CHAPTER 1- WHAT IS CULTURE?
What is Culture? Culture is everything we are. Everything we think, feel, love, hate, eat and do is Culture. When we are born, our slate is empty; Culture fills in the blanks. You are a product of your culture; then, as you mature, you make judgements based on what has been shared, shown and taught to you. You yourself can’t change culture; you can only change how you feel about it and what you do about it. Culture is the bedrock; you and the rest of society can only change what the structures on top of the bedrock look, feel and act like. Ronald Inglehart (the guru of modernization and cultural change) and Wayne E. Baker, In an article entitled, Modernization, Cultural Change and the Persistence of Traditional Values” in American Sociological Review of February 2000 state it clearly:
“The broad cultural heritage of a society-Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Confucian, or Communist-leaves an imprint on values that endures despite modernization.”
Culture is learned and shared from generation to generation.
Culture affects what we eat, where we shop, what we buy and don’t buy.
It is important to note and remember that the cultural influence that makes us who we are is not singular such as national or ethnic. It is almost always multifaceted, depending on our influences and environment. For example: Ray Mazzili was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. How many cultures influence him (answer at bottom, don’t peek before you guess). *
Most important, our culture affects how we perceive other cultures. Therefore, our own culture and the perception of others’ can be manipulated to bad ends if misunderstanding, ignorance and hate is applied. This can affect political outcomes and the stability of a society.
Everyone’s culture is most important to them; to understand someone, you must first understand their culture. Misunderstandings lead to bad relations and bad decisions; the bottom rung of misunderstanding is ignorance, and ignorance leads to fear. Fear leads to bad relations, missed opportunities, and, at its worst, can lead to hostility, violence and death on a singular or mass scale.
Let’s go with what is probably the worst and best-known example of the consequences of cultural manipulation, causing ignorance and fear: Hitler’s persecution and mass murder of the Jews in WWII. Hitler knew more about the Jews than most people gave him credit for; he may have even had some Jewish in his ancestry. But, feeling inadequate to control the Jews as they stuck together and showed better acumen than most, he milked the German culture by inciting the German people’s burnt pride and anger from WWI by focusing it on hate of the Jews with lies and misunderstandings (something like the “China Virus”). The result was catastrophic on any scale.
We have already seen the consequences of prejudice, fear, and consequent exclusion of the Chinese population in the US from the mid-nineteenth century until 1965 (legislatively) and until today (mentally). After the presence of COVID-19 In the US was revealed to the public in March 2020 (the government knew in January), racist incidents against Asians spiked and continue unabated. Supported by official rhetoric, some people adopted the idea of the “China Virus.” Even if the virus started in China, what exactly did Chinese and Chinese Americans who lived in the US have to do with the pandemic? Wouldn’t they be equally vulnerable to its effects?
Regarding the Pandemic, NBC News reported on April 28, 2020, in an online article entitled, “Over 30 percent of Americans have witnessed COVID-19 bias against Asians, poll says”:
“The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a memo directing campaigns to blame China when asked about failures in the Trump administration's response to the pandemic. "Don't defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China," says the memo, first reported by Politico.
President Donald Trump and other Republican politicians have repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus."
"I think the Republican strategy is to deflect blame and scapegoat and rile up their base," said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University who is also involved in the Stop AAPI Hate tracker. "A clear consequence of using terms like 'Chinese virus,' of making China the central campaign strategy, is putting Asian American lives at risk."
So, tell me, how is this different from what Hitler did in 1930’s Germany? Culture can bring people together, but it also can be a convenient target for politicians and other bad actors. Better yet, how does this public display of Nativism and Xenophobia help US-China relations? As stated before, and make no mistake about it, it is not a subject we can disregard.
Culture is learned, through active teaching and passive habits;
Culture is shared, meaning that it defines a group and maps its needs;
Culture is symbolic, meaning that simple and arbitrary signs define the group;
Culture is patterned, meaning that the cultural norms and symbols show up in every walk of life for that group;
Culture is adaptive, which helps people in that cultural group to explain their everyday lives and those of their friends, family and nation;
Culture is passed from generation to generation.
As I said earlier, the bedrock culture doesn’t change much; what occurs are adaptations of the bedrock culture to meet current situations and environments. For example, as we will examine in the next chapters, China culture is significantly based on a 2000-year-old Confucian ethic. Confucianism still guides the patterns of behavior in China and always will. Even Mao, try as he might, could not unseat the Confucian culture and replace it with Communism; the fact is, he himself and his own thought process was inescapably a product of Confucian culture. Today, as China emerges in a tailored economic solution entitled, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” we will see that the Confucian culture still rules the peoples’ thought process, but new rules and behaviors have been grafted on top of it to justify and facilitate actions in today’s environment. Confucian culture also guided the success of countries like Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan; there will be more on this later in this section based on my work in graduate school (my master’s thesis).
As it applies to policy and propaganda, the power of culture is such that it can be applied to create “historical memory” which rallies people to nationalism or nativism or xenophobia based on cultural bias. One writer asks, “How do we explain the rapid conversion of China's popular social movements from the internal-oriented, anti-corruption, and anti-dictatorship democratic movements in the 1980s to the rise of external-oriented, anti-Western nationalism in the 1990s?”
The policymakers in Beijing well understand the power of culture to create collective misinformation leading to prejudice and worse:
“powerful collective memories, whether real or concocted, can be at the root of conflicts, prejudice, nationalism, and cultural identities. Smith (1986) believes that ethnic, national, or religious identities are built on historical myths that define who is a group member, what it means to be a group member, and, typically, who are the group's enemies. Smith (1996, 383) also argues that "one might almost say: no memory, no identity, no identity, no nation.”
These myths attempt to create “chosen trauma” which succeeds by "transferring it from generation to generation; history and memory issues tell grandparents and grandchildren who they are, give countries national identity, and channel the values and purposes that chart the future in the name of the past."
What such stories, tales or myths, despite their veracity, hope to accomplish, and it looks like they are very successful at, is historical enmity. A group's "chosen trauma" consists of experiences that come "to symbolize this group's deepest threats and fears through feelings of hopelessness and victimization." The word chosen fittingly reflects a large group's unconsciously defining its identity by the trans-generational transmission of injured selves infused with the memory of ancestors' trauma.”
What is the political aim of these efforts? “political leaders as well as many citizens have a vested interest in retaining simple narratives that flatter their own group and promote group unity by emphasizing sharp divergences between themselves and other groups. They are highly resistant to histories that include the presentation of the other side’s point of view.” This has happened during the entire history of the US and China, as well as almost any nation’s relations with any other at some time.
This historical enmity and local chosen trauma finds itself into the children’s minds through textbooks, and thus passes to the next generation without dispute or verification. One writer says,
“Many studies have demonstrated that ethnocentric views, myths, stereotypes, and prejudices often pervade history textbooks.” So children grow up prejudiced based on intentional misdirection and ignorance. I remember clearly that my students in Wuxi showed me their textbooks, which were intentionally constructed to provide the wrong information. As an example, the supply/demand curve in economics was positioned upside down to show that supply influenced demand, not the other way around. To their credit, they were happy to accept an alternative point of view once it was clearly proven; this is the hope we should retain, that cultural myths can be declawed once people open their minds.
Because culture is so embedded in the population, it is vulnerable to manipulation; but it also is the key to success in relationships if it is done from a benevolent and honest mindset.
But what about economic growth? Does the process of economic growth and modernization change culture? My answer and the consensus of the minds who have studied this throughout their career is no. This is not to say that economic growth does not change people’s attitudes toward the environment and government, but it does not change the basic culture of the nation or group (religious groups can have their own culture as well).
As such, if culture is the bedrock of how people see the world, it will be culture, not economics or politics, that will determine the course of history and nations, friendship, alliance or conflict; all of those are a result of the culture of the people and the influencers. The late Samuel Huntington, who is remembered for his 1993 groundbreaking work entitled, “The Clash of Civilizations?” wrote presciently in that piece,
“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source conflict will be cultural.”
It is important for a student of culture, and for us on this journey, to understand Huntington’s viewpoint. Why? Because it will help us understand and define the problems and challenges facing US-China relationships—as well as international relationships be they US, China or other, throughout the globe.
Let’s understand how Huntington defines global groups, which may or may not be countries. He says that it is no longer relevant to divide countries by their stage of development, nor in terms of their political or economic systems. Rather, he says, countries should be grouped in terms of their “culture and civilization.”
What does he mean by a “civilization?” A civilization is a group that may or may not transcend national or international borders, such as Muslim, Jewish, or Chinese civilization. The cultural entity to which a civilization belongs “is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” This thesis gives a higher meaning to culture than a national identity and strengthens my thesis that culture is the highest indicator and driver of personal and international relations.
It also means that a diaspora does not erase culture; in time cultural influences may be mixed, but never erased. The Chinese diaspora does not make the wanderers and immigrants un-Chinese because they are no longer in China; in some cases there may be mixing of cultures, as we saw in The Joy Luck Club, but the native culture is always at the core. The same with the Jewish diaspora (we saw this in Peony), Lebanese diaspora (more Lebanese live outside of Lebanon than inside), etc.
Huntington goes so far as to quote Lucian Pye (a leading political scientist and Sinologist) as saying that China is “a civilization pretending to be a state.” He groups the globe into the following civilizations: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African.” He goes on to say that, despite and because of the world becoming a smaller place, despite economic and political changes, that civilizations stand tall regardless of national boundaries. Specifically, with regard to China and Chinese, he asserts that culture underpins the trading relationships in Chinese Asia more so than economics, certainly more so than politics. When we consider the success of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Chinese minorities in Thailand and Indonesia, this becomes clear. And the love-hate relationship between China and Vietnam has everything to do with their shared Confucian culture.
It should be plain and clear now that if culture drives a civilization, a people and a nation, rather than economics or politics, this is where we need to start in building policy. But before we start, we need to learn and understand.
So how do countries and leaders make policy? They may think that they are doing so for ideological reasons, but they are obeying their civilization’s cultural imperative—and trying to position it with others for mutual benefit. OR, in the case of bad actors, to manipulate the culture in order to reach their own political goals, regardless of the national good. All policy is rooted in culture. You should already believe that; read on for more evidence.
• FOUR- Italian, American, New York and Catholic
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