Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
We the People.” Why is this particular phrase in the U.S. Constitution highlighted with a larger font size and a place of privilege as the document's opening text?
Politically, the phrase changed history. Just a century prior, Louis XIV claimed during the height of absolutism: “I am the State.” In a complete reversal, this document claimed that the people constituted the state, not the DNA of a particular family.
Several “thinkers” contributed to this revolution, among them, Thomas Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Thomas Paine, but perhaps none more important than John Locke. John Locke formulated the idea of the social contract and championed the notion of “government with the consent of the governed.” According to Locke, man, in his natural state, would contract with society and choose to be governed. Civilization would then take its natural course.
If government breaches the contract, men could rightfully replace the government. The premise here seems to be that society happens, after all, we are social beings. Surprisingly, we are not one big happy family of earthlings. As it would happen, all men have not assented to the same social contract. There is sufficient diversity among human beings to make the experience of one society very different from another. While Locke’s social contract is about creating legitimate government, we often lose sight of the other parties involved in the contract—the remaining individuals in the same society. They too are an important part of the proposition.
So how do we decide with whom to contract? Culture; Identity; Because we see ourselves in others and wish to live a familiar lifestyle. The premise underlying John Locke’s theory is culture. Culture is the natural force that leads us to society, permitting one to contract with government and the rest of society. We choose a particular society, not because of the government, but because of the other members of that society that will be party to the same contract. How do we discriminate between parties with which to contract? Our natural sense of culture. Culture is a critical variable in the formula for a successful and health democracy.
So, in the U.S. Constitution, who is it that is contracting with society, who are “We the People?”
Americans? Why not draft “We Americans?” In a document so carefully contrived, the use of “We the People” in lieu of other options cannot be coincidence. Would “We Americans” not have engendered greater cultural solidarity and manifested a new citizenship to a nascent sovereign state? It would say we are Americans, a Nation, not just a ragtag collection of people! Why not highlight “of the United States” also?
The “We Americans” option likely did not jive because the founding fathers had not a clue what it meant. Virginians were Virginians, Marylanders, Marylanders, and such. State culture was far stronger than federal culture. Life, values, etc, from state to state, north from south was very different despite having settled the continent over a century earlier.
What about other human beings on the planet? How do they identify themselves? The Spanish Constitution, for example, begins its preamble referring with “The Spanish Nation.” Well, what does that mean? You know. Put yourself in a vacuum, and erase your knowledge of their statehood and status as a Member State of the EU. The idea of a Spaniard still survives. They are a civilization, a Nation, a culture that to date has survived war, famine, invasion, atrocities, several forms of government, and several constitutions. Our sense of Spanish people does not hinge on their statehood. We naturally make sense of the world by grouping people, and things for that matter. (Note: There are distinct Nations/people/cultures living within Spain too.)
As I surveyed other constitutions, I found repeated use of both Nation and “the People of.” In romance languages, however, “the People of” can be directly translated to mean Nation. In a slightly different use of the language, the recently failed European Constitution’s preamble highlighted the need to preserve the cultural legacy of the several nations. You see, cultural elements do indeed pervade human political instruments and institutions.
So, for better or worse, are Americans a Nation like others? How could we be a Nation if we are a melting pot or a land of immigrants? An American can be many things, a native of Anglo-Saxon descent, black, a second generation purebred of another Nation who preserves the culture of the mother country, or a newly arrived and naturalized immigrant trying to live the American dream. None less American than the other, right? Everyone adheres to the same civic prescriptions in the U.S. Constitution, but beyond that . . . . The United States is a country, but a Nation? Comments.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Among other things, culture is identity; it separates thine from mine, us from them. It teaches us right from wrong and appropriate from inappropriate. Once indoctrinated, we live by these rules, which, in turn, constitute our identity.
Today, I posit a seemingly easy question. What is American civilization and cultural identity? What makes you American, or what makes an American one of “them” if you are not American?
No differentiation has been more legitimized over the course of human history than nationality. It is upheld by international law and validated by our own cultural perceptions. While “nation” is a hot political word in certain circumstances, nationality has traditionally implied cultural homogeny. Members of a nationality often share centuries of common history, tradition, language, food, music, folktales, subculture, etc. Time counts for something, no? Moreover, common genetic heritage often accompanies national cultural bonds. A brief glance at the sides participating in the UEFA Euro 2008 Finals exhibits readily apparent phenotypic similarities shared by members of a particular national team.
The United States is a very interesting nation from this perspective. The United States has been an independent state for approximately 232 years; the eastern seaboard has been regularly inhabited by westerners for roughly four centuries. Almost two dozen generations across four hundred years would certainly constitute enough time to develop an independent and unique national culture. Isolated by a large ocean and a sparsely inhabited continent, Americans seemed perfectly situated to allopatrically evolve a new culture. Today, Americans share a similar value system, common English accent, powerful sports and popular culture, and a strong sense of civic duty. Are Americans a traditional nation like any other? Do Americans have a common national culture, appearance or identity?
In proud recollection, the grandeur of American history has often been portrayed as the triumph of the underdog. It has been the celebration of the faceless indistinctive individual who, through indefatigable effort and perseverance, achieves success. America is not a single strain of homogeneity, but rather an olio of culturally discrete constituents. We are all familiar with the axiom: the United States is a melting pot of cultures, a land of only immigrants. Americans share the same space, but no American is less American for being dark or light skinned, for wearing a turban, fez, burqa, or for eating certain foods or even smelling a certain way. Unlike in other nations, an immigrant in America is virtually impossible to detect, since Americans are almost entirely of old-world immigrant heritage. The only question is: of which generation? Given that Americans are the most genetically and culturally diverse nation on Earth, it would appear that the only thing Americans have in common is that they have nothing in common.
What makes America, America then? Who helped realize the 20th century American golden age? Was it the quality of the actual Americans who had previously settled and toiled for a better society, or was it perpetual immigrant fidelity to the promise of the American dream—a timeless legacy that belongs to past and future generations of immigrant Americans? Is the image of the dirtied coal worker more iconically American than the Indian convenience store owner? Is an American's birthplace even relevant to being American?
While immigration policy has always been a polemic topic in the United States, the underlying issue is essentially a question of identity. Realizing that America is not a homogenous population requires accepting that being American is fundamentally about openness and common tolerance of other cultures. Rejecting this view requires the belief that there is a group of people that share a common history, phenotypic look, lifestyle, value system, etc. that is more legitimately American than those of any other persuasion in any of these categories. Being more American, this group of people would naturally enjoy a stronger claim to American soil and representation, no? Are we the children to the founding fathers or merely the founding fathers’ ideas?
Who is the real American? Consensus on this disjunction would go a long way towards solving several contemporary American problems.
Friday, June 6, 2008
The purpose of this blog is to explore the power of culture. While culture is many things across several fields of expertise, it is a fundamental variable in humanity's pursuit of civilization. To illustrate what I mean, take for example another such variable, the economy. Today, after Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and centuries of thought, societies consciously regulate their economy. The relevant question is: to what purpose? In my opinion, this is a question of civilization that may include many answers:
Existential: Because we can.
Social: To advance the common good.
Humanistic: To confer dignity to every human life.
Scientific: To redirect wealth to the advancement of science and discovery that are not at first necessarily profitable.
Economical: To reach the most efficient distribution of wealth.
Political: Because society demands it.
Whatever the answer to "why?" may be, it is clear to me that the economy is an inherent element of human social existence. It is a variable of our existence that society has collectively sought to attenuate so that we may all live in a more stable and predictable world—chemistry for engendering civilization.
The same idea may be applied to culture. Unlike the economy, it is an uncontrolled variable of human existence and civilization. Just as gravity and the law of supply and demand afflicted the populace before humanity was conceptually aware of these variables, today’s civilizations are conceptually unapprised as to power of culture over humanity.
I do not believe culture should be regulated by government. Rather, I think that the individuals that constitute a society must be responsible for its culture. Successful democratic government depends upon socially responsible individuals. To help people become responsible, I hope that through this blog, we can develop a framework to help make sense of the cultural forces that are at work in our globalized world. As humans find new and instantaneous ways to interact with each other, we have unknowingly amplified the influence that we unconsciously exert upon each other. Culture is a more potent force upon our civilization today than ever before. Accordingly, I believe that each one of us must have rational control over culture—the force that fashions our preferences and perceptions and that ultimately determines the course of our civilization.
Hopefully through discussion we can culturally dissect our world. Macrocosmically, I have no doubt that we will discuss popular culture, government, art, ecology, and humanity in general. Moreover, because we will need to understand the grasp culture has over the individual mind, I hope we will also touch on some neuroscience and the great mind-brain gap mystery.
My interest in this stems from the observation that we are all subject to two types of law. One is the written law, and the other, quite simply, is the unwritten law. Culture is the unwritten law. We may act or refrain from acting because it is required or proscribed by law. The rest of the time, which is the great majority of time we spend, we are either responding to our biological needs or the cultural guidelines. For example, I am a Washingtonian, so I like the Redskins. Why do I like the Redskins, or American football for that matter? I have no idea, I just do. One could easily go a lifetime without understanding the reason for this preference. Simply stated, the culture to which I have been exposed has programmed my brain to prefer the Redskins and act accordingly. On any given autumn Sunday, when deciding what to do, I will act or refrain from acting unmindful of this predisposition (unless of course I start thinking about culture). My mind and emotions will accordingly urge me to view the Redskins game. This would be my reality without thinking why it is my reality. The mind is unconsciously bound by culture.
It is my hope that we will all benefit from this discussion by better situating ourselves to question our personal beliefs and preferences. From the above example we could discuss why I like the Redskins, what this preference brings to the table, and how the spread of such a preference might affect our future civilization. Another way to look at the discussions here: We will hopefully explore the genealogy of ideas and beliefs entrenched within us. By looking at history and the origin of particular ideas, we will be poised for a more responsible existence. We are all victims of the past and our families, but we are also kneaders of future ideologies and cultural paradigms.
There is plenty more to be said on what I have written today. I believe that this is a good introduction to what I would like to accomplish and why it is important. Unlike other blogs/forums, I do intend to merely comment on current events without tying it to culture as a force that constrains our traditional notion of free will. I invite all to comment and help provide resources for further understanding.