Tuesday, 19 February 2008

How much culture is sufficient

I like to leave the odd comment over at Tim Blair. I would like to think that I recently coined a new phrase, describing the Policies of the Mungbeans as creating Potemkin villages of Aboriginal culture.

A Potemkin village has been described thusly:

The term is now widely used to describe elaborate and superficial constructions designed to pass official inspection, but lacking any real substance...

Well, as far as dinky-di Aboriginal culture goes, that sounds fairly good to me.

But perhaps we should be asking a deeper question - how much culture is enough?

J's background is Croatian. Her uncle is a tremendous supporter of the local Croatian club, which is presumably one of the favourite methods around here for preserving an element of Croat culture in Australia.

But what does that mean - "preserving some Croat culture?"

Having briefly studied her relatives, I think it includes the following:

  • knowing enough language to hold a conversation with grandma, who knows very little English
  • being able to read a Croat newspaper (equivalent difficulty of say the Daily Telegraph)
  • having a liking for traditional foods - but not necessarily be able to prepare them (that's what grandma does)
  • attending the appropriate church on a regular basis (ie, more than Easter and Christmas)
  • drinking too much grappa at the club each week
  • turning up at the various annual festivals and knowing how to do a few of the old dances
Beyond that, I'm not sure what else following that particular culture involves. There might be a few Croat rock bands that the kids like, or they might choose to play gay-ball, I mean, soccer; and it possibly means thumping the odd Serb. I'm not sure, since J's parents made a deliberate decision to stop being Croats when they got here and to becomes Australians. Sure, they do five of the six things above, but they are Australians who happened to come from Croatia, rather than Croatians who happen to be living in Australia (like the uncles).

I think they deliberately turned their back on Croatian culture because they didn't like what they saw before they left, and they split Croatia for a good reason - war, death, pestilence and all that sort of thing. They didn't like the things that their old culture led to, like lots of people being killed, so they took on a new culture - the Australian culture - which didn't get off on things like killing every Serb in artillery range.

The thing is though, people can live here for 5 or 6 generations and still hang onto many elements of their parent culture. Just look at the Chinese or Italians or Greeks that have been here for yonks. They're as Australian as me, with my British background (from about 150 years ago), yet they still follow many of their old cultural traditions when at home or at a festival.

Culture dies hard.

At least the core elements die hard. Various unimportant bits might be dropped pretty quickly when one culture meets another, but the core continues.

So how much Aboriginal culture is it necessary to hang onto in order for "Aboriginality" to survive? Do we need to have people living in communes in the middle of nowhere, supposedly with the aim of them keeping alive 100% of their cultural traditions? If muslims can move here from Iraq and manage to hang onto a huge swag of cultural baggage whilst living in Sydney or Melbourne, why do we think that Aboriginal culture is so fragile that it will not survive contact with the urbanised world?

If anything, we tend to be more worried about cultural traits amongst certain immigrants groups that have proven so resistant to elimination - like slicing bits off vaginas at an early age.

If people are really interested in maintaining their culture, they will go to extraordinary lengths to sustain it. Groups of like minded people will get together and form a club, subscribing funds towards buying a clubhouse. They'll spend inordinate amounts of time publishing newspapers in the old lingo, organising festivals, running language schools on the weekends, ensuring that the religion is sustained and all that sort of thing. Culture will only survive if the members of that culture want it to, and culture can survive in very hostile environments (just think about being a Christian in Iraq at the moment).

We should not presume that Aboriginal culture is so fragile that it needs to be put on life support in some socialist utopia cocoon in the middle of nowhere. If anything, these nirvanas are probably killing it off.

I'll know there is hope for it when I flick open the yellow pages one day and find that alongside the Gaelic Club and the Italian Club and the Macedonian Club, there is an Aboriginal Club.

Until then, all we can expect is for it to fade away to a hollow shell, listlessly subsiding in the Potemkin Villages of Culture.

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