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October 02, 2003

Culture schmulture....

I watched a bit of a preview on the Independent Film Channel yesterday of a movie called Casa de Los Babys. Click the link for details, it has to do with baby adoption from Mexico, but what caught my attention was this assertion from Mary Steenburgen, friend of Bill Clinton, wife of Ted Danson, (paraphrase follows), the children need to be raised with knowledge of their culture, because there is a genetic ancestral memory.... My first thought, what a load of Jungian bullshit. This was probably heightened by the fact that a friend of mine was considering adopting a baby from India (a place he visits very frequently), and some of his acquaintances objected that the child needed to be raised in its own culture.

If you read this blog at all, you know that this sort of thing would set me off the edge. I then tried to put myself in the place of an adoptee from India, what if my own mother had to give me up??? Sensitive liberal white parents who wanted to expose me to my culture would probably introduce to me the gods of my forefathers, Hanuman, Ganesha and Kali. Of course, if racial memory really exists, I would want to burn & destroy any images proferred to me for the purpose of cultural enrichment. The fact that 30% of the brown people in the world (narrowly speaking-South Asians) are Muslim is something that many white Americans seem generally oblivious of[1].

Back to this issue of "genetic...memory," I am kind of disturbed by these ideas coming out of the Left, especially the culturally & racially sensitive Left. They probably got these ideas from Jung, but if you read much of Jung's biography, you start to realize he was a conventional racial essentialist of his day. GNXP is of course about biological realities-we acknowledge that for instance twins tend to share religious zealoutry, but, it is important to note there is little correlation of specific religion within a cultural context. Thou shalt not be sloppy in ascribing statistical truths to individuals, and though shalt not make the mistake of overstretching your paradigm and opening yourself up to criticisms of reductio ad absurdum thinking.

The confluence of identity politics on the Left with racial identity politics of the Right isn't that surprising, the extreme ends of the political spectrum often converge, whether it be population control, environmentalism or even anti-clericalism. The point is not that these positions are invalid (as ideologues on the center will attempt to discredit others by association with "Nazis" or "Communists")-but their emergence in disparate factions indicates deeply rooted modes of thinking that lack nuance and evince a tendency toward intellectual extremism.

I doubt Mary Steenburgen and her husband will raise their children with particular knowledge of the Scandinavian heritage that is embedded in their "genetic ancestral memory." This is in fact a case of exoticization and a sympton of the Orientalist syndrome. The culture, race and other traits someone is born to informs, but humans are capable of self-evolution (wow! incredible concept). Those on the identity Left are free to have their opinions on this issue, I just wish they would be more self-reflective of the deep axioms they are espousing, rather than patting themselves on the back for being sensitive of the cultures of Other groups. Additionally, they should note with caution who else shares this viewpoint, Jungian thought and metagenetics have influenced the thinking of Asatru, the reconstructed religious tradition of the ancient Scandinavians. I doubt that Ted Danson is taking his son to the local kindred, because the way of the ancestors is a distant memory, and his son is an American first, unrestricted by the dictates of blood & soil. One would hope he would be as sensitive in allowing any adoptive children of non-white ancestry the same freedom of self-definition. As for Asatru, it is not necessarily racist, but the Odinist faction clearly states that religious belief in the Scandinavian gods is contingent upon northwest European ancestry (the irony of American Asatru is that some of the most prominent thinkers & practioners are of Celtic ancestry). Respect for ancestral traditions, and wanting to associate with kith & kin isn't something inherently problematic, but in the context of our current culture it tends to blend into exclusivism and cultural chauvanism (whatever culture that might be). The logical endpoint of this racial essentialism is the idea of a bioculture.

The conflict between those who wish to exoticize and "respect" native cultures and those who wish to assert the superiority of one culture and capacity of others to evolve beyond organically formulated but backward cultural motifs dates back several centuries. James Mill, father of the early liberal John Stuart Mill, argued that the British should change India, his position was that of liberal imperialism-bringing the fruits of the Enlightenment to the heathen. Orientalists and even the great "conservative" thinker Edmund Burke argued that the native cultural traditions should be allowed to develop at their own pace and that intrusion would only invite chaos and incite disruption. Many of the orientalist scholars and statesmen, portrayed in the book White Mughals, had a deep love for the indigenous culture and had gone "native." Some of them defended customs like caste and suttee. The Evangelical party, who wanted to Christianize India, tended to side with the liberal Utilitarians, and were horrified that some of the factors of the East India Compay had taken up idolatry and abandoned Christianity.

My point is reccounting this historical moment is to highlight the two extreme positions. Either a society must be changed, or it must be allowed to develop on its own. Ultimately I think in the modern context that such top-down thinking is unecessary. If you judge people as individuals, you can allow them to make their own transition out of whatever "heathenry" you perceive. The orientalists and conservatives of the day have been vindicated by the chaos and social disruption caused by the insertion of Western forms of governance and culture in the non-Western world. But the liberals and Evangelicals have also been proven right, with the spread of the liberal ideal and modern science as the ancien regime recedes the world over. An ultimate balance must be achieved-though I believe that to change a culture precipitously can be disastrous, individuals must be given free reign to make their own choice, to not be constricted by artificial restrictions of race, ethnos or religious community. Let us return to a Golden Mean, think locally, change globally!

fn1. On a specific level, they know that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are Muslim, but contextually, they associate "India" with "Hinduism," failing to acknowledge the real diversity of any given cultural categorization.

Posted by razib at 02:51 PM

Well about Steenburgen, further proof that if you are a rich enough actor, you don't have to have well thought out views.

Posted by: scott at October 2, 2003 06:25 PM

"), the children need to be raised with knowledge of their culture, because there is a genetic ancestral memory....'

It's amazing how the left casually uses genetics as the basis for behavior when it suits their purposes but acts shocked and disavows any such association when it doesn't (i.e. IQ, of course).

Posted by: R at October 2, 2003 08:57 PM

'genetic ancestral memory'... dangerous bullshit, especially when you start to assume that different races have different ancestral memories. Only logical then that race is destiny, and already you're most of the way to being some sort of nazi.
To be fair to Jung (whom I admire) he didn't have all the information we have today about genetics and the structure of human memory. In his time, his theories made rather more sense.

Posted by: bbartlog at October 3, 2003 08:05 AM

Sure, if you are of the left you can get away with anything.

OTOH if you are rightwing, and you point out some obvious facts, you get your head handed to you.

Frex: Rush may indeed be a big fat idiot, but he was right about McNabb. And another one bites the dust.

Posted by: Diana at October 3, 2003 11:13 AM

Also, perhaps Mary St. should suggest to a producer of her next film that he should go back to selling rags, since that is imprinted on his "genetic, racial memory." See how fast she never works again.

Posted by: Diana at October 3, 2003 11:15 AM

An Indian foundling would suffer horribly being adopted by an attentive white father who would raise him in a white bread home sans any sprinkle of curry on his rice but with the American education system and economy at his disposal. But he'd live euphorically in a squalid Indian orphange with no father at all and as one of hundreds of children in a faceless institution, located in a country where plague and starvation are commonplace.

Am I right?

Posted by: duende at October 3, 2003 01:46 PM

gee i wonder what that says about my parents who were culturally more malaysian than chinese, are literate in english but illiterate in chinese. i'm 2nd generation deprived!

Posted by: Jason Soon at October 3, 2003 03:47 PM

Crikey. What a bunch of weirdos. At least judging by the company they keep they have been relegated to an appropriately marginal position by society at large.

I know two couples who just returned from China with adopted baby girls (one of them already adopted a baby girl from China previously). While I don't know what sort of life one of these babies would typically have had had she remained in China, I think it's extremely unlikely it would have been better than the life that now awaits them here.

Posted by: bbartlog at October 4, 2003 06:14 PM

It's incredibly frustrating how common the belief in "genetic memory" is. Maybe because it's included in some pretty popular novels: anybody remember the Clan of the Cave Bear series? I know, I know. I can't believe I read them either.

The other common belief that people refuse to let go of, is in Lamarckian inheritance: that future generations will inherit acquired changes (i.e., keep cutting off the tails of dogs, and in a few generations they'll be born without tails). I had an interminable argument once with an otherwise smart enough 20 year-old, who insisted that when white people lived in Africa their children and grandchildren would be born progressively darker and darker. We're not talking tanning, evolution or intermarriage here, she thought there was some mysterious effect of the African environment that would just seep in over the course of one generation.

Posted by: Claudia at October 5, 2003 05:06 PM