Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Local Culture

For a while now, the theme of 'Local Culture' has been in the front of my mind. My previous post alludes to the idea that the solution to 'life' issues is changing the culture before (or along with) changing the law.

Here's a little story:

About 150 years ago America was a white-bread, Protestant society - largely Anglo-Saxon in demographics and culture. Certainly all of the people that 'mattered' were WASPs. They passed the laws, they owned the newspapers, they were the leaders of industry, etc. They 'formed' the culture.

About 100 years ago, an amalgam of European immigrants started pouring into the country. These people were invited to our shores to man the machines of industry owned by the existing Anglo-Saxon power brokers. At that time, many asked 'How will all these immigrants assimilate into our culture?' The answer was 'We don't know, but to grow as a nation we need these people. Otherwise we will be left behind.'

So millions of immigrants, mostly but not exclusively European, poured into the United States. Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, French Canadians, and others set up cultural enclaves mostly in urban areas. The political, and cultural, clout of these enclaves was very limited in the larger community. These enclaves were insular, at least by modern standards. A friend once told me that when his French Canadian father, back in the 50s, wanted to marry an Irish girl his parents opposed the marriage saying, "Where will you go to Church?" Both families were Catholic, but participated in segregated French and Irish parishes.

So, until about 50 years ago there were these separate cultural enclaves - Anglo-Saxon Protestants pulling the levers of power and others manning the machines of industry. What both enclaves had in common was an ethnic identity stretching back hundreds of years, if not more. Not that they had a common ethnic identity, but their separate identities were all, more or less, old.

This shared ethnic identity created a cohesion and identity amongst these groups. It was the mechanism by which Faith was nurtured in these separate communities, in separate ways. These different cultures were also a deposit of cultural wisdom and 'rules' for living that helped individuals navigate the sometimes roiling seas of life. In a way, these groups were even a social service provider for themselves, either in the form of religious fraternities or beneficent organizations.

Fifty years ago, the dams of these little enclaves began to burst - little Italian girls started to marry little WASP boys, or any of a thousand variations on these themes. These little girls and boys didn't quite understand why it mattered very much, but it really changed everything. An example: My great-grandfather ran an Italian bank in the early twentieth century. The sign over his bank read 'Italian Banker'. He could do that because it meant something to people that he was Italian - it made them want to do business with him. As these dams broke, this meant less.

As the ethnic cultural environments began to fade, a vacuum was created. Some of the elements filling this vacuum were new human developments in and of themselves. Television replaced 'visiting' as the primary form of entertainment. Government became larger and took over some 'social welfare' needs. Business was transacted less on relationship, and was based more and more on short-term profit/loss calculations. Big business arose, and small family businesses declined.

Other things were lost. Families were exposed to new challenges. Extended family networks broke down, having in the past been sustained by traditional cultural understandings of marriage, as well as by family members willing to assist in child rearing. Women went to work, creating a dual strain on themselves as 'provider' and 'nurturer'. In fact, the sexual revolution had numerous impacts on the family. The family became smaller, divorce became more common, and children were sexualized at a much younger age. Things got a little rough.

In all of these developments, individuals were hurt by the lack of a larger social support system. This social support system was often nurtured by a common cultural framework, based on some type of 'local' identity, that is no longer there.

So, what is the point of that giant story? Just this: that I think we'd all be a little, or a lot, better off if we had more of a common cultural identity. That's not terribly controversial, but I wonder if people really think that way. Is anyone trying to create a local culture, consciously? Does anyone think that being 'American' or a 'Massachutan' is something special? Is there anything that sweeps all of us up, into a common cultural bin? Right now, I don't think that there is. But there should be.

How to? Another post.

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