aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The Center and the Rim

Any collection of things in association with each other becomes a system. In that system, things tend to clump according to factors held in common. Like a solar system, gravity asserts itself. So, in a society like ours, certain things become central, other things peripheral. Some of this is due to ideas held in common, such as the rule of law, equality before the law, limited government. These things are not merely historical, but widely held. The English language is spoken by almost everybody, so English is central. The majority of people are descended from Europeans, especially those from NW Europe, so their tastes and images predominate.

However, a dynamic society like ours attracts all kinds of people to it. Smaller groups of people – recent immigrants included – orbit around the center of gravity and experience American society just as much as those who are closer to the center. Indeed, all groups and subgroups are constantly in motion around the central American Idea.

But regardless of one’s appearance or origin or customs, there is also a constant dialogue between the center and the rim that enriches everybody in the entire system. New ideas are constantly working their way in from the periphery: new foods, new words, new art forms, new celebrities. There, they are adopted by the center and become Americanized. Example: everybody brings their native foods to America, and we add meat and cheese to it. You may be appalled by that, but it’s what we do. Meanwhile, the center exerts its powerful attraction upon the newcomers, and they also become Americanized. After a while, nobody cares or even much notices the differences; we all talk and think like Americans. Indeed, remaining differences become a matter of choice: your last name may be Macpherson, but that doesn’t mean you thrill to Scottish festivals; meanwhile, you can find here and there somebody named Schulz, tossing the caber in a kilt. (Some of the Italian workers who brought the railroads to Appalachia stayed, which is how spaghetti become a favorite of the Scotch-Irish.) Some groups are more open to others joining in their activities, and some are less interested in holding on to their previous cultures, but in America there’s a place for just about everything, for everybody.

The Irish brought step-dancing to America. Blacks turned it into tap. It went mainstream in movies starring Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire, and suddenly: all the little girls in the ‘50s were taking tap-dance lessons. Even little boys wore taps on their shoes (mostly to make noise, which is what little boys like). The Mexicans brought us tacos. Americans added meat – lots of meat. Then, suddenly, there were fish tacos. And now, Korean tacos. The Jews gave everybody an immense vocabulary that nobody asked for, but in which everybody delights: zilch, schmuck, schlemiel, chutzpah, I need it like a hole in the head, yada yada. Old white ladies in the park are doing yoga. Somebody reinvents the Egyptian kaftan in fashion every few years. St. Patrick’s Day hoopla is uniquely American (the Irish figured out that American tourists liked it, so now they do it, too). Hormel invented Spam, which the GIs took to the South Pacific, and now there are gourmet Spam recipes in Hawaiian cuisine. John Belushi used to do a knock-off of the Japanese TV show, Iron Chef, which everybody thought was weird, until Food Network figured out how to Americanize it. I saw white kids in an all-white group doing break dancing at a Scout camp some years ago. Even law-breakers have a style that has been taken up by various musical artists and interpreted in fashion (punk, orange is the new black). This dialogue between the center and the rim – indeed between all parts of the system – is going on all the time. It enriches us all.

Now, you can try to stop this sort of exchange, or put a governor on it. You can try to make your society “pure,” according to what you think is central. But when you do that, you wind up with racism. And in the arts, you wind up with -- kitsch. Kitsch is dishonest art, art that is made to fit imposed standards and is slyly leering past them. When the Nazis tried to get rid of “degenerate art,” when the Soviets tried to impose “Soviet realism,” they wound up with bad art. A society that tries to close itself off from outside influences – new people, new ideas, new words, new foods, new fashions – stagnates and can turn vicious.

But to exalt the rim as the center of “cool,” and look down on the central – to deny the centrality of the center – is also a recipe for conflict and bad art. You can have a racism of the rim just as you can have a racism of the center. Blacks sometimes accuse other blacks of “acting white.” And so we get into nasty spats about cultural appropriation, and who or what is authentically this or that. We divide everybody up into a hierarchy of sneering and jeering, and we impoverish ourselves. There is no future in claiming that nobody but you can make X, then gripe that nobody appreciates X (not even your own group members, who are off investigating what-all the American cultural emporium offers).

There is room for step-dancing AND tap. There is room for authentic Szechuan cooking AND chop suey. There is room for the word music of all the dialects in use, while still maintaining Standard English to make common social and business transactions work better. You can hear Mozart done by a modern symphony orchestra and you can hear him on period instruments. The Irish have a unique history; the Irish-Americans do, too; and everybody’s a little Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. The dialogue between the center and the rim is part of what makes America such a wonderful place to live.

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