Monday, December 04, 2006

The waves of the past and tsunamis of the present

Many years ago, when I was living in the UK as a student, the bitterest struggles in the headlines were in South Africa, Nigeria (the Ibo rebellion), Pakistan, Bangladesh, Palestine and Northern Ireland. It occurred to me that all of these issues were the part of the sour and sulfurous heritage of Empire and, perhaps worse, of post-imperial political and economic rationalism. In the intercultural community the issue has recently come up concerning, quite obviously, Iraq, Sri Lanka and even Fiji. The list is far from exhaustive. The long and the short of it is that the Brits spread more durable havoc across an empire on which the sun never set than anyone else. How did they do it? Where did the talent to do it come from? And how is it that the spirit and the beat goes on, more than half a century after decolonization?

Britannia ruled the waves and made new ones wherever it went, producing a few tsunamis along the way. Of course some of the ingredients were: pragmatism (capitalistic rationality or working for profit), organizational skills (political and entrepreneurial management), scientific research (the mastery of the physical universe along with the domineering attitude that mastery entails), industrial production (requiring the massive transfer of resources -- including human ones -- across vast distances, taking only minimal account of borders, populations or local conditions), a sense of destiny (manifest or not) and finally the subversion of the notion of "common wealth" by turning it into "the Commonwealth" with the implicit governing principle of the sacredness of private property, individual ownership as well as "initiative" and manipulative control (military, economic, cultural) under a sun that never sets.

The rise of Britannia's subsidiary, the US (flanked by the wholly owned local branch of Brittania, Canada) made it possible to consolidate and spread radical individualism and invasive capitalism under the banner of democracy, which was already the trend in the mother ship in spite of a lingering affection for an animated figurehead (especially as a female avatar). In this permutation, what started off as "commonwealth" became the "common individual quest for wealth", the ultimate "common denominator" of global culture.

What can any culture do in the face of such powerful forces of organization and ideology apart from build its own museum to preserve some tenuous visual vestiges of its ill-remembered past and lost values? There is, of course, one alternative: cultural and religious fundamentalism, which is another variation on how to pervert rather than how to preserve the past. Once the vital principles underlying the spontaneous (i.e. culturally conditioned) perception of the world, its inhabitants, its structure of meaning, etc. are replaced by an alternative configuration of perception and reasoning (i.e. pragmatism, profit, control, manipulation), a return to the original culture becomes as utterly illusory as a Jurassic Park-style dream (and nightmare) of discovering or reinstating a lost world of dinosaurs.

The challenge for interculturalists is, as my friend George Simons has pointed out, keeping track of history and realizing that today is part of history as well. The other challenge is to bear in mind that culture is like prose for Monsieur Jourdain: it's there whether we recognize it or not ... unless replaced by poetry! It doesn't die even when it's totally metamorphosed. Because it's there, and because its rules apply to everyone within its purview, we can have some very limited influence over how it evolves, depending of course (in today's world) on how good we are at... appropriating resources, controlling and manipulating!

Or simply communicating through the "social Web"????

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