National Identity vs Cultural Differences

Reader twicerandomly asked me to write about national identities, and I’m happy to oblige because I love this topic.

National identities do not exist. Nations are artificial constructs invested with manufactured meaning that doesn’t have any real content except the one we force ourselves to believe in.

Whenever Spanish speakers from different countries get together, they immediately plunge into reciting endless lists of minuscule differences between them. This is the process of manufacturing national identity from nothing, and I always die of boredom the moment this activity begins because it is beyond obvious to me that if there were any real differences, narrating them would not be necessary. I mean, just think about it. In all of these conversations, I’m standing right there, as foreign as they get, and nobody feels it necessary to discuss my difference. Yes, in Argentina and Mexico you use a different word for “skirt.” Big whoop. And I use a different word for everything, yet nobody finds that super exciting.

Real difference doesn’t need to be named, constantly and obsessively, because it doesn’t need to be made more real through the act of naming. (Now apply this idea to the folks who have an overpowering need to repeat, “Men and women are different!” and you’ll see how this very need proves them wrong.)

What does exist is cultural difference. To a limited extent, cultural differences can be traced through language. As much as this will bug 90% of my readers, Americans, Canadians, Australians and the British have enormously more in common to an outsider than they have in terms of difference. And as much as it bugs me, I am part of the Russian-speaking culture and the differences between me and Russians somewhere in Saratov are pretty cosmetic.

I don’t like my culture, as I’ve said many times. And my culture doesn’t like me back, so it’s all good. If I were to write a blog in Russian, I’d have trouble finding even just half a dozen readers. In terms of interpersonal communications, I like Hispanics the most. They are so good at this stuff (cultural difference!) that you can just float right along, no effort required.

For instance, I’m looking for a cleaning lady right now, and I really want a Hispanic woman for the job. As much as I love English-speakers (the culture is the best ever for me to live in), I might not always have the energy to carry them through a conversation. English-speakers are very class-conscious and I know enough already to realize that it’s up to the person with the higher social standing to carry everybody else in a conversation. And that tires me out enormously.

There are obvious exceptions to the language rule, of course. Jews of all languages preserve their own unique culture, and I know a lot about a Jewish family two minutes after meeting them irrespective of the language the speak.

There are also post colonial structures where people speak the language of the colonizer but have a very different culture. India is an obvious example. Many Indians speak English as their native language, but culturally they have their own, very complex and unique thing going on.

The most obvious sign that people belong to the same culture is that they feel the need to reiterate their differences. Have you ever observed an American from Seattle and an American from Atlanta? There can be crowds of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants surrounding them at a party, yet they will plunge into an endless discussion of how one’s coffee is better than the other one’s ice tea while the immigrants stand there, forlorn and excluded. This is an actual experience I’ve had and I’m aware enough to know this show was inspired, to a huge degree, by the presence of actual difference.

Reading Recommendations: A New Series

Reader Stille came up with a brilliant idea: let’s have a regular feature on the blog where people can offer and exchange reading suggestions.

I think this is something that should definitely be done, so here is my first suggestion:

Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

I picked up this book at the end of April because it’s a huge best-seller and I needed some mindless entertainment to get me through the end of the semester. The novel, however, turned out to lie pretty close to actual literature. I spent most of the book praying that the author wouldn’t kill the whole thing by offering “explanations” of what is going on to attract more readers of the facile kind but Messud didn’t succumb to the temptation.

The Woman Upstairs is a very powerful female Bildungsroman that fits into the category of female novels of development I studied in my own book. The novel’s protagonist is precisely one of those heroines who chooses to stunt her own growth and dedicates her entire life to the project of self-infantilization. The novel is very well-written, engrossing, and really spot-on in terms of human psychology. Forget about all the Franzens and Eugenideses and read Messud instead!

Monday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion

While I’m busy packing and grading (because the move to the new house and the end of the semester just had to coincide), so in the meanwhile, please enjoy this roundup of links.

AFTER spending two years studying services for domestic violence survivors, I was surprised to realize that one of the most common barriers to women’s safety was something I had never considered before: the high value our culture places on two-parent families.Seriously? Some people are like giraffes, every grain of the painfully obvious takes forever to reach their heads.

I therefore propose that a person who has served with tenure for 35 years, be eligible for reappointment, one year at a time. In that way, the person has the right to apply to stay longer and the department has the ability to agree or not agree.” Even just a few years ago, I’d disagree. But I have seen a lot since then and I’m thinking this is a very good idea.

If I end up alone I want to live a life so fabulous and lush that my attached friends would be envious of my freedom,somebody on Reddit is claimed to have said. Of course, the poor idiot doesn’t realize that there is no freedom without obsessing over what others think of your life.

First, I should say that a certain level of anxiety is healthy. There is our ‘flight or fight’ response that helps us sense danger. There is the nerves we feel when we do something new or challenging. It pushes us to step outside our comfort zones and try our best. Not all anxiety is bad. In fact, anxiety can be helpful.Or one could get treated and have no need to convince oneself that being crippled with anxiety is a good thing. But who needs that boring mental health anyways.

Country fans do more damage than troops in a war zone.

The ugliest dress known to humanity.

An extremely disturbing trend in some workplaces.

Chip cards finally come to the US. Magnetic strips are such a pain in the ass, so I’m happy.

Russian intelligence is working hard to destabilize Ukraine.

Sometimes, I’m beyond ecstatic to be from my culture and not, say, the one described in the linked post.

And I’m also ecstatic that I’m not from this culture either.

The basic idea of École 42 is to throw all the students — 800 to 1,000 per year — into a single building in the heart of Paris, give them Macs with big Cinema displays, and throw increasingly difficult programming challenges at them. The students are given little direction about how to solve the problems, so they have to turn to each other — and to the Internet — to figure out the solutions.” It is tragic that some poor losers are being offered this ridiculous way to waste time in lieu of education.

Feminism is in control of America’s colleges and universities, where its principles at least are held as dogmas unquestioned and unopposed.Can I get a list of these colleges and universities because I’d love to go there? Of course not because they only exist in this author’s diseased imagination.

Contrary to popular belief, taking the Harvard grad over the smaller community school grad isn’t only elitist–it may mean you’re not getting the best or smartest employee, either. In fact, you probably just shouldn’t hire someone from Harvard.Don’t you worry, dear author. Those of us who graduate from the Ivies and don’t have a Daddy eager to employ us find it hard to overcome these ridiculous prejudices as it is.

Finally, The Professor Is In blog is back to publishing good, useful posts. Here is one on how to plan one’s research strategy when getting on the tenure track.

The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible.Meaning that I’m screwed. Oh well.

Bars in Alaska have installed free pregnancy tests in their women’s bathrooms in an effort to curb drinking among pregnant women.Whatever the reasoning behind this, I think it’s a great idea because these tests are expensive and it would be helpful to get them for free at least someplace. 

When terrible things happen to other people in other countries, and the cries for humanitarian intervention mount, I feel an emotional tug: We should do something to stop those terrible things! But then I think about someone who lives somewhere that doesn’t house a planetary armory. Does my doppelganger in Costa Rica or Lichtenstein feel that same tug? I don’t mean the natural human empathy for people who suffer; I mean that combination of guilt and duty that makes one feel like a shit, a bad person, for not doing anything or for opposing those who want to do something.” No, your guilt is something you use to enjoy yourself. Other people have healthier ways of getting their kicks.

The “good” vs. “bad” migrant dichotomy was created so that those we construct as “other” can never have the capital, power, or security to fight back. This is a lie we are told in order to justify a system that creates economic conditions forcing black and brown people to migrate, then exploits them and criminalizes them.As an immigrant, I find it very offensive that anybody would suggest there is no difference between me and some free-loader who hates the country he emigrated to, refuses to learn the language or adapt, and spends all his time belly-aching about how all Americans or Canadians are stupid and gross.

A very good exercise in mental hygiene. I’m so doing it right after I move.

And the post of the week is a beautiful post on pleasure from Jonathan Mayhew.