Monday, September 01, 2003

I love to read about how cultures intermix and influence each other, because that phenomenon goes to the heart of what it is to be human: To observe, to admire, to adapt, to assimilate; The sort of Hegelian ability to learn from others (antithesis) and meld those influences with your own norms (thesis) into a new and broader outlook (synthesis).

It is not a contradiction at all for a self-identified conservative to say this. On the contrary, I have always believed that the most important free market is that of ideas, and that the freest cultures are the strongest. Cultural norms enforced by government force tend to breed corruption, and, even worse, totalitarian excess. It is simply impossible to keep cultures pristine. To be human is to be influenced.

I thought about that while reading one of the most interesting articles I've seen in a long time, which advances the theory that traditional black gospel music was strongly influenced by Scottish church music. The novel idea itself is fascinating enough, but the really interesting thing to me is the angry reactions from the supporters of the status quo. They sound as absurd as--to use the most extreme example I can think of--members of official German cultural organizations in the 1930s, insisting that no Jews had ever contributed anything of value to German cultural life.

Besides being foolish and dehumanizing, the insistence that cultures are totally autonomous and owe nothing to other cultures is very difficult to sustain. The great majority of humanity exists in a (if sometimes remotely) shared experience. We find 3000-year-old Celts in Switzerland with Chinese coins in their pockets. People talk, people influence each other. It's what we do.

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