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Monday, March 13, 2017

Once Again, Whose Culture?

Follow-up posts are like newspaper corrections: only a tiny percent of the people who saw the original error will ever notice the correction. Nevertheless, the conversation following that post along with Stan Hieronymus' comments convince me there's another juicy bite to be had from this apple.

I erred in using Zoiglhaus as the point of reference for a more general point I wanted to make. The Zoigl tradition is unusual in that it is a vestige of traditional culture rather than a style. I don't actually have a strong opinion about whether an American brewery should use the name--but am pretty amenable to the argument that because of its special status, care should be taken.

My bigger point was really to argue that Europeans consider American culture on its own terms. If we're using an example, let's return to the other one I did mention in that post--when people born in the United States refer to themselves as "Irish" (or "Swedish" or "German" etc). This surely sounds odd to the ear of someone actually from Ireland or Sweden or Germany, and Irishman John Duffy comments:
Like with my Irish-American interlocutor above, there doesn't seem to be any ability or willingness to hear themselves from the other person's point of view; that empathy is a risk to be avoided. It's like the correct perspective for an American to have is an American perspective and that's all that matters. You could understand it if we didn't live in a world which is much smaller than it was 25 years ago, where we have instant real-time access to each other's cultures and viewpoints. The viewpoint you're defending just seems a bit manifest-destinyish to me. It's not that it's offensive, or that anyone is offended, but it does look like poor manners.
I will defend to the death John's right for this to seem like poor manners. But I do think it's a an incomplete view of what's actually happening. It's the Irish view. But an American does not have, like John, a sole national identity. To demand that we use this lens of national birth is itself a cultural position, one that fails to recognize the actual cultural context of 300 million people living in a place to which their ancestors all immigrated from somewhere else.

When an American says "I'm Irish," it has nothing to do with Ireland. It's an American telling you something about his own identity. That's how we think. Should we think otherwise? That's not really a question that any culture can adequately respond to. Should the Spanish eat dinner earlier? Should Indians have a shorter sense of time? Should Canadians hunt less?

This plays itself out in manifold ways in the United States. Almost nothing that is a part of American culture--the language, religions, art, music, government, cuisine--came from this place. Asking us to mind our manners is a way of asking us to defer to the European definition of identity. And my big point here is just to point that out. It is a European mental model. When we "appropriate" things, very often it is an expression of our identity, not a slight to other cultures. Our parents or grandparents came from a place and we claim that piece of heritage as our own. When Europeans ask us not to use fixtures of "their" culture, I think they forget that it's part of ours, too.

Sometimes that means we do awkward things that offend people and sometimes--many times--we engage in cultural theft (though this is hardly the sole province of Americans). No apologies for any of that. But if we only use the culture of the offended group to adjudicate what we do, we leave out the important element of America's own cultural context, of our ancestors, of our strange, pieced-together shared history. This is a view not often stated nor much understood in Europe, and so as an American I wanted to make it explicit.


  1. Spot on. As an Englishman living in America, married to a Russian-born naturalized American, I have some perspective. (& the English culture is most appropriated in the US: it's so appropriated you can't really see it.)

    Culture is never static. And cultural references age quickly. Some - which are important - people fight to preserve. Others they just let go. And some go full circle, and a modified version is embraced.

    Take "high tea". Originally a light supper for the working man across Britain, it was "stolen" by Americans and marketed as fancy, as they mistook high as a synonym for upper class (it originally meant you ate it standing up because you had more work to do) and served in fancy hotels as an olde, proper English tradition.

    English hotels faced American tourists demanding a fancy high tea, so they accepted the American nomenclature, and began serving fancy high tea to all-comers. By the 1950s, Englishmen believed in the American term over the original British name of "afternoon tea" (which, believe it or not, was originally called low tea).

    I think I have a point in there somewhere.

  2. I don't necessarily disagree with you, but I think it's key to make a couple of points:
    1) All cultures are mash-ups - it's just that American culture is much younger, so the building blocks were written down as they happened and we (who are not of the alt-right) continue to base our identity largely on those bits. In Europe many of the outside influences have faded into obscurity (or have been swept under the rug) yet they were just as fundamental in creating the current culture. Old World folk are ignorant or dishonest if they think their bloodlines go back forever on the same spot they stand today.
    2) Most cultures in the Americas have a relatively similar story in terms of generations of immigrants from around the world creating a hot wort of culture. Many Mexicans can trace their heritage back to Spain, Austria, Germany or Lebanon (most likely a mix, just like us in the US), and Brazilians might call Japan, Africa, Portugal or France their ancestral homes. Curiously, we Americans seem to be the only who think about this much and make it central to our personal and cultural identity. I have several theories as to why, but I'm just an armchair linguist and beer lover.

    Point being, just saying that we come from a bunch of different places doesn't quite explain why we refer to ourselves as nationalities that we are not really, nor that others from similar situations would necessarily sympathize with our viewpoint. I see nothing wrong with adding "-American" to whatever ancestral nationality you identify with; it's more accurate, includes the key idea of being American, and avoids any bruised egos.

  3. Does the right to claim a piece of your heritage as your own, the need to have one's cultural context recognised, extend to flying the Confederate flag? Your rationale seems to be accepting of the oft-stated argument that this is an entirely innocent expression of white southern cultural values which Yankees and people of colour have no business decrying.

    And if that seems like an extreme example, bear in mind that Americans regarding themselves as Irish did chalk up an actual body count in the 1970s and '80s.

  4. John, not so interested in rights--I think this is where your view diverges. Is flying the Confederate flag a fixture of American culture? Unquestionably so. It relates to the legacy of slavery and the civil war, less obviously with Europe. Even if it did, I don't see how that would be relevant.

    Put it another way: no one's asking whether, to go back to the previous example, the zoigl tradition is good or not. They're asking who has a right to claim it. The question you pose is very different from the phenomenon I describe--and I honestly don't see how you're connecting them.

  5. I don't see how that would be relevant.
    Is it OK to continue to express your culture the way you want when other people say they have a problem with how you're doing it?

    If someone says "Zoigl-Kölsch" is a nonsense that could damage the perception of German brewing traditions (as indeed referring to Kölsch as an "ale" or a "hybrid" actually has), is it OK to keep putting that on your bottles?

  6. Well, that's a different question and, as I said above, not one I have a strong opinion about.

    FWIW, I asked brewers in Cologne and Dusseldorf what they called the beer they brewed, and to a person they all said "ale." I know Ron Pattinson has very strong opinions about that, but it is not uniformly shared by the people actually making these beers. (Also definitely NOT on topic!)

  7. You are confusing beer style with slippery lexical categories.

  8. Pattinson and Cornell's defense of the word "ale" has to do with preserving a specific British tradition, and Pattinson in particular is attacking the AHA/BJCP habit of steamrolling everything to fit their prescriptive grammar of beer style. Totally agree. I think it's absolutely worth remembering that "ale" means something different in the UK of 1920, or did, and it's also worth remembering the old sense of "Obergäriges Lagerbier", but I also think it's absolutely worth remembering that beer styles are just semantic categories, and those are notoriously unstable.

    It's like asking a German speaker if they have a "dog" or a "hound." "hound" is specialized in English as a type of dog, but if they know any English at all they will know the "dog" means "hund." They may or may not know about semantic shifts.

    Yes, the semantic category of "ale" and "beer" and "lager" has gone all topsy-turvy for both English and German speakers due to massive market changes and globalization. Language changes and you cannot stop it. But that does not mean that the historical perspective is not important, or else why would we have philologists (Trick question, philology is a dead discipline)

  9. Put another way:

    Pattinson is primarily concerned with descriptive meanings as they existed in the past: your classic historian.

    You are primarily concerned with descriptive meanings as they exist in the present: anthropology.

    I am primarily concerned with descriptive meanings as they have changed over time: philology.

    BJCPers are concerned with prescriptive meanings as they exist only in their prescriptive grammars: from their background as total shitheads.

  10. I think another difference between the USA and Europe is that in Europe it's illegal to use a lot of specific terms for food and drink not made in geographically defined areas. Though there are some exceptions over here we're not used to seeing things taken out of their original context so it looks wrong.

  11. "Sometimes that means we do awkward things that offend people and sometimes--many times--we engage in cultural theft (though this is hardly the sole province of Americans). No apologies for any of that." I guess, as a white American, that I see these tendencies as things that often _do_ require apologies. It may well be a part of (privileged white) American culture, but it can and should be questioned. I guess further, i think the many branches of European culture are used to subtle differences and shades and flavors of how things happen/get done by virtue of centuries of living next to folks who speak different languages, do things in different ways, etc., and have memories of conflicts being resolved in, you know, actual bloody conflict -- so I'd conclude many folks who comment here actually do understand the view you are trying to make explicit, might even accept it, and yet nevertheless have good points to raise against said view. It doesn't mean you aren't making a good point necessarily, but that point can still be questioned, and perhaps the reactions against it, both politely and angrily, should give you pause.

    To use a uniquely "American" example where we (again, privileged white) Americans used things without meaning to offend and perhaps engaged in cultural theft: dozens of college and professional sports teams/mascots were named for the indigenous populations of North America, presumably with no intent to offend, with a belief that noble strong qualities were meant by such an association. And gradually (and often grudgingly), folks realized that said intention didn't matter more than the competing viewpoint that using said names of a victimized and maltreated group of peoples was offensive, and now the practice has been all but eliminated for college teams and the pro teams that continue with the practice do so knowing they offend. It's the same behavior you describe -- and there _should_ be apologies for this.

    In the Zoigl case, I don't think it's a case of "Europeans asking us not to use fixtures of 'their' culture" as it is dismay that the term is being used erroneously. It's not a case of misunderstanding American cultural practice -- it's a case of understanding it full well, and disagreeing with elements of it.