Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Rantings and Ravings

Another thing I wrote not originally intending to post here. Apologies for the total lack of diplomacy present. I never say these things and I need practice:


I am plagued by the spectres of religion and nationalism. These are inescapably moral reflections. It strikes me as not only intellectual but also (consequently?) moral laziness – one might almost say negligence – to adopt your freeze-packed “religious and national identity” and thereby forestall all major ethical preoccupation. Who needs sober appraisal of situations when you can accept Christ as your saviour or Israel as your redemption and be done with it? Social injustice? Public corruption? Political repression? Never mind, let’s just sing the national anthem and celebrate the fact that our ancestors may or may not have shared an approximation of this patch of land, a language, and terrified xenophobia for an endlessly prolonged miserable and meaningless collective existence. We must proudly continue in their tradition of supremacist indifference to the suffering of anybody who looks different.

I suspect that “ethnicity”-based nationalism is simply the evolution and modern disguise of race-based nationalism. Both involve the attribution of worth – of “belonging” – to inborn, unchoosable and unchangeable characteristics. It denies a person the right to carve out his own identity and destiny. The fact that this time the focus is on shared history rather than genetics makes absolutely no fucking difference.

What ostensibly does is “ethnicity”’s focus on shared culture, language, and religion. Religion is of course a whole different, probably larger topic, but all three of these things can fall under the general heading of culture.

“Culture”, as per the broadest and most concise definition I have so far encountered, is a set of shared behaviours and beliefs. Behaviours can include language, artistic and culinary preferences, festivals and customs. Beliefs can include of course religion, and generally the philosophies with which a society naturally and probably even innocently indoctrinates its members.

I am more partial to culture because it doesn’t make any sweeping judgements about who you are and what you deserve. If you grow up in a society from an early enough age, you inherit its culture. That’s all there is to it.

I say inherit its culture, but I mean up to a point. Hopefully, at least. Language is the most straightforward of these, but even if I grew up in Israel and can speak Hebrew perfectly well, that doesn’t mean I should hold it above English, or French for that matter, once I learn and master it. The rest are way worse. Because I’m Israeli doesn’t mean I have to like falafel, mizrahi music or “canonical” literature, celebrate Purim or Hannukah or Succot, or have a propensity to hike across the land or clap when the airplane lands. None of these things are exactly bad, but their marking the culture is simply a cold, statistical observation about what happens to be the state of things in today’s Israel. It’s retrospective rather than prescriptive. If in the next 50 years we for some reason get a huge influx of millions of immigrants from Ghana and Vietnam, the definition of Israeli culture will drastically change. That’s just a fact. A country’s culture is defined by its people, not its people by its culture.

Which is of course a gross oversimplification. The inhabitants of a society are strongly affected by the cultural mood of their surroundings, but, unless there’s malicious governmental involvement, the cultural hegemony is not complete. It irritates me when I’m told that because I’m an Israeli, I should be familiar with certain definitive cultural entities. Implicit (and often explicit) in this assertion is the suggestion that if I don’t do this, I’m not really a true Israeli. This is ethnic pride at work, and where it begins to be stupid and annoying, if not yet dangerous.

What people seem to fail to realize is that this cultural baggage, for all its richness, is a limitation. We (at least in the affluent countries) live in a globalized world. One of the awesome things about that fact is that we’re exposed to the treasures of so many other cultures. In times past we were confined to our own country, if that, and had access only to our language, art and food, holidays and traditions, to return to my previous list. We only had that to choose from and enrich our lives with. Today as an Israeli there’s nothing stopping me from making American movies, British music, Chinese food and the aforementioned French language a major part of my life. There does, though, apparently, seem to be something preventing me from taking on the holidays and traditions of other cultures. Why? If I enjoy Halloween or the regular employment of geishas (I can’t think of a proper example for cultural customs), why not make them a part of my life? Why do they belong to the British Commonwealth and Japan? Why do you have to have historical justification for taking part in an activity which you enjoy?

I don’t think you do. I think it’s a totally arbitrary misconception. We accept societies’ cultural exclusivism because we buy into the myth of ethnicity. We actively perpetuate the distinctions between cultures out of a misguided, haughty idealism. We encourage individual conformism for the sake of cultural distinctiveness, so that instead of “ethnicity” providing us with an identity, it robs us of it and blends us into the background of a proud, effectively faceless collective.

The really problematic aspect of all of this is, of course, the shared beliefs. That a society will instill into virtually all of its members a measure of intellectual conformity is unfortunate and probably unavoidable. That this will be seen as a virtue by intelligent people boggles the mind, or at least my mind. We have a wealth of knowledge and speculation at our disposal. There is no longer any excuse to be narrow-minded and frugal in our thinking. We have fully sufficient resources and capability to make up our own minds. This terrifies us. We latch on to soothingly simplistic and ideologically comprehensive organized religion and idealistic nationalism. Who needs to distinguish right and wrong or take a stand when instead you can follow your edicts, glorify your country, and cheer for your football team. Everything is A-OK.


  1. I would just disagree on one point here, Nat, Mizrahi music IS objectively bad...

    One thing you seem to be missing here, or at least discounting, is the emotional aspect. While it may be true that there's no rational reason to prefer A over B, there may be a strong emotional connection to one of them. I guess you'd say that this is due to brainwashing, but even so, most people can't turn their emotional responses off. In many cases, this may be people supporting their team rather than thinking, but can you at least accept as a possibility that there may be people who are open to everything but just prefer the music and festivals they grew up with for emotional reasons?

  2. There's nothing wrong with enjoying your own culture. What's wrong is people making a moral ideal out of perpetuating tradition. That's not morality. It's self-congratulation.

    It is true that I'm ignoring the emotional aspect. This post was already a little too long even without going into that. I believe that the place where you should overlook your emotional inclinations is when it hurts people - when it's immoral. Instead, the opposite thing seems to be happening.

  3. Okay, enough. Enough. You don't want to be Jewish, fine. That's between you and God, it's got nothing to do with society. But don't say nonsense like:
    "It denies a person the right to carve out his own identity and destiny."

    Because it doesn't. You're taking a reasonable soul-searching, and trying to turn it into an indictment of society. Well, cut it out. Society's done nothing to you.

  4. The obvious implication is that it has. And more then to me, to more obvious, more direct victims of general apathy.

    It is true that I have not set out in the above text to scientifically prove this, but it's definitely the main place I'm coming from in my "reasonable soul-searching".

    This is probably the first time I've heard the claim ethnicity has nothing to do with society and identity. I really do not know where you're coming from.

  5. I'm coming from the common-sense position that while everyone's background is important to who they are, if they don't want to model their life after their tradition and culture they're not (in our society) forced to. You act like it's such an imposition, no, an indignity that you didn't arrive in this world as a blank slate. Why? What's so terrible about having a past?

    Explain to me how in your own life your Jewish heritage and upbringing has been such a source of suffering. You want to throw it away, throw it away! But this "society is terrible" self-righteous crap is nonsense. Total nonsense.

  6. The terrible thing about having a past is the implication that it's to you to make its future. We as Israeli Jews have actually been born into a war we never had a chance to choose. Nobody's holding a gun to anybody's head here, but there is intense and comprehensive emotional pressure to conform. If you're immune to this, more power to you. Most people aren't, and I'm among them.

    It's been a cause less of outright suffering than of spiritual suffocation and obstruction to self-fulfillment.

    To try and fully explain this would probably require another post at least as long as the previous one which was only meant for, as its title says, rantings and ravings.

    It's mainly, though, to do with the argument of whether a person has meaning as an individual or as part of a collective, which as far as I'm concerned the 20th century should have pretty much settled. Western Europe and the United States win. In every conceivable way.