August 28, 2002
Cultural Traditions

I'm getting real sick of the rest of the world telling us their "traditional" cultures are right and we need to just mind our own damned business and leave them alone. They all tell us we should try to understand and accomodate each one. I'm here to tell you it's all crap. Traditional cultures are, not to put too fine a point on it, dinosaurs doomed to extinction because they are quite patently inferior to the industrialized systems most commonly referred to as "western values".

Probably the best thing that ever happened to the world was the invention of the transistor radio. Before, to get at the cultural benefits of the industrial revolution you had to have power plants and telephone poles and factories and an entire expensive and sophisticated infrastructure for it to work at all. This was something any government could control easily, and many simply refused to participate.

But with a transistor radio, you don't need any of that. Even the first ones, big as toasters, were extremely portable and ran on batteries. No wires, no roads, no poles, just a single self-contained unit. You pointed the antenna at the sky and the world came to your door. With this single invention, again a fundamental improvement in humanity's ability to communicate, anyone could learn just how good other folks had it across the sea. The transistor radio represented an unstoppable vector spreading the disease of modernity.

You see, it wasn't the values of "liberty", "freedom", or "democracy" that set the world on fire. It was the values of "cars" and "appliances" and "air conditioning" and "fancy shoes". It was the concept that anyone was entitled to these things, not just the rich, the old, the well-born, or the male. As bizzare as it is to think about, it's Pier-1, McDonalds, Nintendo, Sony, and General Motors that are bringing a real, functional form of liberty to the masses, not the Washington Post or the U.N.

Of course since "traditional" socities are all run by cranky, smelly old men (a.k.a. "honored elders") who just want to play "hide the salami" with their concubine/mistress/female slave, suddenly it was a "western invasion" coming to "destroy our values". Values like honor killing, where "honored elders" (i.e. men) can mutilate and murder wives and daughters because of the loss of that extremely concrete concept of "honor". Values like exposing babies, leaving newborn infants to scream themselves to death on a remote rice paddy because they happened not to be born with a penis. Values like consigning 90% of your population to grinding, desperate poverty to support the 10% who just happened to be born with the right last name.

And anyone who says they can't, won't, or shouldn't adopt Western values because it would result in the "destruction" of their culture is just full of horseshit. Germany and Japan proved themselves so dangerous to world stability they had Western-style democracies imposed on them, literally at the point of a gun. Sixty years later, are they any less "German" or "Japanese" for the experience? Are they not the two most powerful countries in their region? Do you really think this is a coincidence?

At heart, humanity is a practical species. We experiment, we learn, we take what works and discard what doesn't. "Western" cultural values are kicking the crap out of "traditional" Arab, African, Mediterannian, and Asian cultural values because they are fundamentally superior to them. They work better. They help more people keep their bellies fuller and their kids alive longer.

The only time they don't work is when the "traditional" government screws it up with corruption, cronyism, and totalitarianism. Which is most of the time, because the people in power (stupid old men who inherited, stole, or murdered their way to the top) are the ones with the most to lose, and, for now at least, it's too expensive for the west to impose this structure on every single country in the world.

Make no mistake though, change is coming. I think the Indians hit it right on the head when they made Vishnu, one of the Hindu religion's three main gods, the god of transformation and destruction. Embrace the former and you get to avoid the latter. Ignore the former and you trigger the latter.

There is no third choice.

Posted by scott at August 28, 2002 04:03 PM

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I think you've dramatically oversimplified the issue. Of course there are some things that transcend culture and should be revlied, female genital mutilation leaps to mind. In some ways our Western culture is superior to those that preceeded it.

But to assume a unilineal path of cultural evolution (i.e., those "lesser" cultures, upon improving, will become just like ours, is a logical fallacy that the discipline of anthropology left behind almost a century ago.

A lot of traditional cultures far surpass ours when it comes to dealing with emotional and developmental needs. Formal meditative traditions don't exist in our society, except as borrowed from other cultures. The Navaho recognize that in making somebody into a warrior you are necessarily making them a lopsided human being, and thus upon returning from war they have a number of specialized reintergration rituals. We have no such rituals, but we do have multiple murders in Fort Bragg.

I also think it's a bit of a stretch to hold up Western society as a model of equality. While equality is certainly a value that we all say we cheris (and most of us actually do) it certainly isn't something that sees much practical application. In theory everybody has an equal chance at a university education, in reality my chances were infinitely higher than the chances of a kid living in the inner city.

Anybody who has made a serious study of anthropology would admit that every culture has redeeming features while still having flaws.

Posted by: Erynn on August 30, 2002 11:00 AM

Oversimplification is of course a requirement when you work within the confines of this medium, but I disagree that the results are "dramatic".

There is in fact a real danger of slipping into cultural Darwinism, but note at no point did I say other cultures would become "just like ours". In fact, they will, must, become at least somewhat like ours, but they will not and cannot become "just" like ours. Japan and Hong Kong jump immediately to mind as cultures that adapted completely to industrialized culture without losing an iota of their identity.

I would submit that comparing any traditional culture to an industrialized one is invalid. Traditional agricultural societies have had, typically, ten thousand years to come to terms with the cultural challenges brought about by switching from hunting and gathering to growing things in a field (and there were many, and they were just as destructive), whereas industrialized nations have had at best no more than two and a half centuries to cope with the changes triggered by using tractors and factories.

As with hunting and gathering before, traditional agricultural societies have proven to be largely incapable of adapting to the changes industrialization imposes on a people. And yet industrialization brings patently enormous advantages to the table. The material advantage of not having a third of your children die before their fifth birthday completely trump whatever psychological advantages the culture of your ancestors may have. And so the traditional culture must give way.

Of course, this is not to say the psychological advantages of the earlier traditional societies were valueless. Far from it. And so because industrialization has not as yet been able to address these issues we end up with murders in Fort Bragg.

In fact I never addressed western culture's valuation or devaluation of equality. I'm not really talking about western culture at all. I'm talking about industrialized culture, one of the primary hallmarks of which is the use of powerful machines to do work once done by humans. My equality is not the equality of liberty, of man's humanity to man, it's the equality of the completely inhuman machines we in industrialized countries use to live our lives. The fact that machines could care less what religion, color, sex, or caste the person pulling the lever happens to be is perhaps the fundamental truth that is destroying traditional agricultural lifeways.

While discarding the odious theorems of 19th century cultural Darwinism was right and necessary, I sometimes feel it has caused the entire field to ignore some fundamentally obvious truths. Industrialization can be mapped like a disease, with vectors throwing hooks into cultures centuries old and ripping them apart. It is up to the cultures under attack to adapt to these assaults, or die. Unfortunately most cultures seem to be choosing to ignore or prevent these changes, and by doing so doom themselves to extinction.

While anyone who has made a serious study of anthropology may in fact admit every culture has some redeeming features ("do not even the publicans the same?"), only the most hidebound academic in the tallest of ivory towers would try to maintain that the overall quality of life in any non-industrialized nation is superior to that of a completely industrialized one.

Posted by: scott on August 30, 2002 02:19 PM

So are you talking about culture or technology? They're not the same! We (the industrialized world) have put ourselves in charge of dispensing industrial technology, and we do strictly limit the access of developing peoples in direct proportion to their willingness to adopt our culture and our terms.

Why exactly can't a primitive culture use advanced technology? You make it sound like technology itself rips apart the culture, but don't ignore the history of such transformations. The Spanish missionaries didn't give European technology to the natives of California unless they adopted Christianity and the role of a slave... Literally! And the corporations you mention (not to mention the world bank) do the same thing today.

Check out the books "Guns, Germs & Steel" and "Black Elk Speaks"

Posted by: Nathan on August 30, 2002 06:06 PM

Technology *is* culture. It's a "give a man a fish" kind of problem (give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime).

Just giving primitive cultures advanced technologies... giving them the gizmos, in other words, just enslaves them to the culture that gave them those gizmos. This is not, ultimately what they (or, really, we) want.

To pick an example, when Perry blew open the doors to Japan, they didn't just want guns and steel. They wanted to know how to make guns and steel. Unique in all the world, they dismantled their own culture and rebuilt it anew, taking the best of industrialized culture and "japanizing" it.

Unfortunately they kept too much of the old ways, and history has proven time and again that a totalitarian regeime with industrial tools is quite simply too dangerous to exist. And I'm not talking Saddam here, I'm talking Hitler, and Stalin.

One of the challenges traditional cultures face is figuring out how to pry the how to of industrialization out of the "haves". The problem is that the smelly old guys in charge don't want the how to, because most of the "how to" will toss them out of the power they killed/stole/inherited, and actually require them to work for a living.

Posted by: scott on August 30, 2002 06:48 PM
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