It may seem a stretch to connect the recent court ruling striking down America’s Federal Defense of Marriage Act and the do-or-die power struggles of nation-states. But it’s part of a wider global transition where traditional cultures are coming up against worldwide ones. Who can marry who, and what it represents, matters almost as much as the warship or missile count in the struggle for global dominance.
Cultures are, inherently, lifestyle systems that are supposed to ensure survivability
Your culture tells you what’s right and wrong; how to get a job or lose one; who to fuck and when; plus loads more. They all boil down to a belief that a certain system of living will ensure maximum survivability. The more traditional a culture is, the more local it is, and therefore the more its affected by the environment.
Take, for example, Gulf Arabs. Their speech, clothing, habits, foods, and even religion are deeply affected by their environment. Everything is geared towards maximum survivability in their particular desert. Take a bunch of them, dump them on an island in the Pacific, and watch their culture change beyond recognition.
Cultures are supposed to help sort problems ahead of you
Who should I marry? Why? What happens when I die? Is this guy a good president? Are my shoes too big or too small? What kind of metal should I shove into my body, and what kind of message should be tattooed across my lower back to increase the chances a hot, rich guy will marry me and give me money? Cultures are supposed to answer these questions before you’re born so you needn’t worry.
Alas, traditional environments are less and less important
I was born and raised in a desert, but I sure as fuck am not a Bedouin. Neither are most Gulf Arabs these days. Why? Because we really grew up in air conditioned houses, malls, and schools. We’ve got far more in common with kids in London, thousands of miles from where we grew up, than any 70 year old rancher in my home state who’s lived off the land most of his life.
Cultures, so long as they’re agreed upon, create stability
But as technology changes the environments we live in, despite the natural environments around us, traditional cultures suddenly become useless and sometimes even harmful. In a traditional, tribal society, it makes huge amounts of sense to go to tremendous lengths to protect women by sequestering them behind walls and veils and establishing ridiculous rites of marriage. After all, a tribal society has no law and order, no police or courts to sort out crimes, and few ways to prevent the odd rapist from having his way with the womenfolk except a guaranteed brutal reprisal.
But the Information Age has new demands
In a globalized society, woman don’t face the same primal threats. They’re less likely to die from pregnancy, can prevent it if they so choose, can work just as long and as hard as men, and can even, thanks to modern warfare, fight battles just as well as their male muscle-bound counterparts. So why the fuck should a woman wear a veil or stay at home or not have an abortion if she doesn’t want a kid just yet?
Because old habits die hard
Traditional cultures, alas, rarely die out – they go dormant, or underground, or get pushed aside for a while, until modern society hits a crisis and everyone wonders why and then someone in the crowd shouts it’s because We’ve Lost Our Way. Religious folk will say we’ve forgotten God; environmentalists will say we’ve moved too far from Mother Nature; anti-capitalists will decry the modern, dehumanizing corporate model and pine for the simple family farms of yesteryear; all will essentially say the past was better than the present and we ought to return to it.
This theme is deeply ingrained in all societies. At the end of the day, we were all given our cultural values by the age of 10. As society changes and those values are not longer necessary, we feel deeply uncomfortable that our primal teachings are being challenged or abandoned. After all, our values are supposed to help us survive. This is why nostalgia is such a powerful feeling; we want the security of a past where we know how the story ends.
In geopolitics, this creates tensions between traditionalists and modernists
Gay marriage in America has played out in the courts and voting ballots. That’s because America’s governing system actually works. Nobody’s been shot; nobody’s been bombed. There will be no civil war over this. The nation-state can absorb these changes, uncomfortably at times, without violence.
But in less advanced places, where geopolitics has conspired to make the state weak, it takes only a handful of people to take an otherwise peaceful debate and turn it violent. Al-Qaeda has always been a super minority among Muslims, but because it operates in places where the state is unbelievably weak, it’s managed to survive quite a long time. Al-Qaeda is nothing more than a traditional culture supremacist group, hoping they can solve all of modern society’s ills by creating a carbon copy of the early Islamic caliphate. They have become violent and remain violent because they are in places with weak police and armies.
In Egypt, the tensions between modernists and traditionalists are playing out in the street protests. Egyptians are learning, slowly, that their traditional culture cannot deliver the world they seem to want. They do not want to return to the 7th century, with its endemic warfare, high mortality rates, and backbreaking labor. They want a European lifestyle in air conditioned malls with nice houses, running water, and doctors that are more likely to save them than kill them. Unfortunately, much of their culture cannot provide that. Islamic Shari’a chokes capitalism, and the more traditional it is, the less modern economic development can occur (Saudis development being entirely imported rather than generated locally).
In Europe, the traditional values of state-sponsored welfare are under attack. The modern world just can’t accommodate 1950s-style Old Labor welfare; in the Information Age, many sick people can manage data entry a few hours a day. That Europeans can work now well past 65 doesn’t mesh well with their ingrained belief that they shouldn’t – that something inherently immoral is happening and their societies have gone off the rails now that they’re being asked to do so.
Globalization will eventually erode most traditional cultures into nubs
As the world develops, it becomes more alike. These days, you can eat like a lazy, slobby American, enjoying KFC or McDonald’s in nearly all capital cities. You can enjoy U.S.-style homes with U.S.-style entertainment. The richer a place becomes, the more it looks the same. This won’t sit well with all people. Some will and are fighting back.
The level of violence will depend on the power of individual states
A government with a strong police will mitigate most of this backlash. A weaker state, on the other hand, won’t. Violent groups will arise, lash out, and need to be defeated. Al-Qaeda has lasted as long as it has because it keeps hiding in places with shitty governments. Over time, expect all kinds of extremists to form, claiming to protect the essence of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, America, Britain, China, Mexico, Iceland, Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, etc. Their use of violence and their longevity will depend entirely on where they start. But they will all be part of the same phenomenon.
But barring a catastrophe, global culture will win
Unless the world melts down and we all die (or at least just most of us), globalization is going to continue to win skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, and traditional cultures will be wiped out. Even whole languages will be worn away because their usefulness in the Information Age will be negligible. As the world’s environment changes thanks to technology, expect also its culture to change too. At the end, traditional cultures are on their way out. This Supreme Court ruling was just one more little step towards that.
- On DOMA, SCOTUS Follows the Culture (commentarymagazine.com)