by Andrew Allen
A recent column elicited a welcome response from the Nassau Institute, which took issue with my describing Helen Klonaris' comments on racism as thoughtful and intelligent.
In its response to me (which seemed more directed at Ms Klonaris' original contribution than at my column), the Institute suggests that concentrating on white racism is a "dangerous diversion" for those looking for answers to the problems of blacks, American or Bahamian.
In fact, I agree entirely with this central thesis of the Nassau institute's response, as I stated (albeit briefly and parenthetically) in that column.
In a column written some six years ago, I went even further and argued that the tendency to demonise the European and his descendants, or to belittle their historical accomplishments, is a sad trap into which many black Americans keep falling.
Rather than address the reality of a self-destructive cultural mindset, many continue to delude themselves with the notion of an unsurmountable wall erected around them by racists. Meanwhile immigrants, black and white, continue to arrive and outpace the black American.
This much we agree. But where I would differ with the Institute is in its inference that the wholesale adoption of a (western) European value system would be either possible or desirable for others.
To state that "Western Europe and its British off-shoots dominated economic and social development of the world from the 15th to the 21st century" is to state the obvious. Nothing in my column denied either this or its postulate that many aspects of the western value system are worthy of emulation precisely on account of their indispensability to the west's historical successes.
But it would be wrong to conclude from all this that there is a single correct definition of human progress, or that because the rate of western progress is to be emulated, so must be its trajectory.
Many inside and outside the west now openly question some of the powerful, conventionally held western notions of progress.
Is the individualism and personal freedom that characterises the Judeo-Christian ethos necessarily to be equated with progress in a crowded, frontierless world of deep mutual dependency? Is the attainment of wealth in the conventional sense a constructive ethos in a world unable to physically sustain even the relatively small number of wealthy societies that exist today?
These are questions to which I will not now venture an answer. But the mere fact that they are so often asked suggests a whole world of human definitions of progress, rather than merely one.
In places like The Bahamas, where we have ingested a colonial value system as a whole package, we seldom exhibit a positive understanding that such questions might exist. Certainly they almost never originate from within us.
JAPAN REMAINS A GOOD EXAMPLE
Rather than fixating on race, my column simply recommended that Bahamians step back and question their uncritical acceptance of Judeo-Christian values, especially where they tend to suppress the emergence of home-grown values that fit our cultural realities better.
We, like others colonised in the same way, have inherited many good things from our coloniser. As the Institute rightly suggests, it would be the height of inanity to deny this. But unless we are to become cultural clones of western Europeans, we must permit the evolution among us of values that do not derive from their history and culture.
Japan is a good example of a non-western society that has done this very well, which is why I so often cite aspects of the Japanese historical experience.
The institute rightly points out that there is no comparison between the levels of development of Japan and that of West Africa at the time of contact with the west. But its comparison, to be fair, should have concentrated on the cultural state of Japan at the time of its first contacts with Chinese civilization, which was much earlier.
The Japanese, at the time they 'discovered' Chinese civilization in the seventh century, were in fact as backward culturally as the Yoruba or Igbo when the Europeans came to their lands eight centuries later. They had no writing, no advanced cultivation techniques, no organised religion or polity, no temples or palaces (in fact, no structures more complex than cottages).
But where Africa and her progeny found themselves subjects of a colonialism imposed from without, Japan sent people to China to learn civilization on her own terms, which she then incorporated at her own pace and in harmony with the existing fabric of her basic culture.
Had she received her civilization through Chinese invasion or subjugation, or through Christian infiltration and the consequent stigmatisation and replacement of her indigenous value system, none of this could have been the case. That is the central tenet of my ("anti-Christian") view of history.
It is why Japan has a healthier sense of self than non-western countries that have allowed themselves to be drawn entirely into a western value system. The key is co-existence - the co-existence of borrowed techniques with a value system that evolves according to local needs.
There is an anecdote that Japanese people sometimes cite when they reflect on their country's retention of its original (arguably primitive) cultural impulses in the face of its modernisation, first under Chinese, now under western influences. It is a profound demonstration of wabi-sabi, the Japanese cultural ethos that emphasises understatement and the aesthetic appreciation of "elegant poverty".
The tale is of an illustrious general who served his emperor so well that, near the end of his life, the emperor expressed a curiosity as to the magnificence of his general's palace, which he had never seen, but assumed to be impressive. He asked just how imposing a structure it was and whether it was as regal as the imperial palace. The general gave his response in a short poem:
My little hut is on the beach
Nestled among the pines
In the august shadow of Mount Fuji
When he concluded his poem and looked up, he found the emperor weeping - not in sorrow, but in envy. Trapped in a massive palace, from whence he could neither gaze upon Fuji nor hear the wind whistling through the coastal pines, he had reverted (on hearing the poem) to the Japanese cultural heart still beating deep within his ornate Chinese-style court robes. What he longed for was a simple hut on a beach.
Today, the site of General Dokwan's hut is smack in the middle of metropolitan Tokyo, a city of intense ugliness and congestion, where the sheer volume of heat-absorbing concrete has raised summer temperatures some 10 degrees above surrounding areas.
Sadly, the transformation of that area is emblematic of some of the wider sacrifices Japan has (consciously) made in adopting aspects of the western development model. It recognised (as does the Nassau Institute) the contribution that elements of this model have made to the spectacular rise of the west since 1500. But it also recognises the value of an independent cultural outlook in maintaining a cohesive nation with high self-esteem and values that work.
Since the early days of her badly planned, rapid westernisation, Japan has now slowed down in more ways than one. The re-emergence of traditional values has helped to mellow and counter the effects of the sometimes badly-adapted imported ones.
This explains the fondness of the Japanese for remembering the story of General Dokwan at times when their country becomes disoriented under the weight of useful, but sometimes ill-fitting imported values - be they Western or Chinese. It also explains the extraordinary harmony of a society that has undergone rapid change under outside influence.
OUR CHALLENGE IN THE BAHAMAS
The cultural/psychological problem in places like The Bahamas is that, while we too have opted to follow a western development plan and have adopted western ideas of economic and social progress, we have, unlike the Japanese or Koreans, no underlying indigenous value system capable of absorbing the disruption that such change brings to a society.
As we develop, it is no coincidence that genuine black Bahamian values are increasingly the values of the market alone. Success is defined by consumption and little else. At the lower end of the community, these values blend easily with an existing culture of opportunism and dishonesty and help to create the massive 'ghetto' culture that exists.
This situation exists because we have systematically stigmatised norms and ethics that have emerged in natural response to our circumstances and held fast to a heavy Judeo-Christian doctrine that in often responds badly to our cultural needs - though it elicits an almost universal emotional response.
For example, the strong cultural emphasis on individualism that is part of the Judeo-Christian 'package' (viz. a "personal" God; the promise of individual redemption) is an example of one side of the western value system that is not only ill-suited, but positively harmful when applied to a place like The Bahamas.
We are clearly a society that would function best under a less individualistic ethos than that which prevails in the west. Cultural features that we share with Asians and Africans, such as the discomfort with interpersonal confrontation, all point to a more collectivist original value system. In Japan or Korea, such a collectivist value system co-exists happily with a vibrant, but culturally superficial, western capitalism.
One of the first things you note on visiting Asia for any length of time is that Japanese and Koreans go to extraordinary lengths to avoid disharmony or confrontation. This is because, unlike most European westerners, but very much like most black Bahamians, they are culturally ill-equipped to deal with interpersonal confrontation.
In Japan and Korea, as in The Bahamas, any confrontation that involves a loss of 'face' (especially by a male) is liable to end in violence, be it on a bus, a restaurant or the floor of parliament. But in the former two societies, acknowledged cultural norms, such as the subordination of individual to group interests, ensure that such confrontations seldom arise.
Here, on the other hand, such supporting cultural norms as exist are both weak and unacknowledged, as we forcibly present alien ones and commit ourselves never to change them. We push individualism in our educational environment, in the workplace and through the exceedingly individualistic teachings of western religion, yet we have no cultural framework to support it.
It is therefore no coincidence that our existing system of acknowledged values are futile at countering social ills and that they have had little success in constructively channelling behaviours. The simple reason is that they were created by and for a different kind of culture.
The almost total failure of their supposed 'Christianity' to curb immoral behaviours in many black Bahamians often has comic results. Your columnist's grandmother was recently robbed at knifepoint by a gentleman who quickly described himself as a Christian when he saw a bible on her table. He then proceeded to pray with her before robbing her.
To some extent, this robber is a microcosmic representation of Bahamian society. While he acknowledges the supremacy and singularity of a European-based ethical doctrine, his own underlying culture is actually unrelated to it. Moreover, it has (through neglect) become a culture that tolerates a high level of dishonesty, glorifies materialism and promotes a cheap view of human life.
Many people wrongly put this phenomenon down to hypocrisy, which suggests a personal failing. This cannot be correct, as it would suggest something genetic in Bahamians that makes them so much more prone to hypocrisy than others.
In fact there is something at work that is far more deep-seated than mere hypocrisy: a strong but superficial acknowledged ethical system masking a weak genuine ethical system. The former is superficial because it is foreign, the latter is weak because it is suppressed and permitted to remain backward.
The result is that most Bahamians may have what they recognise to be values. But these values do not function as they do in the societies that created them. They neither influence behaviours on a large scale (hence the rampant "hypocrisy") nor reinforce genuine communal ethics.
So there is this disconnect between Bahamian "values" and Bahamian culture. And it is the backwardness of the latter (and not our failure to preach the former loud enough) that is the root of our problems.