About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Progress and cultural imperialism

Let's get the irony here straight out of the way: my mother language is Dutch, yet I choose to write about socio-political and some philosophical issues in English in hopes of broadening my audience, at the risk of potentially alienating some members of my home audience. So it's kind of rich that I'm going to be complaining about Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism. But I am. And I must. What's more: as someone who has been deeply immersed in Anglo-Saxon culture, maybe my position makes my criticism more legitimate beyond the average talking point.

For two years in a row, I've participated in discussions about Zwarte Piet, a Belgo-Dutch folklore figure, and its problematic ties to colonialism and racism. In each instance, I've met stubborn resistance from Americans who, like me, also believed that Zwarte Piet was racist, but refused to accept any other type of racism than the one they knew. These were all self-avowed progressives, yet their desire to brand a foreign racist tradition with their own kind of racism made them blind to the cultural realities of the European countries they were criticising.

That's just an example. But, whether left- or right-wing, there is no denying that not only does Anglo-Saxon culture (and predominantly American culture) export itself thoughtlessly as a byproduct of its leading economic role in the world, it also influences media and perceptions in other countries. This is not new. For instance, the often derided hostility to homosexuality in the Middle East and Africa may be an indirect influence of puritan European attitudes in the era of colonization.

By taking so much cues from American culture, we risk setting back a number of debates at home. Obviously, it's a terrible thing that abortion is still an issue in the US, but I don't want to discuss it. It is legal in my own country and there's no point for me to discuss foreign domestic policy that has no impact on me or people around me. The same is true for gay marriage, frat boys' rape guides or access to contraception: these are not really issues in my culture, and having them forced upon me is a waste of time and energy. Yet it's very hard to avoid them because international feminism is so utterly dominated by its Anglo-Saxon variety.

There is a less obvious consequence of this, too. It lulls  Europeans to sleep, smugly comfortable with how progressive they are for not denying women the pill or having something that is at least an attempt at sex education, whereas the Irish and Americans are still stuck in their God-fearing ways. Smugness like this obfuscates that sexism in continental Europe can be just as vile, aggressive and backwards as in other countries, but is so in different ways.

I also want to make a general point about this cultural influence. Engaging more deeply with the 'Anglosphere' is mainly a thing with younger and highly-educated people in the Netherlands and Belgium. Most of these distrust homegrown nationalism, some of these look down on local culture (or did you think it was a coincidence so many Dutch and Flemish bands sing in English?), and a still smaller segment has opted out of Dutch or Flemish culture almost entirely.
This is not without danger: it may result in a self-fulfilling prophecy (the more people who turn their back on local culture, the poorer it will become). It may also lead to confusing cultural notions, where you end up not truly belonging to either culture. Instead of forming a synthesis between cultures, you become trapped in a cultural uncanny valley where you are neither a full member of the Anglosphere - and never can be - yet find yourself too distant from your local culture to fully participate in it.