In Defense of Polyculture

comments 16
Book Reviews / Reflections

There’s a way in which identity politics are a luxury. To engage in them, you at least need a voice.

Over the past several months I’ve listened to Sam Harris’s interview with Charles Murray, for instance, his subsequent debate with Ezra Klien of Vox magazine, and a later interview by Harris of Coleman Hughes. These were interesting segments that collectively explore the residual difficulties of speaking about the issue of race in America—among other things. The paradox that has emerged for me is that while, on the one hand, I agree with treating each person as an individual and not through the lens of race or ethnicity, I also feel something stands to be lost in the absorption of cultures into the dominant amalgam.

There’s a paradox here. While it is unquestionably virtuous to consider people of all races and ethnicities for a job opening on the basis of their individual talent, character and capabilities, this belies the fact that the jobs which are available, and the ideas which are judged to have merit, are themselves dictated by the dominant culture.

Recently I read There There by Tommy Orange, a novel that I see has been critically acclaimed and which I thoroughly enjoyed. The novel is about various persons of Native American descent, with varying degrees of affiliation for their heritage, who converge upon a powwow in Oakland, CA. Orange gives us a view, up close and personal, of what it means to exist in an American modernity with a heritage that is frayed, diluted and at times nebulous. What does it mean to be a Native American who has never known anything but city life? Who is Native and who is not, and what does it mean if you are?

The one character in this novel with an advanced degree lives with his mother. He pursued an advanced degree in an effort to understand who he is, but after graduation finds himself adrift and unable to find meaningful work, and loses himself in the spree of information that is the world wide web. Another character teaches himself a traditional dance through YouTube, wondering all the while if his grandmother will approve of his interest. Another character brings ruin to his family through drug and alcohol abuse, while tinkering with medicine powers he doesn’t understand. This novel is a tragedy, if nothing else. But the paradox is that it is a tragedy with which we can all relate.

We all grapple with issues of identity, particularly in a world in which we are brought into ever-increasing contact with people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and traditions.

In one segment of the novel, Orange addresses the high rate of suicide in Native American communities, and notes that interventions focused on giving people better reasons not to jump rings hollow. People need reasons to live, not reasons not to jump. Don’t we all need these reasons? And where do we find them if not in our familial and cultural affiliations? Ultimately we find meaning in knowing and sharing who we are, and if we are part of a culture without a voice, the terms on which we meet the world can seem to be limited.

This novel is about the tragedy of not knowing who we are, or what to express, or once we’ve found it, how to even express it. I sometimes think of myself as a member of an incoherent tribe. I’m a middle-aged white man, and from that perspective identifying with my tribe is tricky business.  I’m not enamored of mainstream values, I enjoy nuanced conversations, and many of the trends I see at work in the world are troubling to me. So I felt at home in Orange’s novel. Because while on paper I’m not dispossessed, in my heart oftentimes I am.

I don’t know if the times we live in are more turbulent than others. I don’t know if intolerance of other cultures runs higher or lower than in times past. But it seems like the shrinking of the world has made it that much harder for subcultures to carve out their niche. Before I read There, There I read a book called Spirit Talkers by William S. Lyon. It is a book by an anthropologist exploring all of the historical evidence related to the medicine powers of North American indigenous tribes, many of which have waned as a result of the “corporate mergers” affected by the dominant culture of the last few hundred years on our continent–the culture that, on paper, is my own.

There’s no going back, not to the way it was. And the past certainly wasn’t perfect in any culture. But in my opinion it is vital that we create space for other cultures to flourish. I think its akin to seeking to preserve the species of the rain forests and coral reefs, those rich stores of biodiversity that may yet hold cures for the diseases that plague us.


  1. Hi Micheal.. Its been ages since I came by I know and just saw your post in my reader.. The books sound interesting.. As for the people you mentioned.. I haven’t a clue who they are…

    And I agree with you.. There is a tragedy of not knowing who we are… I hope we can all of us begin to discover who we are within our hearts.. and learn we are no different than another.. We all of us have our Dreams and our faults, Its learning to unite our differences we have created for ourselves.. As we get past all the trimmings we adorn ourselves with.. As we learn to live from our hearts as One..

    Have a a great weekend. Sue

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello, Sue! Nice to see you here.

      Recognizing we are fundamentally One, as you wrote, is something I think is really important. Also, for me, that doesn’t require any diminishment of our lives’ particulars. We can be One and we can still identify with the city we grew up in, and the cultures that allow us to express that Oneness in unique ways. It’s when the acknowledgment of our fundamental unity has been lost that we really struggle with how to balance our differences.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly… We can be one and observe others have their path, and each path is neither right or wrong.. Its just a matter of perception of where we are in that moment in our own evolution of thought.
        Many thanks for your response..
        Take care.. Sue

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi there (there) Michael! Just having a quick whizz ’round blog friends as I’ve been out of the loop over the summer. Kind of related: I recently viewed what I thought was a good Munk Debate on YouTube and which set out to be about political correctness but for the most part diverted into identity politics. It’s long, but engaging if you have the time. Stephen Fry seems to come out with the most persuasive and cogent arguments, I thought. All best wishes, Hariod.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Hariod! Hope your summer is going well. I look forward to listening to this over the next few days. And thank you for the article on writing as well, which is also on the list. 🙂 I know there are a couple of camps on sentence writing–those who advocate the Occam’s Razor approach, where each word and statement crackles with simplicity, and those who advocate longer and perhaps more flowering expressions. I enjoy them both, really. It’s all about the quality of the writing at the end of the day… Lots of practice for me to do yet!

      With Love

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Hariod,

      I watched this debate (or listened to it, actually). I’m with you on Stephen Fry’s arguments. For me he is the most honest in admitting there are things we don’t yet know, and with his encouragement to take ourselves lightly. I thought that was the high point of the exchange, actually. This sort of debate shows just how hard it can be for very intelligent people to tame their emotional “horses” and stay on the particular point. In watching this, and listening to others, I’m often bemused by how many opportunities to expand the conversation are missed by one party or another’s refusal to actually answer a question or criticism put forth…


      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed, and Jordan Peterson appeared at times almost as if to be going through his usual repertoire of propositions by rote — much of it very similar to the arguments he put forward in the Oxford Union debate/talk he gave over here. I got the impression that Stephen Fry was the least rehearsed of the four (a good thing), although perhaps he had rehearsed a position on political correctness, and as he complained, that was rather sidelined. Quite cute the way he punctured Michael Dyson’s balloon in his (Fry’s) closing remarks. Seems there’s not much love lost between Dyson and Peterson! Oh well, they all got paid lots and lots, and provided entertainment (of a kind). Take care my friend, and I trust your novel is coming along nicely? HX

        Liked by 1 person

        • The novel is at the midway point, approximately–(thanks for asking!)–and I took the last few weeks to shift gears and write another short story, which is now substantially drafted. So back to the bigger work shortly…

          As to these types of debates, your point brings up something I’ve noticed that is related to your pointing out that most of the speakers may have been rehearsed, and that is that it must be quite challenging to do this in real time in front of an audience. It is all too obvious how an expectation of what another is going to say is responded to, instead of what they actually said, so that watching and listening is a bit like watching two or three chess games at once–only a few moves of any given game of which appear in direct view. The mental stance required to be fully present and respond to what is actually happening is quite difficult to cultivate, but I’m certain it entails being vulnerable. Hard to do in this setting, especially once the hand grenades start flying.

          The second thing that so often happens is both parties are right, in a sense, but they won’t admit that elements of both ideas are valid, and so they just start talking past one another. The issue of oppression is like this: there just simply are cultural effects of history that advantage some groups over others, and yet, it seems as though it also simply is the case that we can’t treat every individual as the representative of a group. Martin Luther King dreamed of a world where we could all be treated as individuals, but I’m quite certain the world he dreamed of was free of prejudice and peopled with good will. The lack of good will in these conversations is quite strange to me.

          I’d actually like to see a debate with these same types of speakers where the goal is not to be right, but to leave the stage in greater mutual understanding than when they arrived. It’s the sort of conversation we don’t seem to be very skilled at having. And maybe, it’s just not as entertaining!

          With Love

          Liked by 1 person

          • Your closing point there — about mutual understanding — seems to be what Fry was advocating in saying we do well in being prepared to listen to others before declaring our absolutes in argument. He appeared to me the one least concerned about coming across as being right, and the one more open to persuasion (from what I can recall).

            I’ve been missing the creative aspect of writing whilst redrafting and editing my little story. I think I’m pretty much there now on my 3rd draft, though one can always do a bit more honing, then another bit more, then yet another bit more. I suppose at some point one just falls in an exhausted heap and cries ‘No more!’?

            Much love,


            Liked by 1 person

  3. J.D. Riso says

    “I sometimes think of myself as a member of an incoherent tribe.”— I wonder how many coherent tribes are left on this planet. Hope you are well, Michael,and enjoying the last bit of summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point, Julie. So many of our tribes now are ideological. I there’s a great difference between the sort of tribe that consists of people you live and die with, people with whom you hunt and gather and forage and become ill and heal and enjoy all the highs and lows of relationship, and people who share an ideology. It’s interesting to think about. In the meanwhile, I do hope you’re enjoying the summer as well!


      Liked by 1 person

  4. enjoyed this exploration, Michael
    of being engaged in dialogue
    with ours & others ancestry!
    a career of living & working
    on the rez watered my empathy
    for non-whites which have
    existed as oppressed in this society.
    all across time & space
    human’s creating disharmony.
    yet, how do we all move
    forward, with adequate
    collective resilience & skill
    when caught in past’s knots?
    oh, to look at the past, undisturbed
    and develop understanding.
    I expect if anyone has that insight,
    it would be you 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. it’s a great question, David. I don’t have any pat answers other than the basic need to hold one another in an embrace of compassion and acceptance. You say it very well here… the idea of being able to look at what has been and what is today with a certain equanimity. That alone is a tremendous challenge for us.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like your review! I was especially intrigued due to you kicking it off by mentioning the various Sam Harris conversations. I’m a fan of the Waking Up podcast and some of the related personas/topics, but I rarely run into others who are. Just thought it was interesting how you tied those thoughts in to a novel that I also happened to read.

    Take care!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Levi! Sorry for the delay here. I enjoy Sam’s conversations and the perspectives of his various guests. Also, glad you enjoyed the review. Thank you for the kind words. I see you liked the book, too–or at least parts of it. I agree with your assessment of the difficulty at times keeping track of the characters, but I enjoyed how it all came together in the end… It had a sort of gathering momentum to it.


      Liked by 1 person

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