Monday, May 24, 2010

Indigenous Cultures, Keeping Up, and Being Catholic

I was born during the Truman administration, and American culture has changed. A lot. Some of the change has been for the better: some not so much. What hasn't changed is the challenge of being Catholic in a culture that doesn't quite approve of our beliefs.

That phrase, "American culture," raises a couple of points I'll discuss first:

Does America have an "Indigenous" Culture?

I looked up "indigenous." It means "originating where it is found," like: autochthonal; autochthonic; autochthonous; or endemic.

Those words get used in phrases like " 'the autochthonal fauna of Australia includes the kangaroo'; 'autochthonous rocks and people and folktales'; 'endemic folkways'; 'the Ainu are indigenous to the northernmost islands of Japan'."(Princeton's WordNet)

You don't tend to hear "indigenous" used to describe what the Victorians would have called 'proper' or civilized people. You know: folks who wear business suits and ties, and know which fork to use.

I'm a Norwegian-Irish-American Catholic living in the 21st century. With a background like that, I'd have a hard time being "proper" by Victorian standards, even if I wanted to. Which is something I can live with.

Back to the question: Does America have an indigenous culture? I'd say, yes. I think that there is, arguably, an "indigenous" American culture. At least one. Again arguably, I'd say there are several American sub-cultures.

One proof I'd offer for there being a distinct, indigenous, American culture is the frequent complaint that American culture is overwhelming others. That'd be quite a trick, if there wasn't a distinctly "American" culture.

America is Okay

I was born in America, and am an American citizen. I know that America isn't perfect. But I'd rather live here than anywhere else on Earth. That isn't just feel-good patriotism. There were a few times when I very seriously considered moving out: but after researching my options I decided to stay.

'Okay,' Yes: 'Catholic,' No

My guess is that even in "Catholic" countries, the citizens don't really live the full Catholic life. That's not a criticism: just a recognition that whenever you've got human beings, you've got trouble.

Then, there's America. The United States of America isn't as anti-Catholic as it was in 'the good old days' when Thomas Nast was sounding the alarm: but America can't be called a "Catholic" nation. Not yet: and that's definitely another topic.
Fortune Telling and an Informed Conscience
Take fortune tellers, for example. I'm not sure whether or not fortune telling would be legal in a "Catholic" America. In principle, a law like that wouldn't be necessary because Americans would understand that divination is against Catholic teaching. And many would understand why.

But, again: I rather doubt that "Catholic" countries have a fully-informed and committed citizenry.
Abortion: Catholics aren't Allowed to Fix Sex Machines
One of the more spectacular ways in which America's dominant culture isn't on the same page as the Catholic Church is the matter of whether it's okay to kill babies. America's laws allow mothers to have their children killed - provided they get the job done early enough.

Or, as often happens, gives interested male parties permission to try forcing the woman to kill that inconvenient baby. I don't have statistics, but it seems to me that rather often the mother had an abortion because of pressure from her:
  • 'Significant Other'
    • Husband
    • Boyfriend
    • Roommate
    • Whatever
  • Non-domestic superior
    • Employer
    • Professor
      • Teacher
      • Counselor
      • Whatever
Although I think it's disgusting, I can almost see the men's point of view in this sort of situation. Here they've got a compliant sex machine, sometimes in conveniently low-commitment circumstances. Everything's groovily under control. Then the sex machine gets pregnant. That's not so groovy - and there must be a very real temptation to 'fix' it with an abortion.

That's not the way proper, polite Americans put it, of course. We're supposed to use nice terms like "freedom of choice" or "women's health services" when discussing the legal and culturally-sanctioned killing of pre-born infants. Even so, I've read that women who exercise their right to kill their children don't always feel good about it, later. Yet again another topic.

Going to the 'Right' Church, Attitudes Toward Religion, and Retailoring the Gray Flannel Suit

Back in the American fifties, conformity was a big deal. Movies like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956) were at least partly about individual values in conflict with cultural pressure: although that's a little harder to see these days, since so much changed in the last half-century.

For people who fit easily into the "gray flannel suit" mold, and looked the part, I suppose it really was "Happy Days." After reading - and more from talking with my father - about that period, I'm glad that we're not likely to go back to that particular 'good old days.'

Take going to church, for example. I'm not happy with today's dominant culture and their assumption that religion is bad - but that if you must have religious beliefs, you should have the common decency to do it behind closed doors. And, whatever you do, don't bring that sort of thing out in public.

On the other hand, back in the fifties the 'smart' man on the go would find out which was the 'right' church to go to - and join it. Just as he'd find out which was the upwardly-mobile country club. Reducing religious practice to an aspect of career enhancement is not, in my opinion, a good idea.

That was the 'good old days,' too, when abortion was something that those Catholics over there were worried about. Certainly not something good Christians (who went to the 'right' churches) thought much about. Until their secretary or daughter needed to be 'fixed.'

Then kids who had been raised by parents using all the best expert advice hit adolescence. And went to college, where Timothy Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out" advice struck a responsive chord. The lockstep conformity of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" was (with some justification) abandoned.

And replaced by the sort of conformity we have today. Different band, different style: but the same old tune.

Earlier this year, there were things that 'proper' Americans were supposed to say about those [expletive] priests - and things we certainly weren't supposed to say. ("Not Saying the Culturally-Normative Things About Pedophile Priests" (April 2, 2010))

Conformity? I think so: but then, I'm a practicing Catholic. Which means that I'm part of a counter-culture.

Counter-Culture?! I Must be a Hippie!!

Quite a few Americans probably think 'hippie,' or something like that, when they hear "counter-culture." The hippies were counter-cultural. But there's a whole lot of ways to be counter-cultural.

All the term means is 'not being on the same page as the local dominant culture.' I've discussed this before. ("Being Counter-Cultural: I am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been, a Hippie" (January 12, 2010), for starters)

Although we don't stand out as much as hippies or Amish folks, we're likely to be noticeably different - particularly in social situations where women are expected to strip down to a titillating minimum coverage. And I've talked about that, too. ("Modesty: Living in Balance"(August 16, 2009), "Are You a Boy, or Are You a Girl?" (September 26, 2009))
Being Different to be Different, Being Different to Be Right
I think the old stereotype Hollywood starlet, with her deliberately bizarre fashions and pet anaconda (or whatever), is being different just to stand out from the crowd. That's one sort of non-conformity. I won't say it's wrong: but it's not the same as folks who make a point of dressing more-or-less the way their cultural leaders expect, following the dominant culture's norms when they can: but refusing to go along with what they are convinced are wrong behaviors and beliefs.

Take Catholics. I'm a Catholic: but apart from wearing a crucifix, I don't look all that much different from any other pushing-60 man in Minnesota.

I don't buck the dominant culture unless it's about something that matters. like the idea that people should be treated like people - even if they're sick, or haven't been born yet.

American culture is nowhere near as bad as it could be. Most Americans probably wouldn't agree to killing a normal-looking, moderately attractive 25-year-old. An ugly, sick old person? That's a different story. It'd be a "mercy killing," of course, or whatever the contemporary euphemism is: but there'd still be a dead body at the end of the process.

One reason for the optimism I have for turning America's culture around is that folks in this country still have to be persuaded that it'd be a kindness to kill someone who's sick, or old, or unwanted, or ugly. "Every child a wanted child" is an example of this. "Compassion," no matter how the term has been abused, is still a good thing - and that's something that decades of social engineering haven't driven out of the American mindset. In my view.

What Catholics - and anybody else who understands natural law - needs to remember is that it's okay to be counter-cultural. Despite what some of us have been taught, fitting in and getting along are not the highest virtues. Particularly when the dominant culture is wrong.

Although Personally Opposed to Slavery - - -

I'd like to say that we've heard the last of the old "although personally opposed" line. I think it's on the wane, but I read it in a politico's remarks last year - sorry, I don't remember who it was.

It's usually "although personally opposed to abortion, I don't think I have the right to impose my beliefs on others." It sounds so reasonable, so noble. Until we start switching terms: "Although personally opposed to [slavery / genocide / polluting the air] I don't think I have the right to impose my beliefs on others."

Since most folks in America are pretty sure that slavery, genocide, and air pollution are not good things - any politico who made a statement like that would be lucky to merely see his or her political career crash and burn.

That's because Americans generally realize that some things - like genocide - are wrong. No matter how much someone really feels like killing off some group.

What I'll call the 'abortion exception' has been, I think, carefully developed and maintained by the traditional gatekeepers of American culture.1 (See "What is an Information Gatekeeper?," Another War-on-Terror Blog (August 14, 2009))

Fitting In Feels Good: So What?

As I wrote before, I don't see fitting in as being one of the top virtues. Particularly when the culture I'd try to fit into is, in some ways, doing bad things.

Although I think there's a lot of good - and potential for good - in American culture, I also think that some of the dominant culture's values have got to go. I do not believe that religion is the root of all ickyness. I do believe that human life is precious; and that women shouldn't have to dress provocatively to be accepted. All of which means I'm rather counter-cultural. More specifically, Catholic.

It isn't easy, deciding whether to 'go with the flow' and be considered acceptable by the dominant culture, or be 'stupid' and ignorant' because you won't fit in. There's very good reason to believe that a prominent east coast family found themselves caught between their Catholic beliefs and political expedience - and opted for short-term gains. ("Kennedys, Catholicism, and Abortion: So That's What Happened" (August 26, 2009))

It's easy for me to acknowledge my Catholic beliefs. I'm not running for public office. For someone with a political career, or who is trying to be taken seriously in American business or academia: the choice between holding unpopular beliefs, or being accepted by the people in charge, can be very difficult.

But, at the end of all things, I'd rather explain why I failed to convince others that the Church was right; than explain why I abandoned the outfit my Lord set up, to make more money or get elected.

Related posts:Background:
1 No, I don't think it's 'some kinda plot.' I do think that America's top journalists, educators, and entertainment leaders live in a relatively small, tightly bounded subculture of like-minded people - and are intensely, sincerely convinced that they're right. And, in sharp contrast, everybody who doesn't believe what they do is stupid and ignorant.

Like me.

Since that means I'm regarded as being as ignorant as St. Augustine of Hippo and as stupid as St. Catherine of Siena: I don't mind a bit.


Brigid said...

Can you spot which consonant doesn't belong? "even in they're sick, or haven't been born yet."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Spotted it, changed it.


(I cleaned up some syntax, while I was at it. Man! They tax *everything* these days!.)

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.