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Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Take the High Road, You Take the Low Road and I'll Take Whichever One Gets Me There Faster.

I just got back from attending my sister's wedding in Ankara, Turkey. which is not an excuse for my blogosphere absence, it's the background for what I want to talk about today. My family has lived as expats in Turkey for twenty one years now and I lived in Ankara for ten of those years (1990-2000). So going back for the wedding was going home in many ways. We stayed at my parents house and the whole week was something of a mini-family reunion for us all.

While we were there I spent a good deal of time walking around the city and just enjoying Turkey and it's culture; the good, the bad and the ugly. Which got me thinking about the way we approach culture here in the US. Generally it seems as though the typical American (if there is such a beast) will adopt one of two views towards foreign culture: ethnocentrism or multiculturalism - the pedant in me is insisting that I apologize that these are not strictly antithetical terms what with one having "ethnicity" as its root while the other centers around "culture" - But I don't really like either of those approaches.
Let me do a little defining. As I see it, ethnocentric Americans are generally convinced that America has already arrived at the cultural peak of human existence. Our culture is the best there is because... well... it's ours, gosh darn it! And anyway, look at all the things we have been able to do because of it. Am'rcan culture landed a man on the moon, won two world wars, and spent the Soviet Union into a not-early-enough grave. Ethnocentric Americans do sometimes show and interest in other cultures but usually this is done either to study them as curiosities, to mock them as bizarre and inferior, or to figure out how to gain some sort of edge (these days usually educational or athletic) over them.

Multiculturalist (spell check says I coined a word there) Americans are much more humble. They will be the first to tell you (and tell you, and tell you, and tell you, and tell you) that American culture is just one culture among equals and that all cultures are their own beautiful selves and that they cannot really be compared in any qualitative way unless of course you are willing to admit that American culture is the worst possible because we have lots of nasty, racist, oppressive tendencies so that, come to think of it, you can sort of rate cultures as being better or worse in so far as they differ from ours which is clearly at the bottom because all those ethnocentric Americans clearly want nothing more than to rise up and conquer the whole world under one vast red-white-and blue golden arch, riding wiener mobiles and throwing cold pepsi cans at defenseless, illiterate, two year old shamans in the heart of Papua New Guinea just before we force them to watch 48 straight hours of Saved By the Bell.

In case you haven't noticed, I don't really identify with either of these approaches. I am what anthropologists call a third-culture-kid. I grew up as an American in a foreign culture. The result, at least for me, has been that I like to cherry pick cultures. As I grew up, Mom and Dad would tell me that certain practices, tendencies and assumptions were either American or Turkish (or from one of the scores of international students I went to school with). I would then decide whether or not I liked that particular aspect of the given culture and either reject it as a bad idea or try to adopt it. And I have maintained that practice to this day: When I run into a new culture or cultural practice I usually do my best to understand it, appreciate it and then throw out everything I think is bad or damaging about it, recognize the beauty of the practices and attitudes that are left and then try to find a few "gems" I can harvest from it and incorporate into my own worldview and family culture.

Thus I really appreciate and try to emulate the American "can do" spirit along with the western "protestant work ethic" and the importance of taking responsibility for my own actions. I have a huge admiration for Turkish concepts of hospitality and friendship which go far deeper into a person's self-image and worldview than the more American versions of good manners and acquaintanceship. At the same time, I am perfectly happy insisting that the Turkish cultural understanding of fate and it's twisted concepts of male sexual honor, are disgusting and have no place in a healthy person's worldview. American consumerism and the value we place on things over relationships are disgusting and damaging as well.

This all feels very freeing to me. I see what multiculturalists call the tapestry of cultures as something more like a gold mine. There are so many ways of seeing the world and doing life out there and the world has become so much smaller in the last hundred years, that we now have this exciting opportunity to evaluate cultures, process them, harvest what is good, beautiful and helpful, and get rid of what is evil, disgusting and hurtful (female circumcision anyone?). While my ethnocentric friends frustrate themselves trying to defend every piece of America as "vastly superior to anything they have" and my multicultural friends tie themselves in knots trying to explain that it is right and proper for some cultures to treat women like property, I get to step back and condemn what is evil and enjoy what is good.
What do you think? Is my approach worthwhile or am I committing terrible, intolerant act here? I am particularly interested in hearing from any other third-culture people who read this; have you had similar experiences?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sex and ....Great Books and..... Thomas Aquinas?

Dr. Kreeft. Lookin' all awesome
I recently read a Peter Kreeft essay on sexual morality and the liberal arts. Given that those are both matters of some interest for me (my grad school gets mentioned in a particularly positive light in the piece) and that I think his ideas are thought provoking at the least (and possibly quite illuminating) I thought I would give a brief summary and some of my own reaction to it here at heaven and earth questions, send y'all over to Dr. Kreeft's site to read the actual essay, and invite you back here to comment.

Quick note for full transparency: I am generally a big fan of Dr. Kreeft and most of his writing. His modern scholar class on St. Thomas Aquinas is great, and I have not found a better C.S. Lewis scholar than him.
Alright, with the disclaimers out of the way, lets charge ahead. In this essay Dr. Kreeft points out that the sexual revolution in the west was generally concurrent with a decline in appreciation for what we generally refer to as "liberal education" and specifically for the study of the great books. He recognizes that correlation does not equal causation and so He argues that both of these events are results of a common cause: a decline in our cultures tendency to value truth for it's own sake.
I went to school here. You should too.
As I understand him, he is arguing that when a person (or culture) values truth and the discovery of truth as an end in itself, - a value he identifies as being at the core of a liberal arts education - that person or culture is much more likely to see other thing, especially the good and the beautiful, as ends in themselves. Thus if we value truth for it's own sake, not as a means to some other end, we are also likely to value other people, sexual partners and even sex itself as distinct metaphysical entities which we will then value for their own sakes rather than as means to some other end (generally our own pleasure or fulfillment).
These are books
Now I am somewhat exited about this line of thinking because it would fit really well with a thesis I have been working on wherein I want to argue that we need to return to a pre-modern paradigm wherein we begin with metaphysics, asking what things are before we ask how they can be used or how we can know about them. So if Dr. Kreeft is right, then the reason I am so drawn to Liberal Arts education and so "squeemish" about newer sexual ethics, is that I want to discover the truth of what things are, to value things for their own natures and not as means to some other end.

But what do y'all think? Does Dr. Kreeft have point? Is he just dead wrong about everything? About some things? Does his approach to these issues fit more into a pre-modern paradigm? Is a pre-modern worldview worth pursuing?

Monday, July 4, 2011

I'm so Sorry for what Bob did to you!

  So today is America's Independence day and I imagine that there are thousands of blog posts going up with an independence day theme. I suspect that most of these posts will be either patriotic or political. What I am thinking of as patriotic will probably be reflections on the benefits and responsibilities of being American or will be a sort of anti-patriotism wherein people bemoan the many atrocities and injustices our country has committed.  The political posts will be just that, political. They will be making use of the day to push some agenda which will be backed by a sort of mild-jingoistic sentiment. And I actually have no problem with any of these approaches; I think that today is a good day to reflect on our country. It is a perfectly worthwhile topic, it bears thinking about, and the holiday celebrating it's birth is certainly an appropriate occasion. But that's not quite what I hope to do with my post today.
  Earlier this morning, I read C.S. Lewis' essay:  Dangers of National Repentance from God in the Dock. What he said there really struck home with me so I thought it might be worth discussing here, echoing the points as I understand them and then throwing the question out to y'all to see if you have observed similar things.
  Lewis wrote the essay on an occasion when England was considering the the idea of repenting (basically saying they were sorry and accepting some of the guilt for) their part in causing the war. His basic message in the essay is that the problem with national repentance is that the wrong people are doing the repenting and the wrong people are resisting the repenting. He points out that the demographic most strongly in favor of this national repentance is the group of young intellectuals and religious/spiritual types. The problem, as he sees it, is that this demographic had nothing to do with causing the things they are so eager to repent of. Recognizing that this may not seem to be much of a problem at first glance (it's not really the end of the world for me to say sorry for something I had no part in; a little foolish or insensitive perhaps but not intrinsically catastrophic), Lewis points out that because these people had nothing to do with causing the war since they were to young to vote or influence popular opinion at the time, when they "repent" they are really blaming other people. He argues that this will cause them to look down on the people who really did have something to do with England's policies leading up to the war while simultaneously being able to veil their scorn with a sort of solidarity of regret. Thus they get to sound very pious and ethical by saying "we were wrong" while at the same time they escape any actual uncomfortable guilt because they can only mean by it "they were wrong".
  I found this pretty convicting. I am inclined to wonder how often I have tried to apologize (in the new sense, say I am sorry for) something I am not responsible for and in doing so have only been scorning (either purposefully or in ignorance) the people who were genuinely responsible for the acts I am apologizing for.
  Now, I realize that this interpretation of corporate repentance requires a decidedly individualistic approach to the concept of guilt. In fact it seems to deny corporate guilt in all circumstances other than when all members of the group are actually guilty of the relevant act. What do the rest of y'all think? Is corporate guilt a real thing? Can I really be guilty of or repent for things that other people who are associated with me by nationality, religious conviction, ethnicity, gender, or even family ties  have done? Is it actually wrong for me to try to repent for someone else's wrongs; in those terms it certainly seems ridiculous?
  Finally, how would you take it if I did it "for" you? Say you practiced some form of what you thought of as tough love on a mutual friend of ours. Then say I went up to them an apologized on "our" behalf for what you had done without consulting me. Would you be offended? Would you feel betrayed? Is there any way in which you think my doing that might be helpful to you, the mutual friend or to the situation as a whole? Would it make things better or worse if you thought you really had done something wrong?