30 March 2010

Ethnic Soup or: Teaching Diversity to Glenn Beck

(This was written for Sociology 205: Ethnic Groups in Contemporary Society.  Topic was "compare and contrast the adaptation strategies of the Hopi, the Amish, and the Rom/Gypsies.  How have their strategies helped to preserve their cultural identity, and have they been successful in allowing them to adapt to their position of isolation from the dominant cultures of their respective regions?"  I got an A on the paper.  The teacher wrote, "Very opinionated as usual, but you back up your opinions and argue them well.")

    For the Hopi, their belief in the Fourth World and the Great Spirit and all that other Native stereotype material facilitates their isolation from and lack of assimilation in the society of the people who conquered them. Not to be overly harsh, but the football coach in that movie we watched in class summed it up perfectly; the Hopi have no innate competitive drive, no sense of victory and defeat, and if left to their own devices would be quite unaware that there was anyone in their little corner of the wasteland but them.
    Cultural isolation is helped along when the culture occupies land that their conquerors do not want. For the Hopi, they occupy lands that are so far to hell and gone in the desert that even the most ambitious science-loving agronomist would not have the cheek to attempt large-scale irrigation projects on the land. The Hopi practice a subsistence farming that has a very strong religious component, since indeed nothing short of divine intervention, even in cases where the people are living as sustainably as it is possible to live in an agricultural society on the whole of the gods' green Earth, can make that corn grow and keep the Hopi from starving to death.
    It would be politically correct of me if I were to attribute this to their wonderful religion and spirituality and family values...but that simply is not the case, and to claim such would be to spit in the face of isolationist Native American tribes who, despite their best prayers to their own gods and Great Spirits, still found themselves in the unfortunate position of being on land the white man wanted and with no means to defend it. The Hopi were a lucky geographical accident (from their point of view) or a sign that the gods have a sense of humor (from ours).
    Adaptation? When your spiritual outlook is to live minimalistically off of what little the land can offer, it can hardly be called poverty when you are not up to the contemporary ethnocentric standards of your conquerors. As such, it would be far simpler and more to the point to suggest that the Hopi isolation is simply a matter of wanting to be left alone and having the dominant culture say “well, if you like it out to hell and gone in the desert, knock yourself out.” If the white man had figured out how to make the desert bloom on a large scale, it would have been every bit as expedient to simply wipe them out.
    Contrast the Amish. What happens when your religion, skin color, and appearance make you quite able to, if you so desire or you are on a “rumspringa”, be indistinguishable from “ordinary white people”? Generally nobody gets it in his head to land-grab. The Amish have a nice little racket going by basically staking out some historical territory in the middle of Pennsylvania, having enough of a cultural background in the European forebear cultures of modern America to live within a legal system based on property rights, and being harmless enough to be left alone.
    Who, truly, can argue with the Amish? “Christian America” takes a look at them and thinks “well, what they're doing is rooted in the Bible”. When at least on paper you have the same general religion as the dominant culture (albeit with one hell of a twist), you're going to have a measure of familiarity that a Great Spirit-worshipping Indian tribe simply does not have. Hopis are exotic. Amish are just white people with the Jesus dial turned up to 11. Just about anything they could think to do would be perfectly adaptable for them.
    It is particularly instructive that the Amish allow their most impressionable members of their community, the exploration- and curiosity-minded adolescents, free rein to essentially sin like the Devil Himself. This is “be it ever so humble, there's no place like home” put to an empirical test! Amish boys get girlfriends, Amish girls drink and party and screw around, and yet the overwhelming majority of them get it out of their system in remarkably short order and pledge themselves completely to the Amish church, truly choosing of their own free will the lifestyle so roundly used as a byword for backwardness in this country.
    Someone is putting one over on us here. Once the outside observer watches rumspringa in action, it becomes self-evident that “there's something to that whole Amish thing, isn't there?” For the Amish, their limited engagement with the outside world is tremendously adaptive! The very people in central Pennsylvania who would be in a position to curtail the Amish activities if they so desired take a look at them and think “they're good neighbors, good Christians, and all-around nice folks.” For a culture trying to maintain their separation from the outside world on a broad scale, nothing could be more adaptive than engagement and earned respect that stops well short of assimilation. Nobody says of the Amish that they're uncoachable on a football field or uninterested in being respectable people the way white folks who deal with the Hopi often do. The Amish have pulled the ultimate trick on the world; they've created a completely foreign, alien, unique culture right in the middle of the dominant one and managed to make themselves look only slightly unusual in the grand scheme.
    At last, we come upon the Rom. Or the Romany. Or the “damned thieving Gypsies”, as the locals in Europe like to warn travelers. Here we have people who seem to go out of their way to make their hosts hate them wherever they go, which is a pretty neat trick. They've done a great deal in the Balkans and on the shores of the Black Sea to earn their reputation, so much so that Hitler killed three million of them in gas chambers and nobody seems to have even noticed or cared. Even the Nuremberg tribunal didn't seem to think the Gypsies were worth the effort.
    Then again, when someone calls you “unclean” and ostracizes their own kind for associating with you for any reason other than to literally beg, borrow, or (most often) steal, that's not exactly a recipe for racial and ethnic tolerance. The Gypsies haven't grasped the principle of “when in Rome”. While the Hopi cling to their tradition on their ancestral lands and the Amish engage freely with the outside world even while maintaining their own distinct cultural identity, the Gypsies act like they're above the very people they are ultimately dependent upon to keep from starving to death. There's a major lack of survival instinct in play there and it contributes to the continuing marginalization of the Romany people throughout the world. Why would a dominant culture want to tolerate them? They don't stay put on marginal land. They don't respect the presence of the dominant culture in which they exist as an enclave (albeit a mobile one in the Gypsy case). These are tremendously maladaptive strategies! All but openly saying “be racist against us! We want you to!” is no way to keep an ethnic group together!
    The sheer refusal of the Rom to touch anything that is not itself Romany on pain of a sort of ethnic death penalty from within is about the only thing keeping them from descending completely into walking stereotype territory. Thanks to the fact that they fear jail the way Dick Cheney fears honesty, they can be at least kept under something resembling control, but this does not speak well of them! Being constantly on the wrong side of the law of literally every country in the world in which they have ever appeared tends to contribute to a marginalization that, while on paper it appears to be exactly what they want, is in practice a disaster for the health and well-being of their entire group! They get no health care, no food assistance, no wealth or real property beyond what they can pinch off the locals, and they are essentially a people-in-waiting to be chased out or killed off. It is pure foolishness and could not possibly be more maladaptive if it tried. Unlike the Amish, who blend in, and the Hopi, who live well on the margins, the Gypsies invite their own destruction.


  1. Interesting stuff, Fox! And nicely sewn together. I suggest that religion plays even much more of a role than you might acknowledge here (though you did hint at it a little). At least in the difference in perception between the Hopi and the Amish.

    On rumspringa, there's an interesting point too, that I'd like to add. Sure, you can go out and see the world and sin like the Devil. And sure, you can then come back and pledge yourself to the life. But, it would be instructional of you to point out what happens if you choose *not* to come back. I think *that* is as strong a motivator as any in the choices that are made.

    I mean, think of it. You live in near isolation all your life. You're then let out on the world, free to do all manner of debauchery, but, you much make a choice soon after. Of course it's freeing, but it's also scary as hell. If you were allowed to think about it for too long, if you were allowed to talk at length to those who've made the choice, you might see some value in it, but, no. If you choose to stay out, then you're made to literally stay.out. There is no voice for you anymore. You can't even sit at the same table or be spoken of any more! You can be fed, but not acknowledged. How's that for a tough-assed choice?

    So, you know, I realize this is a short paper, but, those were two thoughts that jumped out at me as I read. Regardless, an outstanding read, as always (and I would expect nothing less)! :-)

  2. Same thing sort of happens with the Inuit up in Arctic Canada. There is relatively little integration with the rest of Canadian society but at least they are tapped into what's happening elsewhere through TV and the internet.


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