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Who was Cassandra?


  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.

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December 02, 2006

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A subject worthy of endless discussion, and you've done a fine job of opening the box, identifying and defining not only the anxiety, but the roots of that anxiety. I was surprised to find that as I turned 60, a few of my favorite companions were 20-year-old males (I hesitate to say "men")...for the ravenous exploration of ideas without boundaries...Your essay will be read and re-read and I'll link it -- everyone I know will want to read it. Thank you for the time you take to think, Beth -- and then the generosity you have in sharing it with us.

Oh I hope you will keep exploring this experience of an "immigrant" in the changing Western culture and so open up the dialogue for the many voices out here who are sitting by the faltering loom!

Excellent post, Beth! As an immigrant myself, these issues have frequently been in my thoughts too, as well as the changes in our political, cultural and environmental place in this world. You've expressed these with such careful well-thought out and well-expresssed writing that I wish everone could read this and think about it and discuss widely. Thank you for your voice.

I was thinking of you yesterday as we watched the election of another Quebecois to the leadership of the liberal party, and wondering how you might be feelomg about it. I wonder and hope that this is bringing in much needed young people, fresh new ideas and an idealism teamed with practical solutions to our problems. Is it possible?

Thanks so much for your kind words, Wendy, Maria, and Marja-Leena. I think I sound pretty declarative in this piece and hope that doesn't mean people won't add their own voices and opinions - if that turns out to be the case I'll post some of these issues as questions and see if we can get a discussion going!

Marja-Leena, I don't feel well-enough informed about the new Liberal leader to offer an opinion. I'll be reading up on him this week and will try to write something about him later. J. is much better informed and up-to-date on Canadian politics right now than I am - you can ask him!

Not just "the holes in the fabric," but also "the increasing disintegration of the looms." What is coming? How will we adapt? I don't know, but it seems we must first open our eyes to the change. Wonderful post, Beth.

I'm not perfectly clear on what, exactly, you are investigating in this piece Beth. But that's good: I definitely sense that you want to take the conversation beyond its normally tame parameters.

My (no doubt subjective) interpretation of the core of your argument is that the two most relevant lines are these ones:

"ethnicity..might be involved with...people like me whose ancestors have been here for centuries but who are...coming to terms with a post-modern world"

and

"people I’m referring to are...old enough to have lived and seen and even longed for 'success' in a traditional American sense, but intelligent and experienced enough by now to have seen the holes in that fabric and even the increasing disintegration of the looms."

In other words, whiteness as an ethnic experience, and how that expresses itself, in some cases, as a move beyond the material aspects of the American dream.

As I said, it's a very subjective reading from me, but I thought it would be good to set it out, so you know what I'm responding to. Heck, so I know what I'm responding to.

Response forthcoming.

You're on the right track, Teju, except that I don't think what I'm saying necessarily implies "whiteness," though the majority of people affected are probably white. The operative idea I'm exploring is that my family, like many others, has been "American" for centuries - in my case, at least three. This creates a sense of rootedness in a particular culture which in my case is, I suppose, "Anglo-American", if I had to give it a name. After all those years, something has happened to make me, a product of that family heritage, consider emigrating. The form that emigration takes may be to a different physical place, or it may be a more emotional/virtual "move" out of a prior cultural self-identification into a new one - or both. But it is a very real movement that I believe - like immigration from East to West - represents a shift in identity and "place" of myself, or oneself, in the world that is quite profound compared to what has come before, and creates profound loss/change/dislocation that requires significant adjustment, if it is to be fully explored and understood and internalized. Not least of which is the gap that is created between the culture one has come from and the place one finds oneself after the "move." (It's possible that my use of the word ethnic was confusing here.)

And the other thing is that I am the FIRST person in my family to feel this way.

Right, here are my initial thoughts:

At a dinner party this weekend, we had a little awkwardness when one of the guests made a fuss about getting a second serving of the main course--and the first helping hadn't been tiny either. Our hosts (not Americans) didn't really know how to react, and were concerned that there might be no food left for some other friends of theirs who were running late. The fussy guest, American (though not white), seemed to think that there was a fundamental right, somehow, about eating as much as he pleased. Eventually, he got a second serving, and the latecomers had to make do with small helpings.

The fussy guest, someone I know quite well, was a decent and usually thoughtful individual, not a boor in the least. What the incident made think of was that Americans have developed a sense of entitlement about material abundance. I mused to myself that, in the poorest home in Lagos, hosts and their guests would honor each other by sharing whatever was available without complaint. I've seen it time and time again. When there's plenty, appetites are large. When there's a shortage, everyone relishes what they receive. Gorging when others haven't eaten is something I've only seen in the US.

But this story isn't only about excessive consumption. Yes, the material wealth here can denature people's sense of what they're owed: one helping at dinner is an insult, one bucket of water in the morning is like suffering.

But what it also alerts me to is that this IS a rich country, one in which the basics are so well taken care of that the very concept of "the basics" begin to shift to what, elsewhere, would be considered luxuries. For many immigrants (certainly for the majority of the non-white ones), the material aspect of the American dream is nothing to despise. For people who are long-established here, those of them who cannot imagine (or have not seen) actual hunger or water shortages, "dropping out of the system" is more available. For those who have seen or experienced those things, having enough to eat, having access to health care, and so on, remain abiding concerns.

Sure, some of the most conspicuous consumers are recent immigrants who have struck gold, but those cases notwithstanding, the American dream (in the basic form of civil liberties, affordable food, running water, uninterrupted electricity) is still worth embracing. It is, for them, a strong desire, stronger than what people who grew up always having those things can imagine. And if the risk is of ending up as a Walmart-addled suburban consumer, that's a risk great numbers of people are willing to take.

But none of this is to denigrate the very real adjustments white "rooted" Americans have to make when, on examining their consciences, they find the assumptions of their native cultures insufficient. In its own way, that adjustment can be as difficult as what's faced by any Ismail or Gopalakhrisnan fresh off the boat. But they are, I think, rather different adjustments.

I'm touched by your ambivalence about people who need to adapt to a world where white Europeans aren't in control everywhere they look. A lot of strongly progressive people aren't ambivalent, or even kind, especially on the Web.

Some of my ancestors were Part of the Problem from the point of view of some of my other ancestors. Growing up in a small town helped me learn to deal with differences, because while everyone was white, the children of doctors, lawyers and industrial chiefs mingled with the children of farmers, mechanics and occasional laborers who liked a drop now and then. You got along because you had known them all your life, and after a while, you realized that some of them had lessons to teach about tolerance and forbearance: That is, if you forbore to judge and waited to see what the strange behavior would lead to, you could learn something and even make a friend.

I learned something from an unwanted roommate in college, too: I disliked him for partying late, showering noisily at 3 a.m. and sleeping all day, among other things, and he put it about that I was a racist for not being warmer. At first, I was disturbed. I didn't want to think that I had judged him by the color of his skin. Then I realized I had put up with inconsiderate, antisocial behavior for months and decided I had no special obligation to be nice about it, as long as I examined why I felt the way I did.

My neigbors now are highly diverse. It seems natural to pass the time of day with anybody I meet -- except for the old guy who chases the garbage truck; his views make me shudder. Happily, he dismisses me as one of those damn hippies (as if there ever were fat hippies with short gray hair) and we go our separate ways. Your ambivalence makes me think twice about him, because he has had to face radical change in his city in the past 50 years, whereas I only moved in -- but his racism isn't going to change, and I have promises to keep.

Change isn't fun. Diversity is a bear when you're living it. But as you say, there isn't any avoiding it.

Thinking historically helps a lot. Back when one of my grandfathers was buiding the Northeast power grid and the other was building shoes, W.B. Yeats wrote "Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

1920 [About.com has it 1921]

As a mere anarchist with bad posture, I've always resented that poem.

An African American friend of mine expressed dismay to me when she came to the realization that "white people" had no culture. That is, whiteness in America is too diverse to be specific and too homogeneous to be properly "white." She felt we were missing out.

This came up in the context of Tolkien and his writing Lord of the Rings to address the fact (among a lot of other things!) that England really has no mythology. (The Arthurian legends are French.)

I had no real answer to her questions but I also don't feel particularly qualified, not really being "from" here but having been raised in an expatriate community in Spain. But I think the issue is fascinating. Thanks for opening up this discussion.

Thanks, everyone who has commented so far...

Teju, I agree completely that the adjustments, as well as the motivations, are quite different. Thanks for that long, very thoughtful comment.

Peter, am I expressing ambivalence? I thought I was expressing empathy. Which makes me wonder if ambivalence is a word that has changed its meaning over time - now it seems to have a pejorative slant to it. If we're ambivalent, we're tending not to like something - "I was once a Democrat, now I'm ambivalent about them." You're the word person so set me straight. In any case, thanks, you certainly understood what I meant. The towns we grew up in were very similar, and the Irish, Italian, Polish, Arab immigrants were in the process of being assimilated but not there yet - there was a lot of racism in my town from the white WASP crowd toward their fellow Caucasians who they thought of as lower on the scale (and, my God, they were all CATHOLICS!!) In Norwich it went even further: there was an Italian Catholic Church, and an Irish one. It seems less so now when I visit - what do you think?

Dave - hah!! Well, stop slouching then!! Anarchist pride!

Pica - This is one direction I hoped we might go with this. Do we really have "no culture", and is the culture we have so Wonder-bready or Donald Trumpy that we have to run in the opposite direction, covering our heads in shame? In other words, must our self-identity be determined by pop-culture or mass-media culture? In writing about my family, I realized that the deep feeling I've always had for Willa Cather's books, especially "My Antonia", is well placed. The "myth" of people striking out westward, and the solitude and fortitude of the pioneer spirit, is a very real thing. It's also both universal and ageless - we can find parallels in the Bible - this is our American version. But when a family history like mine is forgotten, we no longer see ourselves as connected to that and many other human stories at all. I am not talking about ancestor-worship and DAR-style pride. I'm asking how far back in years "culture" goes, what it's made of, and how far back cultural memory goes, as an ingredient in our process of self-identity. And then I'm interested in exploring the cycle of restlessness -- movement -- building and settling --increasing discontent and restlessness again leading to another decision to "move."

Interesting discussion. As I remember from college, "culture" is shared, learned behavior. This country was founded on theft and violence. Somebody was already here. The original inhabitants were robbed and killed. So what is our culture? This is a big continent and in constant flux. The largest group of indigenous speakers in the United States of America speak Mayan dialects. These people have mostly come from Mexico and Guatemala. I am of Italian, French, German, Austrian, Estonian, Dutch, Swiss and Canadian ancestry. My father is a Canadian Jew. My wife is from Mexico. We usually go to Spanish Mass. Our church has mass in Vietnamese, Spanish, Latin and English. Next Sunday we will have a special observance of the Feast day of the Virgen of Guadaloupe(I know Sunday is the 10th and the real day is the 12th but most people have to work). We will start at 5 am with singing, mass at 6(with little kids dressed up as Aztec dancers with rattles), a play at 7 and hot chocolate and sweetbreads at 8.
A few months ago a life size likeness if the Virgencita come to our parish. It was considered a relic with some power because it had been in Mecico City in the same room with the original likeness if the Virgen. They presented her at English and Spanish masses that were held one after another. My wife and I went to both. At the English mass the "escort" talked about how the Bishops of Mexico had sent Our Lady to the US and how they hoped that its presence would aid the pro-life cause. Well as that mass ended and the Spanish one began the parishioners filed up front to touch the likeness of the Virgen and to rub a rose petal on it. The rose petals then become a kind of relic and keepsake. At the Spanish mass the other "escort" had a somewhat different message. The image was sent by the Bishops to bring encouragement to Mexicans in the US. Don't worry, just be faithful. God does not care about borders. Papers or no papers you are here because it is part of God's plan.
I am sorry about this long post but I just wanted to give some examples of "culture" and I am not fond of writing in the abstract.

I recently received with the Equal Opportunities section of a survey I was involved in administering a note from a respondent that 'white' is not a ethnic group - quite right, I thought.

Too much here to respond to all of it. I'm so glad you're continuing, Beth, and looking at why reexamining your family background is important to you. It's an important train of thought for all of us, whether our backgrounds are similar or dissimilar to yours.

It's all made me think much more about how vastly dissimilar mine is to yours, as a white English person with no immigrant or pioneer history, whereas I might often see myself (and perhaps be seen) as someone rather similar to you (white, female, university educated but one or two generations back family had much less formal education, close in age and formed by similar 1960s/70s political and cultural influences).

Some of what Teju said made me twitch. (not least the second helping anecdote - I've never seen anyone in England ask for a second helping at a dinner party, even if there's lots left, and would find it completely beyond the pale. But perhaps the younger generation are different here too - I don't know.). Re a certain privilege (often not accessible to newer immigrants) being necessary in order to be able to reject standard materialistic suburban aspirations: well, yes. To some extent that's obviously true. But I think it may not be all that cut and dried. Especially now, as the requirements of such aspirations are so frequently unbearable, in terms of working hours etc - a lifestyle unbearable and unsustainable for many, irrespective of current level of privilege. Of course, the consequences of opting out of these aspirations varies enormously, depending on how poor you are, and also on ingrained attitudes. I think, for example, that because I grew up very poor and very respectable it is very hard indeed for me to opt out, but obviously not as hard as it is for some. But for any one of us it might one day become the only way to survive - and perhaps if things go on the way we are, those 'any ones' will perhaps become more numerous. The idea that it time to think not of opting out but of a new kind of 'pioneer' is very interesting.

Today's post at Creek Running North is somewhat related to our discussion here, especially to what you've just said, Jean. And if my family had stayed in England my story might well be much more similar to yours. That's what's so interesting about all of this.

Fred, your comment is fascinating and helpful - thank you for giving some concrete examples to keep us reminded that our feet are on the earth, even when our heads are full of ideas! I am grateful for your stories about the Virgin and those two interpretations: yes, it shows that culture is something learned, doesn't it?

I think it's all about memory. I think our family "culture" goes back as far as we can remember. If you don't actively remember it through tradition and ritual, it eventually dies. Family elders chose what to pass on, what they think is the best of it and that's generally all we have when they die. In America, we're so mixed and melded that it becomes an effort to attach a particular ethnicity to family customs. Now, some cultural aspects of my ancestry had to be dug up by me and celebrated in my adult household because my elders chose to skip over certain ancestors and their contributions when they were forming traditions for my family...the family they created. They liked the Czechs but not the Poles, the Brits but not the Hungarians. What's up with that? (You can't get a straight answer from anybody.)
There's "culture" in every aspect of human life in every corner of the planet and if we're engaged in life, we're absorbing and contributing...immediate family, community, nation/state, church, birth, death, food, clothing, shelter.
This part of Pa. is full of transients because of the University. Some live here for decades but never really get into the local scene. I can attend a country auction, an estate sale right in the center of town and see maybe one or two folks from the college...most feel as though they don't belong, don't have the time for it or don't understand it...it's clearly a bit of rural American culture that goes way back. For some reason, I always find myself asking a new friend or acquaintance if they've been to one these...they almost always say no. Not sure what I'm saying here...maybe that white bread is what you make it.

Hi Sylph, it's always great to have your comments here! What you say about memory is my feeling too. And also, your comment about transient populations never engaging with the long-standing local one -- that's what has happened in the part of Vermont I've lived in. When I moved there, 30 years ago, you needed to try to fit in and engage or you'd be lonely. Now the transients are so numerous they form a kind of self-supporting culture overlying the local one, and only engaging with it to buy vegetables at a farmer's market - which is seen as "quaint." The culture they bring is a mass-media and higher-academia one; it may be NPR in a college town, but it's still a processed, media-fed sense of identity and belonging rather than one that comes from local grassroots. So what is being "built" in these new transient families in terms of cultural memory, tradition, and so forth is quite different than it was fifty years ago. A child of academic parents can grow up in rural New England and have a very different cultural identity than a child of working class folks living in the same place.

I've spent my life among Americans, mostly prosperous, and I've never been among any group of people to whom Teju's friend's behavior would count as anything but horribly boorish. If it's cultural, it's a subculture I haven't encountered.

I feel completely deracinated, personally, and always have. "White" in the sense of "bled white." I used to search for roots, to long for some imagined Norwegian-ness or Irish-ness to represent home; but then I realized that this bloodlessness *is* in fact home. This is where I come from: from rootlessness. Longing for an imagined home is as authentic as I get.

I often wonder if our genes are capable of carrying bits of ancestral stuff. I remember feeling powerfully and inexplainably moved by some Eastern European folk music. (former international folk dancer, 1980s) It would happen every time I heard it and I began to think my response was due to something inside me possibly on the cellular level...a remnant of my immigrant ancestors...something genetic. ? I certainly wasn't exposed to any music of that sort growing up.

Sylph's comment is right on the money. Klezmer music always does a thing to me. Especially the Rabbi's Cigarette and wild Night in Odessa by the Klezmorum. Any old music gets to me. Carlos Gardel's tango music, La Niña de los Peines flamenco, Josephine Baker....on and on....also old black and white movies....but not old moldy food. Food should be fresh!

Hi...I am certainly of the mind that our genes carry these bits of ancestral stuff around. I grew up in Manila, the Philippines reading everything I could find but I was inexplicably drawn to all things Enid Blyton, all things Lewis Carroll while other girls were well I don't really know what they were into. I later found out how my maternal grandmother, a remote, often cantankerous woman was actually an English woman though the story of how she ended up in the tropics is murky and fraught with scandal. Because of this odd mixture my family was deemed different enough to stand out (a big no-no when conformity is the rule of the land)...now I am living the "immigrant"experience and I am grappling with many of these questions (what kind of rituals and traditions to stick with that I grew up with and what my American children will accept and not find "weird" but not necessarily "Filipino" because of how insistently different my mother was about raising us)...this is such an interesting discussion and I hope to learn more as it unfolds. Thanks!

As for bits of ancestral stuff: yes, but not in the way Peggy, Fred and the Sylph hope.

On a purely genetic level, we can refute it by doing simple combinatorial arithmetic on the number of ancestors who needed to meet and procreate at some arbitrarily selected point in the past to guarantee our being here today. Look at it this way: two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-greats, and the numbers keep on doubling, so that by the time we get back to the 7th century, we're talking an absurdly large number, and when we correct for intermarriage and crossings, and we delete all those who don't have offspring in modern times, most of us (or, I should say, most of you) have a majority of ancestors in common. Millions of people are descended from the Prophet Mohammed, including just about every living European (or American descendant of Europeans). It comes to more than half of the world population, at this point. And probably every single person on earth is descended from Abraham (and all those of his contemporaries whose lineages have survived history). That's just how genetics works. The fact has been obscured because genealogists tend to favor a single patrilineage and chuck everyone else into the dustbin of history. And also because, well, people like the idea of "races."

Still doesn't explain why Sibelius moves me so much, why I feel as if he were composing from the inside of my soul.

I don't believe in genetic memory either -- but I agree with Fred and the sylph that Klezmer and Eastern European music generally is powerful, soulful stuff. I think I was probably Jewish in a past life. :)

Beth, you mentioned something early on about the literature of multiculturalism and its draw, its exoticism compared to "bland, white, American non-culture" and your friend's retort that “we are just as ethnic as anyone else.” One problem is that American pop culture is so ubiquitous that it's a nice escape to read about other cultures. But that wasn't the point I wanted to make! What I wanted to say is that I was reading just the review in the NY Times of two new books by Alice Munro and thinking about how she manages to take the lives of people in the most bland of Canadian towns and write these astonishing stories out of them. So many stories, too. She also writes about character trying to escape these rural lives looking for something a bit more glamorous in the big city.

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