Monday, September 10, 2007

86. Should Some Cultures Have More "Equity" Than Others?

I'm pleased to see that Peter Jones is continuing our dialogue in his latest blog post: Cultural Equity, Indigenous Peoples, and Homogenization: Part 2. After agreeing that my notion of "cultural equity," as an ancestral "investment" on behalf of all of humanity, makes sense, he wisely inserts a note of caution:

We must be very careful in how we wield the “cultural equity” baton, for we do not want to allow for reverse cultural equity to take place, substituting what is valued now with another thing in some form of post-colonial role reversal. Rather, as Lomax and Victor argue – and I concur – we must simply strive for equal voice, equal rights, equal cultural appreciation and value.

He also wants it understood that he is not "arguing for indigenous peoples’ cultures to be frozen in time, locked in some romantic fiction that never existed."

What's at stake here are two related issues of great importance that have been and continue to be a source of considerable misunderstanding: 1. is the popular music of today, or any other time, to be dismissed as invalid, inauthentic "pollution," to be rooted out and replaced with what is "truly" valid and authentic, in some sort of "cultural cleansing" operation? 2. does the evidence that certain aspects of indigenous culture are rooted in age-old traditions mean that the only way to preserve and protect such traditions is to freeze them in place, like exhibits in a museum showcase?

Many of Lomax's critics have much too quickly jumped to the conclusion that his call for cultural equity, in the face of a "mismanaged, over‑centralized electronic communica­tion system . . . imposing a few standardized, mass‑produced and cheapened cultures everywhere," represents a narrowly purist or even elitist view. Anyone who knows much about Lomax's history will realize how unjust such a characterization is. Unlike so many folklorists and ethnomusicologists of his generation, who focused exclusively on what they perceived as the oldest and purest manifestations of tradition, Lomax was open to a wide range of cultural expressions, both "folk" and popular, both "purely" traditional and hybrid. He loved the traditional music of Africa, Britain and Europe no more than its many hybrid offshoots in the Americas, from the work songs of the Caribbean and the southern prisons to spirituals and gospel, from Santeria to Afro-Cuban and "Latin," from Mississippi Delta Blues to New Orleans Jazz and Cajun, from Rhythm and Blues to Rock 'n Roll, from backwoods ballads to banjo picking to Bluegrass, and beyond.

What bothered him was not the existence of popular or hybrid expressions, but the manner in which certain very limited and yes, in some cases cheapened, popular forms were being promoted to the exclusion of all else, and literally jammed down everyone's throat, whether they liked it or not. What Lomax really objected to, and I fully concur, was not any particular musical genre, format or tradition per se, but the hegemony of a ruthlessly centralized, insensitive and unresponsive, out-of-control global marketing system, hogging the media and indeed the very air we breath, and pushing every alternative means of expression into the background and beyond, into oblivion.

The exemplary case is that of the Italian village where everyone used to gather in the plaza each evening to sing together. One day a television set appears, sitting on a platform in the center of the plaza. Everyone gathers around to sing together along with the music on the television. Over the next few years, more and more television sets appear in individual homes and fewer and fewer people gather at the plaza. Finally everyone is spending the evening at home silently staring at the boob tube and the plaza is empty. A beautiful age-old tradition that had brought everyone together has been destroyed, to be replaced by -- well, that's a whole other story for another day.

To respond specifically, therefore, to Peter's first concern, we must indeed be careful to avoid promoting some sort of colonialism in reverse, a cultural cleansing that would root out whatever might seem inauthentic or unworthy to some self-appointed group of cultural purists. Any type of music has value if there are people who enjoy it and support it -- and that is certainly the case for all forms of popular music, rock, country, punk, disco, rap, even Liberace and Lawrence Welk, whether you or I or anyone else happens to like it or not. What Lomax was calling for was not a return to some ideal past, in which anything he didn't approve of would be eliminated, but simply a system that would promote "equity," in the form of equal air time, equal funding, equal attention, equal respect from journalists, academics etc., on behalf of traditions presently being stifled if not snuffed completely out of existence.

I'll deal with Peter's second, equally important, concern in my next post.

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