Issue XLIXb: Diversity is in the mind, not in the skin

18 Mar

In order to help us remake our mental map of the world, we need to understand different ways of thinking and of seeing the world, with different geographies and realities.  True diversity is in the mind, not in the skin.  But before we can reconceptualize East and West, we need recognize who the pretenders are.

What it does not look like

Jorge Luis Borges famously questioned literary nationalism in his speech “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”  Argentinean writers were fascinated with uncovering the true, indigenous tradition of Argentina by relying on the local gaucho (cowboy) oral tradition.  They would write stories in what they thought was the strongest rural gaucho dialect possible.  Whoever used the most country (i.e. hick) language was the best storyteller and the most “Argentinean.”

Borges did not criticize relying on the local gaucho tradition.  He may even prefer it to the unreasonable love of literature from their former colonizer, Spain.  But does fetishization of the local idiosyncrasies really make one Argentinean?  Is piling on local flavor really making you a local?  Or does it make you a tourist?

Borges pointed out that in the Koran there is no mention of camels.

“I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.  It was by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, and no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is to have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.  I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.”

Similarly, the Buenos Aires intelligentsia misrepresented the gaucho tradition by overemphasizing differences and overdoing their manners of speech.  They were caricaturing and fetishizing the gaucho like a foreigner would.  A real gaucho would not talk like that, and a real Argentine would not get away with such a parody of their tradition.

Is this some old, irrelevant speech from a country most of us have ever visited?  Not really.  Think about other situations.  Do hip hop artists overemphasize the violence of the ghetto, the hardness of their life, the desperation of the ‘hood, and the ghetto-ness of their slang?  Would someone from the inner city really talk like that or are these artists outsiders (or selling to outsiders)?  Who is more authentic?  The people really in the ‘hood just live the life, not rap about it.

The same can apply to Indian writing in English.  Do Indian writers always emphasize mangos and spicy chutney in their stories? Is the pushiness and coziness of family life being told or implicitly accepted?  Are these Anglicized urban Indians selling to outsiders or are they telling it like it is to those who instinctually live it without question?  In the real India, rural India, the stories are always known in advance but are told over and over again with different spins or emphases.

George W. Bush was born in Connecticut and after a few years in Midland public schools went to boarding school in Massachusetts and then to Yale and Harvard.  When he ran for Congress in the 1970s, he lost to a good ol’ boy from Texas Tech who emphasized Bush’s blue blood Yankee roots.  A distant relative of the Queen of England does not poll too well in West Texas.  After Bush’s loss, he decided to never be out-Texaned by anyone again.  He emphasized his (slight) Midland roots, and he even bought a ranch with no cattle the year before he decided to run for president.  Bush’s walking and talking parody of Texas was marketing for the non-Texans while he did what he could for the New England country club class he was born to serve.

How do you know when something is real then?  There are many George W. Bush’s playing on their movie set ranches, pretending to be something they are not to outsiders and gullible locals.

The truly authentic will exude their diversity in how they act and think.  You don’t see Obama sporting beach clothing and talking about how much he likes to surf.  He exudes the Hawaiian cool attitude and relaxed nature in his every move.

But what are diverse ways of thinking?  The next report will discuss some different ways of thinking in the world.

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