Thursday, July 03, 2008

Culture - Yours, Mine and Ours

The Washington Post has a story about the College Board wanting to eliminate the Italian advanced placement test:

The prospect that AP Italian might be eliminated has set off a reaction that might seem surprising, considering that 2,000 students took the Italian AP exam this year. Prominent Italian American groups and Matilda Cuomo, wife of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, have mobilized to save the course. Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta has also weighed in with the nonprofit organization that oversees the AP program.

"We cannot have the Italian program eliminated. It is too important to us," said Maria Wilmeth, co-director of the Italian Cultural Society of Washington.

It is always fascinating in America to watch what Americans one or more generations removed from the ancestral culture do with that culture. Two patterns seem common.

The first is the freeze-drying of that culture. Go to Hawaii or Little Tokyo and you will see lots of the old-style Chinese characters that the Japanese government reworked after the war. (Ditto with Chinatowns all over America.) The dress worn on symbolic occasions too looks as if it came from a time capsule. This is testimony to cultural evolution – Japan and China and Italy, left to their own devices, changed over time, while Americans from those places eager to maintain ties to their roots had nothing to be tied to other than the culture that prevailed there when they arrived here. (A third-generation Italian-American of my acquaintance wrote a book on going to Italy for the first time to live for several months, and finding it now bore no resemblance to the Italy his parents and grandparents celebrated.) This often does not end well; Irish-Americans, for example, were often far more militant about Northern Ireland than most of the Irish on both sides of the border themselves, and Jewish, Arab, Pakistani, Indian and other Americans now seek to tilt American foreign policy in ways that benefit their genetic/geographic comrades.

This is an important phenomenon because it suggests that attempts to preserve a culture are really attempts to preserve it in a particular time and place, and are doomed to fail. Italians used to eat minestrone (apparently a poor person’s food even then), now they don’t. Hindus used to not live in the neighborhood, now they do. Homosexuality used to be unacceptable, now it’s not. That is life in a dynamic society, and there is no avoiding it.

The second thing I notice is the ease with which people assume that other people’s property, lives and activities are really there to serve them. The AP Italian test is not there on account of its importance to the Italian Cultural Society of Washington. It is there to serve (or not) colleges and their applicants. And the College Board has decided that, relative to the alternatives, it does not. And so the usual suspects gear up to, in the article’s words, “lobby” the College Board as if it were a government, in order to subsidize their particular culture. Even the Italian ambassador has apparently met with CB officials.

I observe with some relief that at least the College Board is a private organization, and the ambassador and Ms Cuomo are not lobbying to have American public schools subsidize their own cultural capital. But this is exactly what advocates of bilingual instruction, e.g., are doing when they lobby government officials with say over what gets taught in those schools. The state should subsidize only that which unites us, and leave it to individuals to produce the things whose benefits accrue mainly to them. If not, you get Belgium or Canada, where cultural strife (and intervention by foreign officials, those of France in these two cases) are permanent features of life.



Blogger Joshua said...

I've seen other blogs comment on cultural "freeze-drying" before. One metaphor I like that seems to crop up a lot is something along the lines of "a real-life version of [that country's] EPCOT Center exhibit."

Irish-Americans, for example, were often far more militant about Northern Ireland than most of the Irish on both sides of the border themselves[...]

I don't know if you're a U2 fan or not, but Bono actually brings up this phenomenon during the band's 1988 documentary film Rattle And Hum (which has recently been re-released on Blu-Ray). At one point during a performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday", Bono rails against "Irish-Americans who haven't been back to their country in 20 or 30 years" developing an affinity for the IRA and its murder.

I had always wondered why any Irish-(North) Americans, who you'd think would be about as far removed from "the Troubles" as possible for anyone with cultural ties to Eire (and whose diaspora has no transcendental qualities, unlike, say, the global ummah of Muslims), would nonetheless act as though they have a stake in their outcome. The "freeze-drying" effect you've described goes a long way toward explaining that.

On that note, happy Independence Day... one of those days when I really hope I'm wrong about the chronic demise of the nation-state model.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

Hope you had a nice Fourth too, Joshua. I actually own Rattle and Hum, but as an album.

Once upon a time, global communications technology meant that when you came to America, you pretty much cut your ties to the old land. Now, with the ease of maintaining ties plus the multicultural rot, assimilation is unavoidably not what it once was. Nobody wants to be plain old "American" anymore. The stuff before the hyphen has become as important, if not more, than the stuff after.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Rob said...

Evan, you're spot on.

8:46 PM  

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