Is Any Culture Worth Preserving?

The other night, watching a movie about an aboriginal culture, I found myself not at all displeased that it had largely ceased to exist. Many people are prone to waxing sentimental over vanishing cultures, but to my mind there is no culture -- nor has there ever been one -- worthy of preserving in its entirety.

We can, of course, learn from all of them, and ethnographies are of immense value in reminding us of the flaws in our own culture, and showing us that in many areas there are other, and better, ways of thinking and behaving.

But the fact that a culture has survived unchanged for a thousand years or more doesn't mean it has some special virtue and should be carefully preserved against modernity, like an insect in amber. Its survival means nothing more than that it was perfectly adapted to its environment -- usually a harsh one that no one else coveted. I would be the first to admit that surviving hunter-gatherer tribes like the Bushmen, the Pygmies, and the Teduray of Mindanao were far happier and lived far more benign lives than we do, but they've been pretty much obliterated, which, one has to admit, is a rather serious adaptive flaw.

As for traditional agrarian cultures, most of them are even more noxious than our own. Most of them oppress and enslave women -- killing and raping them to "uphold family honor," for example, or mutilating them to prevent them from enjoying sex, or imprisoning them to prevent them from leading normal, fulfilling lives. And when someone in the world outside objects to these brutalities the response (echoed by the misogynistic multiculturalists among us) is always: "This is our culture, this is our tradition, this is our way of life. If we want to kill and torture people, it's nobody's business but ours."

There is no special virtue in tradition. There is no special virtue in ritual. Any more than there is any special virtue in a personal habit. Doing something exactly the same way time after time is comforting and reassuring, as every bureaucrat knows, but that doesn't make it benign or salubrious. Adaptation -- responding to problems both internal and external -- is necessary to health. Change is life. Yet all cultures -- like all individuals -- resist change, and if they're too successful at it, tend to become ossified.

This is especially true if they have some sort of antiquated sacred book, and even more so if they actually take that book seriously. We tend to be horrified at Arab practices like stoning adulterous women to death, and using mutilations and capital punishment for venial offenses, and we blame this on the Koran. But all those practices are put forward as the word of God in the book of Leviticus. The difference is, that Christians completely ignore the book of Leviticus, except for the one line they use for gay bashing. (Sacred books, of course, greatly facilitate hate crimes: "It's not only our culture, God tells us to do it.")

Multiculturalists are in a constant tizzy about the world getting homogenized. This is usually phrased in terms of American products, like Coke and McDonald's, spreading all over the globe. But of course it's not just American cultural items covering the globe. So is sushi, so are Thai cuisine, Mexican beer, Italian shoes, etc., etc.

But at the same time that homogenizing is going on, differentiation is also happening. In the United States, the North and South are more similar than they used to be a hundred years ago, but California is far less similar to the rest of the West than it was then, and contains for more internal divisions.

Homogenization and differentiation have both been going on throughout history. The Chinese Empire "homogenized" much of Asia, the Greeks "homogenized" the Eastern Mediterranean, which a little while later was reduced to being "a Roman Lake"; the Arabs then "homogenized" North Africa and the middle East, and so on. Yet somehow the world has always remained richly differentiated. People with common interests cluster together, and a cultural enclave is created that didn't exist before: SoHo, Marin County, The Castro, the East Village, for example. Everywhere in the world formerly anonymous pieces of real estate are acquiring new characteristics as fast as others lose their uniqueness.

And so it will always be.