Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Cross-Cultural Perspective on lndividuaism (part 1)

     Some blogs back, I had mentioned an idea that had been weighing on my mind for quite a while, not in any sort of pressing or immediate sense, but instead more as an observational, change-of-perspective sort of way. Its a simple, subtle question I think, and yet one that goes to the center of many issues, namely the construction of the American identity and its ramifications on global policy and relations (in our role as waning global hegemon, such ramifications are significant). That question is something along the lines of: In the greater scheme of what it means to be “American”, what is the role that individuality in defining our culture? But before I dive head-first, a little background may be useful.

A Bit of Background: 

     On a personal level, this query has along history of preoccupying my overly curious and analytical mind. The impetus for my current thinking (and the motivation to write more extensively about it) arose more directly out of the long process of cultural adaptation that I have had to undergo in order to integrate into my community and fulfill my duties as a Peace Corps volunteer. Such a process was expected and extensively outlined by Peace Corps staff during our several months of in-country training, however, experiencing such things first-hand does more to actualize this concept than any number of “Peace Corps Experience” flowcharts and group discussion sessions ever could.
    The reality of what ‘compromising aspects one’s self and one’s culture’ actually means cannot be adequately conveyed through nebulous, seemingly useless rhetoric. That is not to say that intense cultural integration is somehow earth-shattering or unfathomably traumatic (for most people at least)--indeed, it is usually nothing quite so apocalyptic. It is instead a very existential and at the same liberating process of self-critique and analysis; it is not self-destructive, but it is self-reconstructive, as you are forced to disassemble, evaluate and then rebuild your ideals and values to fit in a completely foreign context. My favorite term for this process is “mind-fuck”-- Peace Corps and its associated cultural integration (which, in my opinion, is comparable to very few experiences in the world) is a complete mind-fuck, and that’s just the nature (and the beauty) of the beast.
    As an American, having been raised my entire life in suburban American society, stepping into a world that occupies the complete opposite end of the cultural and socio-economic spectrum immediately called into stark question several foundational aspects of my own culture (and by extension, my own values). Individualism was on the top of the list. It simultaneously appears as both a luxury of our privileged society and at the same time our greatest failure; the cornerstone of self-proclaimed American freedoms and also the Achilles heal, the hubris that may prove fatal in a rapidly changing world.
    Of course, it has always been the self-reliance and gumption that strums the hearts-strings in those classic American rags-to-riches stories, the idea that any individual can accomplish his or her dreams with the right amount of sweat and elbow-grease. Individual enterprise, endeavors, and freedoms--these are some of the absolutely fundamental ideals of our national narrative. The reality (or illusion) of such narratives is best left to a discussion of politics and economics (not the point of this blog entry), but the underlying theme of these stories is what I hope to discuss here: you need not rely on anybody but yourself, the individual (in fact, you better not rely on anyone else, cause you’re after the same piece of pie and there ain’t enough to go around).
    So in hopes of understanding on my own part, I will try to approach this issue piece by piece: Is it individualism that defines American culture? Is that individualism truly beneficial in the long run? On what other models or ideals might we hope to construct society? There are, of course, a million other fascinating questions that could be asked, such as the compatibility of individualism and Christian philosophies, or the role of illusion (vis-à-vis the media and consumerism) in shaping a false sense of individuality, or the true nature of individuality in a privatized, neo-liberal market place, but again, these are best left for another blog. I am going to focus on only the above three questions and do so in a very personal way. This should not be viewed as my own definitive declaration on the reality of things, but instead a sort of personal meditation on an idea that perplexes me endlessly and I can no longer passively ignore.

Is it Individualism that defines America?

    American society is unique in the world, as much for our heterogeneity as for the characteristics that define whatever it is that might constitute a collective identity. And while we might disagree about what terms such as ‘American culture’ might mean, there are indeed a few things that seem paramount in our conceptualization of American-ism. Most important among them is individualism.
    While individualism might be an important aspect of American culture, it is not an entirely American concept. The roots of such ideas can be traced very deep through history. An acceptable starting point would be the industrial revolution, lets say beginning with the invention of mechanized production in the early 1700’s. Note: this staring point is not absolute--philosophers throughout history have contemplated the individual, its definition and role in society and the universe--but instead fairly arbitrary; for our purposes, however, it seems to serve just fine as a good point of reference.
    At this point in history several tides had begun to rise (or had begun to peak) that would eventually function to greatly reshape human society. Principle among these tides (which are all intimately interrelated) were the industrial revolution, the philosophies of the Enlightenment, the colonial era and the shifting of the global political center of gravity away from its traditional location among the great civilizations of the East and Middle East (at least since the fall of the Roman empire and the Dark ages in Europe). This epoch in history is the rise of Western culture and the beginning of its ascendence on the world stage.
    The economics of this era broke the mold of old-world agricultural empires and made way for modernized states with societies that quickly fragmented along the fissures of the working-class/proletariat and bourgeoisie. In traditional, agriculturally-based societies, the household represented the fundamental economic unit and societies/cultures was arranged accordingly (although of course, all infinitely differed in this exact arrangement). In a civilization where land-tenure and land-use were directly correlated to economic production, and more fundamentally, to one’s ability to feed their families, the structures of society tended to function much more communally (keep in mind that these are all very broad and generalized strokes that I am only using to illustrate ideas, not exactly codify individual groups).
    With the reformation of global economies along the lines of capitalist production, the functional economic unit became the individual. The historical role of the family was forever changed and has been continuously challenged in all modern capitalist societies ever since. In combination with other philosophical and political tides, the concept of individualism was born. Across the world, many modernizing cultures were forced into the long struggle of re-negotiating and re-defining themselves along these new lines.
    Some societies had an easier time of this transition, most notably the European societies that nucleated this phase of global metamorphosis, seeing as they were not only its founders but had also already gotten a bit of a head-start. Other societies (many, many other societies) found this transition much more difficult. The ideas of Western civilization were fundamentally opposed to, or stood in such start contrast to the values of many cultures.
    The nature of this transition, instead of following the utopian vision of Enlightenment philosophers, was marked by violent opposition, civil unrest and calamity. It is important to keep in mind, I am not trying to invoke anything  along the lines of Samual Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, instead I am merely trying to present the hypothesis (and I think history and sociology would be on my side in positing such) that intense social change is not always a simple or straight path, but is determined by a myriad of factors (global politics, military policy, economics etc.) one of which is certainly variations in underlying cultural values.
    The United States of America, though not new geographically but certainly still in the infancy of its cultural evolution, was born and baptized during this meteoric “rise of the West”, just after the French Revolutions and the high mark of the Enlightenment tide. Undoubtedly (and likely to the chagrin of religious constitutionalists and fundamentalist minorities), the United States was founded, first and foremost, on the principles of the Enlightenment, appeals to universal human dignity as understood through the process of reason, and the economics of a new capitalist, industrial era.
    No doubt, these ideals were far from pure and intensely mired in the perverted values of the time (I am referring specifically to slavery and women’s rights), but this does not seem to alter too greatly my final conclusion: that America was the offspring of a new era in global politics, economics, and industry that all seemed to revolve around the centrality of the individual. What George Washington dubbed a “great experiment” was, in reality, a cultural and political control test of the newly inducted philosophy of the West. While France and its Enlightenment revolution was re-building their society with the pieces of thousands of years of history, the Americas were more of a blank slate (especially when we consider that all those years of indigenous history were virtually eviscerated through genocide and fraud).
    In the end, it seems that by a chance of history and geography, the United States was heir to a very unique and patently-American interpretation of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking. Obviously, as time has progressed, the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment and the economic revolution of capitalism have carved out their own trajectories in many different nations. In combination with many other international and domestic processes, conflicts and intellectual influences many societies have created their own manifestations of this shared philosophical and economic ancestry.
     While Europe has seen these ideas evolve mostly into variations on social democracies, the US brand of the same history has found itself the outlier, continually reinforcing (or trying to, at least) its keystones of individual freedoms. This is not to say that any one of these is more right than any other, but simply underscoring the centrality of individualism in our American culture. The reasons for this are no doubt quite complex and controversial, but it seems obvious from listening to modern political rhetoric and from observing our current political debates how quintessential the role of the individual is in framing American politics.
    Ours is truly a country born on such ideals (the long-term rightness or wrongness of such will be discussed later) and therefore left to the ultimate fate to which such ideals will lead. The role of the United States as global hegemon has certainly substantiated and buttressed the cracks and imperfections in our cultural and social foundation, but such band-aids cannot last for long. This leads me very nicely into my second question: Is individualism truly beneficial in the long run? But that will be left for my next blog...

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


    It wasn’t an apple that tempted Eve, it was a mango. I can just see it now: that immense fruit, in all of it’s sun-kissed glory, sitting in her hands, barely fitting between her two palms. All the while, a calm serpent, whispering from its perch, coiled around bunches of navette shaped leaves and plump fruit. Who could resist those yellow and red hues painted on that firm, purple-green canvass skin? Such tremendous fruits so easily plucked from low-hanging branches, as attractive in their accessibility as in their shear abundance. Each one seductively voluptuous and tender. Each bite gashing open new veins that bleed with sweet, warm juice. Descended from heaven, surely--wrapped up and offered under the deliciously cool shade of heavy, twisted trees. It was a mango for sure, and she never stood a chance.

An almost Platonic specimen, this Brazilian mango--about 1 week or 2 from its peak ripeness--hangs seductively around eye level. 

   Paraguay in the summer seems to ferment in mango juice. The air is thick with the sickly smell of it as the locals collect and consume as many as possible, discarding the skins and pits like bread crumbs along wind-swept roads as they walk to and form the fields. Still, so many untold numbers of succulent fruits are missed, picked apart by bees and insects on the ground. Hundreds are left to rot, to fertilize the soil and sow another generation of the world’s finest shade tree. For every person in Paraguay, there must be a million mangoes or more each season. Money might not grow on trees but mangos do, and on the hottest of summer days, nothing could be better.
Fallen mangoes--those left to fertilize the soil and seed the next generation.
This mango, left to rot on the vine, is being slowly worked on by spiders, flies and bees alike. Mango season is a feast for everyone.

    There 2 kinds of mangoes in Paraguay. The first, a native Paraguayan variety, are smaller and yellow and have a tougher, more fibrous flesh. These typically can’t be chewed as easily--instead one simply sucks out the juices and masticates the insides of the fruit to a mushy pulp before spitting out the rest, bit by fibrous bit. Delicious as they may be, they are undoubtedly quite a menace for people in a country that doesn’t seem to floss, although that doesn’t appear to stop anyone in the slightest.

The native Paraguayan variety of mango--slightly smaller, exceptionally juicy and very fibrous.

    Then there are the Brazillian mangoes: brilliantly colored and radiant, textured yet smooth, their flesh like soft orange butter with only enough fiber to remind you that nothing is quite perfect. This fruit might just be as close as it comes. Everything that these mangos boast in taste and beauty they match in size--they are enormous, some barely fitting in between two hands. Watching a little barefoot Paraguayan child with a full mango is like watching a mouse trying to swallow a soccer ball. Try as they might, they still struggle, giddy with all of their big-eyed, childish delight as rivers of juice run down their chins and onto their bare, protruding bellies.

Another beautiful example of the Brazilian variety of mangoes. Sexy.
     As if to add to the bounty, there are enough passion fruits (mburucaja in Guarani) and peaches and pineapples and bananas to feed armies, to cure the scurvy of a million wayward sailors, to drown the entire world in sweet, juicy surrender. Such plenty is one massively redeeming quality in a country that is otherwise suffocating in unbearable summer heat. That’s the trade off I guess--torrents of delicious tropical fruit, the product of incredible photosynthetic production, for mind-numbing afternoons. I’ll take it. I don’t really have a choice anyway.

A carpet of old, rotting Paraguayan mangoes, fermenting in the cool shade of a mango tree. They create a smell that is not entirely unpleasant, but not exactly an air-freshener. Its quite unique, hard to forget for sure.

    The summer days are long, infinitely longer than any other day I have ever experienced. The sun flirts with the horizon starting around five and doesn’t decide to leave until well after eight in the evening. At even the earliest hours, one can feel the echoes of the heat from the day before and the shadows of the heat of the day to come. It is ominous and foreboding, like the most obvious foreshadowing in a poorly-made film, but there is nothing to be done but sit and wait.
    Life here is always tranquillo, quiet and calm, but in the summertime it seems as if even the hands of the clock themselves have taken a vacation. Seconds are twice as long, hours are like days, and days are more like tired, sweaty lifetimes. Its the Bermuda   triangle of South America, except nothing disappears, it just gets lost within itself for an indefinite period of time, lost within an ocean of heat-haze and mangoes, laden with the weight of the atmosphere and aged like an old man when it finally re-emerges, withered and worn. And yet, the weeks seem to fly by. El viento sur (the southern wind) will be rolling in the fall before too long. I’ll be huddled next to a fire and sipping maté in no time--assuming I survive the heat, that is.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Monday, January 7, 2013

Back to Paraguay

    I arrived home in Paraguay several days ago. As I stumbled off the plane in my red-eyed, early-morning stupor I remember the heat just hitting me. It felt like a fat man had just sat down on-top of my head. It was Paraguay--just as I had left it almost 2 and half weeks before. Of course, things couldn’t change too much in such a short period of time and I hadn’t expected them to. If I’ve learned anything about Paraguay, its that change is slow, except in the cases of occasional military coups or unconstitutional presidential impeachments. What had changed during my brief respite stateside was not Paraguay but me and the head-space I had been occupying for over the past year.
    I have lived in Paraguay for something like 1 year and 4 months, although at times they all seem to run together in a sort of heat-induced haze. I remember leaving for the first time, off to spend the next 2-plus years living the idyllic Peace Corps life and enjoying the wonderful tropical weather (oh, how naive I was).  At that time, I was off on an adventure, without a good conception of how long and difficult those next two years would be and ready for a change in the hum-drum monotony that had become my college life. In a way, I was also running from the stress and chaos of what was, at that time, a totally unrealistic and trying relationship with a girl I had met but 8 months before; although this relationship would last another few months, I found it surprisingly more manageable and agreeable with 4,000 miles of oceans and continents between us (as you would likely deduce, she did not feel the same).
    Other than a trip to Cuba last May and a 4-day respite in the states following this amazing experience, I had spent all of my Peace Corps service up to that point within the borders of Paraguay. With the exception of short, monthly trips to the capital city of Asuncion, my world was even more restricted to the distance I was willing to ride my bicycle from home in the paralyzing heat, making roughly a 10 kilometer circumference around my small community of Guido Almada. It had been such a long time and such a consuming experience up to that point that I no longer thought of Paraguay as if it were some study-abroad experience; it had become, it was (and still is) my life. For all intents-and-purposes, Guido Almada and by extension Paraguay is my home. This is where my life exists (for the next year at least), where my neighbors and friends are, where I have a strong support system, and where I continually progress through the trials and beauty of my day-in, day-out.
    So needless to say, going back home to visit the US for almost 2 and a half-weeks for the holiday season was going to come as a bit of a shock. It did. I had expected this to a certain extent and had even begun loosing my shit a little bit as we descended into Miami International Airport. I was de-boarding when my torso began shaking like a twig--it was like I was hungry, but also full, but anxious and ready to run if things got too crazy too fast. It didn’t feel like I was coming home, not until I stepped out of the terminal, greeted by a gust of cold wind, my mother’s arms, my little sister and one of my best friends in the world.
    The next few days were wonderful and warm and beautiful, although all the while a part of me was struggling internally to get a grip on the strangeness of it all--the contrasts between these two lives, both of which were mine, but neither of which felt real any longer. It was like I was two different people, but the same bodily vessel. I missed my dog in Paraguay, my good friend Don Zaccarias, I even missed the food (the fatty, carb-rich, oil-saturated Paraguayan campo food). I found myself longing for the solitude and peace and quiet that comes every sunny morning or every wine-and-cigar-filled night sitting alone on the porch of my little brick shack.
    Still, it was glorious to be home. To eat my mother’s food, hearing her sing Christmas songs. To converse endlessly over beers or cups of coffee with my father, who will always be my father, but as the years go by, becomes more and more like a best friend. To annoy and pester my little sisters till they threaten to tell on me (although secretly, we know they love the attention and the affection). To sit with my best friends and bull-shit about life and retell those infinitely entertaining stories of our childhood--almost all of which we spent together. I had forgotten how much I loved and missed these people, how truly blessed I am to have them in my lives, how shattered I would be to loose any of them, and how much they missed and loved me in return. Perhaps, I hadn’t forgotten such things, just put away somewhere so I could get on with life in Paraguay and not be burdened ceaselessly with nostalgia. This as well was my life. My friends and family, my support structure, my stories and memories, the things that have defined me, and an unending pool of love and affection.
    I am writing this now while sitting, once again, on my porch in Paraguay. I have re-traveled the many thousands of miles that separate me from home only to come home once again. It has been surprisingly difficult to re-adjust to my life here (although, to be fair, I have only given myself 3 days so far). My head-space has been severely twisted and turned. I am here for about 11 months more (just under a year) and while this might sound like a lot, I know it will be gone before I know it. These past months since I first arrived seem to have flown by almost before I realized it. And to think that at times I thought I would never last the week. Here I am, well over half-way done and in reality, already on my way out. I am not running for the door by any means, but simply trying to be realistic with how I proceed in my work and my personal life from this point. It is a weird place to be in your head, straddling two different parts of your life, waiting, living, occupying one life in a way that seems like only biding time till you can re-join another. Where does that man begin and I end? How do I rectify such seemingly polarized and foreign part of myself? Time, perhaps, and maybe a bottle of wine and some good conversation with a friend. Cheers.

Until I come home, wherever that might be,
little hupo