My favorite part of the conference, besides meeting an incredible assortment of interesting individuals, was hearing Gar Alperovitz speak. A professor of Politcal Economy at the University of Maryland, he’s also principal director of the Democracy Collaborative, one of their notable projects being the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, OH.
Gar spoke on capitalism, cooperation, and culture, and raised critical questions about what it takes to have a democratic society. From the moment that he opened with the statement, “what you get in the absence of community is imperialism,” my thoughts were humming. It made me think of my investment in building Jewish community, grounded in Jewish culture, in Detroit. While most American Jewry would undoubtedly balk (or worse) at the term “Jewish imperialism,” it isn’t hard for me to see a connection between erosion of Jewish culture, and increased development of a militarized and protected Israeli state. Gar himself briefly mentioned the diminishing role of the kibbutz movement in Israel. Once a strong example of democratic societies, the kibbutzim have largely been dissolved, or shifted to a capitalist model. I immediately drew a connection between the steady disappearance of secular Jewish communities rooted in secular Jewish culture, and the increase in secular Jewish communities rooted in zionism, protectionism, and fear.
Hopefully, you’ll forgive me my lack of academic thoroughness, after all this is a blog, and allow the following to suffice. Culture, as defined by my dictionary application, is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group. Reading this definition left a dissatisfied taste in my mouth, as I have a somewhat different notion of culture, so I turned to wikipedia. Here I found what I had suspected, 1)the colonial roots of the word (and idea?) of culture. 2) culture has a number of different meanings, and 3) one aspect of culture is that it functions as a mechanism for transmitting shared values and group specific behaviors. While I’m tempted to digress into the colonial origins of the word, and seek something more palatable to take its place, I’m hoping perhaps you (the reader) will take this as an opportunity to comment if you have any thoughts on how other cultures and languages have described this idea.
So for the sake of this inquiry, and keeping in mind the colonial and variable meanings of the word, I’d like to focus on the aspect of culture that makes it a mechanism for transmitting shared values and group specific behaviors.
Considering this definition of culture, it supports the notion that cultural vitality stands in opposition to imperialism. Culture communicates shared values and encourages certain behaviors, yet is able to accommodate change. For the same reasons I identify as a fermenter, I see culture as a fundamental piece of developing a radically different reality. Culture, in fermentation, is the bacterial originator of fermentative transformation. Healthy bacterial cultures impart slightly varied results, slight cultural differences, yet all fit within a larger framework of preserving food. Additionally, these cultures are in dialogue with their environment, and can change, adapt, and transform based on external conditions during fermentation, and their own population strength. Human cultures can be said to interact similarly. There are differences between human cultures, but there is also a shared framework of maintaining communal health, well-being, and vitality (preservation). Additionally, human culture has permeable boundaries with other cultures, and much transmission and adaptation can (and does) occur between cultures.
The capacity to both change and preserve is essential to healthy human communities. It is precisely what I am attempting to understand about my Detroit Jewish community– and in that respect, is also precisely what I see to be lacking in the greater secular American Jewish community. (note, I realize I need to define secular Jewish community at some point). If we return to Gar’s claim that imperialism is what you get in the absence of community, I can best understand this claim when I think of a community as one rooted in culture, which is able to both accommodate change and strive for preservation. This stands in contrast to imperialism, which is a system of rule based in domination and subordination–in many ways antithetical to a stable-yet-changeable society.