Fear of a Bland Planet

A lament for what is lost. I suspect each generation has similar regrets, reminding me of Woody Allen’s treatment of nostalgia in Midnight in Paris:

Darwin’s Arch, the magnificent rock formation near the Galápagos Islands, collapsed last month. It took millions of years of erosion, and then gravity finished the work instantly. It was witnessed by a handful of divers on a nearby ship, Galapagos Aggressor III. What’s left over is being renamed “the Pillars of Evolution.” Why not “Darwin’s pillars”? Probably because Darwin is problematic now. Far safer to name things after the pitiless laws of nature, which cause every poorly adapted beast to disappear from the face of the earth forever.

The world is always disappearing. And faster than you think. The British writer Peter Hitchens visited Bhutan some 16 or so years ago in the first years after it had been introduced to the television. The mountainous and mysterious little country that sits between China and India was ruled by a king who famously privileged “gross domestic happiness” and who banned blue jeans. Hitchens worried about the effect of television on this peaceful, quiet, and devout kingdom. His essay made me long to visit a nation that was culturally formed by Buddhism and whose mountainous geography was so imposing that the two giants of Eurasia had not dared to conquer it.

Hitchens was right to worry about the effects of television. Now, Bhutanese youth are crowding in the capital city, Thimphu. They have smartphones. The traditional culture of Bhutan — its sports, music, and folklore — competes directly with the Bollywood hits that are beamed in to their Motorola phones. Elements of land reform that other nations completed in the 19th century are still part of active debate. And yet, the young King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck just this year abolished the last laws criminalizing same-sex relations and was congratulated by a native identity lobby group, Queer Voices of Bhutan. Such a development was literally unthinkable three decades ago, and yet also inevitable once Facebook arrived.

Even still, something left over from Bhutan’s mannerly and courteous culture shines through. An article about these changes dictated to Vice by Tashi Tsheten, a gay Bhutanese man, noted that Bhutan has never had a single pride parade and doesn’t plan on it. Why? Because “parades are a form of activism where people go out on the streets and talk about policy and legal changes; that’s not something that we Bhutanese agree with.” A Buddhist nation can be queered, but they won’t march about like a bunch of drumming Presbyterians in Belfast. How long can that last? Social media is like a different kind of social physics. Perhaps there will be a police-shooting incident in Nevada someday, and within hours the youth of Bhutan will put Thimphu to flames like Minneapolis last summer.

Global capitalism talks about diversity and multiculturalism, but we are all modernizing toward conformity. Globalization destroys diversity. Sometimes it does so with a malign purpose, such as the Chinese Communist Party using every totalitarian means to extirpate the native Muslim cultures of Western China. But half the time it is hardly intended at all. It proceeds by our attraction to power and wealth. Bhutan’s Buddhist culture, if the lines of transmission are set the right way, will slowly be zapped away by the parts of India’s culture that are made for export. Much of that culture too will have been borrowed by America.

Our desire for better and more easeful lives, not only for ourselves but our children, optimizes for the selection of a few lingua franca. Half of all human languages still spoken today will cease to exist before the end of the next century. Most of them before they had the chance to develop a literature. There will be efforts to preserve and revitalize these treasure chests of human culture and civilization — but it’s like trying to make water gush from a sand dune where there was once a riverbank.

Source: Fear of a Bland Planet

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: