I’ve been struggling to get my thoughts in order about race, ethnicity, culture and nation. These can sometimes refer to the same thing, but there are many interpretive lenses and many related ideas and issues.
Colin Woodard argues that nations as ethnic cultures aren’t necessarily identical with states.
Some nations have states and some are stateless, existing within larger states that include or cross over multiple nations. Some states are based on a historically identifiable traditional ethnic culture, but during the imperial and colonial age (i.e., modern history) that became an increasingly uncertain claim. America certainly isn’t like the traditional notion of an ethnic nation-state in the way many perceive European countries, but then again one could argue that not even (most?) European countries consist of single ethnic nations.
Spain, for example, includes the separate ethnic nation of the Basque, a ethnic demographic that crosses state boundaries into France. The Basque are separate from other Spanish and French people, separate culturally, linguistically and genetically. The Basque who some suggest are Celtic have been fighting off invaders maybe since before the Roman Empire came around. There is no particular reason why the Basque should care about Spanish or French nationalism and other non-Basque ethnocentric concerns. Also, why should the Basque identify any more with the European history of Roman and German invaders to their land than they do with the Mediterranean history of African and Arab invaders?
The Basque aren’t Europeans. They are Celts and I’m sure they are proud of being so. Their ancestors were among the first humans to arrive in Europe. It’s the same reason the Celtic Scottish and Irish have fought so much with the English. It is a fight for the continued existence of their people. If there is any ethnic purity left in Europe, it is to be found with these clannish native people who live in tiny ethnic islands.
Pretty much all of Europe is a confusion of separate and intertwining ethnic groups, and even the ethnic islands haven’t survived unscathed and unchanged.
Certainly, there is no singular European people in any objective sense. Europe as seen on maps is just as arbitrary as most state boundaries. Europe only arose as an identity largely because of Roman aspirations and the later imperial aspirations of others who were likewise inspired. England and Scotland exist as separate places simply because that is as far as the Romans advanced. The same goes for France and Germany. Borders typically are the detritus of failed or waning imperialism, memories of a bygone era made to seem permanently real in the present because people (temporarily) get tired of fighting over it.
Europeans, like Americans, are neither separately distinct nor united. Rather, they are somewhere in between, a constant flux of borders and identities. Europe is just another creole society and there is nothing to be ashamed in that.
Border people can often be a particularly mixed lot. Border people survive not just by resisting but also by accommodating and syncretizing (which is why, for example, Celtic people of today are Christians rather than having remained Pagans). I have ancestors from both endpoints of Roman expansionism, on the continent and in Britain. This is why the topic has come to my attention. I hadn’t previously realized how important are border people. It is border people who prove how malleable and permeable are the concepts of borders.
A border is a meeting point and hence a mixing and joining place… or so they have been for the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, prehistorical and historical, prior to the rise of modern nation-states. The highly militarized borders of today are a recent invention. Such borders are unnatural, thus requiring massive amounts of wealth, technology and manpower to enforce on human reality and on the physical landscape. The toll is costly, both in terms of taxes and human misery. Such costs of maintaining borders has always been a main contributing factor in the demise of all those with imperial aspirations. It just ends up costing too much and is in the end unsustainable.
Spain and Portugal is another border region and the Basque another border people. Border people often survive and fight back by residing in mountainous or swampy areas, the former for the Basque. The Iberian Peninsula was a place of ethnic struggle that took the form of wars between governments and religions. Most interesting were the Moors who were one of the greatest influences on the European Renaissance and hence all European culture thereafter. This is the point where Europe met Africa and back in the day Africa had some powerful, wealthy and quite advanced kingdoms.
As a side note, the original slave trade in Europe was targeted against the Eastern Europeans, i.e., Slavs; and it was justified because white skin was associated with social and intellectual inferiority (interestingly, even many Europeans today still look down upon Eastern Europeans, although they no longer see their pasty white skin as the reason). This Mediterranean slave trade of Europeans continued into the beginning centuries of the Atlantic slave trade of Africans. To give context, in 1602 John Smith, who later became the most famous leader of Jamestown (a later center of American slavery), was himself captured and sold as a slave to a Turk.
Through millennia of war, slavery and trade, the people of the Iberian Peninsula are what one might fairly call a creole society.
This could be said of countries like England as well with its mix of Celtic people, several Germanic ethnicities, the Scandinavian Vikings, the Romans (who brought with them a diversity of ethnicities in their armies and among their slaves, including Africans), and the Normans (who were Romanized Germans). The other Mediterranean people like the Iberian people have never been very good at maintaining ethnic purity with all that long-distance seafaring that regularly brought foreigners right to their doorstep. If even the British so far away from continental Europe couldn’t keep themselves ethnically pure, the Southern Europeans were truly out of luck in that department.
It’s not as if the United States invented racial mixing, the dreaded miscegenation, nor even the notion of multiculturalism. Humans have been mixing it up for millennia. This is why almost the entire homo sapiens population of the earth includes the genetics of other hominid species; it was near the Mediterranean in the Levant that homo sapiens probably first bumped uglies with the Neanderthals (Jesus, if you want some good ol’ fashioned racial purity, ya better stay away from the Mediterranean Sea, that cauldron of sin and temptation; well, ya better stay away from all large bodies of water, go to the interior and go as far North as possible or at least hide out in the mountains for even swamps can be drained). We humans will hump anything that moves and sometimes things that don’t move, although only the former tends to lead to viable offspring. This is why ethnicity is such a nebulous concept and race can seem almost meaningless at times.
Nonetheless, good multiculturalist liberal that I am, I don’t want to see the end of ethnic differences, issues of racial purity aside. At the same time, I’m not a big fan of the worst traits of clannishness such as violence, nepotism, cronyism, etc. Clannishness is the polar opposite of a social democracy. You can try to have a clannish nation-state, but it will inevitably lead to a brutally oppressive society. I love and find fascinating the diversity of ethnicities, but I want to live in a world that brings out the best in ethnic cultures, not the worst. Plus, I would add that not all cultures are ethnic cultures. A multicultural culture is a culture too and a worthy one at that.
The social and political divides in America and the Americas have their origins in the ethnic divides of Old World. The divide isn’t between whites and non-whites but between those of European descent.
There are the divides in Britain. The anti-monarchist Puritans from East Anglia who settled New England were of a more Anglo-Saxon descent and the pro-monarchist Cavaliers from Wessex who came to dominate Virginia were of Norman descent. These two separate ethnicities in England fought a civil war there and in America their descendents fought another civil war. Talk about a lack of assimilation. The clannish Scots-Irish, Scottish and Irish were also never big on assimilation; and for good reason as they found no more love here in America than they did back in Britain. In the American North, they were involved in Civil War draft riots. In the American South, they supported secession as a way of creating their own new clannish nation. Either way, not the material out of which patriotic Americans are easily made. It took centuries of weakening their clannishness before they began to lose some of their xenophobic ethnocentrism, but they still haven’t fully assimilated to the American Way and continue to pine for their Lost Cause of anti-American secession or else some romanticized ideal of their traditional culture. Give us a few more centuries and we’ll finally make good Americans out of those clannish Southerners (or not, heck if I know).
An additional European divide is less geographic, but I’ll add it here amidst these grander divides. The original European people have been swamped by the later immigrations and conquerings. These earlier people are less defined by the nation-state identities. I’ve mentioned the Basque who cross the boundary between Spain and France. More interestingly, the Irish originate from the Basque (by the way, it sounds like that although culturally similar to Celtics the Irish/Basque people aren’t genetically the same as the Celtics). The Irish are a mysterious group when considering genetics and the Black Irish, but there seems to be no absolute conclusions as of yet. Anyway, their unique origins would explain the conflict these two peoples have had with the populations that surround them. These are particularly clannish people who have attempted to maintain local self-governance and ethnic identity in the face of those who wish to impose upon them from the outside (i.e., the great empires of Spain, France and England). These clannish people declared a forceful ‘no’ to assimilation. The Basque republican independence even helped to inspire early American political thinking (see here).
Another European divide of the more starkly geographic variety is that between Northern and Southern Europe which is based on the boundary of the Roman Empire. The Roman culture has its connection to Britain with the Cavaliers who were of Norman descent and so the American South can partly be seen as the long-lasting influence of the Roman Empire which could be seen in the South’s imperialist aspirations leading up to the Civil War, imperial aspirations that spread all the way through Mexico, down into Central America and to Caribbean islands such as Cuba (Southerners dreamed big, ya gotta give them that). The American North, on the other hand, was populated by people (including Germans and Scandinavians) who were less influenced by the Roman Empire and by the Mediterranean cultures in general.
Yet another divide existed within Southern Europe. The other great power in this region were the Moors. For many centuries, they ruled Portugal, Spain, and Andorra along with parts of France and Italy. Hispania was the name the Romans gave to the Iberian Peninsula where the Moors later had their most power and influence and this is the etymological origin of Spain. The origin of the Hispanics of the Americas originates from this region of Hispanic Europe. Genetic testing even shows how different this population is from the rest of Europe.
The Southern Europe angle is so fascinating because it partly mirrors the early development of Southern North America.
The Iberian Peninsula extends south toward Africa like Mexico in relation to the black-populated Central and South America. There are the mixed-race/ethnicity Hispanics with their open range cowboy culture brought from Spain and the Romanized Germanic Norman Cavaliers with their feudalist-like slave society (ignoring the uncertainty of how many of the Cavaliers actually descended from Norman aristocracy; certainly there were plenty of actual titled British nobility among them, whatever their ancestry). One could think of the Gulf of Mexico as the American version of the Mediterranean Sea, both areas of vast multiculturalism and creole societies and both areas of conflict-ridden ethnic rivalries. And one could think of South America with its large African-descended population as the twin of Africa, both places ravaged by centuries of colonial exploitation and imperial oppression, not to mention the Atlantic slave trade.
The multiculturalism of the US isn’t a failure of having lost our supposed European traditional values. If there is a failure, it is because we mimicked the long (and often conflicted, war torn even) multicultural history of Europe. The US is the seeming inevitable extension of how Europe has been evolving over the past thousand years or so. You reap what you sow or rather what your forefathers sowed.
I want to further follow the Hispanic issue into American history, but I think the best way to do that is by considering the Quakers.
My favorite descendant of Quakers was Thomas Paine. His father was a Quaker and his mother was an Anglican, but it was his father who was the main influence in guiding his education and ensuring he had instilled him the Quaker values of plain speech and practical knowledge. Interestingly, Paine grew up in East Anglia, the original hotbed of the Puritans. It was also an area that had experienced a lot of the enclosure movement.
The enclosures were designed to end the commons. Both Quakers and Puritans put great value on the commons. The Quakers were concentrated in the North Midlands which had a long history of Viking and Norse settlements (but I noticed that Quakers also had some concentration in an area of Wales where the American Midlands socialist Robert Owen came from). The Vikings, as I recall, gave them a proto-feminism and the Norse gave them a proto-democracy. The commons wasn’t just a place for people to graze their animals and gather wood. The commons was also where the common folk met to debate and vote on issues, most often about their community. Americans were carrying on this tradition in the North during the Revolutionary Era and it continues to this day.
Paine was coming of age when the full effect of enclosures were being felt. When he visited London, he saw the masses of land dispossessed who had been forced into the cities. The commons had allowed for Lockean land rights and hence subsistence living. The enclosures left people homeless and starving. So, before coming to the colonies, Paine saw the first labor unions forming and the first working class protests.
I bring this up because the same conservatives who wrongly argue about the tragedy of the commons also argue about tighter border control. The conservative mind loves boundaries and wants everything enclosed and controlled, typically by the perceived moral elite (and failing that, the political and plutocratic elite, same difference right?). The fear was that if the common people were democratically allowed to govern themselves and control their own lives they would mess everything up and destroy all that is good about society.
Quakers for their time were quite liberal which in their case meant they had great faith in the common people (and, from the common people’s perspective, an unwillingness to govern others). This is the basis of the pluralistic Midlands that combined pansy liberal values such as feminism and pacifism with more hardcore liberal values of left-libertarianism and direct democracy. The love of democracy, especially social democracy, is what eventually allied the Midlands with Yankeedom, but Midlands never fully got on board with the Puritan-originated melting pot assimilationist program.
Pluralism is an odd way to do borders. The Quakers neither sought to enforce borders nor to destroy them. They simply left them up to communities. So, in the Midlands, you will find ethnic enclaves and islands while also finding varying degrees of mixed up populations. It was the ideal of freedom of association (or not if one so desired).
The Midlands became so important to American identity, the Heartland, because of the way it moderated the extremes and lessened the distance between differences.
The Quakers weren’t against assimilation, just against oppressively enforced assimilation. In the end, the Quaker Midlands (with some major help from New Netherlands/New York) have been more successful at assimilating ethnic immigrants into American society than either the oppressively enforced assimilation of New England or the oppressively enforced assimilation of the Deep South. The Midlands inspires ethnic immigrants to assimilate themselves by making clear to them that they aren’t the enemy and that they have a place in American society. Build enough public institutions like public schools and most people, the clannish aside, will assimilate themselves in a generation or two, sometimes several generations.
The Midwest is the Midlands which was settled by the Quakers who were middle class immigrants from the English Midlands. Hamlin Garland referred to the Midwest as the Middle Border. That captures the essence of some truth. Between Yankees and Southerners, Midlands is part of the region of the original Middle Colonies (along with the former New Netherlands colony). It was the border territory between settlements and frontier, eventually extending by way of immigration and settlement patterns down into upper Texas and up into lower Canada (the only cultural region that connects South and North). This is the Middle West, between the East Coast and the West Coast, the flyover country one passes over going from one place to another. It is the middle of America, including the geographic center of the contiguous United States along with the median and mean center of the United States population.
The Middle Colonies and the Midwest is so symbolically important in American history for many reasons. It was a meeting point of empires with the Penn’s Quaker colony with its largely German immigrants, the Dutch colony of New Netherlands with a diverse population, the New Sweden colony that later was incorporated into New Netherlands, and the Native American allied French Empire extending along the edge of the Middle colonies. It was also where most new immigrants arrived and settled or else passed through on their way westward. It is where some of the most centrally located multicultural big cities: New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago (all three in the top 5 most populous cities in the US).
This middle region of the US is where cultures mixed. It has maybe the most ethnic enclaves and ethnic islands in the entire country. The only other region that competes is that of the Northern border region of the Spanish Empire, the region where met Hispanics, Native Americans, French, Africans, and all the mix of people going west and south from the British colonies.
Spain and the Spanish Empire played a similar role of a meeting ground of peoples and cultures.
As I’ve pointed out, even before they sought to colonize the Americas and import African slaves, the Spanish people back in Europe were already mixing it up. Beyond the Basque, there are numerous native ethnic groups with their own non-Spanish languages. Even the Roma are considered a native people in Spain where they live as an autonomous community in Andalusia. Spain has a multicultural tradition that has existed for a long time and continues to this day:
“As of 2010, there were over 6 million foreign-born residents in Spain, corresponding to 14% of the total population. Of these, 4.1 million (8.9% of the total population) were born outside the European Union and 2.3 million (5.1%) were born in another EU Member State.
“Because of its location in the Iberian Peninsula, the territory comprising modern Spain has always been at the crossroads of human migration, having harboured many waves of historical immigration. The Spanish Empire, one of the first global empires and one of the largest in the world, spanned all inhabited continents and throughout the years people from these lands emigrated to Spain in varying numbers.”
I wonder if this history as a geographic crossroads helped Spain become such a major empire controlling so many different ethnic groups and mixed populations. As a people, I’d assume they had a fair amount of familiarity with dealing with diversity along with the related issues of inter-ethnic conflict, pluralistic tolerance and national assimilation.
Their way of dealing with it, however, doesn’t seem to be exactly like how the English dealt with it in their similar history of diversity. I’m not overly familiar with the Spanish Empire, but I have been reading more about Hispanic culture here in the Americas. Among the Hispanic population, there is the idea of mestizo which as a general concept is less about the crossbreeding of supposed separate races than it is about the cultural culmination where ethnicities meet. In discussing this in Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders, John Francis Burke pointed out a false dichotomy that typically polarizes debate (Kindle Locations 180-184):
“As was the case with the individual v. community dichotomy, assimilationism v. separatism presumes there are only two possibilities-a universal, uniform community identity or particular intense cultural identities. Behind this presumption lies the notion of cultural identity as a possession to be preserved and not as a fluid relationship in which a culture is both affected by constant new influences and, reciprocally, affects or shapes those influences. Just as the intersubjective basis of human relations dissovles the wall between the individual and the community, so the logic of distinguishing a universal generic community from particular dense cultures disintegrates once we acknowledge that cultures continually interpenetrate and transform one another and that any articulation of a universal political community is connected to this vibrant interchange among its particular cultural groups.
Burke then concludes the chapter with the following (Kindle Locations 282-286):
“A just unity-in-diversity thus entails the pursuit of the following two questions. What are the conditions under which diverse cultural groups can even begin to dialogue? How can marginalized groups gain genuine access-without emasculating their respective cultures in the process-to the political, social, and economic decision-making structures that in large part affect their destinies? Given the import of such questions, a mestizo democracy is hardly a saccharine celebration of multiculturalism. Rather it is a politics of “crossing borders” that considers how cultures can realize their respective distinctiveness in interaction with other cultures while simultaneously engendering a just, substantive political community in which the dignity of `others’ is not marginalized.”
As is made clear, Burke isn’t just talking about the relationship between Americans and Mexican immigrants. It’s also about Hispanics who have been here since before the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War. It’s even more generally about every ethnic group, including those of European ancestry and those who are first generation immigrants from all over.
The problem with Borg-style assimilation is that even most white Americans of colonial era ancestry don’t want to be told that they will be assimilated and that resistance is futile. I dare you to go to some small rural Southern community and tell the people there that in order to be real Americans they have to fully assimilate to the standard culture, lifestyle and way of speaking as shown on US mass media. I double-dog dare you!
This is why I speak of pluralism, whether done in the style of mestizo or the middle colonies. I’m fond of the Midlands style because it is an example of unity-in-diversity that exists at the heart of the American identity. This pluralism isn’t a foreign concept. It is America itself, if anything is America at all.
Even we white people are more genetically mixed up (not just among European ethnicities) than we’d like to admit, but it isn’t the end of the world. We’ve survived as a country this long and so far our diversity has been our strength. What does race even mean in the land of the American mutt?
I was noticing an article about Vanessa Williams who in American society is considered African-American (for example, a big deal was made at the time that she was the first African-American to be crowned Miss America). In the article, it describes the results of genetic testing she had done. Her results were: “23% from Ghana, 17% from the British Isles, 15% from Cameroon, 12% Finnish, 11% Southern European, 7% Togo, 6% Benin, 5% Senegal and 4% Portuguese.” She is almost evenly split between European and African genetics, but she does look like what people in America think of as black with darker skin and thick dark hair. Nonetheless, it would be about as correct to call her a European-American. If you were to compare her to a full-blooded African, she would look quite European indeed.
Are our arguments about race really about percentages? So, if a black person or Hispanic person can prove they have more than 50% European genetics, we’ll let them into the white club? If so, there are a lot of people perceived as non-white who should be considered white. However, if having a drop (or even quite a few drops) of non-European blood means a person isn’t white, we’ll have to kick a bunch of Americans out of the white club.
If it isn’t about race but some judgment of an ethnic culture as inferior, then why do we continue to allow rural Southern Scots-Irish to be a part of the American experiment. Objectively speaking, they are dragging us all down. They’ve resisted assimilation, just as white Americans accuse minorities. They are violent, just as white Americans accuse minorities. They have massive social problems, just as white Americans accuse minorities. So, why are so many white Americans, specifically conservatives, reluctant to fairly bring the same accusations against another so-called white American group?
I’d argue that even Hispanics are more assimilable than the Scots-Irish have proven to be. The Scots-Irish at least received the benefit of the doubt and we tried to assimilate them. Few white Americans ever gave the Hispanics such benefit of the doubt extending over the centuries. How can Hispanics prove they are American enough when the bar keeps getting raised for them according to the typical racist double standard? Besides, it was we white Americans who invaded their land first and annexed it with Hispanics already living there. Why are we white Americans complaining about people remaining on their people’s land after we’ve taken it?
Let me continue my thought by quoting from an HBD article:
by Audacious Epigone
“The paradox presented here for many like myself is that the places inspiring the warmest feelings and that I would like most to live in are the places that tend to put the least effort into maintaining what they have. It’s tragic. It doesn’t strike me as overly cynical to presume that this is almost inevitable, as though liberalism doesn’t know when or where to stop and just keeps cruising along the progressive highway past the promised land and over the cliff. [ . . . ]
What of birthright citizenship? Our own 14th amendment has been read by the courts in such a way that if one is able to spawn somewhere in the country, through hook, crook or otherwise, then said spawn is, jus soli, a child of the land he was born on.”
To my mind, this is the voice of someone who just doesn’t get it, not to say that I don’t sympathize with the complaint (yes, the evolving multicultural world has lots of problems).
I would argue that the reason those countries inspire the warmest feelings is because they are open societies (i.e., liberal democracies). Take the liberal away by making them closed societies and what makes them great in the first place would be almost instantly destroyed. This is all the more true for the US which was closer to being an ethnic nation-state prior to the European invasion and it’s been going in the opposite direction ever since.
I have one ancestor (of European descent) who was born in Kentucky before the American Revolution. This was at a time when the British had a treaty that forbade settlers from living there. So, not only were some of my white ancestors illegal immigrants, but they had an anchor baby as well.
My ancestors were far from unusual. It was because of all those law-breaking immigrants, especially the Scots-Irish, that the British (and later the US government) struggled to maintain order and maintain the border. Those early Scots-Irish make the worst Mexican undocumented workers of today look like angels. If not for those trouble-making rebellious clannish ethnics, it is a lot less likely that many of the wars and revolutions would have happened here. We might now be as peaceful and moderate as Canada without those violent, crime-ridden Scots-Irish constantly forcing the hand of authority. I’ve entertained the idea that a significant part of the Civil War was a clannishly ethnic refusal to assimilate, specifically as the South lost political influence and the Northern Melting/Stew Pot American Dream became predominant. Even so, these centuries later we Americans finally assimilated the Scots-Irish, more or less. In doing so, we broke their clannish spirit by making them Americans and they are nearly respectable at this point. If we can assimilate the Scots-Irish, we can assimilate anyone.
I’m picking on the Scots-Irish just to make a point, but I have nothing against them any more than I have against any other ethnicity. Every immigrant group has its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of America is precisely because we have a diversity of strengths and hence don’t share the same weaknesses. Besides, it’s kind of pointless talking about Scots-Irish or Hispanic or whatever. Most Americans have a little bit of many ethnicities in them.
If we white Americans WASPs don’t like multiculturalism, then we should give back to the Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish and Native Americans their respective colonies and territories. Otherwise, shut up and be a good American mutt, whether a mutt in terms of genetics or cultures. Or else don’t and instead be a clannish regionalist (or even isolationists like the Amish), yet another good ol’ American tradition. I suppose we have space for all types here in America.
Live and let live, like good Quaker Friends.
Here are some posts that have got me thinking lately, the first four being from hbd chick and involving my discussions with her in the comments section:
Additional thought the day after writing this:
I’m a Midlander and so I’m biased. I declare this without apology. I’m proud that the Quaker pluralist vision has become so dominant in America and that the pluralist American Dream has become so widely influential in the world. I’m a proud American, dammit!
I like this American experiment that has been going on for centuries now. Why stop it now because the world is changing? America has always been about change, for good or ill. We’ve been dealt this hand and I say let us play it to its conclusion. It’s an experiment, after all. What fun is an experiment if you end it before you find out how it turns out?
Otherwise, I have no strong opinion about ethnocentric nation-states. I don’t care if other countries want to try that experiment. More power to them. I love experiments of all kinds. Let us have a contest. They with their ethnocentric experiment and we with our pluralistic experiment.
I’d point out that all the great empires were multiculturalists in their own way. I’m not a big fan of empires in and of themselves, but I suspect it is too late for the US to be anything other than an empire at this point. Our forefathers made their choices and we (and the coming generations) are forced to face the consequences. Maybe we can be a new kind of empire. The US has definitely stepped up its game from previous attempts at imperialism.
I feel a bit parochial in my defense of the Midlands. I’m not a clannish regionalist, but neither am I a devil-may-care universalist of the mainstream liberal variety. I like my region, partly because it doesn’t hold itself above all the other regions.I like the very idea of regions along with the uniqueness and diversity that goes along with them Why does arguing for the merits of one thing seem inevitably to make one appear as disparaging all else? That is the opposite of what I’m trying to do with my vision of the Mestizo Midlands.
So, I mean not criticism of the ethnocentric among us, in the larger world or even here in the good ol’ US of A.
Part of me is with Paine (and some other founding fathers) in feeling like a citizen of the world. To be an American is to be something greater and more inclusive than a mere citizen of a nation-state. America is the only country in the world that includes large numbers of people from nearly every country and ethnicity in the world, excepting a few isolated tribal people maybe.
I should mention that this post has nothing directly to do with the larger perspective of HBD proponents, beyond the brief mention of HBD with one quote, most especially not directly about the views of hbd chick, although discussions with her motivated some of my thinking. The HBD view of culture is slightly different than how I’m using it here. I’m not really talking a whole lot about such things as family patterns or even the more intricate details of geography and its impact.
I tend to come from a view that sees culture as an unknown factor. We don’t know where it comes from for its origins are in the mists of prehistory, but we can speak of what maintains culture in the present (and speculate about the known history).
I’m a namby-pamby liberal in my love of vague concepts like ‘culture’. I see human nature and human society as an amorphous set of factors. We can speak of concrete correlates to culture, but they aren’t culture. The closest metaphor is the difference between hardware and software, however extremely imperfect that metaphor is.
Let me put it like this. In hunting, you want to capture the prey your after. So, you follow the signs such as animal poop. But, as Pat McManus wrote, “Well, you can’t eat sign.”
To clarify, I should add that I don’t disagree with most of what Julian is saying… just some aspects of how he approaches the discussion. Jonny Bardo and Balder also mentioned they weren’t entirely disagreeing with him.
There’s nothing wrong with making clear distinctions or criticizing beliefs or perspectives that you believe are misguided or harmful. If I give the impression of standing against you, it is not against this exercise, but perhaps against a tendency towards absolutization and sweeping dismissals. For instance, the teachings that get the “New Age” label are not 100% rubbish, just as “religion” (in my view) is not entirely regressive or merely an Amber holdover.
Maybe you’ve already seen this? An awesome perspective on belief.
I hadn’t seen that before. I only glanced through it, but it seemed like a good analysis of a certain area of belief.
There are as many ways of looking at beliefs as there are kinds of beliefs. Belief is a natural and largely unconscious mechanism of the the mind. That blog is about stated beliefs which is primarily what I’m speaking of here. To state a belief is to bring it into consciousness, into the space where it can be analyzed and debated or rationalized if that is the case.
But I’m not sure how the ‘belief in belief’ aspect fits into the present example. What do you think?
Stating a belief(to oneself and to others) is imortant if its already present in the psyche because it externalizes it. For instance, if Julian believes that reincarnation is impossible, then its good that he states it. And then he can debate it with others and question whether it is a useful belief. However, Jonny Bardo states he doesn’t have a belief about either way about the existence of reincarnation meaning he is stating his belief that it can’t be known or else isn’t known by himself. Everyone has some belief about the matter one way or another.
Considering that I lack evidence(experiential and factual) and considering that Julian also seems to lack evidence, I agree with Jonny’s belief in agnosticism on this matter. On top of lack of evidence, I see no advantage in believing for or against. Julian apparently does feel there is an advantage, but I’m not sure precisely what it is.
It could be that he feels a strong need to simplify things in order to make debate manageable. Maybe its a difference of temperaments. Personally, I’m often attracted to complicating things by considering all possible perspectives and just sitting on it for years until it slowly becomes clear. We both want intellectual clarity, but different ways and speeds of getting to there.
The blog you linked was focusing on stated positive beliefs, but what inspired this blog was Julian’s stated negative belief. Of course, every negative belief implies a positive one. Not believing in reincarnation is a specific metaphysical claim. It isn’t comparable to not collecting stamps as a hobby.
Now, to confuse matters, is believing in a nothingness after death comparable to believing in an invisible dragon? Neither belief can be directly observed. Both have personal benefits such as self-image. In this regard, the atheist and the theist both believe in the benefit in believing their respective beliefs.
In what ways are they different? We’d need an objective measure to discern their differences. What could serve that purpose? We could look to research on beliefs and moral development. We could use models such as spiral dynamics that show how different value systems can be meaningfully compared and contrasted.
i am really enjoying your explorations! thanks for sharing
Hi Nicole! Welcome to my burgeoning blog. I have many things I want to blog about and I’ll eventually get around to them. I keep getting distracted by pod discussions and other people’s blogs. Joining Gaia, I was really clueless about how time-consuming this place would be.
I have something to add to this agnostic/atheist dichotomy. All of the people I’ve mentioned(including Julian) probably think of themselves as agnostics. I remember seeing Jim say that he was agnostic.
I’ve been a member of several agnostic/atheist discussion boards and so I’m familiar with the subtle distinctions between and varieties therein. I’m of the opinion that no one is theist, atheist, or agnostic in an absolute sense. For instance, a Christian is theistic about a New Testament monotheistic God, but is atheistic about all other gods including monotheistic Gods of other religions. And some Christians are agnostic about the theological claim that Jesus is entirely identical with God.
I most often only use the terms ‘theist’, ‘atheist’, and ‘agnostic’ in reference to belief-claims rather than to people. Everyone has certain belief-claims they believe strongly, certain belief-claims they disbelieve strongly, and certain belief-claims they’re uncertain about.
In this light, Jim and Julian seem to be ‘atheistic’ in terms of actively disbelieving reincarnation. They might be agnostic in their general attitude, but just not on this specific issue.
I’ve been somewhat following the integral discussions going on Julian’s blog and elsewhere such as the one about Derrida. I must say that I haven’t felt inspired to join in. Sometimes I love to philosophize and tease out subtle distinctions of abstract thought, but it isn’t doing much for me at the moment. This blog entry was motivated by a sense of disatisfaction. I hold nothing against all those involved in the discussions, and I even find the intellectual play slightly amusing. But it doesn’t get at the core of what feels important to me. I think that is why I’ve been talking about agnosticism.
The openess of agnosticism feels much closer to my sense of spirituality. Questions speak to my heart. Whereas, the answers to questions speaks only to my mind. I’m happier when I feel a connection with my heart and I prefer answers that point back to questions. Hence, my love of extreme agnosticism.
There is only one discussion about integral that inspired much of a response from me. Its titled Consciousness and the mind/body problem. But my response there was also sorta critical.
I think my biggest diffiulty is with the idea that believing in an invisible dragon in the garage, in the form of theism, is the default. I resist having to identify myself as “adragonistic” or “antidragon” either…I don’t get that I should wonder whether there is an invisible dragon in my garage, or to think about imaginary gods in any serious way either.
My default mode is agnosticism. If I can’t prove an invisible dragon lives in the garage, then I won’t believe in it. If I can’t prove an invisible dragon doesn’t live in the garage, then I won’t believe that either.
Nothing is forcing me to believe such things one way or another. Neither belief gives me any advantage in living my life. If an invisible dragon can’t be proved, then it can’t have an effect on me and so is of no concern to me. There all kinds of things that exist and don’t exit that are of no concern to me. And if it can’t be disproved, then making claims against it is a waste of my time.
On the other hand, the claims for and against God/gods is different which is something Jonny Bardo pointed out. To compare theism with invisible dragon worship is extreme(and probably unhelpful) relativism. If you haven’t had an experience of divinity(however you describe it), then you haven’t. The simplest(and maybe the most honest) claim is that you lack experience and leave it at that. A lack of experience isn’t the same thing as an experience of a lack. To say you’ve experienced the lack of God seems absurd to me. Only an experience of the opposite of God(an anti-God… sorta like an anti-particle) could be used as evidence to disprove God. And I doubt you(or Julian) is claiming to have experienced the opposite of God.
To summarize, the advantage of agnosticism is that you don’t have to identify yourself either way. Agnosticism simply means that you don’t know, and at its best its a very humble attitude. If I can’t admit what I don’t know, then how can I ever be clear about what I actually do know?
I’m unsure about whether we’re disagreeing or not. I think there is an issue of semantics going on. Agnosticism and atheism aren’t clear terms in their general use. I suspect that what you’re thinking of as agnostic isn’t what I mean by it. What I mean by agnosticism may be closer to what you mean by atheism. According to more precise definitions, I’m a weak agnostic and a weak atheist.
i don’t consider myself atheistic toward other ways of looking at God. I don’t worship a different God from the one worshipped by Jews or Muslims. We have different branches of the same basic religion. I don’t believe in polytheism but I believe that polytheism is a way to try to account for the complexity of God, so sympathize with it in that sense.
Sorry about that. I wasn’t meaning that as a generalizing statement about all Christians. In my mind, I was meaning the average mainstream Christian, the traditional sense of Christian as exclusive of other religions. As of recent, I’ve slowly become more comfortable with thinking of myself as Christian. I fell into the habit of not thinking of myself as Christian because I don’t fit into the standard Christian mould. Labels aren’t that important to me anyways. Christian or not, its all good.
In line with my attitude about labels, I don’t really care whether someone thinks in terms of monotheism or polytheism or whatever. I have faith that pretty much every religion is getting at the same basic insight. Anyways, I think every religion has a core truth that is considered to be unifying. The Christians have their God or Godhead, the Daoists their Dao, the Hindus their Brahman, the Native Americans their Great Spirit. Et cetera.
Polytheism and Monotheism aren’t really that far apart. Its just a difference of emphasis. Catholics are pretty polythesitc from my perspective, and I’d guess that most Hindus are as monotheistic as most Christians. Most of the gods in Hinduism are more like the angels and saints in Christianity, and likewise for the Buddhas and Boddhisatvas. For instance, Krishna is considered by his followers to be the source of all including the other ‘gods’. And the Trinity isn’t all that different from many ‘polytheistic’ notions of the divine.
Theology points toward spiritual experiences that transcend all theology. Finger pointing at the moon and all that. Religion, like all products of humanity, is only a rough approximation of Reality… sort of like how a holy book(whether inspired by God or not) isn’t God… or at least no more than I am these words you’re reading.