Cultural Conflict in Global Expansion - Part II

Distraction or Survival Medium?


by Michael Mifsud, Artist, Entrepreneur

Malaga, Spain



The Duke of Edinburgh, the British Queen’s consort and an international campaigner for wildlife and the environment, was not very happy about me using the term primitive in terms of some of the communities we, as part of the press corps, had visited. “Not primitive - just different!”
he tersely corrected. He was referring to some of the tribal dances and exotic expressions of cultural differences that met our astonished eyes so frequently in the myriad of societies of which HM the Queen is the Ultimate Protector and fons honorem. In fact, I had seen her drink what amounted to local drugs without as much as blinking an eyelid, whereas they would have had to tie me down to get away with it or any chairman of a multinational, for that matter. The intricacies of the silent power of cultural expression is not lost on those, like Royals, whose very platforms rest on cultural heritage and nothing else. Therein, if I may digress, lies the difference been an elected President and a member of an ancient Royal household set on maintaining the destiny of rule. Internationally powerful captains of industry and governments lamentably receive no more than token interpretation on native cultures and often omit to bow to the local traditions of their hosts with the same respect that they would honor their own flag or family tradition.


Culture, however, not only goes well with Royalty but provides an instrument of expression that little else can bridge so skillfully and effectively. Culture, as the force that identifies a people, can stretch unchanged for as many centuries or millennia as it does its job. It functions as long as it defines an identity and keeps the bonds between its members as fresh as the day it first started to unite the individual family units within the group. It functions for as long as the neighboring family heads expressed their common interests in play, song and dance. The movement and the sounds sublimated the forces of the defensive mechanism that enables nature to protect itself against the designs of others within their species. It does, of course, not function beyond creating a common defense against an outsider, but serves as a safety valve which blunts the edges of individual misfortunes, shared in some way through association.  As we shall see, however, provided the mechanism is respected and responded to, it also enables the outsider to come in too, if only initially, in the periphery.

Monarchy is the base par excellence on which culture is as close fitting as a handmade instrument designed to work without words. In fact, it is a cultural entity all to itself without which lines of
expression it would cease to function. It is a provider of cultural signs and displays as much as a willing recipient of that of others. The Japanese profound bow in what is generally an extremely cultured society, demonstrates clearly how just one single act of submission can provide the platform for all that follows. Cultural display in this context is therefore as important to those
subjects in the society as any act of homage to the church or organized beliefs.  Monarchy, a government without reins, manages to influence and drive its subjects to their destinies thanks to the cultural complexities and rituals which they enforce and enhance whenever possible. From the flag to the accolades – the national hymn and the military displays – the power enshrined is both subjective and objective intending to comfort in security as well as to establish the necessary authority. The strict attachment by Royalty to the religious beliefs of its subjects is therefore no coincidence, and in this respect culture and traditional values are the basic links which allow for firm and meaningful administration of the needs, devotion and tacit acceptance of the manner of government, by their subjects.  Annual celebrations are therefore not only almost religiously adhered to, but enhanced and doubly emphasized by act and media, in times when social textures loosen under economic stress.


Outside forces can only complement – never detract.


International intruders into the lives of most of the present inhabitants of the world today would therefore be warned when it comes to altering or influencing change in the very cultures they are trying to befriend and do business in. Royalty endorses and achieves. The institution would become apprehensive in changes which broke those moments of sharing of traditional expressions and common activity. In fact, if ignored, it could signal the breakdown of years of association.

Cultural expressions as we know can vary from the very colorful and exhilarating such as the Hakas of the Maoris which so fascinate the millions, to the sinister, such as death defying acts which as happened in my presence in Fiji, resulted in instant death to at least one of the participants. Having been performed before the present Queen of Britain, I lived forever with the doubt as to whether an ancient and inviolable need for human sacrifice, normally invisible before outsiders, had thus been surreptitiously carried out. There was no need to work out her bad feeling in this respect and perhaps the conditioning factor is what can be termed as unacceptable excesses, which may need to be faced and perhaps gently discouraged by those seeking refuge in those camps.  In India, British occupation saved the lives of thousands in the diverse communities of this ancient nation through law-enforced banning of the more daring and morally reprehensible (from a love religion point of view) acts of social worship. Among these was the distressing sight of the compulsory throwing of the widow, young and old, alive into the burning pyre. Excesses, therefore, can be trimmed by those invasive elements unable to accept them and in the interest of a progressive cultural evolution likely to remove those haunting, ultimately degenerative, fears. The banning of capital punishment in a society with a growing need to remove it is relatively easy through a ballot box, but removing deep-rooted, garishly cruel traditions is of another order, and even today, despite the efforts of the British invasive culture, it continues to surface, despite attempts to hide it. Such modifications have to be replenished by greater cultural contribution if they are not to find their way through the backdoor (and secretly as often happens with modern sects now winding their way into highly sophisticated modern societies). The introduction of acts which violate the local laws (even camouflaged ritual sacrifices) and intended to invoke the pleasure of the Godhead, in return for a fruitful and protected existence, are perhaps all too often glossed over by the local authorities to avoid racial reactions.

It is easy to see the explosive effect that unrestrained innovation brought in by outside commercial and often purely political forces (as has happened in Pacific islands), can have on the integrity of a people. Cultural behavior can represent as much as 80 percent of all expression in any one race or social derivative. North Korea is but one example of how a people are subjected to unmitigated cultural expression via parades and daily working rituals. Without it, such ruthless exploitation of people for no other reason that maintaining a handful in power would not be possible. Bread and circus in this respect is intolerable, but thankfully such impositions at such a sustained level is not the base line for most naturally evolved societies that preserve their identities and relative contentment – often in adversity. Historically created and isolated societies, like that of Gibraltar, for example, which has claimants at the door, were left to their fate by the United Nations specifically for the reason that its inhabitants did not, in their view, represent a unique cultural grouping with a defined identity. It has taken Gibraltar a few generations since those early days to disprove the assertion and strengthen its particular brands of cultural expression derived from the amalgam of British, Spanish, Maltese and Genoese extractions. Whilst the identity enforced by such a particularly unique form of cultural mix remains, it would go without saying that Spain in this instance would not stand a chance before an international, unbiased, court capable of judging this aspect of human rights linked to cultural identity. What matters is the end product, which in this case is total bilinguality and an individual interpretation impossible to reconcile with the uniquely different cultural demands of the hinterland which claims it. The same thing happened with East Timor and which, as also happened in other places of similar complexity, led to genocide by the claiming Indonesian forces. Fiji itself, as is well known and mentioned in my previous paper, headed for civil war when two distinct cultural expressions vied for power – one indigenous and smaller and the other Asian and unrelated to the territory. In Iran, a desperate bid to implement an Islamic culture that has evolved by infiltration of the original and unique cultural bases of the Persian fire worshippers, only frenzied and force-induced submission has worked with sufficient effectiveness to keep the dictatorship in place. Such cultural imposition can, however, only work for a set period of time before it faces the indigenous (and even if in a minority), more powerful ground swell. It is interesting to note that despite the growing economic and educational challenges of this ancient culture, the leading figure on the balcony rather than raise a voice against the demands of the world outside, relied simply on a litany of traditional religious invocation of their religious figurehead, Fatima, the only issue of the Prophet. By strengthening the culture, despite all logic, the crowd could only respond with religious fervor and all else rendered meaningless in the context, much to the amazement of the watching world, searching for political reactions.


The ingredients of the cultural force


In the first paper on the subject, I concentrated on the question of the nature of the cultural force with respect to its contribution towards a cohesive, better controlled society. This implies of course, for good or bad, since sincerely or craftily handled cultures use the advantage of the relative inability of the societies to resist its instinctive urges, to keep them firmly in place. In fact, unless the resistance is practically generalized, it would be impossible even for a majority to halt the direction of the manipulative force without facing severe aggression and or dismissal by the rest. Political propaganda is usually geared to underlining the cultural identity, and cynical dictators are often playing with words and gestures to imply wholehearted dedication to the cultural force from a distant balcony and from which they could, and often do, say practically anything and get the same results.


This study is a closer look at the very basics of cultural adhesion and its formation to determine just how difficult succeeding generations find the challenge of modern lucrative implantations within their societies that threaten traditional behavior and beliefs. Some so-called modern societies with a high degree of peasant life are often wrongly accused of despotic undemocratic behavior on the part of its leaders, when in fact, the cultural resistance to change divides the country into distinct groups, each with its own aspirations, that bar every access to change in their traditional methods of survival. Morocco is one example with culture and urgent expedient progress at loggerheads with each other and making it difficult to loosen the dictatorial grip without a return to feudal conflicts. The Taliban for example, despite their ruthless disregard for life and suffering, use culture as a successful weapon of control which even the central well-armed forces are incapable of eradicating without provoking the unacceptable massive genocide which the brainwashed lackeys of the adversaries would practice on dissidents they would classify traitors of the faith.  Some dictators , driven by economic motives set one faction against the other, utilizing cultural support as a method to blind the aggressors to the horror of their obscenities. The cowardly acts belie their inability to exercise control, unaware of the need to feed and not to destroy the forces of culture. The Palestinian State in the making and the Kurdish aspiration of a homeland are two examples of the historical fracas of attempts to delete them from the face of the earth.


In a book I purchased by curiosity rather than by my usual line of search, called Origins of the Sacred, I was particularly struck by an interpretation of the origins of human sacrifice. The writer described the likely incident of an anonymous killing in the melee of frenzied ritual dancing as the prototype for sacrificial events. I thought it a possibility, but perhaps I would rather go for the selfish demands of a jealous shaman eager to remove a hapless individual from his territory who stood in his way. He would have invoked the wrath of God in the face of so-called wicked people in their midst and singled out his opponent as a gift for the renewal of the grace. Given the fear syndrome and the likelihood of genuine respect of the magic of the shaman, the surrounding forces would have, without doubt, driven the poor victim to his end and thus gained the support, not of the God, but of the evil priest who was the accepted tribal leader or religious advisor.


The layering effect.


Whilst not wanting to be too dogmatic about it (in view of the complexity of the subject), like all organic things, in both a physical and psychological context, the initial phase of the emerging traditional trait could be as simple as the raising of an arm with a thumbs-up gesture to signify triumph or acceptance. In an evolving society with ever increasing tendencies to fragment when the forces of control lose their original grip, culture starts to evolve within a layering of memorized body behavior as it writes itself into the system in response to the need to consolidate. Old mannerisms are enforced by added gestures and these in turn, often driven by mass hysteria, lead to frenzy and dancing that eventually becomes the commonplace. Watching excited mobs is a revelation all to itself as cries turn to gestures which turn to gyrations and eventual arms linked dancing. I have noticed in modern societies with generally apathetic inhabitants under stress, a movement towards demonstrations which portray evolving characteristics of general significance such as showing and wagging hands (to signify transparency) and in later displays the addition of white paint or gloves to increase the impact.


Governments which shun formal education encourage bread and circus in an attempt to distract from pressing issues, but curiously it needs little prompting and organizers begin to emerge and add further color to displays and inherited formats. This of course is the genuine thing, as opposed to the bread and circus that arena events attempt to supplant it with. However it is interesting to note that despite its falseness, politicians copy the cultural need in this plastic way.  In Spain, the traditional carrying of the massive pedestal with religious effigies can actually cause the mental breakdown of any member of its carriers even if such mundane things like rain do not allow them to do it. Grief is observed to a degree that anyone outside the culture of these repetitive performances cannot comprehend. In fact, the dedication to the task is so intense that the fraternities themselves are an important political and religious underground labyrinth through which nationalistic messages can be spread in much the same way as freemasonic circles operate. This is a case of defensive cultural comfort becoming an object of filtration by those whose interests are more in common with the anesthetic ploy of the opium of the masses.


It is not difficult to capture the warming and enjoyable effect that ritual acts provoke in a festive crowd as songs and youthful associated games come to the surface. Joining in by even the most timid is instinctive and expresses the essentially comforting nature of what in many cases appears to be ridiculously primitive to outsiders. The layering over centuries, and in many cases millennia, would be extremely difficult for any invading culture to penetrate without seeking to closely adapt their own. Finding the key elements of contact that can produce a respected and “followable” hybrid as happens with Christian traditions in touch with native ones, is a task of some magnitude. All ancient countries with their own diehard traditions have met with their own hard, relentless aversion to change and modernization of its attitudes to work and economic progress. Most have failed without central oppression.


The most immediately obvious hybrids of Christianity are the South American and African religious interpretation. Watching these rituals leaves no doubt that the character of the interpretation is as unimportant as the expression of each individual contributing culture. What matters, it would seem, is that the handles of the emerging reorganized, cultural expressions still retain the respect and fear that enables the ruling authorities to exercise control. No amount of education over a narrow period of generations would even remotely change the characteristics of the people in a cultural context. The culture itself, however, can – with patience and rewards – be altered beyond recognition if the same key elements are retained. The Constantinian use of the Christian faith and its formal propagation in an “alien” context is proof itself. In this case, the message remained intact even if the covering was altered. It was done by exalting the founder to new heights to rally the followers, but changing the structure to maintain the allegiance of those of much older religious pursuits within the social platforms of the day, which could be brought into the fold.


Like the brain itself, and indeed the whole of nature, the underlying layers of cultural development conditions the one above and so on. The result is the completely indivisible nature of evolved established tradition which is so often taken for granted and wrongly assumed easy prey for sublimation, if not annihilation. Traditional conduct may disappear from view under attack, but without doubt it will emerge in private and often secret cults. The ever-recurring heretical rituals of ancient faiths that so aggravated and provoked Vatican assaults are a case in point. Any direct attempt to criminalize traditional behavior is doomed to failure. In fact, under threat from the outside, some of the older layers can be reactivated and convert relatively modern and superstition-free people into frenzied, dangerously aggressive mobs with a lust for plunder and macabre ritual as was seen with the EOKA blood warriors who faced the British in Cyprus and the horrifying Mau Mau in Kenya. If all this started off as fraternity and the linking of family heads to create an extended family, then how did it all end up as complex traditional festivities? The answer is that the fraternity continued at individual level but generated factions, or what can be loosely termed “gangs”, as each developed its own identities in relation to their common interests. A reinforcing overall behavior pattern had then to be implanted by an outside force eager to secure the unanimity that could ensure not only general success, but more important, a common goal. Like all religious structures eager to produce a loyal and gratefully giving fold, political forces working within or alongside would be more than happy to introduce the “cohesive” cultural element in their discreet attempts to pull them all in.


Musical instruments produce bands and each group could be as different to others as distance and regional isolation may allow, but they can also be geared to intimidate or merely entertain collectively as in war and peace. The rhythms and mode of expression however, as if by some sort of instinctive recognition deep in all of us, tell the difference and prompt the players. When the playing becomes an important function in the welcoming or ceremonial entertaining process however, it is not just a source of individual entertainment as we see it today, but a demand for respect which could accompany other ritual acts to drag out any unwelcome characteristics of the visitor or guest. Without doubt, someone somewhere is watching studiously for those facial expressions that will determine what the rest of the treatment will be.


Going back to the accidental death of the liana jumpers, it is curious that during the previous week, press attention had been given to the forbidding by British and Maori authorities of the finishing touches being given to a replica of an ancient temple structure which in its day had formed part of ritual killing during religious celebrations. The structure, it was understood, was a call in itself to the God to come to his abode and this in itself was linked to the customary welcome with human blood sacrifice. Perhaps the visit should have been planned before the structure had reached such a late stage of development or the religious context analyzed to ensure that the instinctive responses would not be demanded by association. In my mind however, the death and the situation were directly associated.


Entertainment instead of cultural expression.


Bread and circus however, although classified as cultural and traditional, is not what it seems and is in reality an attempt to keep those basic cultural instincts contained within innocuous displays of national or competitive support. The direct challenge to family security is the political nightmare and, as can be seen today, death and destruction from otherwise apathetic people is the profound response by those stripped of their identity. It is therefore important to differentiate bread and circus, (when it is an applied distraction with no real need for cultural reference) and that which is produced by the people themselves, aided and perhaps shaped by the artistic and visionary elements among them. It is perhaps a point to remember that, under totalitarian rulers, the creative visionaries are the first to taste the threatening dungeons and the sharp edge of the executioner’s sword. Anything that feeds into the cultural force is an enemy of the blanketing powers which clumsily extract and deprive a society of its basics in pursuit of power and ultimately (unknowingly) destruction of the people themselves. If however, as some forces do give in to the cultural forces, as has always happened in places like Haiti, the explosive uncontrollable forces contained within the deprived, cultural platform would feed on its own tail until the vacuum of power found new tenants. The election of an artist and dancer as a substitute for the unmasked tyrant who grew too far away from his followers in that country is not a coincidence, but an instinctive urge powered by the need for a leader to dance and sing with them, in their distress.


The meaning of life in cultural deterioration


It is now quite clear, according to those aspects of life which are easy to quantify, that the natural state of all living creatures is found in sleep. It may sound like the most negative evaluation of life that anyone could arrive at, yet it is there for all to see in the context of needs. A recently well-fed, secure person or animal will drift into sleep for as long as nature does not make further demands on them. Toilet needs, if not new hunger pangs, will ensure the mobility required to keep the system in a state of challenge and growth. It is as simple as that. Animals, however, can enter into a form of hibernation at any time, which only a threat to life will cause to break. This brings us to the concept of life as we know it and the realization of its progressive sequence of events. It enables us to understand how the very basic elements of all living units depend on stimulation to take them to the next step of feed, evacuation and needful activity. At cellular level it might just be intake of a chemical substance which creates the move that sparks off the move in another cycle-related unit. In fact – The domino effect. Conversely, at the other end of the macro scale, a composed individual or community of interacting cells will need a similar form of provocation to the survival factor through the sensory centers to harness the idling internal activity. This poses the question of the chicken or the egg. Is the birth and the living process really a product of the need to survive? Or is the need to survive created from the very basic units interacting to create a system for its own feed? Whichever, all living creatures need something more than just mere survival. Some theorists call it design or motivation, but whatever it may be there is no greater builder of illusions and sense of direction than cultural values which take one from stage to stage of initiatory milestones. They, as can be observed, require the stimulation of will, and this comes from the fear of alienation and loss of identity by default. Deprivation of all sensory stimulation the system, as happens with depressed individuals, is as close to shutting down into a permanent sleep as any mechanically malfunctioning living creature. The subject is too broad and complex to enter into now, as any biologist will attest, but what matters is that culture and its almost nonsensical rigmaroles are a very useful source of community stimulation that can and does provide a great zest for living and consequently, the quality of life. Humans, unlike animals caught in a vortex of depression, do not just lie down and die, simply because their family and friends usually take it upon themselves to ensure that will and the spark of challenge and hope are put back in place. It is the cause and effect of a misunderstood society taken from its roots and subjected to organized beliefs (religious or political) that do not strike the right chords,


The more complex the cultural patterns in a society, the more sophisticated the life expressions become. Institutions, like marriage, religious ritual, competitive sport and social calibration with honors and achievement – all play a part to keep the mind or senses from reducing survival to basics where sleep becomes the natural tranquilizer. It goes without saying that this is clearly seen in its different grades throughout the world with attendant prosperity or poverty in direct relation to the quality of access to the cultural expression which individual governments permit or encourage. Weather, particularly heat, may be one of the culprits of lethargy, but only one among many. Loss of interest through cultural alienation, as happened to the American Indians and Aborigines of Australia, is usually the crucial factor. Where this is the case, the lethargy (even in modern highly sophisticated societies) becomes evident as cultural links break down through disuse until they emerge as a survival element in its most primitive forms, and usually under cover of darkness and in the relative safety of secret, organized venues. Unfortunately, they are usually exclusive, but always, an attempt to restore the dynamism of the neglected cultural forces.


The hysterical and overly exaggerated release of nervous energy created by, say football, in some of countries may well be the result of the erosion of the cultural force caused by economic degradation and the resultant search for ritual, undemanding, communal activity. Global expansion therefore has a very important role to play, by fair means, with respect to encouraging, researching and supplementing appropriately where cultural links have faded and communication is both unreliable and possibly ineffective. In other words, preparing and nurturing cultural platforms could save time and introduce a quality of exchange that can only be mutually beneficial. The Japanese know all about these things as culture looms high above the tedious day to day productivity that it sanctifies. Perhaps it is even safe to say that without the organized cultural activity which marks and paces the life of the inhabitants of the different societies, we would be looking at a scale of social disintegration worldwide that would not take long to render democratic government impossible to exercise. This has already happened in areas where outside forces have drastically displaced local expression – via innovations such as television and mobile phones – to the point of the extinction of periodic folkloric events and the eventual isolation of individual family units. Despite what appears to be obvious, crash modernization programs sponsored by ill-conceived socialistic principles often end up causing internal chaos. Mass immigration into highly-developed countries is also starting to show us that the consequent erosion of social values held by the majority can have the same effect. Economically-vested political interests, which reduce cultural expression to the lowest common denominator, play with fire by diluting the force that drives the society forward. A case in point is a recent comment made by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair regarding the student revolt in Spain – “It is all very well to listen to the people, but the Government must govern” This an example of a Socialist leader supporting another kindred governing system while remaining totally oblivious to the fact that one (people’s basic needs) precedes the other in relative importance.


Displacements (and often in the form of death-defying journeys by illegal immigrants) are leaving their painful mark on vulnerable, highly organized but culturally neglected destinations. The social backlashes which are driving normally apathetic citizens to violent nationalistic demonstrations are immediately obvious. If all this is to find the real balance, we might have to ask ourselves whether institutional religion is but a displacement of the cultural base and whether institutional government is not just a manipulation of the cultural force? In fact, would order emerge or indeed exist, we might ask, if there was no cultural base there in the first place? If the answer is no, then we might take it a bit further and wonder whether the life force itself would survive in the darkness of lack of social and family stimulation. The time has come to look critically at the intrinsic value of cultural expression and note that when we talk of culture, we speak of a very powerful and misunderstood set of behavioral patterns. It seems also that without its preservation and encouragement, a community lacks the necessary springboard to go forward to the new and increasingly stimulating challenges that will forge the rudiments of a continuously stimulating future.

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