Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Open Door

Madcap Mum and Eleutheros have been talking about culture, and it got me thinking. I tend to think of the people of this area as being too far removed from their European roots to retain much of their old-country culture, and too recently settled here (maybe six generations at most?) to have developed their own. But who am I to talk? I only grew up here, and only after age six, and I don't have any relatives who come from here at all.

Still, I've been thinking. It occurred to me that there is a certain stubborn streak that many of us share, a contrary determination to live here and to love it. We take delight in appreciating subtle beauties that others can't see for looking at. We agree that "mountains are nice, but they get in the way of the view." And we just love to talk about our 40-below weather, and the day-to-day activities that carry on in spite of it.

The topic of dangerous weather brings me to a trait that is well known, and yet probably diminishing among us. I call it the "open door." I believe it is found in many frontier cultures, and persists in some cultures that are not far removed from their frontier origins, either in time or in increased safety and security. It is an unwritten code that says, if a neighbour or a stranger comes to you out of a blizzard, your door is open to them. That basic rule of community survival spills over into all aspects of life, so that we have been known as friendly, helpful people.

Another thing: I've been told that Saskatchewan people are recognized world wide, in international-aid circles, as resourceful, effective, resilient volunteers. Whether we have some unique cultural basis for that, or whether it's just our predominantly rural agricultural background showing through, I don't know. Maybe it's partly our very lack of culture that makes us successful in an international context. Not having a strong framework of cultural codes that we rely on for comfort and identity, perhaps we adapt more readily when encountering a strong, strange code somewhere else. I'm speculating wildly here. As for myself personally, I'd say you'd have a very tough time getting me overseas in the first place, so I really have to wonder if I'd do much good there.

I was dismayed, last February, to read the following description of a culture. It was written by someone who grew up here. At the time, I recoiled, thinking, "Speak for yourself!" But on re-reading it, I can see some sad truth in it.
After all, no matter what our race, heritage and family history may be- the vast majority of those living in the west share the same culture. Culture isn't dressing up in a kilt once a year, or celebrating Ukranian Christmas. It's climbing in your Dodge Caravan, popping in a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD on the way to pick up the kids from hockey or soccer or band practice. It's heating up a frozen pizza and flipping the channels to find CNN or Jeopardy.
Just look at all the marketed values in there! A minivan, frozen pizza, TV - these aren't valued for their local usefulness, or their expression of a uniquely shared history. They're valued for their usefulness within a generalized cultural system. They're also valued by their manufacturers for their revenue-generating power, and that revenue is maintained by reinvesting some of it in advertising.

What it comes down to is this: we have a shifting, constantly reinvented culture that is delivered to us by marketers who just can't wait to make money off another fad. If there is anything innate to us about this culture, it is our willingness, indeed eagerness, to absorb the latest innovation. "The door is open. If you need some money to grow the economy, come on in and empty our pockets. It's the least we can do."

Very sad.


Madcap said...

I was thinking about this too. You know, I think it's travel that's diffusing us more than anything. When a group of people has to grind out life cheek by jowl, they start to share traits (my husband and I are becoming more alike the longer we're married, I find), but when you can just up and drive anywhere else and partake of anything at the drop of a hat, everything starts to look the same. And within a couple of generations of settling the prairies, there was the automobile, and (relatively) cheap gas.

And yet... I well know how xenophobic a group can get when it falls too much in on itself. I guess a constant tension between regionality and a broad view is the best world we can strive for.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you quite understood what I was saying, Laura.

The mythology that poses as "culture" is by and large just a display of the everyday habits, activities, and interactions of our great grandparents - posterized to keep civil servants employed placing approving checkmarks beside a federal grant applications.

We like to pretend it's ours by virtue of having inherited some of their dna. It's not. My ancestors may be Scottish, but tartans and kilts are meaningless to me. They play no part in my everyday life.

Arctic Cat snowmobiles, on the other hand...

Sure, there may be remnants of old ways and customs that linger here and there in the way we observe significant holidays, etc, but the "culture" we live in and share (whether our ancestors came from Scotland, India or over the Bering Strait) is the current one shaped by 21st century western technology - and there isn't a damned thing wrong with that!


arcolaura said...

Well, snowmobiles do have some local usefulness (although not much last winter!) and significance as part of the camaraderie of this place (although I was always just happy to be dumped back in the yard.) But significantly, you referred to Arctic Cat snowmobiles. These days it seems like we get an Arctic Cat culture, a John Deere culture, etc. rather than a south-of-the-Moose-Mountains culture.

As for federal grant applications, yeah, I know. I have kept up my membership in the Saskatchewan Recording Industry Association, because I get a lot of good information out, but it just irks me, knowing where their funding comes from. I loved the National Post article yesterday (which I found via a comment at your site) about the do-nothing alternative to Kyoto.

arcolaura said...

the "culture" we live in and share . . . is the current one shaped by 21st century western technology - and there isn't a damned thing wrong with that!

If it really were shaped by technology, I might agree with you. But the degree to which we use various technologies is shaped by marketing. In the past, cultural diversity arose because of the diffusion of innovations through time and across space, interacting with existing local conditions to produce unique local patterns. Now those processes and patterns are swamped by mass marketing. You could argue that there's no problem with that, and I would have to disagree. Mass marketing is done by corporations, which differ from human beings in one very significant way: they are required by law to maximize profit for their shareholders, even if that conflicts with serving human beings. Some corporations try to broaden their mandate, to have a conscience, but some get into trouble for it, too. As a result, by and large, corporations do not serve human beings; they serve consumers.

Of course, we as consumers have a say through our buying power. But keep in mind that this is not "one person, one vote." It's "one dollar, one vote." And every time we give a corporation a dollar, a substantial part of that dollar goes into advertising in order to get the next vote.

(I have to give credit to Joel Bakan and his book "The Corporation" for his clear statement of ideas I've vaguely suspected for a long time.)