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.