Re: New Age Nonsense

William Bangs (wbbangs@U.WASHINGTON.EDU)
Thu, 2 Mar 1995 18:42:24 -0800

It's funny: as I have read this thread it has prompted me to think more
deeply about issues surrounding the whole phenomenon of the
romantitazation of cultures in general. Listers will remember my earlier
post: Vietnamese Attitudes to Suicide as an attempt to come to some
understanding as to why my friendship with a Vietnamese woman had to come
to an end. One of the private responses I got went something like: "Put
it [the situation] back into a good 'ole North American framework" -- and
the poster was exactly right. Let's remember that cultures are first and
finally ADAPTIVE systems; they survive and thrive, change or disappear
precicely according to their ability to cope with (often externally and
forcibly imposed) cultural challenges.

The New Age moveent, thoug -- at least that part of it I have come across
-- seems not to want to accept that. As the woman whose original
comments sparked this debate put it, New Age beliefs "are exactly
oposite" to what the people themselves believe. When an 'authentic'
Cherokee must admitt that, "because of the difference between the two
systems, ['traditional' Cherokee and New Age] there is no way that there
can be any merging of the two without one group giving up their
fundamental beliefs and adopting other beliefs", (Tue, Feb 21 posting by
natchat to Anthro-l) we have indeed come full circle, with New Agers
being *more native than the natives*. Though I don't like New
Age-bashing, I want to point out that, through their selective emphasis
on ritual over meaning, (sorry, I don't have the post, though it was
probably the one just prior to Feb 21 -- the one where the woman quoted
above gave permission to repost her comments) New Agers set themselves up
for real disappointment. In Asian studies of course, we often point to
Edward Said as the first to really make us aware of how the pristine
'traditional' positives as well as negatives we find in other cultures
often reflect our own wishes, fears and anxieties, the point is worth
re-stating: don't over-romanticize a culture. You get burned!

In my case, I went looking for a gentle, loving Asian woman and got
clobbered by the reality of hard-headed business-mindedness -- a *real*
cultural trait stronger than the image of herself as fitting into a
'traditional' sense of Asian womanhood she deliberately exuded when she
wanted men to do something for her. I'm reading a doctoral disertation
about the adaptations of Hmoung men and women to life in Seattle; in it,
Nancy Donnelley spends some time trying to unravel when and why cultural
behavior changes. In doing so, she refers to Charles Keyes in my anthro
department here, who takes the very sensible position that cultural
patterns are only valuable as long as the situation which encourages them
holds. So yes indeed, native North Americans (Cherokees among them) may
well have "lived in harmony with the land" at one time or another, but if
we want to lament something, it ought to be the colonialist attitudes
that keep them back, not that they are somehow "losing their culture".
The title of an article I saw in the Austrailian "Journal of Vietnamese
Studies" says it so well: If I Must Hate Something, Let it be Racism".
It's OK to admire those aspects of a traditional culture that are dying
out, but how do we feel when, expecting the Land of Gold, increasing
numbers of Asian imigrants arrive on our shores prepared to engage in
all-out economic activity so they can buy fast cars and big houses -- and
are surprised and impatient with us when we don't share these (for them)
elementary perspectives rooted in our own Glorious Past? My cup
positively runs over with Asian friends who have painfully come to see
America for what it really is -- a land of opportunity, rather than a
Land of Opportunity. To a one (man or woman, old or young, left- or
right-leanin, sooner or later they express exasperation that I, a White
Male American, don't share all the opinions of Jefferson or Lincon. Well
guess what? Society has changed! In fact I *do* largely identify with
these figures of our past -- and am frustrated that, as a society, we
don't stick firmly to those models. But I've drawn an equal amount of
emnity out of my alleged 'loved ones' by holding these Libertarian views
in the face of 'Modern Times'. Clearly times *do* change, and, as
Donnelley points out (1989, 94: 11) a new cultural setting may propose --
indeed bring into being -- an entirely new model of such concepts as the
proper role(s) of womanhood. Under such circumstances, those who care
about others will *encourage* change, or at the very least, be willing to
see 'The Natives' make it without feeling that something prescious has
been irretrievably lost from the earth. There are always other
'primitive' peoples, and my experience with my woman friend suggests that
'natives' may get very good at playing the roles people want to see them
in. In fact she herself complained to me one day: All anybody wants to
hear is New Age, New Age! Well alright: I'll give 'em New Age"! I
myself ended up being too New Age for my friend, who was focused squarely
on the goal of improving her country's material standing. I will
continue to think that much of what she's about is in fact harmful and
against her people, but they are indeed HER people, not mine. I
literally almost killed myself rather than accept that another human
being has the right to choose her values for herself; any New Agers,
Present Agers or Old Agers, for that matter, who indulge in that same
kind of rigid thinking, while not exactly deserving what they get, do
indeed deserve a stern talking to.

Ben Bangs

The book I have referred to in this essay is Nancy Donnelley's: Changing
Lives of Refugee Hmoung Women. I've been looking at the copy of this
doctoral disertation on file at our library, which is enough different
from the book in published form that interested readers should decide
which version to consult.


We each must decide which values are worth saving,
which satisfactions are worth sacrificing,
what ultimately we wish from life.

I fear many do not give this proposition
the sufficient thought it deserves:
until they become too engrained in a superficial life,
too far removed to find such harmony again...