Humano Sapiens is one of the few animals whose culture is not encoded in its genes. It is learned from birth, but becomes so deeply imprinted, some can’t even imagine that there can be other cultures.
Economics writer, Michael Lewis, believes that the crisis bedeviling the western world has cultural roots. In his thriller of a book, Boomerang, he examines Greece, where what others call corruption, is simply culture. Long before it joined the European Union it was cooking its books, wiping out expenses, turning a 15% deficit into 3%, and when it needed cash, selling future income from lotteries, tolls, airport landing fees. Millionaires report incomes under $12,000 Euros, the no-tax level. A tax collector who actually tries to collect from these cheats, gets busted and sent to the sticks.
“Whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture,” says Lewis. Since nothing is harder to change than culture, it’s a pretty hopeless prognosis.
L. P. Hartley, opens his novel, The Go Between, with, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” I haven’t read the novel but hear it said so often it’s like a proverb. But how long ago is the past and when does it begin?
1880-1900 - Lost Generation - WW1
1901-1925 - Greatest Generation - WW2
1926-1945 - Silent Generation -Korean War, Vietnamese War
1946-1964 - Baby Boom Generation, ‘Me’ generation.
1965s-1970s - Generation X
1980s - 1990 - Generation Y, Millenial Generation, Echo Boomers.
2000 - Generation Z, Internet Generation.
As a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, my culture includes Hitler, Tojo, 78 rpm records, sugar rationing, gas rationing, price controls, war bonds, a poster of Uncle Sam: “I Want You for the U.S. Army! ”
In 1990, a Gen X student at Manhattan Community College asked me if I’d actually fought in World War 2, and when I said yes, sighed. “What a bummer!” The gulf between us was so great all I could do was return a sad smile.
In 2000, a young lawyer, also Gen X, knowing I’d been in WW2, asked if combat had been “really terrible.” I’m sure she was just trying be sympathetic, but it ticked me off. “I had a ball!” I said, getting a look of horror.
A hit record in the 1940s made so much money it put the group into the 90% tax bracket. “The Government needs tanks!” said their leader with a stalwart smile. Of course.
But things I took for granted like paying taxes, always voting, proud of my government, our democracy, feeling lucky to be American, all seem missing now. L.P Hartley was dead on the mark; the past is a foreign country.
Which makes me a foreigner.