These physical, social and economic environments are in flux. To successfully endure them requires an adaptable and shared instruction booklet. This is as true today as it was for the first peoples who crossed from South America to T&T 7-12,000 years ago. In ideological terms culture is the goggles through which we view the world. The logic and myths that give our worldviews cohesiveness and structure through cultural institutions like religion and common sense.
Culture, then, is a phenomenon that functions on multiple levels. It can be read like a textual manual. It is nomadic, like the places our wandering minds must travel to and from each day. And it is fluid, like the multiple identities we switch between, depending on the behavioural roles we need to perform.
This varied anthropological description is different from the mainstream definition used in popular culture and by many politicians and business people. For those who put culture to work, culture is a bounded entity, with a checklist of features, a phenomenon enduring and timeless. It is authentic, stable, and ready to be consumed.
This old idea of culture as fixed and enduring, is a colonial idea. It is logic of hierarchal thinking. And with hindsight it is easy to see how such an idea was used to classify and subjugate different peoples into a racist taxonomy. Nonetheless, this idea of culture is still an attractive description for many. The most obvious example of this is when people talk about culture as tradition in need of protection.
Yes, we all need a foundation in our cultural history and it is a reasonable assumption that these traditions should be recorded and documented. Yet to think that traditions remain the same goes against a mountain of anthropological evidence. For example, our religions, our languages, our customs—none are the same as they were in their original place of creation and departure.
Obviously the point is not to dismiss the cultural lessons from the past and who we once were. There is much solidarity and community to be gained from sharing in the lives and ways that have gone before us. Not to mention the lessons needed to live successfully in the world come from those generations before our own. Yet, to hold on to the past, as the way to live in the future is not only difficult in a world of changing environments, it isn’t sensible.
A clear example of this problem can be made when we look at the shortfalls of our political culture. We may have inherited a new set of tools and knowledge in the transition from colony to nation; however, we also inherited old political institutions, class relations and political traditions that have not changed greatly in 50 years.
As every government has come and gone the masses are left disappointed with the many problems we have always had. A set of rules for some and another set of rules for the rest; accusations and investigations of corruption and nepotism too numerous to recount; a blame game that never ends. And a political class that looks everywhere but at itself and its culture for the root causes of our broken system.
When in power a government blames the policies of the previous administration. When in opposition they blame the current government. Neither is ever willing to accept that the political culture itself is to blame. This political tradition could go on forever if we let it. The problem then isn’t the PNM or the PP or any other local political acronym. The problem is our culture of politics itself and its resistance to change.
According to Marx, social revolution depends on the resolution of contradictions between the fundamental class groups. While we are waiting to see if he is right there are simple steps that could be taken to get us out of our political paralysis. It would be nice to think the PM’s firing of Volney is a step toward this new political culture. Yet the distinct feeling expressed by Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci remains. Our “crisis lies in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”