Stephen M. Walt

Culture Clashes, and What I Learned from My Grandparents’ Old Neighborhood

I spent this past weekend in Southern California, visiting my daughter at her college’s Parents Weekend. While I was there, I drove her out to see the house in Glendale where my mother was raised. My grandparents had moved there from Phoenix in 1932, and we visited them many times during my childhood. I hadn’t ...

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

I spent this past weekend in Southern California, visiting my daughter at her college’s Parents Weekend. While I was there, I drove her out to see the house in Glendale where my mother was raised. My grandparents had moved there from Phoenix in 1932, and we visited them many times during my childhood. I hadn’t seen the house in nearly 30 years, but memories came flooding back as we drove around.

Be patient: This post really is about foreign policy.

It’s still a nice little house and a pleasant middle-class neighborhood; what’s different is that the WASPs are mostly gone and the community is now mostly Latino. And seeing the transformation got me thinking about groups and tribes and nations and the inevitable melding of cultures that is a central part of human history.

At any given point in time, human groups take enormous pride in their own values, achievements, and culture. These beliefs and traditions often form the core of individual and group identities and are regarded as something sacred and fundamental. Accordingly, they must be defended against outsiders. Sometimes these group identities are amusingly innocent or even trivial — as with Red Sox vs. Yankee fans — and at others time they are the taproot of bitter and violent wars. Think of Serbs vs. Croats, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Israeli Jews vs. Palestinian Arabs, Hindus vs. Muslims in South Asia, and so on and on back through the ages. Modern nationalism is of course another manifestation of this tendency of cultural groups to see themselves as distinct from and superior to others in some way and to seek an independent state in which these values can be protected and preserved.

And so it is when neighborhoods change. I’ll bet there were some people in my grandparents’ old neighborhood who were upset as its composition shifted, just as there are Americans who worry about what will happen once the "white" population is no longer a majority. Fear of the "other" plays a big role in such concerns, as well as the fear that the values one cherishes today are under siege and may be lost forever. This same impulse sometimes takes a deadly turn, as in the murderous rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway or the recent killing of a Muslim grandfather in Britain by a Ukrainian immigrant who claims to have been defending the "white" race.

But the idea that there is something essential and unchanging about any cultural construct is fundamentally flawed. It assumes that a group’s values and customary practices are fixed and eternal, handed down and preserved from some pristine founding moment. It also assumes that membership in the group is tightly controlled, as opposed to evolving over time. In fact, most if not all group cultures are a mélange of distant and obscure historical sources, most of them long-since forgotten. Even the values of today’s cultural groups aren’t fixed; they are constantly being reshaped by interactions with other groups and by amalgamations and assimilation of new members. It’s true of language, music, cuisine, art, and even religion. No man is an island, wrote John Donne, and neither are the world’s various groups.

In other words, the "core values" that different tribes, nations, religions, sects, etc. seek to defend — sometimes to the death — are neither pure nor fixed, and many of the sacred and "eternal" principles that people are so committed to today are going to evaporate or evolve in the years ahead. This will occur in most cases not because some outside power imposed a different set of values by force, but simply because ideas, norms, values, and behaviors are always being shaped by exposure to the ideas, norms, values, and behaviors of others.

The only way to keep a culture pure and unchanging is to isolate its members from outside influences (and even that won’t work completely). Fundamentalist religions use various techniques to do this — e.g., living in separate communities or compounds, barring marriage to non-group members, or conducting elaborate indoctrination rituals, etc. — but it’s a losing game in today’s interconnected world. Countries like pre-Meiji Japan and today’s North Korea tried to keep foreign influences out too, but that’s impossible to do these days.

It’s also a recipe for stagnation. Isolating oneself from outside influences is a good way for any society to remain trapped in the same rut forever, like a restaurant that never changes its menu or a musician who plays the same songs exactly the same way at each performance. Indeed, I would argue that the most vibrant and dynamic societies tend to be the ones that are most open to new ideas and influences and willing to incorporate them into one’s existing cultural portfolio.

If the United States has done one thing right over the past two centuries, it has been its willingness and ability to assimilate new groups and transform them relatively quickly into "Americans." It’s hardly been a smooth or perfect process, of course, but the key point is that it wasn’t a one-way street. New arrivals didn’t just passively accept the cultural and political practices established by the (Anglo-Saxon) Founding Fathers and leave them as they were. Instead each new group brought somewhat different ideas with it and helped weave them into the broader fabric of American society. For example, the black Americans who descended from African slaves ended up enriching American culture in countless ways. In short, what it means to be "American" isn’t a fixed notion and never has been.

The ethnic, racial, and religious diversity of the United States creates problems, to be sure, but this feature is also what makes it so interesting to live here. My own personal history is almost a stereotype of this process: If you look just at my immediate family and my in-laws, we have a bunch of people from different European backgrounds (most of whom ended up either as Episcopalians or atheists), plus Latinos, Mormons, Sikhs, Jews, Asians, and some who defy readily easy classification. Our family would be less interesting if it were more homogeneous, and so would the country as a whole.

There has been a lot of talk about the "clash of civilizations" ever since Samuel Huntington wrote that famous essay and book. Sam was a great scholar and a friend, but I thought he was wrong then and I still think so today. Cultural differences may play a role in contemporary global conflict, but most of them seem to be occurring within civilizations and not between them. More to the point, these clashes seem to me to rest on a tragic error: the belief that it is both necessary and possible to defend one’s own group’s values against the values of others, instead of welcoming the fruitful interaction that cultural exchange can produce.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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