Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What is My Culture? Where Do I Belong?

I was just reading this stimulating essay by Kenan Malik on the question of multi-culturalism in contemporary society. Malik muses over the role of cultural identity and its relationship with politics, one of the main political questions of our age. This keeps coming back as a political question because, despite the fondest hopes of the Enlightenment, people refuse to abandon their particular ethnicities and become just plain humans. There seems to be something highly compelling about belonging to a definable, all-encompassing group and drawing most of our habits and opinions from its common store. Philosopher Joseph Raz once expressed this pull of identity by saying, ‘It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group.’

I have to say that I feel left out of this whole conversation, because I cannot say to what culture I belong. Yes, I know that I belong to the modern, North American version of Western Civilization, and that I am a white, male, married homeowner. I eat like a modern North American, my house is arranged in a fairly typical North American way, my working life is structured around the usual norms of commuting to the office, and so on. But this is weak stuff compared to the deep sense of belonging that many people have and even more seem to aspire to.

What does it mean to be an American? This is, I would say, much contested; in fact I would say that the basic conflict in the politics of the United States is over what an American identity means. To some people, being American ought to imply the sort of all-encompassing identity that we associate with, say, Ultra-Orthodox Jews or south Italian peasants. To people of this mind, you cannot be an American if you do not speak English, drive a car, celebrate American history as the triumph of goodness over its enemies, cheer for American soldiers wherever they are fighting, go to church, and support (at least in theory) small government and individual initiative. The competing vision celebrates America as a land of freedom to be whatever we want to be, a land of immigrants who all carry their own cultures but find a welcome within the overall structure of American civilization, a land of political conflict in which the views of the living majority, not heritage, determine what sort of government we choose to have.

I have mostly given up my youthful, snobbish disdain for the flag-waving multitudes, but I still find myself a poor fit with any strong notion of American identity. In some ways I am quite American. I love hamburgers, play basketball, drink coke, and react with anti-dictator outrage to the kind of restrictions on free speech put in place by European countries. But I think that from the Indian wars to Bush's torture regime, my country has done evil acts beyond counting, and I refuse to excuse this or look away. My political opinions are all over the place, and in fact I think it is very dangerous for democracy when people take their positions on particular questions from the approved views of their own groups, however defined. One of the weirdest things to me about contemporary America is the number of people who espouse things that, it seems to me, they can't possibly believe, because those are the approved views of conservative "real Americans." People who depend absolutely on Social Security and Medicare fulminate against government spending, and people who have no interest in running the world nonetheless think defense spending should always go up. I find it equally bizarre that people become attached to "American" ways of doing things that are nothing but historical accidents, like our peculiar system of employer-provided health insurance. Health care in Europe is better and cheaper than ours, but it is somehow un-American to point this out and argue that we should copy a system that works.

For these and other reasons I resist defining myself as an "American." Nor do I fit into any of the usual hyphenated groups.  I identity more strongly with the skeptical, empirical school of western thought, stretching back to Aristotle, than I do with my fellow U.S. citizens -- and yet this is another weak sort of identification, not tell me much about how I should eat or dress or vote.

I am, I suppose, a citizen of the Enlightenment. As uncomfortable as I am with many Enlightenment ideas, I am what Kant and Hume expected the future to be: a person who upholds free thought over all ideologies, and freedom to self-invent over all inheritance, and without any home but the world.

1 comment:

ArEn said...

I think you would have been one lonely monkey a couple of million years ago.