Untours Cafe

I got the following quote from an article in today's NY Times an article about PEW's international research on globalization of the world's economies (and cultures). I would like to generate a discussion with Untours Cafe folks about the following quote from this article:

"The survey found Americans more likely than most West Europeans to believe that their culture was superior; 55 percent of Americans said so. The only European country with a higher degree of self-belief was Italy, where 7 in 10 respondents proclaimed cultural superiority.

The Swedes, meantime, were the most self-critical. Only 2 in 10 said their culture was superior. Among the British and French, 3 in 10 said so."

My comment is in the form of this question: "Does Untours's belief that the cultures of all countries are to be respected imply that all countries are equally good?

Here's the link to the full article; but let's focus on the question of searching for a good kind of patriotism--or eliminating it altogether???

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What a question! Cultures and good and evil. I’d love to uncork a few bottles of wine, fire up the fondue or the racclette and go deep into the morning hours with lively discussion. However, this forum will have to do.
Respect for a culture doesn’t necessarily imply passing judgment of whether that culture is good or bad. People tend to love whatever they feel is their own. Such things run the gamut from pancake houses to sports teams to counties or states to countries and religions. That love is brought to focus when confronted by people considered to be “outsiders”.
When we visit foreign countries we must realize that our presence brings that pride and love of country/culture to the surface. Just being there forces the visitor and the host to make a comparison between the two. We should recognize that sometimes that comparison can trigger a defense mechanism. We must show respect in order to honor the country and the culture and subsequently and most importantly, the individuals that live there.
Respect means more than just obeying the laws and customs. It also means not passing judgment upon the culture but recognizing it for what is, these people’s own way of life that they hold dear. By thinking their culture to be bad or even inferior we imply that the people are bad or inferior. That’s not a good way to win friends and influence people and it’s a terrible way to be a visitor.
All that being said, I am as human as the next person and, yes, I do pass judgment on cultures. My defense is that I hope my criteria for judgment is so basic as to be almost unquestionable. To me, a “bad” culture is one that systemically and deliberately exploits and harms the weak or those who cannot defend themselves. The fact that everywhere there are both rich and poor doesn’t automatically equate to exploitation. The reasons that a person is in either group can be quite complicated. What’s not complicated is something like slavery. It’s that level of exploitation that to me marks a culture as bad.
I could go on but hopefully someone else will join this discussion and spark an interesting exchange.

Walt Slazyk
Downers Grove, Illinois.
I certainly agree with Walt's feelings about "good and bad" cultures. The world is full of people who judge or even worse, pre-judge people and their cultures. Different does not equal bad. A universal culture over the world would be zombie-like. Why would one ever travel if culture was always the same? Sure, there are sights to see, but one cannot separate the geography or structures from those that live in a culture that is unlike ours. As some here in CH would say, "culture is the salt in the soup" and without it, you just have "blah". I believe most travelers are relatively unaware of how much a new culture flavors their trips. I am equally sure that a lack of cultural difference would lead to a miserable and puzzling experience. One does not have to travel very far to experience cultural diversity. One of my first tastes of this when I was a 14 year old taken by my parents to Mexico for two weeks in our car. My mind was filled with strange things that I saw, tasted, and experienced in a variety of ways. The cheapness of life, poverty, food, bullfights, etc. all contributed to this. A trip to Quebec under similar circumstances added to this experience. Traversing the USA from East to West and North to South gave me further insights. A trip to Switzerland years later was a really eye opening excursion because it was my solo experience for a month in Europe. I kept an audio diary of the things I saw, and it was a life turning event. Two months in Saudi Arabia was a cultural baptism of a new kind, but I assimilated well because of the previous experiences. Sorry for the egocentric nature of this reply, but I hope it serves to illustrate that other cultures, no matter where, can offer anyone more than they have.
Like Walt, I think this could be one of those fascinating discussions that could keep one up all night. I did read the full article but think Hal's request to focus on the question of patriotism - good, bad, or totally eliminated is the biggest challenge. I know I don't discuss politics with relatives very often because of our own country's huge value differences, so it's a huge issue for Americans. I think patriotism is too awe-inspiring to lose; I always get goosebumps when our national anthem is played so it's not a love it or leave it issue for me. I love our country's ideals but don't believe they always correspond with the leader of the moment's direction of our country. It never ceases to amaze me that when we travel to other countries, we are so often told, "We love Americans but not always their government'. This has happened to us in Switzerland, France, Greece, and Morocco especially where people have sat down with us and assured us how much they valued Americans as individuals. This can most assuredly be turned around when we realize how much we enjoy the peoples of countries we visit but are not always supporters of their government's directions either. I definitely do not believe our culture is superior to others. I love, for example, the French way of greeting others when approaching them in a shop or inn or wherever and thank Untours for explaining this to all Untourists at orientations. I remember once being ignored at an airport coffee counter when I quickly went up without thinking and ordered in English with no greeting because I was in a rush. When I then remembered to greet the server in French and ask if English was spoken, I was quickly served with a smile. I like their way! I haven't been to China but I know I can't support their environmental practices that destroy the basic resources that the people there depend upon. But our own country has to deal with those issues too. I agree with Vance's CH insight especially: "Culture is the salt in the soup."
I agree with you Doris....and Vance about the delights of different. I also agree that we are deeply attached to what we come from and there's nothing more human than that.

But one thing travel does for me is to reveal other worlds -- and ways in which other peoples have approached life differently -- in ways that make me feel richer for knowing about them.

Vance talks about 'the salt in the soup'....which reminded me of a video I came upon recently of an author talking about her childhood in India and the way in which food has a somewhat different meaning in that culture. Preparing and serving food is seen as a gift of love --even the act of chopping and peeling is a way to love your family. I guess that is true for us to, but hearing it articulated and emphasized in a different way made me realise that when I am slogging away in the kitchen for the nightly supper, I could think of it as wrapping a present for a loved one. Here is the link to the interview video.....http://spicesoflife.blip.tv/file/171199/

Salt in the soup indeed!
From the responses so far we've established the value of being in contact with other cultures and our respect for those cultures, the people, and the countries. Does that imply that all countries are equally good?
Yes. All countries ARE good. That does NOT mean all of a country's citizens or leaders are good. The culture of a people or a country may indeed be foreign or even distasteful to some outsiders, but that does not make it bad.
I don’t think that respecting cultural diversity can lead us to declaring a nation good or bad, or setting one nation above another. Are all equally good? I’m not sure that’s the right question. We’d have to agree on the criteria of goodness. My country, for example exhibits very good and very bad qualities side by side. I think the question should be, “How does a nation’s culture contribute to the well-being of the world?” Are they all doing a positive job?

What we see in the article that kicked off this discussion was not patriotism, but chauvinism. Patriotism denotes a positive and supportive attitude toward one’s nation, and takes pride in its achievements and culture. Chauvinism, on the other hand, is extreme partisanship on behalf of a group to which one belongs, claiming superiority.

Like many other nations throughout history, many Americans have come to see themselves as a “chosen” people. It has been the great American myth of the last half of the twentieth century that American superiority in world affairs is due to our selection by God to be the military and economic savior of the world. Ronald Reagan portrayed America as a “city on a hill” bringing our enlightenment and superior moral authority to the world community. Many Americans simply believe that America is the greatest nation on earth. However, it is one thing to see one’s nation as superior and another to claim that one’s culture is superior. Our cultural chauvinism has led in the past to the well-deserved title of the “Ugly American.” Apparently this attitude is still alive and well among the 55% of Americans who claim our culture as superior.

Whether superior or not, American culture is spreading rapidly throughout the world, supported by economic globalization. American films, music, television shows, and corporations are found everywhere. And other nations are right in fearing the loss of their own cultural traditions under the American onslaught. The favorite meal among young Philippinos is now a Big Mac and a Coke. On our recent trip to Tuscany we observed Halloween being observed by small children in Buonconvento.

More Americans need what Untours offers—exposure to other cultures. Before our recent trip to Tuscany, we were able to travel several times to Central America under the auspices of the Center for Global Education. We experienced the lives and cultures of many different ethnic and social groups there. It taught us to listen and learn from other people and to appreciate the diversity of cultures on our planet. We have a poster on our wall at home from the Syracuse Cultural Workers quoting Wade Davis—“The world in which you were born is only one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

I also am reminded of something Kurt Vonnegut once said in a 1973 Playboy interview—“I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off it, how much time they've probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on… I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.”

We need a whole lot more of cultural relativity and a lot less cultural chavinism.
I agree with you, Kurt, on your central thesis. But cultures can be, comparatively speaking, good or bad. Compare the culture that strengthened militarism in Germany in the 1930s with, for example, the culture spread by Gandhi in India in the mid-nineteenth century. Your definition of the words "chauvinism" and " patriotism" is generally useful; but patriotism can move in the direction of chauvinism, as has happened to U.S. foreign policy since the cold war and the war on terror. Sorry, the Untours Cafe should not be a format for political discussions which I have induced here. Thank you, Kurt, for summing the matter up so appropriately: "More Americans need what Untours offers—exposure to other cultures." But we should be offering Untours to non-European cultures for that very reason--a matter under discussion, amongst us here in the Media, PA office. Any comments.?
It may be that non-European cultures require more than a simple immersion experience. When we went to Central America under the auspices of the Center for Global Education, an in-country resource person guided our daily activities so that we would meet people trying to make a difference in that particular culture. Left to our own resources, we may have missed the countercultural struggles going on between the haves and the have-nots in that society. We certainly could have experienced restaurants and historic sites, but would have missed the important social struggles, particularly those between the entrenched status quo elites and the majority poor.

You make an excellent point about a culture that supports militarism or one that supports nonviolence. Unfortunately the majority of cultures assume that violence and militarism are necessary conditions of society. It takes a strong countercultural voice like that of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. to overcome that foundational assumption. Look how tenuous the culture created by Gandhi was. The violence between Hindus and Muslims after independence broke Gandhi's heart.

Cultures are always in flux. Strong leaders can appeal to the best in us or the worst in us. Look at the different cultures in Red states and Blue states. One political party appeals to our base natures operating on fear of those who are different, while the other tries to speak about hope and community -- being our brothers' and sisters' keeper. I realize that is a bit simplistic, but it seems to be part of the ebb and flow of history in many cultures.
In one sense, we can say that all cultures are bad. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan refers to what he calls the “normalcy of civilization.” By this, he means the historic tendency of a small group creating benefits for itself at the expense of the many. (Government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.) Crossan believes that the early Christian movement (before Constantine) stood in opposition to this kind of normalcy, creating communities of equality and radical generosity, and he believes that this should be the stance of authentic followers of Jesus today. Scholar Walter Wink refers to the age-old “domination system” by which men hold themselves to be superior to women and the wealthy create systemic oppression of the poor, all propped up by military violence.

It is only when prophetic voices challenge this worldwide culture of domination in a particular society that we begin to see cultures that can be called “good.” In some socialistic countries of Europe, for example, the national culture has chosen to put the needs of the majority over the needs of a few. No longer putting the weakest members of their society to the cruel rigors of the “survival of the fittest,” they are creating cultures of compassion and caring for all.

An Untours trip to Finland might bring this kind of culture to the attention of more Americans, and point out the shortcomings of a society that is based on the selfishness of “me” over the generosity of “we.”
I think your reference to John Dominic Crossan's perspective on "normalcy of civilization" helps us transcend our own culture. We think it's "normal" to have our culture consume ten times as much per person of the world's resources as those who live developing countries. If only one country (China) continues to change its's transportation system from bicycling to automobiles, continues thi change until they catch up with us, it will be very difficult to prevent a catastrophic deterioration of our environment

About your reference to a Finland Untour, I once (almost fifteen years ago) spent a bit of time in that country but couldn't find a supply of vacation apartments. We are exploring other kinds of accommodations for new Untours which might encourage me to take another trip . Thanks for the suggestion.



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