Sunday, February 22, 2009

Attempting to Preserve a Traditional Culture in a Pluralistic Society

I've been holding on to this blog post for a long time. The incidents that sparked this article happened in Snowflake, AZ, the LDS community we live so close to, but I've been trying to cultivate as open and balanced a point of view as possible so I've held off on posting until I could think this thing through. I don't want to participate in Mormon bashing..but the incidents still affect me. And I think the issues behind them affect our society as a whole. It's about the clash between strict Fundamentalism that tries to preserve what is perceived of as a positive and, therefore, essential way of life... and the impact of the religious and personal freedoms perceived as such high values by the rest of the modern world.

Three incidents stand out. One involved a man now living near Snowflake who had been excommunicated from the LDS church in another town. The second involved a non-LDS shopkeeper struggling to keep her business going in this predominantly LDS community, and the third was an LDS shopkeeper with strong local ties and an active involvement in the church. In each case the person we were talking to had some minor complaint about local culture. Different things each time and nothing anyone would think twice about talking openly about anywhere else I've lived. But in each case the conversation started like this:

The person looked furtively over their shoulder to see who else might be around. Then they leaned forward and said what they had to say in a lowered confidential tone.

I've seen this behavior only once before -- in Russia before glasnost and the break-up of the Soviet Union. I was there in 1976 with my high school class on a courageous (at the time) class trip designed to be an experiment in cultural openness and education. When we were in what was then called Leningrad we were allowed to go out in a group without a tour guide or chaperone. It was safe enough to do that back then but we were met outside our hotel by a small group of Russian teenagers who offered to show us "their" Leningrad so we had tour guides after all.

They took us on a subway ride and for a walk through a park and at some point along the way revealed that they were Jewish and hoped we could smuggle out letters to their families in the United States. That's when their demeanor changed. That's when I saw the behavior we've seen repeated here in Snowflake and I'll never forget the chill we felt when we realized that this simple -- even innocent-- act of defiance was making them feel so afraid.

Fundamentalist societies, whether they're Communist, Muslim, or Christian, can seem severe to those outside of them and they're very often severe to those who live within them and long for freedom and reforms. When I attended the 5th World Conference for Women in Beijing, China several years ago I had a delightful conversation with a young Chinese woman who was taking a short break from her duties there. She was curious about me as a person who was raised Jewish but no longer strictly believed everything I was brought up with. To her this was inconceivable but suddenly she brightened up. "I know!" she said. "It's because you live in America and in America you can believe anything you want!" She thought this was wonderful and made the bold statement that "this was how it was going to be in China someday, too!"

Her elders might not have been too thrilled with that. My traditional Jewish relatives are not too thrilled with it. They perceive the exodus of young people from traditional Judaism as a bigger threat to the Jewish way of life than the Holocaust! And for good reason. That very traditional way of life my grandparents grew up with in their tiny Russian village, before being forced to leave by the pogroms - the Russian Holocaust, no longer really exists. That's what the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" was all about -- the clash of modernity and the turning point in history that led to the destruction of a traditional way of life and way of seeing the world.

It wasn't a good thing...but, seeing it through my own eyes as one of their grandchildren, it freed me to live in a very different way. Positive and negative, for better and for worse. I wouldn't give it up and return to the strictures of that old society for anything. But there's a price to pay and I understand that, too.

When communities hold themselves separate from the greater society they can embark on any creative social experiment they desire...and a lot of what they create can be pretty darned good. But without an active enough interaction with the world as a whole people stagnate. In-bred patterns start to run the show. If there's any flaw in that community's perception it burdens the people involved and yet, without input from outside, it's hard to get a clear enough view. As time goes on, and a closed society becomes ever more out of step with the mores of the world around them, outside input is understandably seen as a threat. I'm sure that's why Gay marriage is so frightening to the LDS. But it's also the main reason why 9-11 took place -- religious fundamentalists striking out to keep American cultural mores away.

Fundamentalist societies are crumbling worldwide in the face of religious and moralistic freedoms they never imagined. These freedoms can come with a high price tag. Moral structures our own society counted on just one generation ago look quaint, laughable, archaic now...but the death rate from violent crimes, drug abuse, and other societal ills has risen astronomically in this time period as well. And not just here in the United States. That park we walked in so safely in Leningrad just 33 years ago is NOT safe to walk in at night today. Since Communism has failed and capitalist values have flooded back in, crime has proliferated and it's necessary to take the same precautions there as it is in any big city in our own country. In even more traditional societies, such as what you find in the Middle East, the modern ideas represented by what gets imported through American movies and TV are enormously threatening.

"How are you going to keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Par-ee (Paris)?" is how an old song goes. How are they going to do that?

They're probably not. But this isn't all bad!

A very interesting thing is happening among Jewish young people today. There's a movement called Jewish Renewal that is attempting to combine modern ideas like feminism and other egalitarian ideals with the very oldest of Jewish practices and mystical traditions. It also openly embraces aspects of other religions such as Buddhism and Sufism. It's bringing Jewish expatriates back to the roost and that's something their elders didn't expect to see.

Sometimes letting go of the reins can allow something new and, perhaps, more wonderful to emerge. The pendulum swings but it also swings back and when it settles in the middle a new society that merges the healthiest of the two extremes has a possibility to then emerge.


The Muddy Moose Bath Boutique said...

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Anonymous said...

But without an active enough interaction with the world as a whole people stagnate. In-bred patterns start to run the show. If there's any flaw in that community's perception it burdens the people involved and yet, without input from outside, it's hard to get a clear enough view. As time goes on, and a closed society becomes ever more out of step with the mores of the world around them, outside input is understandably seen as a threat.
I thought this was an amazing perception and it got me thinking...whether it is a single person trapped in circular thinking or a group, it does not bode well for those involved.

It seems to feed fears and initiate "flight or fight" response.

And the larger society's response is negative as well.

Feeling inclusive on an energy level works pretty well and keeps our own negatives down. Feeling inclusive on a day-to-day physical level is much more difficult as we get drawn into the conflict of ideas and emotions and fears.

Staying in the present and feeding the "good wolf" may give us the perspective to know what to do in situations that arise.

Thank you, Sheryl, for sharing your thoughts and inspiring me.


Howling Caterpillars said...

Very very interesting...It's true too. The elders are hiding in their set patterns and the youngsters are striving to change...

Sheryl Karas said...

Linda, if you happen to see my response here, could you say more about the "good wolf"? I haven't heard that expression before.

Anonymous said...

There is a wonderful story that I do not know who to give credit for:

An old Grandfather, whose grandson came to him with anger at a schoolmate who had done him an injustice, said, "Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times."

He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way."

"But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."

The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eye and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"

The Grandfather solemnly said, "The one I feed."


Sheryl Karas said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Linda for the Good Wolf story. It's wonderful!