Chris Sciabarra
Chris Sciabarra

The Politics of Culture and the Culture of Politics

I am an individualist. And I am also a New Yorker, born, raised and still residing in one of the greatest urban "melting pots" on the planet. Living in New York City, it is totally impossible not to be caught up in the various tribal battles that take place on an almost daily basis. In fact, the tribalism affects every aspect of life, especially politics. In the New York Senate race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio (who stepped in when Rudy Giuliani bowed out), there are constant issues that a candidate must face in vying for the votes of various constituencies: Do I march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade? The Columbus Day Parade? The St. Patrick's Day Parade? The Gay Pride Parade? And if you're lucky enough, somebody somewhere will go public with the allegation that over a quarter-century ago, you may have used the phrase "Jew bastard" to describe a colleague -- something that Hillary is lately defending herself against. Lazio, meanwhile, knows that the Lavender Left almost always votes for the Democratic Party, so as the Republican nominee, he skipped the Gay Pride Parade, despite criticisms of "insensitivity." (The gay march actually commemorates a libertarian event; it is a celebration of that June night in 1969, when gay men and women stood their ground and fought the New York City Police department in its attempts to raid and close down the Stonewall Bar. It was a strike against state oppression of alternative lifestyles and one which libertarians, both straight and gay, can appreciate.)

But there is no doubt that an intense problem exists in a society in which parades are a mere extension of group politics, since groups have become the only units of political power and analysis. In a mixed economy, in which groups vie for special privileges at one another's expense, such tribalism is an inexorable by-product. It makes a certain degree of sense, of course, from an economic perspective, to join with other individuals if one is looking to either gain a privilege, or more importantly, to protect oneself from the privileges of others. Individualists need to stress, however, that cultural difference is not our enemy; we must fight the privileges that rigidify the differences among peoples.

I look to my own neighborhood, for instance. It used to be a heavily Southern European community -- Italians, Greeks, European Jews. But as with all things New York, the neighborhood has changed. When new immigrant groups began to appear in my neighborhood - - Chinese, Korean, Mexican, and Russian -- some people became anxious. The typical racist attitude reared its ugly head. Still, something else was at work. The most intense hostility was directed toward Russian immigrants, I noticed, and this was because many of the earlier immigrants were resentful that, upon their arrival in America, they had to make it on their own, without recourse to government handouts. Many became angry at the Russians because as "political" immigrants, they came to America with a host of welfare agencies ready to assist. It is fairly common to see newly-arrived Russian women and men with Medicaid debit cards in-hand, shopping at the local supermarket. It makes for a very tense atmosphere while standing on line at the checkout. (Yes, in New York we stand "on line," not "in line.")

I tried to explain to some of my neighbors that their hostility should not be directed to the Russians per se, who, in a certain warped sense, are simply making an economic decision not to be put at a comparative disadvantage by turning away from the welfare. No, the real hostility should be directed to a system that provides an arena for such a perverse competition among people for tax-expropriated largesse.

But there were other things that bothered my neighbors about many Russians; it was a cultural attitude, widespread it seemed, reflected well in Sheila Fitzpatrick's recent book, Everyday Stalinism (Oxford, 1999). In that book, Fitzpatrick talks about how totalitarianism influenced a generation of Russians toward a tribal mentality, one in which individual responsibility was virtually absent. That mentality has been internalized by many Russians who have come to America to escape the political and economic hardships in their own country. Many have been skillful, quite adept actually, in working with political bureaucracies; they have established networks designed to help their comrades get the aid that the U.S. taxpayer provides.

As time has passed, however, most of the Russians in my neighborhood have begun to adapt to American ways. And it seems to me that as the new immigrants move toward hard work and accountability, many of the previous tensions in the community wither away.

I am not a solipsist; I live in that community, and I revel in its diversity. My maternal grandparents were Greek and my paternal grandparents were Sicilian; I grew up loving Greek and Italian food. But I also love the local Jewish delicatessen, and Chinese and Japanese food, and in New York, it is all "authentic." My musical palette is no less diverse, running the gamut from classical to disco, with a deep love for Brazilian and Latino music, and for jazz and R&B, so deeply rooted in the American black experience. And I yearn for a day when the role of politics has been minimized, so that cultures and subcultures have a chance to evolve and intermingle without the kind of tribal collectivism that fuels animosity.


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