Guest Opinion: Saving Culture

Recent pronouncements by various individuals that implied some imminent demise of culture, unless efforts were undertaken to safeguard it, may have been significantly exaggerated. My purpose in addressing this matter is not to dismiss such assertions, but to contribute to a dialogue on a subject that impacts us all in many ways. Let’s begin with a  more inclusive definition of culture: “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” (Webster’s College Dictionary)

This is certainly very broad in scope, and it must be noted, offers no reference to a majority or actions that could be attributed only to a majority. Our culture here in the U.S. Virgin Islands includes elements of a very diverse representation of other clearly defined cultures. We are, as is the United States, a melting pot of cultures. Increasingly, most of the world’s nations are similarly adapting themselves to cross-cultural exchanges and influences. Opinions that this is bad, or good for that matter, are personal conclusions that will neither reverse nor accelerate an on-going process that began with mankind’s early efforts to establish communities.

Past efforts to “purify” a culture, that is, minimize or eliminate the influence of one identifiable group over that of another, have produced some very painful chapters to mankind’s history. Baring any efforts at some form of ethnic cleansing, a mandated acceptance by all individuals to a formally prescribed version of acceptable elements meant to define and limit the range of cultural expressions, would require a state apparatus more in line with a tyranny than a democracy. This does not seem to echo past expressions of the “political will” that has been voiced in the Virgin Islands. So how are we to interpret the call for a mechanism, designed to protect culture, to be installed by the Constitutional Convention in its final document?

The sphere of government and law, in a democracy as I understand it (and perhaps others as well), can only address the legality of activities between individuals and the relationship of the individual to the structure of government (described in the constitution) and is more particularly articulated as the rights and obligations contained therein. Our evolving culture, which is well catalogued in numerous written works, preserved on the medium of film, and is part of that repository of memory from which each generation refers to in its discussions, is not an entity subject to either the control of legislation, or to the whims of even the best intentioned politicians.

The real concern may be about the erosion of values, or the influence of a crass and unrelenting sub-culture of commercialism that invades our private lives on a daily basis. This is not a unique experience, as growing and ever more politically influential corporations continue to expand their global presence. As more and more products are marketed to fill current needs and desires, and to create new ones, culture will be impacted. The knowledge implicit in traditions is often lost when the choice is made to purchase a ready-made product. The convenience that commerce offers is the real “agent of change” that threatens the uniqueness and detail that defines a culture. Any effort that serves to identify individuals or minority groups as a perceived threat to a culture is very much misguided, or worse. In the past such efforts were, more often than not, revealed as a mechanism to curry favor with the electorate for political advantage.

The phenomenon of culture is not static or fixed at a certain point. It evolves with human experience, and becomes a “sum total” of preferences as we go about the process of living our daily lives. “Agents of change” can appear at any time, can be either good or bad, and can be voluntary or mandated by circumstances. Certainly we should be aware of this process, and be careful in our decisions which ultimately alter our perceived culture.

Functional families, educational institutions that offer not only courses filled with facts, but a forum for dialogues on personal values and a shared ethics, and a government which understands the importance of limiting not only its own influence but the political influence of corporations, are the best safeguards for culture. The development and impact of new technologies, the threat of significant climatic changes and even the monumental accumulation of government debt are better subjects of investigation for those truly well meaning politicians and citizens that see culture as threatened.

To dance the quadrille, to play or listen to scratch band music, to cook or enjoy fungi, dove pork, kallaloo, whelks, crab and rice, potato stuffing, Indian curry dishes, Chinese cuisine or Texas chili, to make hoop or whist baskets, or make a necklace of jumbie beads, these and thousands of other elements are and will remain a part of Virgin Islands culture as long as we choose to retain them in our daily lives. My personal choice is to enjoy not only many of these, but others as opportunities present themselves.

That’s a choice I would always hope to make for myself, and without the oversight of some cadre of cultural officials. Elements of a culture can and do die out, but ultimately it is the choice of individuals and the response of a society that determine which. In a democracy designed to represent all, that is as it should be.

It should not be difficult to see that all of us are at one time both the providers and the adopters of options to that vast experience of life that contributes to culture. Without the benefit of an adequate understanding of the dynamics of culture, the best of intentions will never produce the desired effect and amount to no more than the “logic of unintended consequences.” Any persistence to either legislate or devise constitutional protections will, at some point, most certainly reveal itself to be an effort to preserve a certain type of politics and not that of a people.

Hugo A. Roller
A concerned citizen and farmer on St. John