Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cosmic Karma, Cosmo Kramer and Underpants Ecstasy

On Bali last week we had a tour guide, Darma (yes, as in Dharma), who had a lot of very insightful stories about growing up in a rustic Balinese village, the island’s traditional society, and the challenges and changes his island faces. For someone wearing a tight-fitting blue tracksuit and who seemed to be concealing a dark past in the Javanese cruise-ship industry, he was remarkably wise.

During our tour, in between un-called-for and frankly gut-wrenching attempts to get us to laugh at a ghastly pun which involved asserting that “BBC” stood for “bananas, bamboo and coconuts”, the puckish yet insightful Darma lucidly described the way that the close-knit village unit perpetuates and preserves traditional Balinese life and ritual, and it really got me thinking. What proportion of what we see as the great achievements of humanity was simply due to old-fashioned peer pressure?

In other words, would any human society, religion, or cultural system of any kind have been possible without the nosy neighbor? I’m not so sure. In fact if you think about it, until recently in almost every nation on Earth, the idea that one of the main points in life was not doing something which would shock the neighbors was the glue which kept the world running. It’s how pyramids and cathedrals got built. Shame. Guilt. Conformity. Religious obligation. Rituals. Holidays. Mass gatherings. Belonging. Ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was also the birthplace of ostracism.

Now, however, mainstream American society is currently based on the idea that nosy neighbors should mind their own damn business, and in fact are liable to get a cap in their ass if they get too nosy. We were raised to believe that the other people around us have no right to tell us jack, and are simply useless lumps to be ignored, exploited or possibly pumped full of lead on our quest to become a President, a billionaire or both. We’re encouraged to think that each American citizen should personally invent his or her own entire outlook on life from scratch without consulting family or the neighbors at all.

As a lifelong ostracised oddball and someone who deeply, deeply detests conformity for conformity’s sake I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe a little more German-style shame wouldn’t be an improvement on the current US outlook. I’m not advocating a return to putting people in stocks or forcing them to wear the shame flute, but I am starting to think that there must be a happy medium in between the antisocial American “individualism at any cost” ideal and the Balinese-style community and religious web of obligations and rituals.

I sometimes wish I had more traditions in my life so I didn’t feel like the proper way to spend an afternoon off is to sit motionless in front of the TV in my underwear. But on the other side of the argument, there are probably thousands of Balinese people who wish with all their hearts they could renounce their majestic time-honored religion and colorful rituals and just sit around in their underwear all day. The answer probably lies somewhere in between, in that magical, elusive place where ancient superstitious ritual meets modern jockey shorts. I think that’s where I want to be.


Anonymous said...

Hilarious take on a old question: individual or community?

I tend to agree with you that Americans could use more community, while recognizing that our focus on individual has a lot of benefits that I wouldn't want to give up. In my case, eating ice cream for dinner when the soon-to-be Mr. Jinna's not around.

The interesting thing about American community is that it would have to be invented. I mean, we have apple pie and football and not too much else. It feels kind of light compared to centuries old traditions and rituals.

albtraum said...

d'oh! the pictures weren't working before. I apologize to anyone who read this without its full illustrated glory. I am particularly fond of the shame flute.

Fiwibabe said...

Bring back the stocks I say. Good post in its fully illustrated glory.

A balance is good. Hey, what about a family tradition when everyone comes over to eat icecream in their underwear, as a community. Sign me up. Erm, except for the underwear bit.