Sunday, February 04, 2007


Wretchard at Belmont Club was writing recently about Palestine, in particular the terrible price Palestinians pay for their hallowed status as perpetual victims.

Did I just state a chicken-and-egg problem? Are Palestinians poor, insecure, and desperately unhappy because of their refugee status, or are they still considered refugees because their situation is so dire? Well... as Wretchard says,

The pseudonymous Spengler, writing in the Asia Times, argues that Palestine is partly the Frankenstein creation of Western guilt and international fantasy. They are people forced into a time trap, in a kind of ghastly ethnographic museum, except that their native dress consists of explosive wrapped round their waist, and their colorful dances celebratory gunfire fired up to rain down on their heads, because we want to remember them that way.

The comment thread for that post includes a number of observations about the irony of multiculturalism: that once you postulate that all cultures are not just equally valid but equally desirable (or, in practice, that the less first-world - even more, the less American - the culture, the more desirable), and take it as your mission to preserve each native culture unchanged, you've become King Canute standing in the incoming tide. Worse, you've become the paternalist you deride.

Orson Scott Card wrote about this phenomenon in Speaker for the Dead. Humanity's first contact with another intelligence resulted in the destruction of that other intelligence. So, long afterward, when humans discover another intelligent species, they strictly constrain themselves from "polluting" that species in any way: like anthropologists they spend time with this other species and observe them, but the human scientists carry no artifacts (they do wear clothes!) and say nothing, ask no questions that would provide clues to human culture. No asking about hunting, for instance, because if this species doesn't hunt, asking them about hunting might encourage them to explore this species-inauthentic activity for themselves.

Eventually a representative of this other species, the pequeninos, finally snaps, accusing the human observers of withholding valuable information from them not out of respect for their culture but out of fear. (It turns out that the human enclave on this planet, which the humans believed to be protected by an impassible barrier, had been under close observation by the pequeninos from the get-go: a goldfish bowl.) Why not share agriculture with these hunter-gatherers so that they can thrive, work less hard, develop more technology on their own, have more offspring? Because if the pequeninos are given this head start, they may sooner pose a threat to humanity. So says this "piggie," as they're colloquially known.

And so. When we say, "The Muslim world isn't ready for democracy," "The Palestinians can't help being disaffected," "There's no sense in opposing tribalism in Africa," or "Western culture is supplanting authentic native cultures all over the world, and we need to stop," what is our real motive? Does it even matter? If our motive is in fact respect for these different cultures, who are we to tell them what they can and can't do, should and shouldn't adopt? More, if we can save them some stumbles on the road to first-world status, aren't we negligent if we withhold our experiences? Yes, it smacks of paternalism, as I said - but at least it's a more benevolent paternalism than the alternative form, which pats a third-world culture on the head and says, "You're not mature enough," then stands back and watches, bemused (or even sticks out a foot to trip them), as they make mistakes we can see coming.

On the other hand, if our motive is to keep these other cultures "authentic" (hence relatively primitive) so that they pose less of a threat to us, we're first, cowards, and second, obtuse.

I know an ardent nativist. He has traveled fairly extensively in the Southern Hemisphere and considers any incursion of American or Western culture there a travesty, an ugly blot on the pristine fabric of native life. And he's convinced that he is on the side of the natives in taking this view. Now, don't get me wrong: I have zero desire to live in a homogeneous world, and great respect for both differences among peoples and the right of every person, and every people, to stay separate if that's their wish. But, as a privileged member of the dominant culture, for this man to try to keep his culture away from others in the name of cultural purity - for the little village, not for the American city - denies the village information and opportunities that could be helpful as well as "polluting." If he's doing it for the natives, he's being paternalistic; if he's doing it for the authenticity of his own experience, he's being selfish. And either way, he's condemning the natives to nastier, more brutish, and shorter lives than they might otherwise enjoy.

Of course he doesn't see it that way. I applaud and share his desire to experience all the great diversity of humanity, even as I hope his tactics fail: whether he likes it or not, all culture is authentic.


Gahrie said...

First Heinlein, and now Orson Scott Card....

I am such a putz.

Anonymous said...

Gotta love any blogger that quotes Card in her post. Nice site and great posts.