Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Friday, February 20, 2004

On Provincialism

Every now and again I'm amazed anew at how incurious a lot of people are about the world outside their little enclaves. Maybe it comes from having an immigrant parent (my dad) who speaks at least two foreign languages. Or from growing up Jewish, with the implicit understanding that Israel was the binding tie and Yiddish the mame-loshn. (That's not to say I speak any of these foreign languages especially well, but at age 46 I'm just about to the point where I can pick up most of the words from context. Except when my mom switches to Yiddish, then I still feel like I'm 16 and going "huh?") Or from travelling with my family to Montreal in 1967, and Israel and Rumania in '73. Or from listening to Steve talk about his Navy days when we were courting, how he'd shake his head when his buddies would disembark in all manner of interesting and exotic locales and immediately head for the nearest McDonald's while he went in search of local fare. Or from having lots of British friends and acquaintances through the years, culminating with being married to a Brit. Or maybe it's just from living in NYC for so long, where sooner or later you run into just about every culture under the sun.

In any case, I always thought it was obvious that the US and The American Way aren't the be-all and end-all of history and thought and wisdom and dreams and culture, that societies that have existed for centuries before ours got started (including ones we've tried to obliterate) might have lots of stuff to teach us. I've tried to acknowledge how much I still have to learn about the rest of the world, and keep an open mind about my progress or lack thereof. After all, one of the points of life is to keep learning, isn't it?

So I've been a little amused and a little saddened by the NY Times article about which the blogosphere is abuzz, the one about "Arabs in US Raising Money to Back Bush." Sure a correction has since been appended: "A headline yesterday on a front-page article about fund-raising for President Bush's re-election referred imprecisely to donors described in the article. Not all are Arab-Americans; they include Pakistani and Iranian-born donors." But you know, if talking about Arabs is part of your job, shouldn't you be able to distinguish between Arab and non-Arab cultures? Especially if it's as easy as reading the list of Arab countries on Riverbend's blog? She names 'em all, and defines each as "an Arab country where the national language is Arabic and the people are generally known as Arabs." I mean, yeah, when I was a kid and it was "us (Jews) against the Arabs" and ignorance was fueled by prejudice, I could see not being able to distinguish. But nowadays? No excuse.

And I echo Melanie's implicit question - why on earth are only "about 3 percent of the books published in the United States translations, compared with 40 to 50 percent in Western European countries"? Fortunately, she tells us about a great online magazine called Words Without Borders which translates excerpts from all sorts of stories by writers from all over the world who don't happen to write in English. Worth checking out.

I'm actually pretty hopeful most of the time about the future of humanity on this planet and the eventual death of provincialism. Thanks to technological innovations like the Internet (Jonathan Edelstein's blog alone is like the epitome of non-provincialism!), it's no longer feasible or practical or realistic to pretend we're the best or only country in the world. The trick now is coming to care for the rest of humanity as much as we care about our "own."