Runcible Blog

on war, culture, and labels

Reading the news about Israel's latest attack on Gaza lead me down several tangential thought paths while I was walking around earlier. Let's see if I can congeal them.

Zwartboek neatly exposes war's moral ambiguity. Verhoeven hits the viewer over the head with the same theme: nobody in a war is truly "good." The sympathetic characters in the film often have ulterior motives for their good deeds, while the deplorable Nazis sometimes have redeeming qualities. We see, all too graphically, how the oppressed inevitably become oppressors, again and again. The film doesn't provide much hope for breaking this cycle of revenge, unless an unbiased third party intervenes to stop the madness (as the Canadian soldiers do in at least one scene). But in the final moments of the film, Verhoeven returns to pessimism by alluding to the impending Israeli conflict. I think many people either missed the point of the ending or misinterpreted it. Rachel Stein, the main character, uses stolen money and jewelry from dead Jews to fund a kibbutz, only to become embroiled in the Suez Crisis. The cycle of oppression and victimization continues, but she isn't merely a passive actor, tossed from one conflict to another. She is as complicit as any other character in the perpetuation of war.

Chris Hedges' War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning explains the kind of willful delusion required to perpetuate war. He argues that every institution, from the press to government to entertainment mobilizes in support of war. Nationalism begets jingoism and hatred. Leaders exploit minor differences between rival groups in order to control populations and further their own agendas. Having witnessed pointless conflicts in South America, the Middle East, and the Balkans, Hedges documents each war with brutal honesty, self-reflection, and enough emotional distance to remain credible.

War makes the world understandable, a black-and-white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good; for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically, war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

The search for meaning often leaves us pliable to forces purporting to offer answers in simple terms that end up uniting us along racial, political, national, or religious axes against our opponents, who are obviously evil because their views don't align with ours. Once we have agreed on a framework for our commonality, humans have an incredible ability to dehumanize anyone outside of that framework. Our genes lead us to converge along common qualities, but our egos can take that compulsion to new levels, including prejudice and genocide.

The most important thing I wanted to write about isn't war but the relatively simple matter of traditions and culture. I started thinking about traditions while reflecting on how uncomfortable I feel when I hear people talking about being in the same "tribe" or sharing some kind of bond because they have similar heritage. Although I have sometimes tried to relate to my Canadian ancestors and visited Prince Edward Island out of curiosity about my roots, I know that any connection I may feel to that place or its residents is contrived. I have no real concern about the plight of the Acadians or with Quebec's quarrels with the rest of Canada. If someone invaded Tignish, I wouldn't rush to its defense.

As a third generation American, whatever recognizable culture my ancestors brought here is essentially gone from me. Part of the American immigrant experience is the dissolution of one's native culture in favor of a new set of shared beliefs. Recent immigrants cling to their traditions and each other because they need a social network to survive here, but over time, the old ways fall aside or melt together with the rest of American culture, whatever that may be. Because most of the people I know aren't recent immigrants, it seems all the more strange knowing that people feel a strong connection to long-distant cultures.

Of course, it's particularly noticeable during this time of year, when folks seem to gather mostly out of cultural inertia. Religions do outlast national traditions, but even among the non-religious, these holidays become gutted and replaced with hollow, consumption-based events. If I don't believe in Christianity, why should I celebrate the birth of somebody who lived 2,000 years ago? I barely even observe any other birthday; what makes this one special? Even stranger: what makes the celebration of a military victory and the commemoration of a building from 2,200 years ago relevant today? It's cultural inertia. If people are looking for a holiday to celebrate at a certain time of year, just make one up (like Kwanzaa or Festivus), but drop the pretense that it has anything to do with religion. A holiday doesn't need centuries of baggage for it to feel meaningful.

There's usually no harm with individual traditions created for fun and celebrated among friends, but traditions that accumulate into culture are dangerous because of their potential for divisiveness. For example, it's hard to imagine an accessible, open-to-outsiders version of Ashura, but that's only an extreme example. Sure, no one's going to beat me up if I show up at a Greek festival, but I don't really belong there — I don't share any of the rituals, language, or culture. The only reason to attend would be curiosity; to fit in would require a leap of imagination or intentional fantasy.

I take this "no labels" idea to heart because labels subvert the individual. They define a person as the sum of his associations, ideologies, tastes, and cultural background. Maybe that's all we are, but I tend to think not. We're clumps of matter/energy, constantly changing. To stamp a name on someone — Christian — strikes me as an attempt to make static our quantum nature, as if to say that this state of someone's being has always been thus. At the same time, it's best not to get hung up on labels because humans express meaning more efficiently to each other using language than other means.

It's important to be mindful of the ways we define ourselves, to the exclusion of others and the exclusion of our individuality. If I practice all of the Jewish rituals, and learn Hebrew, does that make me Jewish? I guess so. If I learn Korean and study everything there is to know about the country and people, am I Korean? Hmm, who knows? In the end, these labels don't matter. We may be social creatures, but our minds are fundamentally bottled into individual bodies, isolated and alone. Aloneness is humanity's ultimate commonality, and the sooner we internalize that and see it in each other, the sooner we can defeat the urge to quarrel over superficial labels and fabricated differences.