I was seventeen the first time I packed a suitcase and headed off into the unknown by myself. (Well, technically with an exchange student group, but really by myself, because I hadn’t known any of those people long and wasn’t close to any of them.)
Even then, this wasn’t the first time I’d met different cultures or had to adjust my perception of the world.
This is because – heaven help me – I was born in a country so small that if you want to swing anything larger than a kitten, you have to have a passport. When my dad showed me Portugal on the globe when I was three, it was the size of his pinky nail.
And yet, as small as it is, it has fossilized cultures and subcultures. I thought I could speak normal every day Portuguese, until I found myself at six, in the classroom, realizing I had no clue what the standard word for bathroom was, because we didn’t use it around the house.
In fact, by the end of that year, I’d learned almost an entire second language. Add to that that written Portuguese was a different dialect than spoken Portuguese, and it was a year of acculturation. As was, six years later, when I went to school at a magnet school in what was called the “Hollywood” area of the big city next to the village, because it was where all the big mansions were. Again, there were different ways of behaving and being in the world.
But beyond that, every Summer Portugal gets infested with tourists, rather like my current city does. (How do you answer a tourist asking where Pikes Peak is? “First, you go to Pueblo.”)
Only these are foreign tourists. And since I was learning languages, I was doing translating to and from mostly English, but sometimes French and Italian from about the age of fifteen.
On top of that I read books. A lot of books that weren’t set in Portugal. Books set in England, the US, Australia, Romania, France, Poland.
All of which is to try to explain why half the time when I hear people talk about world politics, or about where we’re headed or about anything at all having to do with mass scale culture and culture change, with interactions between cultures, with individual reactions to cultural events, my back brain locks into a kind of “argh.” And that’s all I can think “argh.”
Look, perhaps it is a very bad thing that the most advanced culture of our time (us, the French just THINK they are) and the one with the most outsized influence, is a continent-spanning, relatively uniform (shush. Yeah, I know the differences. Shush) culture.
I find after living here for a few decades, I too am starting to think in terms of “the US is the world.”
The US isn’t the world. This is obvious, if you think about it a moment, but most people never do.
This is not just the other side of the political divide where they obsess about cataloguing just every kind of sexual orientation possible (and some impossible) and detail the rights for them, as though this is the way to the future… All the while sweetly unaware that in 99% of the world the notion is not just morally laughable, but laughable period. Most of the rest of the world isn’t rich enough to worry about such frills. They’re too busy surviving.
It is true for our side too, because the extreme Libertarians think that if the US stops caring about the rest of the world no one will attack us, which is a delusion that denies the rest of the world the right of free agency, free culture, and ways of thinking that are markedly different from ours. Meanwhile the small l libertarians and the conservatives, in their most despondent times talk about how the US is now a dictatorship or the equivalent, thereby revealing they know bloody nothing about dictatorships or even mild unpleasantness. (Oh, I think we should fight for every inch of liberty and individual determination taken from us, don’t get me wrong. But don’t go imagining we’re anywhere as bad as the rest of the world.)
And then there’s the international comparisons. Oh, sweet baby Buddha the international comparisons and studies.
I’ve mentioned before how seriously ya’ll take the numbers you get from abroad. You wouldn’t if you knew the fifty million ways they can be fudged, and are. Oh, not to fool you, but because other countries are really different.
Look, France has three kinds of “murder” and only one is counted as “murder-murder” in statistics, while we count it all as murder.
And Portugal – Oh, if I hear one more hopeful question about how great legalizing drugs in Portugal must be because look how arrests have pummeled… I’m going to remind the person how great Obamacare has been for job creation. Because now full time jobs are part time, so everyone works two jobs. Yeah. In the same way Portugal decriminalized drugs. That means there are fewer arrests for drugs. So… um… yeah. I’m not saying this might not be a good thing. I don’t live there, so I don’t know. Though the last time I was over it seemed to me they had a massive drug problem, kind of like here in the early seventies. BUT that was an impression, and I have no data. Neither does anyone else.
So why does all this upset me?
Well, it upsets me in books. Heinlein does it, but his future history provided for a sort of universal Americanization of the world. Most writers don’t. They just assume things are the same everywhere. In the future, we are using the same forms and fashions, the same demarcations of adulthood and accomplishment, as we do in the US now.
But more than that it upsets me in politics.
If the left stopped and thought for a moment, they would realize their “progress” is not actually proceeding everywhere in the same direction; it’s not starting from the same place; and the idea of an international society is a pipe dream.
However, it took Heinlein taking a world tour to fully get it. Before that he’d assumed, like most Americans, that it wasn’t that different. After his world tour, he understood that things like the UN can’t and won’t work because people had different aims, interests and specialties.
As for the right… I don’t think any of you realizes how close Europe is to snapping. We tend to judge them for ourselves, but the Charlie Hebdo thing bit deep, and they’re going through a sort of crisis of their own, anyway, before that.
And I don’t think anyone realizes just how different the texture of life is elsewhere.
If you did, you’d understand why America won’t be left alone. America is the clean, shoe-wearing kid in the playground. The fact he washed in the river and made his shoes himself, out of bark, won’t save him. On the contrary, because it means they too could have done it, if they’d tried. And then that kid is weird. Instead of believing in the sovereignty of blood, or of caste, it believes in this individuality and freedom thing.
So the other kids will keep poking. They have too. We’re too different.
Only by knowing how different we are can we be a model, instead of an irritation. Only by looking further than our little differences and our petty categorizing of wants can we get anywhere.
I’m minded of the story Heinlein told in Have Spacesuit, when the kid has government studies in school, and they all decide every kid must have his own room.
At which point the father points out the family with more kids than house can’t comply, no matter how much they might want to. So that can’t be mandatory, because it can’t happen.
I wish our elites, who dream of a multi-gendered, multi-accepting, transnational world understood the only way their world would work is every one in it is an American. No other culture is equipped to even consider those as needs. (Oh, the rest of the Anglosphere, maybe, but not like America.)
They are sophisticated, and they have friends abroad, and they’ve traveled.
But in their sophistication, they never realize they don’t see beyond the surface. They’re blinded by what they think they know and what they’ve been told is true.
Too blind to see the real amazing diversity of cultures out there. And the way in which they’re their own microcosmos, self-directed and capable of decisions we can’t control.
Maybe then they’d understand that hating America is hating the only hope for achieving everything they hold dear.
And maybe they’d start their civilizing process.