In a previous linky-post, I pointed to the odd confederate subculture in Sweden. Dr. Phi responded:

As much as it warms my heart to see Swedes waving the Stars and Bars, I sincerely doubt they have a full understanding of, let alone embrace, its full cultural context as understood in America by either its supporters or its detractors.

This is absolutely right.

There was an episode of Daria wherein Daria’s friend Jane started dating a guy who was into swing dress and mores. One doubts that this character really wanted to live in the swing era (despite some protestations that they “had class” and such). Though technically it was an American style of dress (Mostly? I think?), the past is a foreign country, as they say. The further away you are removed from something, the easier it is to take a more superficial look at something. You can talk about how, during the swing era, they had class, without talking about how various segments of the population was treated. It’s more easy to imagine a way that things are – or were – without being confronted with some of the uglier details.

We do this all the time with pirates. There have been various attempts to dignify who the pirates were and whatnot, but mostly we don’t really think about it. We think about the way that we would have them speak, maybe the freedom of life at the sea, and in essence invent our own context for it.

Being from the South, the use of Confederate symbology has a much more specific meaning and context. Now, this meaning varies from person to person. Phi says that the Swedes don’t have the full cultural context, but to be honest not even Americans agree. If the flag meant what its detractors say it means, very few people would want to be associated with it. If it meant what its supporters say it does, there’d be a lot less in the way of objections. But though it means different things to different people, southerners know – or ought to know – more precisely how it is going to be received. Swedes, really, have no reason to care. They are unlikely to ever be confronted with someone who believes in means slavery (or a proto-nation built on slavery), Jim Crow, and so on. Just as Internet geeks have no reason to be concerned about old-timey pirates (they’re not impersonating the Somali ones, after all).

I don’t actually know Swedish culture very well, so it may well be the case that these folks are what we would consider white supremacists. It could actually represent a sort of anti-Americanism (chosing the symbols of a subculture that was at war with Washington, literally and figuratively). It’s difficult to say. But, even to the extent that this is true, it’s all still rooted in abstract notions and vagueries. Picking the parts of the culture and deciding that exemplifies the culture.

By modern standards, the lifestyles of neither the Athenians or the Spartans is something we would be remotely comfortable with. But we pick sides anyway. We conceptualize what they are really about. It’s easy to do because it means less to us than America’s Civil Rights struggles mean to Swedes.


Category: Coffeehouse

About the Author


7 Responses to Selective Cultural Context

  1. ? says:

    Well, the past is another country that you can’t move to. And since that isn’t really a danger, I’m not sure what mileage we get in harping about the stuff we wouldn’t like.

    And before you start, let me stipulate for the present conversation that it’s something of a challenge for present-day CBF-wavers to whitewash slavery out of their efforts to glamorize the antebellum South. But . . . Swing? (By which I assume you mean the Roaring Twenties.) Injecting accusations of racism into every discussion of the past is starting to sound like a one-note song, and just as tiresome.

    Imagine if, in some hypothetical distant future, there was a subculture glorifying the first decades of the 21st Century, and some buzzkill shows up to remind everyone that back then, killing babies was legal! Well, yes, and that was bad, they shouldn’t have done it, etc., but did abortion really define the era?

    Perhaps, to those future generations, it will, just as slavery and Jim Crow define the South for so many of today’s buzzkills. But I suspect that very few of us walking around today would think that was especially fair.

  2. trumwill says:

    Well, the past is another country that you can’t move to.

    Sure. That was part of what I was trying to get at. We celebrate the 20’s, and those Swedes celebrate the Confederacy, from a comfortable distance. Of course, in the latter case they can move to Mississippi (or at least visit it), but even there I don’t think they will find the Mississippi that exists in their minds.

    And since that isn’t really a danger, I’m not sure what mileage we get in harping about the stuff we wouldn’t like.

    Harping is part of any honest appraisal. That includes, 100 years from now, looking at how we kill 1 in 5 preborns with abject horror. Or that we eat meat. Or our prison system and capital punishment. I can agree that it can, and does, go overboard.

    As for swing, I actually chose that specific example because that’s what Daria mentioned. But pick any number of examples from the 20’s: prohibition and its ill-effects, an economy that had a crash course with the Great Depression, post-war ruin, an outbreak if public licentiousness. Some of these things are people-morality things, but all of them were part of the era being celebrated.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with people celebrating Swing as an aesthetic style. But perspective in the celebration of a romanticized era is not unwarranted. A lot of it depends on context.

  3. ScarletKnight says:

    You can talk about how, during the swing era, they had class, without talking about how various segments of the population was treated

    That’s a feature of the era, not a bug.

  4. Samson J. says:

    That’s a feature of the era, not a bug.

    lol… no kidding. You and Phi said everything I was going to say.

    Except that I’m glad you bring up the issue of pirates. As a life-long devotee of pirate history, I can’t agree with you more that they are an example of romanticization gone wild. Real life is more interesting than fiction, anyway, and if any of you has an interest in the history of actual piracy, a great place to start is Under the Black Flag.

  5. ? says:

    Trumwill: okay, but yours is a more thoroughgoing appraisal of the ’20s that worrying about “how some people were treated”. And come to think of it, it is exactly this appraisal of its licentiousness that certain types of people celebrate as sort of a proto-sexual-feminist-revolution.

    But most people regard the 20s as a chance to play dress-up, to play at being bootleggers, g-men, zootsuiters, etc. It was in this latter spirit that, say, our church held its 20s party. I didn’t see the Daria episode, so I’m not sure with which attitude the character aped the 20s.

    Not sure where I’m headed with this . . . . I agree with you that nostalgia usually idealizes the past in one way or the other. I’m just not sure that’s really bad.

  6. ? says:

    Alternatively, I might be a hypocrite.

    One Sunday school lesson, a young lady (our Pastor’s daughter, as it happened) expressed her fondness for the peace symbol. Wasn’t peace a Christian virtue after all?

    Her father pointed out that the peace symbol was inextricably entwined with left-wing hippie degenerates. I pointed out that the peace symbol was a semaphore meaning “Nuclear Disarmament”, a really, really bad policy during our stand-off with the CCCP. For us, the “full cultural context” was pretty dang important.

    I’ll have to think on this . . . .

  7. trumwill says:

    okay, but yours is a more thoroughgoing appraisal of the ’20s that worrying about “how some people were treated”.

    Sure. That was just meant to be an example. I’m pretty much wishing I’d chose a different one, for a couple reasons.

    I didn’t see the Daria episode, so I’m not sure with which attitude the character aped the 20s.

    I looked up the episode. In response to Daria’s comments, he said “I’m not saying it was all steak and onions, but there were standards.”

    Later, when Jane suggests that this is just dress-up and for fun, he answers: “You’re wrong. Retro will never die. It’s not just about (a bunch of fashion stuff). It’s about pride and standards that set us apart from today’s mindless mainstream. The trendies have come and gone. The true believers are left.”

    I would not, from that, assume that he was wanting to put blacks, women, and gays in their place. But it does seem to represent a selective reading from the era (and, for lack of a better word, proto-hipsterism.)

    I agree with you that nostalgia usually idealizes the past in one way or the other. I’m just not sure that’s really bad.

    I think it mostly depends on the context.

    One Sunday school lesson, a young lady (our Pastor’s daughter, as it happened) expressed her fondness for the peace symbol. Wasn’t peace a Christian virtue after all?

    You actually beat me to this. In response to your previous comment, I was going to point out the 60’s and how I roll my eyes at the reverence given to it. Probably in part because I can easily imagine my reaction to it had I been raised at the time, and (unless I was desperate for any ideological justification for hating the Vietnam War, which I might have been ineligible for drafting anyway) it would likely not have been favorable.

    Clancy is into classic rock. I keep telling her that if we had come up then, we probably would have been Youth For Nixon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.