Thursday, November 30, 2006

Leave the Ghetto

Dear Reader, I believe we can agree that all citizens of a secularised modern state should have the same rights and opportunities, regardless of their ethnic and phenotypical characteristics. ("Phenotypical" is a nice sciency way of saying "related to skin & hair colour, nose shape and other visual characteristics vaguely typical of people from different parts of the world"). Where we may part company is on the question of ethnic minorities: ex-slave populations, lo-tech tribespeople, tightly-knit diaspora communities, recent immigrants -- any group that is perceived as visually and culturally distinct from the majority population of a state. Because I really mean all citizens. Everyone should enjoy all the rights and opportunities, and carry all the responsibilities, of the majority population. If your granddad was really nasty to my granddad for ethnic reasons, then it does not in my opinion mean that you owe me anything extra. The important thing is that you are not nasty to me now.

An Australian correspondent of mine put it as follows.
In Australia [...], the indigenous people get very generous welfare (education, housing, medical, etc) support. In some cases, this is deserved but misdirected; tribal populations in the outback get a massive amount of funding, but [...] can't solve the problems inherent in a basically Stone Age culture trying to co-exist with the 21st century. And on the other hand, we have people who identify themselves as being Aborigines, because one of their 34 great, great, great grandparents were Aboriginal [...], and also getting more generous welfare than a fifth generation Anglo-Saxon/Celtic Australian (or a 2nd generation Swedish-Australian, or a 1st generation African-Australian).
I say, get off the reservation. Leave the ghetto. In Australia, it would probably be better not to give Aborigines (however such a group may be defined) money to stay in the outback. Better to use it to fund free education and public construction projects in the cities and encourage people in the outback to take part of them. That way, most Australian Aborigines would pretty soon move to the cities, become reasonably affluent and lose touch with non-adaptive traditional lifestyles. It'll be hard to discriminate against Aboriginal-looking people once they all have MBA degrees.

Like all anthropologists, I am a cultural relativist. This position most often takes the expression that "modern Western culture is not intrinsically more valuable than traditional ones". But it goes both ways, really. Traditional cultures are not intrinsically more valuable than the modern Western one. Indeed, no culture has any value at all except in relation to Human Rights: they're all constructed anew each morning anyway. It is of no value to a society, nor to ethnic minorities themselves, that they be encouraged to stay on reservations and in ghettos and remain stuck in unemployment and drug abuse.

In my opinion, the only way that ethnic and phenotypical minorities can actually have equal opportunities is if their members assume places inside majority society through education and employment. Reservation life is just a pale shadow of what these cultures were like in the pre-colonial past. I don't see why it would be useful to anyone that some people be kept, and keep themselves, as cultural museum exhibits. Most reservations were selected as such because they were undesirable to majority society: often awkwardly located patches of badlands. The first priority for members of modern ethnic minorities should not be to remain ethnically distinct and preserve their traditions, but to thrive and contribute to whatever culture works now. Adapt and survive.

My perspective on these things is of course coloured by the fact that I belong to the majority population of a state that was recently identified by The Economist as the world's strongest democracy: Sweden. My ideas on ethnic minorities presuppose that society is reasonably democratic, where the rights of all citizens are protected and where the legal system works. This is unfortunately not the case for most people on Earth. I have also been brought up in an individualistic culture where the most important thing is not to be part of one's people but to be free. I have no relationship to any Swedish tribe or nation: I am an individual relating to other individuals and to the state. I realize that this is very far from how most pre-industrial cultures saw things. But the world is no longer pre-industrial. And if we believe that all cultures are equally valuable as long as they respect Human Rights, then there is no reason for people to stay on reservations or in ghettos any more. Because there they have far less chance of enjoying those rights.

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Blogger Karen said...

Living in western Canada, we have a very similar situation. There are still a large number of native americans living on reservations, especially the further away you get from large urban centres. Some of the reservations are quite rich, Hobbema for example, for various reasons (oil being a big one, casinos another). We too have people that identify themselves as "native" even though they would have to go back 3 or 4 generations to find an ancestor who was "pure" for lack of a better description. If the government considers you to be a "treaty" or "status" Indian, then you are given a number of benefits that the rest of the country's population does not receive. Why? Likely because the government feels guilty for what happened when Europeans first arrived and are still trying to make amends. Like you, I agree that this does not mean current native americans are necessarily owed anything extra other then the rights and freedoms granted to to the rest of the nation's citizens.

While reservation life is indeed a pale shadow of what these cultures were like in precolonial days, I don't think it's necessary that they give up their ethnic distinctiveness in order to achieve equal rights. Sure neither traditional societies nor modern ones are any more important than the other. However, it would be a shame to lose a traditional culture simply for the sake of making everyone the same. There is plenty still to be learned from elders, rituals and oral history.

There must be some happy medium.

30 November, 2006 16:31  
Blogger Martin said...

I'm not suggesting that everybody should be the same. And I certainly don't think there's any reason for people to move off a reservation with oil wells and job opportunities!

But I do believe that as we discard old chauvinistic beliefs about the sanctity of a country's traditional majority culture, then that also means that we must abandon the idea that it would be valuable to have certain people cling to pre-industrial ethnic minority lifeways. I mean, by all means continue to practice tribal dancing and drumming: just make sure you get an education and a job as well.

30 November, 2006 18:10  
Blogger Karen said...

by all means continue to practice tribal dancing and drumming: just make sure you get an education and a job as well.


30 November, 2006 18:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martin, You need not look outside of Sweden to find backward views on ethnic minorities. Descendants of the Sapmi people have special rights in the north of Sweden.

02 December, 2006 13:27  
Blogger Martin said...

Yeah, I know. Funny that the world's strongest democracy has Blut-und-Boden legislation like that. But the Saami aren't reservation-bound, they're better integrated that many immigrant groups. Most of them live in Stockholm, yet they identify with a few hundred traditional reindeer herders living in the far north...

I think it's a good thing though that we put state money into keeping the Saami languages alive.

02 December, 2006 16:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not quite sure why you call yourself a cultural relativist, when you explicitly evaluate the value of all cultures (solely) against the Human Rights, specifically a product of Western liberalism. If anything, this is cultural absolutism - you have a single, well-defined yardstick with which to judge cultures.

Or, in the absence of any human rights in the culture, cultural nihilism. Surely other factors than human-rights-adherance must be relevant as well?


05 December, 2006 00:01  
Blogger Martin said...

Yeah, you're right, I'm no cultural relativist when it comes to things like slavery.

You could of course evaluate cultures according to any number of other standards, such as ecological viability, degree of adherence to Islam or how hard it is to find cheap booze.

05 December, 2006 08:11  

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