One way to achieve true equality is to make everybody the same.
I mean this in the literal sense.
* * *
I recently spent some time with my ninety-one-year-old grandfather. The guy is a total legend. Born in Greece, he grew up during the Nazi occupation and had some narrow escapes before making it to London, then Canada, and eventually the United States. And that was just the first seventeen years of his life; he’s had quite a lot of experiences as an adult as well.
He’s a bit of a Renaissance man, having a chemistry degree, a Ph.D. in philosophy, and being a priest who taught Greek at the college level. I love talking with him, and it seems like I learn a new story with every conversation that we have. During this most recent visit, I asked him a question that has been burning on my mind for years:
What is the Greek word for “bowl”?
Laugh if you want, but this is a serious question that highlights the glorious quirks of the Greek language, and the myriad differences between all tongues. Greek is a language with multiple words for “love” and “time,” each embodying totally different concepts, yet there’s no word for “grandparents.”
My grandfather paused for a moment and looked down at the floor. “I . . . I don’t know,” he said.
This was interesting. Neither my father-in-law—who is from Greece—and my wife, who was born here but speaks fluent Greek, knew the word for “bowl” either. I looked it up on the Internet and found the words “γαβάθα” (“gavátha”)—which my Pappou had never heard—and “κύπελλο” (“kýpello,”), although the latter is more like “cup.”
My Pappou waved a hand. “These days, they probably just call it ‘μπωλ’ [the Hellenized version of “bowl”]. Have you watched Greek TV lately? Half of it is in English. They add ‘aki’ [diminutive suffix] so they’d probably call it ‘bolaki.’”
* * *
I used to think the French were pretentious and close-minded for having their language academy, which vigorously polices the French language and makes sure there aren’t too many foreign words and influences in the official lexicon. “That’s so dumb,” old me thought. “Why invent some convoluted way to say something when you can just borrow a foreign word?”
Now, after seeing the path of destruction wrought by the explosive, inexorable lava flow of American culture vomited forth upon the poor, unsuspecting word, I think the French have the right idea.
The dilution of the Greek language, a tongue spoken for some 3,000 years, makes me more angry than sad. It’s not just language, though American-style slang and expressions which sound stupid enough to my American ears are bad enough—it’s also things like fashion and music.
Long gone are the days of Spaniards dressing differently from Albanians, who dressed differently from the Dutch, who dressed differently from the Turks, who dressed differently than the Iranians, who dressed differently than the Japanese, who dressed differently than the Kenyan, who dressed differently than the American. Now, everybody looks exactly how the tastemakers at some giant multinational clothing conglomerate, probably headquartered in New York City or Los Angeles or London, wants them to.
And the music . . . you haven’t experienced pain until you’ve heard Greek music, with its indigenous folk melodic and harmonic character, instrumentation, and rhythmic cadence, defaced with hip-hop beats and Latin drumbeats, peppered with people rapping in Greek.
Why does everyone have to dress the same? Why does everything have to sound the same? Why does everyone have to speak the same way?
Why do our cars and our buildings and our shoes have to look identical, nation to nation, state to state, town to town?
Why must everything be flat?
This is, perhaps, the end result of what we think of as capitalism—rule by monopolistic oligarchs who want to maximize profits by selling as much stuff to as many people, and to hell with any traditional modes and moralities it may destroy. But “commercialization” might be the more appropriate term. If there’s money to be made, someone will figure out away to extrat every last cent with no other considerations and no constraints.
Everything is for sale. Even taste.
* * *
Once upon a time, I was taught that American-style industrial capitalism was going to save humanity and bring about world peace through blue jeans, Coca-Cola, and rock n’ roll. What we’ve really exported is degeneracy, obesity, bad food, bad architecture, the destruction of traditional religions and societies, and despair.
The United States tried to force Afghani women to think Duchamp’s “Fountain” was great art and tried to shoehorn all sorts of social programs that go against Islamic teaching tno Afghani culture. The Japanese are rightfully concerned about the rise of American skater culture in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Chinese have taken bold steps to curtail the ability of Hollywood to access the lucrative Chinese market.
I’m jealous of the Chinese. I wish we could cordon off Hollywood from the rest of America.
Speaking of China, the lucrative Chinese market is all I’ve been hearing about for 20 years. In college in the early 2000s, I heard some variation of “If the Coca-Cola corporation can sell one Coke a piece for one dollar to one billion Chinese, they’ve made $1 billion!” as though it would be a good thing for America as a whole if some giant megacorporation with more money than several countries put together can get even more. Somehow, I will benefit.
You have to understand the time. I entered college in 2000, the proverbial “end of history,” right around the time when China was being integrated into the U.N. and the world’s economic system. Free-market liberal democracy was viewed by the so-called Washington Consensus as the final end-state of all political systems. Consumerism will eradicate all strife wrought by differences in religion, culture, and systems of governance. Looking back, I’m shocked by how sinister this was, and by how it went right over my head at the time.
But there was too much triumphalism and “Rah-rah America!” chest-beating. The Soviet Union fell! We won! There was a lot of talk about how what’s good for American corporations once they can crack the Chinese market is good for America—and the world!—and we all went along with that. It seems like a cruel joke now.
* * *
I recall one visiting lecturer who gave a talk around 2002 or 2003, some years into this brave new world. “The interesting thing,” she said—and I’m paraphrasing—“is that, while China is eagerly taking in American corporations, American money, and American products, it has so far taken in none of our political ideas like democracy and freedom. In fact, if anything, the United States is slowly becoming more socialist.” She used the term “salami socialism,” i.e., one small slice at a time, and she said that like it was a good thing.
But this isn’t about socialism versus capitalism. I suppose it’s about globalism, but in the crassest, crudest, most basic and aesthetic sense of the word. And anyway, China is now neither fully socialist in the classical Marxist-Leninst sense, nor fully capitalist in the classical Austrian school/American sense. Although, I’m also not sure that China has done much else to halt the Westernizing of its population’s wants, tastes, needs, and desires. Everybody wants that big American-style car and American-style house, and fashioanble American-style clothes to wear while watching those American movies and listening to American music, after all. It’s a tough genie to put back into the bottle.
* * *
We have reached the pinnacle of flatness. We have achieved the end-state of form and function. Nothing can get any better than this. Or so we’re told.
I beg to differ.
I lament the leeching of color and flavor from the world. These surface-level issues matter because they are an indication of what lay beneath. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is utter nonsense. You absolutely can, and you should. If a thing is ugly, bland, boring, uninspiring, or actively offensive on its face, then it is a near sure thing that you will find similar characteristics if you dig a little deeper.
It must be that the ugly and the bland sells really well; otherwise, the all-holy marketplace would correct for it in the sense that people wouldn’t buy it. But what if people only buy, and are only aware of, that which the marketplace put before them?
Commerce has long been one part of art. Lords and nobles and wealthy patrons would commission composors and writers and artists and carpenters to create great works both public and private. The interesting thing here is that the money was paid up front, and things were designed, at least in the Christian European context, to glorify God. I’m sure thing were similar in other cultures I am not as familiar with.
This all begs the question: Who is being glorified now?
They want us defined by what we buy. Forget turning the temple into a marketplace; the temple has been replaced by the marketplace. The next step is to think about to whose glory the marketplace is built to.