Sunday, September 21, 2008

Shared Histories, National Cultures

I've been really fascinated by the idea of shared cultural heritage for awhile. Culture is, of course, always interesting, but culture in general more often connotes an age-old (albeit changing) model of thinking and acting. The idea that I keep turning over in my head is personal history and how that shapes regional culture.

For example, my close college friends, all Californians, and I, an East Coaster, have had several conversations about the '89 earthquake. They can all name where they were and what they were doing when it hit, and their feelings and fears that loved ones might be affected. I can vaguely remember hearing about a big earthquake and thinking it had something to do with the World Series that year, but it didn't play a big role in my childhood.

Or, there's this cartoon:

I know I will always remember the moment when I learned what had been done to the World Trade Center and the people within them, and how the world changed for me after that. But a whole generation of younger people is growing up without that moment in its history; and it is probably wondering what the big deal is.

I was comparing Peace Corps experiences last week with someone who had served in Armenia. He was telling me that Armenians are a chronically depressed people, and when I asked him about it, said he thought it had to do with the post-Soviet economic downturn associated with being instantly cut off from Moscow's support and resources. The country to this day hasn't recovered, leading to a national sadness and a difficult service for an optimistic American volunteer.

I spoke about Mozambique, about how although the people there are shockingly poor, they manage to stay happy. I told Mr. Armenia that I thought this was because of the disasters -- man-made and natural -- that Mozambicans are constantly having to deal with. If they don't figure out how to pick their lives up and go on, they won't survive. So they've developed an incredible resiliency that, to the casual observer who doesn't prod about civil war or cyclone stories, seems like a happy-go-lucky attitude towards life.

So it occurred to me that most of the conflicts in the world arise because of differences in shared histories. And they continue because of our inability, or unwillingness, to see things from another perspective. Israelis, for example, are often portrayed by the American Left (I love you Left, don't get me wrong; but you'd be even better without the blinders) as cold and heartless. I agree that Israelis are tough, sometimes intimidatingly so; but they're tough because they have to be. They've witnessed suicide bombings near their neighborhood grocery stores; they've heard stories about gruesome murders on their local news stations; and they send their kids off to school on buses that could be hijacked. If they want to keep living day-to-day, they have to toughen up.

Palestinians, too, have personal histories which include having their rights stripped, hearing stories from their parents and grandparents about being driven from their land, and seeing walls put up to keep them out of economic and social opportunities.

It's not really fair to end this post just encouraging each side to see the others' perspective. That's a really difficult thing to do, when everything in your memory and everyone in your social sphere tells you otherwise. Maybe what I'm encouraging is that the rest of the world, those who would be mediating conflicts or sending aid, try to understand personal histories and the difficulties that can accompany them. Before we label Armenians as sad-sacks, Mozambicans as stupidly happy, Israelis as bellicose or Palestinians as uppity, we need to try to incorporate into our thoughts a sort of international empathy.

No comments: