent recent post on prosperity and culture sparked a discussion between the two of us regarding prosperity and cultural homogeneity and hegemony. Below the fold is the e-mail that contains most of my own thoughts on the matter.

I have a lot of thoughts on this. I am generally suspicious of Western companies using cheap local labor overseas, particularly if that cheap local labor is not treated well. Then again, I'm smart enough to know that foreign capital often nurtures the economies of smaller nations ... so I'll call that a wash.

But we're really talking about cultural hegemony and homogeneity here. It reminds me of a story I read a few years ago about the last members of a South American Indian tribe. Only five people still held to the tribe's old ways and still spoke its ancestral language. The rest, over time, had either died, or had gone to the cities to earn a living, leaving behind the culture and language of their roots.

I'm not a true historian, but I have a certain appreciation for ancient things, particularly cultures. I wince whenever I read about a culture or a way of life being overtaken by Western culture. Each of these cultures is a tiny little piece of humanity, and when a culture dies, I think that part of humanity dies with it. Perhaps I'm being overly sentimental; I know that a culture is not preserved in amber for eternity, but must evolve. Still, when McDonald's and Gucci show up, I wince at the thought that the native culture will wilt beyond the onslaught of the Western juggernaut.

The cultural juggernaut was more overt in the 14th through 19th centuries, particularly in the spread of Europeans across America, the colonization of Europe and the carving-out of spheres of influence in China. Perhaps I sound a bit too politically correct or like I'm suffering from Late American Liberal Guilt,, but I honestly think that the richness of humanity lost something when European culture. And a part of me is infinitely sad that at times, we can only piece together the lives of ancient Native Americans by studying shards of pottery and other detritus of civilization.

I do think it's possible to maintain a balance; India, for example, certainly shows that it is possible for a native culture to transmute foreign culture into something that is uniquely native. I've had the pleasure of watching a Bollywood movie or two, and I'm amazed at how the art form diverges from the Western "movie," yet integrates elements of Western culture, modes of dress, etc.

The difference between, say, India in 2005 and the Native Americans in the 15th century is that in the modern age, cultures can more or less meet as equals, rather than one side steamrolling over the other.

I'm not a scholar of history, but I sometimes wonder how these older cultures might have evolved ... and when I read about Western culture arriving in one country or the other, I fear that the Western culture will subsume whatever is local; if the local culture doesn't have the same history or strength as, say, a Japan or an India, then I worry that the natives will utterly abandon tradition in favor of the culture that arrived at the same time as prosperity.

Certainly, a certain indivdual embraces Western culture, that's their right; far be it from me to stand between somebody and his individual choices. Still, I wonder what that individual's great-great grandchildren will make of their nation's history. "We were primitve, and then the West came?" Or else they'll have to piece together what they once were from almost enigmatic bits of art and cultural mores.

Sorry to go so long, but those are my thoughts.

Even as I indulge my own sense of cultural superiority by exalting the deep destructive power of Western culture, I'm reminded of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias":

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:--Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings :
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Pennywit writes at Pennywit.com.

Comments (12)

Cultures don't get 'steamro... (Below threshold)

Cultures don't get 'steamrolled', they simply evolve. Humanity isn't in the past, it's in the now and you should cringe when someone decides to treat their sick child with 'medicine' made by scraping the shit off of a beaver's ass instead of the mass produced Western medicines of today. You should cringe when children go cold from a lack of clothing rather than dress them up in a cheap Hilfiger jacket.

Culture isn't perfect as it's often a byproduct of 'the best we could do in this situation'. And now that technology provides better solutions, you shouldn't be sad that others jump at the opportunity to live better lives. Besides, you should listen to my grandmother, who grew up in Central America, tell you how much happier she is here in the states.

Shit off a beaver's ass? I... (Below threshold)

Shit off a beaver's ass? I read this blog everyday and I've never once felt compelled to make a comment. But shit off a beaver's ass? Who the hell does that?

Boy, did my people cry when... (Below threshold)

Boy, did my people cry when we lost our ancient culture of scrabbling taters from the dirt... ah, my lost agricultural roots whilst I suffer daily in a cubicle and buy organic fruit grown in a different hemisphere...


Ah yes, my grandmother told me of the days of how she grew up without electricity, and had no running water. But The Man (in the guise of the Tennessee Valley Authority) steamrolled through the area, and electrified the farms without so much as a by-your-leave. The indigenous culture of yelling to the farm next over gave way to the new-fangled telephone.

Why can't some people remain quaint and untouched by modern innovations? Truly something was lost when we gave up our outhouses for flush toilets. (ahem, terlets)

I propose that those wailing the lost cultures revive them, so that they may never die. Physick the kids with alcohol-laced tonics and mustard plasters, and wash clothes by hand on a washboard. Of course, there are those who simply fake the old cultures (Colonial Williamsburg), but that is not enough.

I must ask: just what exact... (Below threshold)

I must ask: just what exactly do you mean when you use the term “western culture”?

I can trace back all of my ancestors to their arrival here in the Americas. Most all arrived from about the 1730’s to the 1830’s. They are all of European decent (Scotts Irish, German, French), with one American Indian squaw mixed in for good measure. So I guess that makes my culture about as “Western” as can be. But I still don’t know what the hell that means.

If I go back just to my grandparents generation, well, they all grew up on a farm, and every family member worked on the farm. The only time they left the farm was for church on Sunday, or for an occasional trip to town. And my grandfathers both talked about how they hunted and fished and trapped to put extra meat on the table and money in their pockets. And most of those farms had been in the family, and operating in that mode, for over 100 years at that point.

Was that “western culture”? Or maybe American culture? Whatever it was, its all gone now. And what replaced it? Western culture? New Western Culture? And who decided it should be replaced anyway?

One aspect of what I would call western culture is that it tends to allow people to choose for themselves. So I don’t feel bad for my lost cultural heritage (s), because my ancestors all chose to give it up freely.

OK, so maybe some of it was legislated upon them, or forced upon them by activist judges….

But there is still one branch of the family that lives almost exactly as my ancestors did 200 years ago. They are Mennonites, and they chose to live with their version of western culture irca 1800. Personally, I think they’re nuts (most of the time), but I am glad that they have the option to live that way if they so desire. I would argue that it is “western culture” itself that allows them that freedom.

It's not western culture. I... (Below threshold)

It's not western culture. It's every culture, everywhere. Nobody was still making fluted points (fluted point people) when we got here. Some other *Native American* tribe steamrolled them AND their culture. The Navaho weren't raising corn in the desert because that's the best place to do it. They were there because some other group forced them off their lands - and it wasn't us westerners. You say you're not a historian. That's pretty obvious. And it's is pretty damn patronizing to decide that it's ok for you to go 60+ mph while someone else is supposed to ride a donkey.
Here's how it goes if you want to go to town, say in rural Egypt: Go out to the pen (or shed if you're rich). Feed the "car." Come back in a while and harness up (between 15 minutes and an hour depending if you're riding or driving, have a single or a pair, etc.). Finally load you and granny and the kids in the rickety cart. Head to town (say 5 miles); it takes over an hour. Water the car. Do your shopping. Head home (another hour). Untack (another 30 min). Feed the "car". And if you need to go back for some reason, too bad, cause the car is tired and can't make another trip. All told, it took all morning to "run to town and get a few things" and that's starting at sunup. I've driven horses and oxen all my life as a hobby and I would fight to the DEATH against going back to that permanently.
Finally, who do you think *can* preserve culture? The rich, developed countries. They have enough leisure and money to put on Highland games, do geneology, learn languages and how to play instruments. More people can speak a fair amount of Gaelic today than could 50 years ago. So if you want to preserve some indigenous culture, you need to get them rich and to the university stage as quickly as possible.

First, take a peak at the N... (Below threshold)

First, take a peak at the National Zoo sometime. They've got a little exhibit with willow trees and other plants. Turns out some of those beaver-shit cures actually worked pretty well.

Let me refocus a bit. It's not like I want the world's people to ride horses while I drive around in a Lexus. I'm more concerned with the preservation of history, architecture, arts, language, and customs.


Ask any reasonable person a... (Below threshold)

Ask any reasonable person and they'll tell you the good ol' days weren't. The same ones that claim there was such a thing will immediately break into a story about walking 15 miles uphill in the snow to school then walking 15 miles uphill in the snow to get home. And that was only after they milked the cows and fed the chickens. By the time they get through that story they realize the old days weren't good any more than it could have been uphill both ways.

Well gee, PW, Now ... (Below threshold)

Well gee, PW,

Now that you put it that way, its kind of hard to argue with you.

Except to summarize, I think western culture does a better job of preserving other cultures than any other culture on the planet.

PW,Thoughtful mean... (Below threshold)


Thoughtful meandering but people will adopt those things that make them successful or at least give them the opportunity to achieve success. Individuals decide locally (personally), when possible, those things they will retain and those others they will abandon. Free societies, east, west, north, or south, allow them that luxury. In aggregate when many individuals independently arrive at the same or similar conclusion and converge into a more uniform existence where each appears more and more like his neighbor, whatever their previous heritage, it is a reflection of, perhaps, a more basic fundamental of humanity, i.e. the optimizing of one's environment in a big world. "Old" heritage is dropped and a "new" one absorbed. Tradition implies quant and unending binding to the archaic, which in its finality, may be a contrivance and antithetical to the evolution of man. No doubt some depend on such traditions to capitalize in contemporary settings... such irony.

But to summarize with a bit of cultural relativism, jmaster was quite eloquent: "I think western culture does a better job of preserving other cultures than any other culture on the planet." An entirely supportable position even though some might fear the Borg.

But enough of this blather lest I incite the gnawing of willow bark... I want a McDonald's BigMac, jumbo fries, and don't spare the pie. And keep the Seltzer handy.

AnonymousDrivel:Yo... (Below threshold)


You wanna a Coke with that?

RE: fatman's post (July 12,... (Below threshold)

RE: fatman's post (July 12, 2005 11:03 PM)

You wanna a Coke with that?

Drat. I thought things seemed a bit dry. By all means... and super-size (do they have super-duper size yet?) it! And toss in one o' them plastic Kiddie-meal toys. We conglomerating capitalists enjoy keeping Chinese laborers out of the shackles of tyranny. These imports will give them hope for a new tomorrow... because we care.

Stasis the the opposite of ... (Below threshold)

Stasis the the opposite of progress.

There's no moral compulsion to turn quaint, culturally unique or historically important places into theme parks, but if a theme park is the only way to both preserve what's valuable and let the indigenes live modern lives, I won't argue against it.

You might be interested in looking at Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice & Salt, which posits that 99% of Europe died off in the Great Plagues, instead of the 30%. That led to a very different course of development.

The book isn't Robinson's best, but it certainly has some interesting ideas in it.






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