Friday, June 10, 2011

When Culture Fails

This is not really a topic for a short blog and could easily become a book or even more, but I cannot help but think about it, however inadequately. It is clear that as human beings we are completely dependent upon those beliefs and behaviors, customs and traditions, skills and adaptations, symbols and meanings we develop over time to cope with the environments and demands we must live in wherever we are. With few if any instincts, no prescribed modes of behavior, we transmit and acquire extra-genetically the information, techniques, and skills we need to survive from one generation to the next. Living in relatively bounded communities our cultures reflect necessary differences. Thus Eskimo culture differs from that of the Plains Indians, and they from the Northwest Coast cultures, the Woodland Indians of the Northeast, and so on.

Interestingly enough, cultures do not generally fail their carriers, not, that is, if left alone. There is little or no reason to suppose that American Indian cultures, whether dependent upon the buffalo or the salmon, or incipient small-scale agriculture, or even on the seals and polar bears, or Australian aboriginal cultures dependent upon kangaroos and koala bears, or even Kalahari desert peoples hunting giraffes and elephants, all successful adaptations for hundreds, even thousands of year, would have failed had they not been overrun by more powerful and larger ones, bringing with them diseases, different weapons, firewater, greed and exploitation.

I suppose it is possible, certainly theoretically at least, that some traditional culture could have been so dysfunctional that it failed and disappeared entirely on its own, but basically cultures are functional rather than the opposite. I do not know of a case where dysfunctional elements within a culture were powerful enough to bring about its demise. Indeed, the whole purpose of culture is to prevent that from happening. Our culture is supposed to, and usually does, provide us the means we need to survive and flourish. It provides us with food, shelter, companionship, rules and regulations, beliefs, and the knowledge, that make human life possible. Although it is true there are other species that depend to a certain extent upon learning and experience, and sometimes pass on from adults to children certain skills, generally speaking, dependence upon a completely cultural mode of existence is species specific, and species, like cultures, are not ordinarily self-destructive.

I would suggest, however, we may be witnessing for the first time a culture so dysfunctional as to be self-destructive. The culture of the contemporary United States of America may be just that. Somehow over time the positive virtues of culture, those that provide the wherewithal for the members to survive and flourish, have been slowly disappearing. The idea that culture is supposed to provide for its members has been lost and replaced by the idea it should provide only for certain elite members. Our current “leaders” no longer even pretend to look after the common good, the welfare of all, the community. How did this come about? In its simplest form I believe the explanation has to do with the fact that culture, in its most basic conception, is a not-for-profit phenomenon. The invention, or creation if you will, of human culture as a distinctive human adaptive mechanism, a species specific mode of life making human life possible, did not include, need, or require, a profit motive. Once profit enters into the system, unless it is carefully regulated and controlled, the seeds of destruction are already sown, the die has been cast, the outcome is predictable, and we are experiencing this at the present time. Our culture is imploding, we are suffering from chronic and probably unsolvable unemployment (without significant changes to our basic economic system), we have incurred massive debt (mostly from unfunded “wars” seeking profits), our distribution of wealth is abnormally and indecently skewed, our environment is sadly neglected along with our basic infrastructure, our children are hungry and poorly educated, masses of citizens have no health care, are homeless and lack even basic security, and our leaders are determined to maintain the status quo or even make it worse. If culture is meant to fulfill basic human needs and allow us as an “instinctless” species to survive, our culture no longer functions to meet that requirement. Looking at an even broader picture I am tempted to think that we are in fact a failed species, or at least a failing one, but as there seem to be pockets of humans here and there still living much as they always have, that would appear to be overkill. While it may be too late for us to live happy and meaningful lives, more intelligent members of the species may survive and perhaps even flourish.

Every culture has its distinctive and normal system of government. Yours is democracy, moderated by corruption. Ours is totalitarianism, moderated by assassination.
Unknown Russian

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