Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Cultural Heritage

 I debated if I would comment on this essay: “The Collectivist War Against Cultural Heritage” by Brandon Smith, here.   After the idea wouldn’t go away, I obviously had to.  As a person who studies American culture and a professional in Heritage conservation I probably need to comment.

Basically, Smith rants about how big government is supposedly taking over our lives and is a threat to our individualism.  “Collectivism” is used as a dirty word.  His first paragraph sums up the essay

Two things make man what he is; his soul, and his memory.  Lose one, or both, and he ceases to exist.  He might as well buzz over his own garbage like an insect.  When a society is drawn into the repugnant shadow of totalitarianism and collectivism, it is usually because the masses have abandoned (or been enticed to abandon) a piece of their inner and outer heritage, something which kept the darkness at bay, a lesson from the past, or a principle long honored.  In the wretched and psychotic quest for the “perfect” establishment system, we are even often encouraged by the elitist ilk to slough off the warm remnants of our cultural inheritance like so much skin and “look forward” to a bright and more promising tomorrow, where everything will be different, and certainly, better than today.

Normally, I wouldn’t comment on such a rant. Smith is a young blogger, b 1981 based on his profile, and he markets a Safe Haven place in Montana, in Kalispell, were people can get off the grid.  What is silly about this idea is that it is consistent with our American heritage for people to rant and rave like this, and to set up commune-like places to get off the grid.  This is not new to anyone who has read American cultural history.  A minority of every generation has felt compelled to do similar things as Smith is advocating.  So, I am uncertain what Cultural Heritage he thinks is being lost.

It certainly is not “individualism” as I understand that concept. Those that know me would easily say that I am okay with being a loner. It is hard for me to ask help from anyone. I take care of myself and my own. I am happy to help others in need as long as it doesn’t turn into some long term commitment.  I don’t like social connections that reduce my options (although I will engage in one that seems to expand my options).

Also, take a look at the safe haven concept he presents at his home page.  It is a collectivist’s wet dream: social networking, help each other, living socially, etc.  His definition of collectivism is bizarre.  To him, it is big government forcing people into railroad cars. He spits out the other curse words (socialism, fascism, totalitarianism) with glee.  I see him as a faux individualist.

Let’s be clear here.  Individualism and collectivism are not opposites—they are two sides of the same coin.  In American culture people like Smith often contrast them but do so out of ignorance. 

An individualist is a person who chooses to keep much of the pressures and challenges of society to a minimum because they are afraid of being overwhelmed by them.  They also try to control those social activities that do exist in their life.  Individualists are more comfortable in low context cultures and situations.

A collectivist is a person who embraces the pressures and challenges of society and likes being embedded in social activity.  They give themselves over to it (and being in control is optional). A collectivist is more comfortable in high context cultures and situations.

This paradox of how to live in society is likely the defining cultural trait of American culture.  It is there for all cultures, but for Americans, it is a crucial problem.  And, it has been well studied.  The best reports are:

Bender, Thomas
1978   Community and Social Change in America.  Rutgers, University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.

Dumont, Louis
1986  Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Madsen, Richard, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton
1985   Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  New York, Harper and Row.

They are dated but well worth the time to read.

We are not losing our cultural heritage. We are living through the normal cycle of cultural high, then awakening, then unraveling, then secular crisis, and then repeating.  We are in the crisis era which will end with people being pushed or forced into more social conformity.

I don’t like that anymore than Smith seems to.  But this process is not the loss of any heritage; it is our American heritage cycling once again, just as the seasons change. 

I have always liked autumn.