Thursday, August 24, 2006

Finding the Center & Diversity

"Even within the framework of mutual tolerance, I believe that there are non-negotiable rules understood by all groups," she said.

"Those who seek to cause conflicts and tension in our communities must be marginalised by the responsible majority.

"That means everyone needs to be involved."link

Nope, those words don't refer to BT (& you are hereby commanded to NOT think of how they possibly might) -- they're from British Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, questioning the values of multi-culturalism. Which, in a roundaboutway relates back to the gated-community discussions. It's a questioning I fear will become more prevalent in the States in the coming years. One of it's more insidious aspects is how remarks like hers get bandied about (esp. in a climate of fear) as 'common sense,' that manipulative 'value' Booman himself was calling for the other day in the threads here:

"In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation from each other with no common bonds between them?"

communities living in isolation from each other with no common bonds is NOT the result of multi-culturalism; in fact it's in opposition to those values. The answer to isolated mono-cultural communities will NOT be found in some nationalistic singlular identity. That she can ask whether multiculturalism (can we call it an "-ism"?) "is encouraging separateness" should indicate the depth of her misunderstanding about what a truly pluralisitic society might become or look like, as well as the dangers these linguistic frames herald. The implied preference for a nationalistic identity that submerges if it doesn't totally obliterate diversity holds, in the words of Penguin (below), "a swarm of untested assumptions." Though I wonder if those assumptions haven't been by now thoroughly tested and found short, but are still clung to anyways despite apparent failure?

Identity Politics are a necessary endeavour and can offer the jumping-off point for the listening, sharing, exchanging & borrowing that doesn't submerge the different & unique in quest of assimilation, that Grail known in the US as the Melting Pot. Gumbo with discernable ingredients is so much more satisfying than puree anyday.

Reality (as in the words of Ms. Kelly) too is often more satisfying leavened with fiction. The following "letter," written in 1979, is from an open-ended, epistolary novel (From A Broken Bottle Traces Of Perfume Still Emanate). The setting is when the band, the Mystic Horn Society, goes down to the local record store to 'face their critics.'

24. IX. 79

Dear Angel of Dust,

Funny what a odor can do. This afternoon in the produce section of the supermarket I bent over between the oranges and the nectarines and unexpectedly caught a brief whiff of what was exactly the scent of the Nago incense David used to bring back from New York four years ago. I wouldn't exactly call what I went into a swoon, but it did carry me back to the night he and I sat up late drinking port and listening to the album of Tunisian music he'd brought over.

In any case, I'm writing not so much to play Proust as to tell you about the, press conference we held this morning. The band decided it was time we confronted our critics face to face, so we reserved some space down at Rhino Records, the hip record store in town, and sent out invitations. A pretty large crowd showed up. The people at Rhino were nice enough to provide refreshments, so it turned out to be something of an event. Things got under way with a fellow from one of the local radio stations clearing his throat to say that while he admitted being "somewhat uninformed" on recent developments in music the trouble he has with our compositions is their tendency to, as he put it, "go off on tangents." He then said that "a piece of music should gather rather than disperse its component parts" but insisted that he wasn't asking that our music be made easier exactly, "Just more centered somehow," etc.

This line of argument was a piece of cake, as they say, for Lambert, who sat fidgetting, smirking and jotting notes on the back of an album cover he'd been looking at the whole time this fellow spoke. (I have to give Lambert credit, knowing his temper, for even hearing him out.) Anyway, the guy did at last finish, at which point three people back towards the budget classical section applauded. Lambert stared at them a moment, then began by saying that all the talk of being "more centered" was just that, talk, and had long ago become too easy to throw around anymore. He then asked what, or where, was this “center" and how would anyone know it if it were there. He went on, tilting his chair back on its hind legs, folding his arms across his chest and saying that he wasn't sure anyone had anything more than the mere word "center," that it didn't simply name something one doesn’t have and thus disguises a swarm of untested assumptions about. Then he shifted his argument a bit, saying that if our music does have a center, as he could argue it indeed does, how would someone who admits being "somewhat uninformed" recognize it, that maybe the fellow from the radio station wasn't saying anything more than that our music churns out of a center other than his, one he's unfamiliar with. He pointed out that, as he put it, "you don't know any center you don't go to" and finished the matter off by rising from his chair, wagging a very preacherly right index finger and admonishing, "But if, 'somewhat uninformed,' you refuse to make the journey to that center and instead pontificate on its need to be 'more centered,' then you're asking for nothing if not an easier job, that your work be done by someone else, that our music abandon its center and shuffle over to yours." With that he sat down to cheers and stamping of feet from the folk imports section.

Next a fortyish, not bad looking lady from one of the neighborhood weeklies spoke up. She had a lazy way of talking-not a drawl exactly, but a way of almost retracting what she had to say. And not exactly lazy either, considering the care she took, the effort it must have taken to sustain (like a sigh, only longer) that blase way of speaking she took for charm.

Anyway, what she had to say was that she considered herself not a critic but a fan of our music, but that she wondered why we couldn't, to quote her, "place the music within the context of the whole culture, rather than just the African, Asian and generally 'Third World' references you like to make. " She sat down and those of us at the table, the members of the band, looked around at one another for a moment. Finally Heidi, whom I don't think I've mentioned before but who plays violin and congas and also calls herself Aunt Nancy, spoke up. "All I can say"-- she said, "is that the culture you're calling 'whole' has yet to assume itself to be so except at the expense of a whole lot of other folks, except by presuming that what they were up to could be ignored at no great loss." She went on to accuse the lady of "speaking right from the heart of that exclusionary sense of dichotomy to even ask such a question." There was a bit of rumbling at the back of the room but she went on. "What makes you think of Africa, Asia and other parts of the world," she asked, raising her voice, standing up and putting her hand on her hip, "as not a part of 'the whole culture'? What makes you feel excluded by our sources if not the exclusionistic biases of the culture you identify as 'whole' boomeranging back at you?" The lady from the neighborhood weekly blushed, and Heidi (or Aunt Nancy) went on to say that while she was standing she might as well reply to something in the first guy who spoke's remarks which'd bothered her. And what she said she said so eloquently I have to quote her again. "I don't know where you get this business of gathering vs. dispersing," she argued, turning to the fellow from the radio station, "the sense of them as an either/or proposition, one a choice against the other. We inhale as well as exhale, the heart dilates as well as contracts. Those of us in the band want music that shows similar signs of life. You may want something different, something more modest maybe, but your modesty betrays its falseness, shows itself to be the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing it is, when you saddle up your high horse to tell the rest of us we have to likewise lower our sights." She then took a drink of water and sat down. Again there was applause. This time from some people over near the used reggae bin.

Well, things went on pretty much like that, back and forth, for three hours or so. I'd go into more detail-and maybe at some other time I will-but I've begun to get hungry, so I have to bring this to a halt. But that reminds me: You may be wondering what Penguin had to say during the press conference. I forgot to tell you he wasn't there. Yesterday, as you know, was John Coltrane's birthday. Penguin, by way of homage and celebration, insisted on eating three sweet-potato pies, just as Trane did one afternoon in Georgia in the late forties when he was in the Cleanhead Vinson band. We all warned him but he wouldn't listen, so he ended up sick and had to have his stomach pumped. Won't get out of the hospital till tomorrow, perhaps even later.

I'll be in touch.

Yours truly,


fr. Nathaniel Mackey's Bedouin Hornbook, pp. 10-13 (Callaloo, 1986)


catnip said...

We want a vernacular in art. No mere verbal or formal agreement, or dead level of uniformity but that comprehensive and harmonizing unity with individual variety which can be developed among people politically and socially free.
Walter Crane

DuctapeFatwa said...

Thank you for such an excellent rant! We have hit the big time now!

But reading it, I find myself wondering if anti-Otherism could be a gene. I cannot remember a time when I did not enjoy getting to know people from different places, different cultures.

The Koran tells us that God made us different tribes that we might know each other.

The diversity of our species is a gift. I have read many volumes of ologists attempting to explain anti-Otherism, nad perhaps this is because I am a simple old man, but it still does not make any sense to me.

catnip said...

"When I was a hippy I hated all the straight people and blamed them for the suffering in the world. Then when I was communist-oriented I hated all the rich people. Then when I supported the black movement I was against all the white people and then when I was a feminist I was against all the male people. Then I realized there was no one left to hate."
- Robina Courtin

Some people just haven't run out of other people to hate yet.

scribe said...

I don't think anti-Otherism is genetic. I believe it is learned. How else to explain two little girls, one black, one white, who beame best friends from the day they met in a large diverse urban day care setting, and stayed best friends for years, but who no longer are friends at all? One was my grandaughter. They were driven apart in by racism that flowed both ways. I drew the lovely task of trying to comfort a little grandaughter in tears, asking why the black kids hated her and why her friend didn't like her anymore. The fact was, they both had to choose, between acceptance by their peers, and each other.

NLinStPaul said...

A very wise teacher once told me that I would never truly embrace "others" and be able to fight "anti-otherness" until I embraced myself.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but I think it goes right along with what Arcturus is saying about our ill-defined "center." As a white US citizen, what I am taught to do is assume my center is the "default" center position for everyone. Until I can take that out - examine and define it - I can never recognize the center of others. And until I do that, all I bring to the discussion is white priviledge and US exceptionalism - and be totally unaware that this is what I am doing. In this sense, it is my being ignorant of my own center that feeds that anti-otherness.

Hope that makes some sense. We really don't even have much by way of language to talk about this. Or at least I don't.

Arcturus said...

Marvelous quotes, catnip! The prison Liberation Project of Robina Cortin looks interesting.

Thanks to DtF for the opportunity to post in this forum. Hatred & prejudice seem to be the spawn of fear & ignorance. The latter can be readily educated, as NL points out. Even the more animalistic responses to fear can be re-learned or re-directed, much in the same way that the violent can be 're-programmed' through anger management techniques. The trick is how to translate indivdual techniques to a societal-level.

(Our language, our grammar, can lead us into traps. When we talk about "The" center, rather than "A" center (implying a multiplicty), we have inadvertently created an abstract entity, one which we'll then strive to describe, define, categorize and strive after. When we talk about "the car" instead of "a car," we are being more specific, not less. When we talk about "the center" rather than "a center" we are postulating an abstract ideal that may not exist at all, though many centers may well be found. Try this exercise with the word truth.

Two little words we almost don't notice, two of the most common words in use, that can reflect a world-view in the simple choice of using one over the other. . .

catnip said...

Very true, Arcutus. And the tendency to look at "the center" or "a center" as a rigid, fixed point without allowing for growth and change adds to the confusion as well.

This mysterious "center" is an animated thing. In politics, for example, someone who championed slavery back in the days when it was deemed as being acceptable simply sat in the center point of the day. They were eventually moved to the side when policies and attitudes changed.

Art, of course, has gone through many phases of an accepted center throughout time as has music, social norms, so-called morality, laws etc etc.

I guess one could say (in a zen way): effectively, there is no center when it comes down to it.

scribe said...

Or perhaps there are immeasurable numbers of centers and that very few are exactly alike, even among those who gather around a perceived shared center.

For anyone then, to presume to own the right to "judge" anothers center as good or bad, better or worse than thier own, is as stupid as a a mouse presuming to judge that being a mouse is far superior to being a lion, and then trying to rid the world of those nasty lions.

Animals don't operate that way, however. Sure they eat each other. But not because the think they're better than their prey or that their prey do not deserve a place on this earth.

Judgementalism. The inate belief that one has a "right" to judge the worth of others, seems a uniquely human trait. America is rotten to the core with this dis-ease, but it's not just America's all human beings who still believe the "center" of where they exist, is better than the center where their neighbor comes from.

catnip said...

Or perhaps there are immeasurable numbers of centers and that very few are exactly alike, even among those who gather around a perceived shared center.

I think that's true as well. Good point.

Judgementalism. The inate belief that one has a "right" to judge the worth of others, seems a uniquely human trait.

Which is based on insecurity, although there's something to be said for insecurity (See: Allan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity). However, his concept is more one of being willing to realize that things aren't really what they may appear to be and that that ought to be embraced. It's not about the type of fear-based insecurity that causes people to find that security by propping themselves up on the supposed unworthiness of others; which brings us back around to politics, war, terrorism and Bush - the master fearmonger who keeps America divided by perpetuating fear-based insecurity. The effect he's had on America's psyche is dangerous.

When he said that the Iraq war is straining peoples' psyche last week, I darn near threw something at the teevee. It's he and his neocons and supporters actions that are causing the strain - and they do it knowingly.

There's a difference between judging individuals based on facts and judging them based on prejudices that simply rely on pre-conceived notions.

Back in the day, Jean Jacques Rousseau in "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men" concluded that the main difference between humans and animals is that humans possess vanity - a prime source of insecurity as well.

(Although dissecting such a simple point from such an extensive essay doesn't really do justice to all of Rousseau's thinking on the matter.)

Regardless, if we're unable to get to the root causes of our divisions and address them appropriately, we can never really heal. We're still quite a primitive species when it comes to actually living enlightenment.

I'm rambling...I need more tea...

Janet said...

offers Catnip some peanut butter cookies to go along with the tea.

Arcturus, I read this yesterday and have been totally floored (in a good way) about "a" and "the" and how that does impact how we do and see things. Thank you! Peanutbutter cookies for you, too. :)

catnip said...

Woohoo! Thanks. :)

DuctapeFatwa said...

Just for the benefit of any literal-minded lurkers, I do not really think anti-Otherism is genetic.

I do think it is possible that there could be some genetic pre-disposition to be more or less easily enculturated. For example, every culture has its mavericks, its eccentrics, and that may be genetic, maybe the mappers will find out and tell us.