I often hear people express fear of losing their culture. Sometimes, I sympathize with them. I sympathize with indigenous people who are fighting for their dying languages. I sympathize with the French farmer who led a revolt against McDonalds. And I sympathize with Jews who – after surviving inquisitors, pogroms, and the holocaust – fear losing their culture to secularism and intermarriage.
But more often, the people who fear losing their culture don’t invoke much sympathy in me at all. I have little sympathy for those who see immigration as a threat to their culture. I have little sympathy for those who want to hang confederate flags to celebrate their culture. I have little sympathy for people who defend misogynist, homophobic, racist or other hateful practices in the name of culture.
When I ponder the question of whether or not culture can disappear, my first response is – damn, I hope so. I hope the culture of racism disappears. I hope the culture of patriarchy disappears. Rape culture, homophobic culture, materialistic culture…I hope all of it disappears. Of course, pondering those cultural relics just goes to show how difficult culture is to get rid of. Culture, good and bad, is pernicious.
Culture mutates like a virus. And it is that infinite mutability of culture that makes arguments about protecting culture completely nonsensical. The fear that people have of losing their culture depends upon the belief that culture is isolated and stagnant. It depends upon a belief that what you practice as your culture today is what it was yesterday and what it should be tomorrow.
What is Jewish culture? To my mother it means having Friday night dinner and celebrating the high holidays. To my friend it means making obligatory visits to the holocaust museums and eating lox at kosher delis. But to Hasidim on Miami Beach it means wearing the same clothes Jews wore in the Eastern European ghetto. They have decided that preserving their culture means freezing it in a moment in time. Why that moment? Jesus was a Jew. Why not wear loose robes? It would make a lot more sense in Miami. I mean wool in 90 degrees, oy vey.
What is authentic culture? Is pizza authentically Italian when tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas? Is apple pie authentically American when apples are indigenous to Central Asia? Is the horse culture of the Plains Indians authentic, even though they only had horses after the Spanish brought them?
When I visited the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, our guide felt the need to explain to us why the pueblo houses had modern looking windows and doors on some of them. “We shop at Home Depot too,” she said. Clearly, some previous visitors had been disappointed that the Acoma people were unwilling to forgo modern conveniences so tourists could have an “authentic” experience.
When people try to hang on to culture, they are trying to hang on to culture caught in a moment in time, as interpreted through their memories or imaginations. It isn’t real. It isn’t possible. It isn’t desirable.
Don’t get me wrong. It saddens me when I hear about lost cultures. It saddens me to know that people in Tierra del Fuego only have a few native speakers left and that their language is dying. But what is sad about lost culture is not that it is lost, per say. What is sad is that, all too often, culture is lost because of force. When the Navajo adopted the horse and changed their culture of their own volition, it was not sad. When the Navajo were sent to schools to beat the Navajo out of them, that was not just sad, it was criminal.
The difference is force. It is power.
Each individual must be free to chose which cultural things they think are useful and which they don’t think are useful. If the things you are hanging on to are seen to be valuable by others, they will stick around. Otherwise you just have to accept that not everyone shares your loves and values. It’s a difficult thing to accept, but what else can you do? Force acceptance down the barrel of a gun?
Of course, when people talk about losing their culture, what they often mean is they fear losing their identity. They fear losing a label. They fear losing a connection to a group and history that makes them special. I can understand that fear. But who you are is not so fragile. Culture is not so fragile.
Here is the truth. Many of the things that you cherish today will not be cherished, or even remembered, by future generations. Many of the beliefs that people hold today will someday seem as strange and archaic as believing the world is flat. You cannot stop that process. That’s just life. New cultural beliefs will form and their production will require cultural destruction.
But culture often survives in some small way despite itself. In Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, there are many families descended from Spanish conversos. There are Northern Mexicans who have been lighting candles on Friday nights for years, unawares that their tradition has roots in their Jewish heritage. And some of these people are rediscovering that heritage. Hundreds of years of oppression and silence and yet a little flame remained.
Culture is stubborn.