Sunday, September 23, 2007

92. The Double Standard

In his essay "The Astonished Ethno-Muse" (see post 83), David McAllester registered his sudden awakening to the fact that the younger generation of Navahos had opted for country music and rock in favor of the age-old traditions McAllester himself had gone to such trouble to document and understand. A subsequent visit to Australia demonstrated that more or less the same disconcerting development had occurred among aboriginal youth on that continent. In the years since McAllester's path breaking essay, the refrain has become all too common among academics in all branches of cultural studies: young people today no longer have any interest in the traditions of their forbears, but are, in ever increasing numbers, identifying with the "outcasts" and "rebels" of British-American Pop music.

Consequently, again following McAllester's lead, there has been a call for the "acceptance of change" as a natural and pervasive aspect of all cultures, followed by a veritable avalanche of serious studies devoted to the effects of various genres of popular culture throughout the Third World -- along with a concomitant neglect of older, established traditions whose claims to "age-old" provenance are increasingly being challenged by the same sort of (erroneous) arguments that fueled the "revisionist" position in the Kalahari debate (see post 64 et seq.).

On the intellectual front, there has been a parallel movement, fostered by the supposedly liberatory, anti-hegemonic discourse of "post-modern" thinkers, disturbed by the elitism of "high-culture" modernists (most notably T. W. Adorno, who notoriously placed kitsch and jazz in the same dubious category of degraded art, and campaigned strenuously on behalf of the arch-modernist elitism of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg). The "new" call (now not so new) has been for a breakdown of the supposedly artificial barrier between "serious" and "popular" culture.

It would be amusing, if it were not at the same time so disturbing, to note the profound double standard at work in all of the above discourses. The alleged preferences of indigenous children and other young people of the "undeveloped" Third World, with respect to their education and orientation toward the past, are being taken very seriously by the academics of a First World which offers its own children exactly no say whatsoever with respect to an educational system steeped in the traditions and values of modern "Western" society.

Are the children of the United States bored with such "outdated" and increasingly "irrelevant" topics as math, science, history, government, Shakespeare, Melville, Poe, Steinbeck, etc.? That certainly would seem to be the case. If their interests are turning, thanks to the profound changes currently taking place in the world around us, to aliens from outer space, computer games, footwear (yes, footwear -- see the previous post), cell phones, iPods, email, chat rooms, Hip-Hop, etc., then, in the spirit of the "new age," the same academics should be lobbying for the incorporation of subjects pertaining to these matters in the curricula of our schools and the phasing out of all the old, "traditional" stuff that no longer means much anymore.

After all, why do you need to learn math if you can do it better on a calculator or computer? Why do math at all in the age of automated checkout and income tax software? Why learn history if you can look up any facts you need over the Internet? Why study Shakespeare, the theater or the novel if it's all available now on cable, Direct TV, DVD, etc.? For that matter, why take the kids out to a fine restaurant when all they really want is whatever "special" is currently being offered by McDonalds, Burger King, Colonel Sanders, etc.? Don't the kids have the right idea? Isn't it elitist to insist on "good" food -- or "fine" wine? If there is no longer any real difference between "high" and "low" in the realm of music and art, then surely there is no real difference between "fine dining" and McDonalds either -- except for the price. So why not save yourself a few bucks, Professor?

As far as music is concerned, one could ask some very similar questions. Why bother anymore with "classical" music, with all its embarrassingly elitist and even undemocratic associations? Didn't classical music develop as part and parcel of the culture of the European aristocracy of centuries past? How could it possibly still be relevant for us today, in the world of American democracy?

The fact remains, however, that we of the "West," regardless of the opinions of our children (who count far more to our tastemakers as consumers than culture mavens), continue to value our own traditions -- educational, culinary, artistic, etc. -- however "outdated" and elitist they may appear to be -- and continue to promote them -- lavishly; while at the same time questioning the value and importance of the traditions of indigenous and other "undeveloped" peoples in the world around us.

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