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November 14, 2004

Organically closed systems & the open society

I live in the Pacific Northwest. Here, many liberals (90%+ white) favor "natural" over "synthetic," "organic" over "metallic," etc. They are in many ways good (if sometimes annoying) people, and I live here for a reason. I spent 2 weeks in Houston, and there are good & bad things about that city, but in the end, I'm a Northwesterner. The city of Portland is known for being very "livable," and it takes the anti-sprawl philosophy seriously. I mention this as a backdrop to the fact that many Northwesterners admire the values that many Europeans espouse, and do in some ways I believe envy the "rootedness" of many Old World village cultures, with their centuries old permanence. To them, Europe is a world of (relatively) "slow food" and a "different pace."

What made me think about this is this entry about the rage in The Netherlands. One reader notes that local dialects make it extremely difficult to assimilate into Dutch culture if you are an alien. Whether I buy into this specific point, I do think there is something to the idea that European cultures are more difficult to integrate into than the more open and ephemeral American cultural complex. Europe might be a world of charm and a place where people live at a slower and more natural pace, but the communal orientation has a flip side: it might be far more difficult to insert yourself into the community if that community is tightly united in values, history, tradition and yes, blood.

To me, this highlights the concerns I have in some of the back-to-nature anti-technological romantic movements in the United States, they simply don't see that there is a flip side to their revolt against the artificiality of modernity. I mentioned to a friend to his surprise that while neopagans in the United States tend to be politically and socially liberal, in Europe they are often associated with extremist right-wing ethno-politics. I recall listening to an NPR profile of the founder of IKEA, and the presenter mentions the incongruity of the fact that he participated in Nazi sympathetic youth movements and later was a prominent environmentalist. This shows quite clearly the American tinted lens of the reporter since in Europe the environmentalist movements have roots in both Left and Right.

European Leftists are not all blind to the reality that "diversity" might have a cost in terms of social justice. A recent Prospect Magazine article suggested that ethnic diversity might undermine the welfare state. Three years ago Jonah Goldberg made the same observation, though he came at it from an American right-wing perspective. We do not live in the best of all worlds, and scarcity is a fact of life. American economic nationalism, often promoted by the Left, also can veer into rage at "aliens" among us (see Vincent Chin).

Though here I focus on the American Left, I think the same lesson could apply to the American Right. Many free market conservatives believe that moral values can firm up and give a structural framework to capitalism. And yet some have wondered: might not capitalism itself have an acidic effect on the values that it purports to serve? We are now going into year 5 of the Bush administration, but I see no slackening in the sexualization of American culture. The Britney of the late Clinton years is nothing compared to the Britney of today, and my personal impression is that homosexuality and avant garde lifestyles are becoming even more publically on display in our pop culture. Many religious conservatives have even started to admit that they might be fighting a rearguard battle in the quest to prevent public acceptance of homosexuality as a valid orientation. South Park conservatives praise the scatological and often blasphemous humor of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Fox News promotes "fair and balanced" while its sister network implies midget sex.

The monster that is culture keeps on moving, and always seems to slip away outside the bounds of our labels.

Update: If you want a insider's point of view on romantic American liberalism, check out The Cultural Creatives. The authors point out several times that though there are differences in areas like women's rights, "cultural creative" liberals share a lot with religious traditionalists in their sensibilities. For me, as a modernist classical liberal/libertarian (if I want to type myself), the funniest part was the anecdote of a Nigerian guy going around asking older Americans what they can "teach him" (in emulation of his African reverence for elders). He reported that many older Americans reacted with bewilderment, and I can just imagine some crotchety old guy telling this well intentioned immigrant to get the hell out of his face and stop bothering him. I would like to submit that one of the strengths of Western culture is that it is not uncritical about the past and tradition, but is able to adapt and evolve. In Losing the Race John McWhorter implies that one problem with African American intellectual culture is that it is too complacent about following tradition and not engaging ideas critically. In any case, David Hackett Fisher's Growing Old in America suggests, if I recall correctly, that youth-centric culture has been relatively dominant since the Revolution. It is not just a plague perpetuated by rationalist moderns.

Posted by razib at 01:16 PM