I recently finished rewatching the second greatest TV show ever—after The Wire of course—The Sopranos. There’s this scene in the final episode. Butchie and Phil Leotardo are speaking on the phone. Phil’s on a payphone, hiding out amidst the DiMeo-Lupertazzi feud. Butchie’s on his cell phone, walking through Little Italy. He passes a double-decker. The tour guide murmurs something to the effect of “Little Italy, once a neighborhood of 40 square blocks is now just a single street.” Butchie walks and talks. Within seconds he’s surrounded by characters and a strange language. He’s crossed into Chinatown. He looks around nervously and turns back. This scene bummed me out.
It’s a central theme in The Sopranos: The slow transformation, and at times, erosion, of a culture. Earlier in the sixth season, a Jamba Juice saleswoman who wants to replace some of his North Jersey property with corporate storefront approaches Tony. At one point, some of Tony’s guys set out to offer protection to a newly opened business, a coffee franchise. The manager pleads with them that every penny is accounted for by HQ. They’re out of luck. Tony initially denies the offer from Jamba Juice, realizing its implications on the neighborhood and his livelihood. However, after the offer is upped substantially (a package which includes some intimate contact with said saleswoman), he agrees.
Last weekend a few TFC friends and I traveled to a quiet town a few hundred miles and two or three mountains away. On our way back, we hitched a van in Heqing city center that would take us home to our respective schools. After winding through a few city streets, the driver stopped in front of a massive dirt lot. He got out and went into a nearby building to grab something. As we waited, we struck up a conversation with the local woman sharing our seat. She was around 45 years old, dressed in traditional outfit. I stared at the lot. A bunch of kids flew kites, some elderly people strolled. “They’re building apartments,” the woman said, as if on cue. I asked her what used to be there. Predictably, she responded that it used to be farmland, but it hadn’t been for a while. In recent memory, it had been what it is now, a dirt lot. That piece of land is in limbo, frozen in time. It’s not currently and probably never will yield rice, potatoes, or wheat. But, at least for now, it’s still a dirt lot and kids can still fly their kites in it.
Five hundred years ago, people thought the Earth was flat. The global population lingered around 1 billion. Life expectancy in Europe was around 30 years. Democracy was centuries away, colonization was in its early stages, and most people around the world were ruled over, not governed. People two counties away were foreigners, people oceans away were aliens. Five hundred years is not that long. That’s about six, six healthy lifetimes of 80 years old away from today.
The first commercial flight didn’t take place until 100 years ago. The loan passenger, Abraham Pheil, paid $400 to fly 23 minutes from St. Petersburg to Tampa Bay. That’s St. Petersburg, Florida. Today (4/8/14), there were 300,000 flights in total, and the $400 that Pheil paid is now worth about $9,300, which could get you to Asia and back about seven times.
The massive tradeoff that happens as a product of globalization and growth is what Tony Soprano struggled with when he mulled the offer from Jamba Juice. It’s what made Butchie turn around when he hit the terminus of Mulberry Street after what seemed like only a few steps in one direction. It’s what the kids with their kites don’t realize and the woman in traditional dress sitting in the back of a cab laments and welcomes at the same time. Human cultures and subcultures have been dying since they began to exist. Crusaders, explorers, colonists, dictators and numerous malcontents have caused people to change their religions, diets, leisure habits, jobs, convictions with absolution for millennia. However, there has never been anything like the disintegration we see today.
The tradeoff is practicality vs. tradition. Competition vs. identity. Why doesn’t Little Italy, ostensibly, exist anymore? It doesn’t need to. People stopped coming. Little Italy was the waiting room. It was the place between before and after. First, you escaped poverty and hardship in your home country. When you arrived in your new home, you retained the good things about where you came from while slowly frittering away the bad. So, you escaped the things you sought to escape, but not your identity per se. Then, finally, before you even realize it, usually by the second or third generation, tradition begins to dissipate. Often, it comes with increased prosperity and quality of life. Culture is a function of time, place, and circumstance and is nearly impossible to recreate when those three variables are altered. Today Little Italy—the one on Mulberry and Grand—exists out of nostalgia and sentimentality, not out of necessity.
The core purpose of globalization is economics. Columbus and Pizarro didn’t sail the Atlantic to sightsee. They came for land and gold and stuff. More people study Spanish than Basque for the same reason. Opportunity. Practicality. There is a price though, and the price may be the spice of life.
Where I live is in the middle of a fascinating crossroads. I call it future-now. It’s so rapid that sixth grade students’ native language is Baizuhua, the mother tongue of the Bai people that populate the area, while many to most first grade students can’t even speak it. Roads are torn apart as they’re being built, literally. Most older women wear traditional clothes, the divide being clear around 35 or 40 years of age. Minority language begins to disappear, supplanted by a regional dialect that will eventually be supplanted by a national dialect. Retaining culture—when I say culture I mean tradition—and increasing economic standing are incongruous goals, unless your people happen to live atop a gigantic oil reserve.
The funny thing about me discussing and bemoaning impending loss of culture is that I hail from one of the more cultureless places on the planet. I’m from suburban/rural Connecticut. If pressed, 99.9% of the world population could not produce a single fact about this tiny corner of the globe. It’s a place people live. We don’t have a staple food. We shop in strip malls. We have nice yards. There isn’t much tradition aside from living and buying shit. People will say that technically “everything is culture,” but I don’t agree. Culture is deep rooted and exists out of a combination of tradition and necessity. Culture isn’t always a choice.
It’s an “If you can’t beat ‘em,” scenario. That may piss people off, but that’s how culture is destroyed. You can go to great lengths to maintain your standard, but if dominant culture calls for a certain behavior and you’re stuck working a tough job and living in the metaphorical “bad part of town,” historically speaking, something’s gotta give. The paradigm occurs over and over and over again with immigrant groups all across the world, from my Polish-Jewish ancestors in the Lower East Side onward. It may be the language, it may be a type of observance, it may be dress. One thing leads to another, and dominant culture absorbs. Of course, this is the goal for many groups who leave home and enter a new country. Not necessarily for those who are usurped.
This is probably why I, and other products of dominant culture desire for retention of culture in the face of development: because we never had it. Or, because our people’s culture was absorbed long ago. I look at my father’s parents. The children of immigrants, speakers of Yiddish, born in Brooklyn and retired in Boca Raton. They were Jews. They had accents. They ate Jewish food, not because it tasted good or somehow invoked nostalgia, but because that’s just what they ate. To them, there was nothing to it. That’s just who they were. That was life. They spent their whole lives deeply imbedded in the culture. Americans, yes, but definitely Jews too. Along with that surely came a lot of bad things. That’s probably why they spent their whole lives in little Jewish enclaves across the country.
I threw bitch-fits when my parents wanted me to go to Hebrew school. I barely ever went. I’ve never been persecuted for my heritage in the slightest. I haven’t even been called names by people who actually meant it. Yet, I cling to this portion of my identity. I certainly identify with Jewish culture and I’ve had fringe contact with it throughout my life, but I never lived in it like my grandparents or my dad. Maybe I want to be a Jew because I want to be something different and unique. My ancestors though, it wasn’t entirely their choice. In short, I want the benefits of the identity without the shittiness.
Full circle. Practicality vs. identity. In today’s flat society, money (economic status) is usually the enemy of culture. Money means options. Money means the metaphorical suburbs. Money means up and out. Never has this been truer than in today’s globalized world. Unless you belong to a few large dominant cultures, you almost certainly have to sacrifice an element of culture or tradition in order to gain access to greater economic power. If you do belong to those dominant cultures, it’s likely your ancestors made the sacrifice long ago. I’m not stating opinion, I’m stating a modern-day reality. If you speak only Navajo, there is only so far you can go before you are compelled to learn English. If your religion forbids you from the use of electricity, you are essentially excluded from dominant culture, unless you are willing to make compromises. At some point, you must stop and be content with existence or begin to sacrifice your customs. In many cases, it will start to disappear before people even realize it. The tradeoff of globalization.
It dispirits me to see cultures disappear, but I never really had one, so I’m in no position to judge. Even a dubious subculture’s erosion, like the American Mafia, saddens me. Seeing AJ go on to work in the film industry always got me down, even though I am fully aware that it made the world a better place. I wonder if it’s possible to keep cultures alive and “prosper”—in a monetary sense. There are examples: The Syrian Jews of New York, for one. But, it’s unusual. It takes an extreme amount of effort and often sacrifice, on the part of many people. Mark Zuckerberg probably would have run into trouble starting Facebook if he restricted himself from electricity on the Sabbath. Globalization has redefined prosperity. It’s made rich richer. It’s upped the requirements for participation in the global wealthy class. And it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.