Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The world is nothing like you've heard

My sister's email about gnoua music set me on a mission to learn more about this type of music, which is clearly very popular in Morocco, as well as Algeria. The weird thing is that I realized that I've actually listened to musicians playing this music in Nantes, at the foot of a 17th century church one weekend evening. If that's not a strange image, I'll also note that I was the only other one there.

Anyway, I also discovered Gnawa Diffusion, who play a more modern version of the music, and this very entertaining song. Why didn't I know about this stuff? And why is everything my sister tells me about Morocco so different from anything I've heard about Morocco before?

I know people who roll their eyes whenever the topic of "cultural diversity" comes up, and I think it's because there is something patronizing and compulsory about most "official" stabs at "diversity". One also gets the sense when hearing people rhapsodizing about "celebrating diversity" that they're really celebrating, or maybe consuming, that certain thrill of difference that can only continue to exist by maintaining a certain level of otherness, a certain distance. Observing cultural difference from behind a glass wall so as not to "spoil" another culture. It's somehow very chaste. The irony is that when you actually do engage with people from other cultures, before long they cease to be so diverse. "Celebrate diversity" could thus be taken to mean "keep to your own side of the sandbox".

On the other hand, why avoid cultural diversity? I mean, real cultural diversity, which is often stranger, more bracing, and much harder to pigeonhole than the corporte workshop version, is also a hell of a lot more interesting and fun than living in places where one culture dominates. I've lived in a few of those places and they were no fun, even when the culture was radically different from my own. The irony of the old time bigot's terror of cultural mixing and "decay" is that cultural systems collapse into intellectual entropy when they're closed, not open. Cultural purity is boring. If you don't think so, feel free to move to Amish country.*

The other thing is that the world is already much more diverse than it's usually portrayed in the supposedly diversity-centric media. I don't hate the mass media as much as other people do, but it needs to be said that you absolutely must visit a place in order to know what that place is like; the media is no help at all. Whenever I travel anywhere, I'm always struck by the same thought- "damn, this place is nothing like I've heard it is!" This isn't just the case with cultures that are underrepresented in the media, who rightfully complain about the lousy stereotypes; it's also the case when I visit the southern US, or the midwest, or even the major cities: they're never a damn bit like you've heard they are. Thus far, I'd actually say the portrayal of Southern American whites in the media is about the least accurate and most offensive of them all. But, nobody makes out well. The world is always different.

Even Canada has been this way for me. I mean, if you visited us, I could give you the "Canadian experience": take you to Niagara Falls and the Canadiana stage musical they have there, go watch a hockey game, listen to some Stompin' Tom, go to cottage country, and maybe even find a mountie, although I've never actually seen one. But, after a week, you'd figure out that Canada is nothing like you've heard it is. And it's nothing like I'd heard it is. In many ways, Canada reminds me of the US. But, then there are times when I think, "holy shit, is this place different".

I think it's because the media relies on a shorthand version of cultures. So, if they're showing the life of a fiesty Latina, or a stoic midwestern farmer, or an inner city B-boy, or whatever it is, they're always giving you the immediately recognizable, somehow dumbed-down, version of that culture. It's easy to absorb and entertaining because you're not challenged in any way. But, over time, people absorb those sterotypes. So, they see a television show in which there's, say, an aggressive macho Italian guy, and they think, "Ah, yes, that's very accurate." They end up like certain relatives of mine, who have never left rural Virginia, but who would tell me, "I think you're going to find that the French are very snobbish, and they hate all Americans!"

And then you end up with dueling stereotypes: the media (and that includes the Internet) stereotype versus the idealized "celebrate diversity" version. I think for me, honestly, I was just lucky enough to travel a lot at an age in which I was still young and horny; wanting to have sex with people from other cultures is a great incentive for cultural learning. Maybe this should be our model for cultural mixing: playing music together, drinking together, sleeping together, making lewd jokes- not being so hung up on maintaining our cultural purity or their cultural purity. It's more fun than the patronizing liberal pieties or the media's Amish villages.

And, again, the world is completely different from what you've heard it's like.

*I've only been to Amish country a few times, so I'm probably guilty here of just the sort of stereotyping that I'm making fun of. I have no excuse, although I am lucky that they don't have computers!


Holly said...

I think cultural diversity actually means being able to understand that other cultures besides your own are valid, viable, and worthy, and then being able to experience them in some way. Maybe the media version is just highly digestible... the cultural information version of baby food?

One of the problems with summing a place up is that there is such a vast chasm between visiting and living somewhere. If you want to know what it is like to visit somewhere, get a travel guide. Read Rick Steves. Check Wiki, whatever. If you want to know what it is like to live somewhere... you have to live there. Period.

No insider info in the world, no matter how detailed and intense, can convey what it feels like to wake up every morning at a certain latitude and longitude,with the sun coming in at that angle at that time on that day, and this angle at this time on this day. No way to convey what the neighbor's cooking smells like, or the experience of meeting someone's eyes on the street, or what it is like to pass the same graffiti every day and feel vaguely put off when one day it has been painted over.

Daily-ness is a COMPLETELY different aspect of a thing to landmarks and highlights tour.

Unless, you know, you're visiting Amish country. (Just being an ass here, of course.)

Rufus said...

It's funny because when you live places, you get to see the good and bad aspects. I think the baby food version leaves out the bad stuff and the my-culture-or-nothing version leaves out the good stuff.

And, like you've suggested, most things that are unique to a culture aren't bad or good; just different.