Balneus

Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

One day, two cultures, one destiny

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-01-26


The conjunction of Australia Day and Chinese New Year has caused me again to reflect on the two cultural traditions, the lessons and the cautionary tales we must offer each other, and accept.

The most obvious and trivial "compare and contrast" between the two celebrations is the food: what would you rather have: barbeque and beer, or a smorgasbord of asian delicacies?  Besides, the urban legend of being hungry half an hour after eating Chinese is another huge advantage in favor of the Chinese celebration.

The other big difference is that Chinese New Year is multinational and joyous: it lacks the jingoism, crass nationalism, the focus on the trivial, and the hints of "displacement guilt" that can so often taint the experience of Australia Day.

But the real lessons are deeper, and never has the adoption by each culture of the lessons from the other been so important, so urgent.


The crass nationalism: 

Consider, for example, the headline sentence of Rudd’s Australia Day message:

As we celebrate Australia Day with our friends and families – over barbeques, picnic tables and beach towels – I know that many of you share my concerns about the impact of the global financial crisis on our families.

Oh dear!  Important enough to be highlighted by Rudd in the opening, the thing to grab the reader’s attention, this is nothing more than an unintentional but all-to-accurate analysis of our selfish focus on the threat to satisfaction of our affluenza, our addiction to the sybaritic and lotophagic.

As to the jingoism, the smug self-congratulation, the attempt to differentiate ourselves with attributes that are hardly uniquely Australian, but often found in greater abundance in other cultures that are more oppressed by nature and poverty, we need go no further than Rudd’s speech mentioned above, and his Australia Day Citizenship ceremony.

In that speech, there is a constant mantra of the following:

courage, resilience and compassion

It gets worse, for Rudd defines courage as follows:

Courage, knowing the dangers that lie ahead on the road, but defying those dangers and taking the decision to proceed.

This from a government that has done not one thing that is politically courageous, apart from not proceeding with an appropriate response to the dangers of climate change, an approach that is at odds with the will of the people, but doubtless in line with the need to raise funds for the party from big business.

Seriously, Rudd has never shown courage, not in the sense I’d define it, as defying danger, not because that danger is unavoidable regardless of choice, but choosing an option that places you in danger, chosen because of a perceived responsibility to others.

And when not being unjustifiably jingoistic and smug…?

The vast bulk of Rudd’s message to new citizens was inappropriately not about the timeless and existential, not something even more relevant to new citizens than in an address to long-standing citizens that highlights the differences from one year to another, but about the current financial crisis, the threat to our comforts: a threat those who lived in past times, during world wars, during the depression, would regard as trivial.

Finally on Rudd, while his addresses mentioned multi-culturalism, did he even acknowledge the conjunction with the New Year celebrations of another culture, one that has been important to members of our society since the gold rush, something we’d expect a self-proclaimed sinophile to understand?  No.

Still, it’s better that the advertising campaign last year, when the Rudd government permitted exhortations, however satirical, asking us to attack one another as an essential part of celebrating Australia Day.

Enough on the trivial, the hypocritical, the only-to-be-expected from the political!


On to the cultural: 

While I’ve always found the philosophical traditions of Chinese culture fascinating, and I’ve “got” their philosophical traditions because they map very well to Western classical traditions (even some translations into Chinese of John 1:1 use “Tao” for “Logos”, and “Jen” can be mapped to “Agape”), I’ve never been able to get a grasp of Chinese history, other than (1) pre-history, (2) warring states, (3) pre-Mongolian, (4) Mongolian, (5) post-Mongolian, (6) European domination, (7) Communist.  This poor understanding of history, and a complete ignorance of even the rudiments of the language (I cannot read a single word apart from “man”) saddens me.

As I see it, the essential part of Chinese culture (not the nation, but the attitude) has been Confucian, the understanding of responsibilities, admittedly the greatest to one’s family and neighbors, but clearly extending to everyone one the planet.  While Chinese culture has always been the most "bookish" of the Eastern cultures, making it the most attractive to me, it shares with most Eastern cultures a focus on the well-being of the group, the collective, rather than the focus on the self, a self-centredness that, because of the long poisoning of Western culture by the Abrahamic dogma of an immortal, indivisible and individual soul, is sadly too common in Australia.

This difference is perhaps most strikingly demonstrated in a psychological test given to children, an example of a thematic apperception test: they are presented with a picture of many fish, all but one going in the same direction and asked to talk about the fish going in the different direction.

Occidental children consider that one fish as the happiest, being able to express its individuality.

Oriental children talk of the poor little fish, who must feel lonely, an outsider.

While Australia Day is essentially exclusionary, indeed many point to the divisiveness it can create between citizens of immigrant versus aboriginal descent, my experience of Chinese New Year has always been inclusive.

Since a young adult, whenever living in Geelong, I’d usually attend the New Year celebrations of the Geelong asian friendship association.  Over the years, we’d connect again, and watch each other mature, have kids, and watch those kids in turn mature.

The oldies originally only playing mahjong in the back room increasingly also played Western games such as blackjack.  The western kids would learn impatience for the chocolate coins in red paper bags, just as they were always impatient to open up whatever Santa had left them on Xmas.  They’d learn to ask questions about how the animal would be represented this year: a tethered goat, a guy in a monkey suit, the horse-and-carriage rides around the block.  I’m not sure if things like horse-rides for the year of the horse, and similar things at those parties, are traditional Chinese celebrations, but if such practices were innovations here, it represents a lovely merging of ideas, and is consistent with the Chinese ideas of extended inclusiveness.

In contrast to Rudd’s claims about "resilience" being something that can be used to differentiate Australia from other nations, it is the resilience of Chinese culture over many millenia, even re-asserted in response to alien invasion, that is remarkable.

Where Chinese culture can be exclusionary, it is usually from the sense of being self-sufficient, that others do not understand caution, unlike the Chinese, who have only had bad experiences with rapid change, be it the guns and opium of the Europeans, or Mao’s cultural revolution.


The deeper lessons: 

This brings me finally to the essential differences between the two cultures, the differences that are both strengths and weaknesses of each culture, and the need to move to a synthesis, something that it best highlighted today when our celebrations are simultaneous.

The strengths of the west are from reductionism and haste.  The ancient Greeks ignored the world’s complexity, believed they could hold a ruler up to each element of Nature, and understand the whole, so delved deeply into the details, missing emergent phenomena.  Technologies were generally adopted before we understood their full implications, which has led to rapid advancement and frequent misery.

The ancient Chinese, however, were holistic and cautious.  Seeing the complexity, they concentrated on totality, and failed to understand the small.  They were cautious, which helped reach stability, but a stability that sometimes went too far, becoming stagnation.

To survive the disruptions and disasters of climate change, and for any country to prosper through these tumultuous times, we need to create a culture that combines these two attitudes, a combination that uses the strengths of each, understanding the weaknesses of each.

We need to balance the individual freedoms derived from Greek political philosophy, with the understanding from Confucious that collective strength, subsuming individual advantage, is more critical.

We must avoid both Greek rashness, and Chinese inflexibility to reach sustained adaptability.

We must support the idiosyncrasies of individuals, receiving their gifts and innovations, but avoid using them rashly and for individual advantage, instead understanding how they can contribute to the bigger solutions we need, using them to advance together and more surely, not separately and with uncertainty.

Here starts the lesson of the day.


See Also/Notes:

  • A post earlier today, but concentrating on Oz, comparing now not to the culture of another country, but to the other country of our own past (hmmm, L.P. Hartley… "The past is a different country, they do things differently there"), is "Australia – can we rekindle our past promise?" (2009-01-26).  Reading Rudd’s addresses only makes my criticisms more relevant.
  • I’ve just watched "Hero", a wonderful film from China, a bit like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", but ultimately, a meditation on nationhood (and the need for unification of "all under heaven"), which also plays to the previous "Australia – can we rekindle our past promise" post.

p.s. Before you criticize I didn’t say three cultures… I’m talking about the dominant mindsets.  Ideally, our culture should be like yum cha or friend rice, lots of different things that add up to something tasty and nutritious when combined.

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16 Responses to “One day, two cultures, one destiny”

  1. silver said

    Dave Bath, I won’t mince words. Take it from a Geelong-raised Greek: you’re flat-out nuts. “It” (the whole loony project) barely, barely, by the thinnest of margins “worked” with us; extending it to the rest of the world was insanity on stilts. Since you mention self-congratulation, is there anything more self-congratulatory than patting yourself on the back for the fine job you’ve done destroying your country?

    I’d “go back home” myself, but I do have to wonder just how much of a “home” there’ll be to go back to, since even the parochial Greek has, to my utter astonishment, succumbed to the same self-abasing and self-abnegating affliction which causes one to stand aside and be overrun by Africans and Asians.

    That said, allow me now to really freak you out: I’d rather die at the hands of a Nazi firing squad (though I trust it won’t quite come to that) than watch everything decent in life decay and perish all because of the inability of whiny intellectuals to come to grips with the inherent inequality between men (exhaustively, conclusively and unassailably documented, every bit of it). Yes, the reality your brand of lunacy is quickly bringing into being is exactly that deplorable.

    Oh, I just noticed this: I’ve just watched “Hero”, a wonderful film from China, a bit like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but ultimately, a meditation on nationhood.

    Bzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt. They are nothing alike. I suppose they all look the same to you, eh? Heh, you’re not even a good multiculturalist. It’s sometimes hard to believe the country is being run into the ground on the basis of thinking just this shoddy.

  2. Dave Bath said

    silver,
    I’ll address your comment to my postscript about Hero first. It’s much easier to parse than the rest of your comment, which I’ll address at some point in the future (apart from your “inherent inequality between men” bit… as someone with – albeit a while back – an understanding of things like inherited metabolic disorders from a biochem/pathogenesis perspective, I acknowledge “inherent inequality” as the state of nature, which Humanity should seek to ameliorate, while not encouraging increased frequency of the worst conditions that have no group or individual benefit and only bring pain). A response to your position deserves a separate post… there are many points of yours i’ll take issue with… politely.

    You quote me correctly as saying about “Hero”:

    a bit like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but ultimately, a meditation on nationhood

    then you say

    Bzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt. They are nothing alike. I suppose they all look the same to you, eh? Heh, you’re not even a good multiculturalist.

    The bit that is similar to “Crouching Tiger” is that they LOOK very much the same… pretty landscapes, balletic fighting, etc. That bit will attract others to “Hero”.

    One “art-housy” difference I liked was the way color was used in “Hero” (watch the leaves change from yellow to red as the fight between the two women ends, or the way the different retellings use different color palettes).

    And the art-house-loving types will probably find “Hero” more attractive in other ways. Instead of (again pretty) love stories and individual ethics, it raises the issue of the morality of ends/means to create a state that doesn’t have wars and language barriers between the constituent parts. (And for matinee-lovers, it’s a VERY different portrayal of the first emperor, the villian in the latest “Mummy” movie).

    Indeed, some of the controversy about the movie “Hero” was whether the “all under heaven” was supporting Beijing’s push for unification (or swallowing, depends on your position) of HK/Taiwan/Tibet.

    I won’t give any more plot spoilers, and I hope no other comments include spoilers either.

  3. […] Bath on One day, two cultures, one destinyDave Bath on Tricking the faculty?silver on One day, two cultures, one destinySaving the Goulburn-Murray Bill – Why no submissions published? « Balneus on Submissions about […]

  4. Lyn said

    Assuming that Silver is talking about either the failure of some to integrate, or the failure of some to tolerate difference, yes, there’s plenty of evidence to support that. It’s also true that the combination is a growing problem as we’ve seen in some other countries and parts of this one.

    On the other hand there’s also a largish and growing body of research into cosmopolitanism, historical and contemporary. The greatest centres of trade throughout history have been cosmopolitan, that is, multi racial and multicultural. Where people have put aside differences to cooperate they have thrived. Those who can adapt have always enjoyed benefits.

    It’s not about leftishness or liberalism in individuals, but about a capacity to adapt and accommodate change of any kind. We’re not the first or the only species to find that success depends on the ability to adapt to change.

    Globalisation and the movement of people that involves is not going away. Some can accommodate it easily, others have trouble, others can’t deal with it at all. Those who can deal with people of all kinds stand to gain enormous benefits. Those who can’t, face an increasingly unhappy future.

  5. Dave Bath said

    Lyn: You are making a point about cosmopolitan societies in history I already had in my mind… particular given “silver” claims hellenic extraction, I’d expected him to understand the good things about the Hellenic age (and I’d extend it – kindof – almost as far forward as Constantine I). I wonder if he ever heard of Diogenes’ reply to “are you greek by extraction, turkish by birth, or roman by empire” replied using the word “kosmopolitou” – I am a citizen of the world/kosmos.

    Of course, my opinion on cosmopolitan benefits in history is purely from my own reading of ancient source materials and general histories. Any hints as to where I can find good lay overviews of recent research would be most welcome.

  6. silver said

    Dave,

    The bit that is similar to “Crouching Tiger” is that they LOOK very much the same… pretty landscapes, balletic fighting, etc. That bit will attract others to “Hero”.

    Well that just confirms my point: you find them similar because, when you get down to it, they’re both Chinese flicks, featuring Chinese landscapes and Chinese actors.

    And the art-house-loving types will probably find “Hero” more attractive in other ways. Instead of (again pretty) love stories and individual ethics, it raises the issue of the morality of ends/means to create a state that doesn’t have wars and language barriers between the constituent parts.

    Right. They’re two very different films. Calling one a bit like the other is like describing The English Patient as being “a bit like” The Deer Hunter.

    Your statement fairly oozed so much embedded prejudice one could base an entire thesis on it. You can thank me later for saving you from a potential very embarrassing faux pas (irl). :)

    As for my other points, I apologize for my tone. I was venting more than attempting to present an argument (though I’d be quite happy to do the latter). I don’t really blame you for wanting to spin the dissolution of your country into a positive. What perplexes me most is that you people insist on yet more destruction, as though that already caused wasn’t bad enough (or sufficient to completely do you in (and probably me too) in only a couple more decades). If it’s any consolation, you can rest assured that if I’ve upset you, it probably doesn’t begin to approach how much you upset me.

  7. Dave Bath said

    Silver: A question, are you objecting more to this post on how I see Chinese and Western cultures as complementary (in the sense of Yin/Yang) and that a synthesis is desirable, or do you object to my post that a unified world polity is desirable (and by the way, inevitable in the long term if there isn’t another Fall)?

    If I know, I’ll be better able to go into more detail down the track.

    And if there is “embedded prejudice” in both of my pieces, I remain ignorant of it… please enlighten me about what you perceive this prejudice is, and I’ll try and improve my self and my words.

  8. silver said

    Dave,

    Lyn: You are making a point about cosmopolitan societies in history I already had in my mind… particular given “silver” claims hellenic extraction, I’d expected him to understand the good things about the Hellenic age (and I’d extend it – kindof – almost as far forward as Constantine I). I wonder if he ever heard of Diogenes’ reply to “are you greek by extraction, turkish by birth, or roman by empire” replied using the word “kosmopolitou” – I am a citizen of the world/kosmos.

    I can’t speak too negatively about the Hellenic Age, since the current constitution of the Greek people very much resulted from it, but a taking a sober view of it requires me to accept that the conquests and the resultant mixing of disparate peoples as they descended on Greece led to the downfall of that civilization, just as the same process would later lead to the downfall of Rome. Since the parallels are quite other than what you think, you in fact make my case for me: Alexander’s mad rush for global dominance only succeeded in destroying his country, just as the Rupert Murdochs’ mad rush is, with the help of some unlikely accomplices (ie you), today destroying theirs. Of course, it’s not quite yet a fait accompli, which is why I’m urging you to see the necessity of taking the measures that will avoid it becoming so.

  9. silver said

    Lyn,

    Assuming that Silver is talking about either the failure of some to integrate, or the failure of some to tolerate difference, yes, there’s plenty of evidence to support that. It’s also true that the combination is a growing problem as we’ve seen in some other countries and parts of this one.

    There is neither evidence to suggest nor even any logical reason to think this much ballyhooed, seldom witnessed “integration” is taking or ever will take place. Firstly, for the obvious reason that officialdom not only doesn’t require it to, it advocates the opposite: multiculturalism. Secondly, what’s there to integrate into? Arrivals post, oh, say 1990 or so live completely surrounded by only most imperfectly “integrated” immigrant stock themselves. Whatever they eventually “integrate” into will possess naught but a chance resemblance to anything that could be honestly considered “Australian.”

    On the other hand there’s also a largish and growing body of research into cosmopolitanism, historical and contemporary.

    Thank goodness for that. Otherwise I’d be inclined to trust my impression that the country is going to hell.

    The greatest centres of trade throughout history have been cosmopolitan, that is, multi racial and multicultural. Where people have put aside differences to cooperate they have thrived. Those who can adapt have always enjoyed benefits.

    Voodoo sociology.

    It’s not about leftishness or liberalism in individuals, but about a capacity to adapt and accommodate change of any kind. We’re not the first or the only species to find that success depends on the ability to adapt to change.

    Empty platitudes. (Any change, Lyn? Any at all? Then why all the flapping about, say, Tibet? Why don’t the Tibetans just “adapt” and why don’t people just encourage them to instead of demanding they be “freed”?)

    Globalisation and the movement of people that involves is not going away.

    You may well be right, but please don’t pretend it’s anything but a nightmare of your own design. It could be stopped and reversed tomorrow if the will existed. And that will would stand a much better chance of existing if it weren’t forever being blocked, demonized and driven underground by, well, you.

    Those who can deal with people of all kinds stand to gain enormous benefits.

    Okay, I’m all ears: name three.

  10. silver said

    Dave,

    Silver: A question, are you objecting more to this post on how I see Chinese and Western cultures as complementary (in the sense of Yin/Yang) and that a synthesis is desirable, or do you object to my post that a unified world polity is desirable (and by the way, inevitable in the long term if there isn’t another Fall)?

    The latter, obviously.

    If I know, I’ll be better able to go into more detail down the track.

    Okay, but try to avoid — and I know this is hard for you — ambiguous generalities like “a unified world polity”? (What does it mean? The world rubbing along without war, on the entire world parked in your backyard?)

    And if there is “embedded prejudice” in both of my pieces, I remain ignorant of it… please enlighten me about what you perceive this prejudice is, and I’ll try and improve my self and my words.

    I would have thought it clear I was referring to your one statement (not “both pieces”) about the similarity of the two Chinese movies, and that I was ribbing you about the “prejudice” stuff. Lighten up.

  11. Dave Bath said

    silver said: “name three” (enormous benefits of being able to deal with people of all kinds).

    * More celebrations to attend
    * A better choice of cuisine (I couldn’t go back to “meat and three veg” stodginess of my youth, when even pizza was a bit “exotic”. And let’s not forget COFFEE).
    * Cross-pollination of ideas breed new ideas (good in themselves, but they lead to better economic opportunities).
    * “Hybrid Vigor”, including the ability to ward off a better range of infections (let’s bring a few pygmies into the gene pool here, because that race seems to have some natural immunity to ebola). This makes a society that ISN’T a monoculture genetically more resilient to falling apart with any given epidemic. See high rates of disease in “exclusive” populations, such as Tay-Sachs.

    And of course, there is the comment attributed to Gareth Evans when he was a uni lecturer, which went something like “all these troubles won’t go away until everybody has f***ed everybody else and we’re all khaki”.

  12. silver said

    * More celebrations to attend

    “Ethnic” celebrations, I take it. Otherwise, the number of parties you’re invited to just reflects your level of social skill with your own people. Your argument, then, isn’t more celebrations, it’s just “ethnic” celebrations, the possibility of attending them. Okay, that’s one.

    * A better choice of cuisine (I couldn’t go back to “meat and three veg” stodginess of my youth, when even pizza was a bit “exotic”. And let’s not forget COFFEE).

    I’ll give you points for phrasing it differently. The typical response is to blurt out The Restaurants!. Okay, fine. But do you really require Thai cooks to enjoy Thai food? And why thousands of them every year instead of just the few needed to run the kitchen (or wait tables, if you’re aiming to provide the “complete” ethnic experience)? (And nope, I’m not forgetting the coffee. Obviously the only way to enjoy that is to import thousands upon thousands of Arabs and Brazilians each year.)

    * Cross-pollination of ideas breed new ideas (good in themselves, but they lead to better economic opportunities).

    Do you have any examples of the former and/or any evidence of the latter?

    Seriously, do Somalian refugees really arrive brimming full of ideas fertile for “cross-pollination” and economic growth? The Age’s James Rose apparently thinks so. “No one” was considering the “social buoyancy” of packing Africans into Australia (except him) he told us last year. You’d never know it to look at their countries, but supposedly they’re real economic dynamos these people.

    * “Hybrid Vigor”, including the ability to ward off a better range of infections (let’s bring a few pygmies into the gene pool here, because that race seems to have some natural immunity to ebola). This makes a society that ISN’T a monoculture genetically more resilient to falling apart with any given epidemic. See high rates of disease in “exclusive” populations, such as Tay-Sachs.

    There’s already easily sufficient levels of diversity to enjoy whatever benefits “hybrid vigour” allegedly provides. Whatever this is, it isn’t an argument for more immigration.

    Moreover, it’s not an example of an enormous benefit that one gets to enjoy as a result of one’s ability to deal with all kinds of people. The benefit, such as it is, would only flow to society as a whole, and its emergence doesn’t require different people to like each other at all — there are plenty of white/aborigine hybrids from a time when whites generally loathed aborigines.

    And of course, there is the comment attributed to Gareth Evans when he was a uni lecturer, which went something like “all these troubles won’t go away until everybody has f***ed everybody else and we’re all khaki”.

    Hmm, yeah, somehow it always come down to this. A few African boat people reach Greece, Greeks don’t like them, they don’t get along, oh well, curtains for Greece then, clearly the only possible solution is for Greeks to copulate with Africans until “all these troubles go away.”

  13. Lyn said

    On the downfall of Greece and Rome, I’d suggest there were a few more contributing factors than immigration. Mad rushes for global dominance which exceed the would-be dominator’s ability to enforce control for example. Rupert Murdoch may be many things, but a civilisation he ain’t. Not even a small country town.

    There is plenty of evidence of integration (although integration has loaded meaning these days). Mixed race/culture marriages, businesses, neighbourhoods. Contrary to what pop sociology/politics says, officialdom can advocate whatever they want, people will run their everyday lives according to their own lights. You can’t enforce interracial marriage for example – people just do it. There is plenty to integrate into – the Australian version of democracy for example, learning the rules of rugby league, traffic laws, knowing what a lamington is, that thongs are worn on the feet, pissed means drunk not angry, and nervousness around yobbos wearing flags, which is something a white Aussie like me has in common with people of migrant appearance these days.

    I don’t see how history counts as voodoo sociology. Wherever people engaging in trade have come under the protection of a centralised state, centres of trade have expanded, wealth has increased, innovation has grown and people have enjoyed benefits.

    Maybe I wasn’t clear about change. We seemed to be talking about change in the rate and sources of immigration, so I’m not sure what that has to do with Tibet. Unless we’re talking about sovereignty, in which case I’d argue Australian sovereignty is not under threat by either migrants or a neighbouring state.

    It’s unclear whether you’re suggesting globalisation or immigration could be stopped and reversed tomorrow, but either way, neither can be stopped or reversed. We cannot pull out of our trade agreements or cut through the infrastructure of global communications. Just maintaining our current level of population requires immigration.

    Benefits that come with increased trade and international ties include wealth, access to the products of research done elsewhere such as in medicine, technology. scientific and industrial developments. For a nation with poor soils, little water and drought, imported food can be handy.

    Benefits that come with increased exposure to other people and their ideas? Democracy for one. The Sydney Opera House, knowledge of other peoples needed to successfully engage in international dimplomacy, life beyond meat and potatoes.

  14. Lyn said

    Dave,

    A book is with the publishers at the moment. I’ll let you know when it’s available, but you might have to remind me.

  15. silver said

    (duplicate comment)

  16. silver said

    (duplicate comment)

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