Judging culture

How do we judge a foreign culture? Do we do it according to our own standards, or theirs, or by some objective standard?

A couple of years ago there was some debate if the United States would have been better off had the South been successful in its 1860’s bid for independence. The argument was that the South is generally still poorer and more backwards than the North, and it’s knee-jerk conservatism is a drag on Northern progressiveness.

Of course there are counter arguments: the South has been steadily making economic progress and is the source of much of America’s economic dynamism. Texas is, by some accounts, the economic engine not just of the United States, but of Canada and Mexico as well.

But my question is, by what standard are we judging the superiority of the North? The economic argument seems weak: not only has the South is making huge economic strides these past fifty years, why should economics be the standard by which a culture is judged?

I preformed a thought experiment: I imagined a particularly stuffy German friend of mine making a tour of America. He would generally hate the country, but if forced to judge which part of the nation were less repulsive to him, he would find the Northern Midwest agreeable for its peace and quiet and bratworst, but would conclude that given the museums, theaters, symphonies, publishing houses and Universities, the corridor from New York to Boston is the cultural heartland of America.

Then I thought of a friend from Naples, Italy. He would tour America and be deeply impressed by orderly little towns, impressive landscapes, and sprawling cities. He’d think it a wonderful country, but conclude that for the really important things in life namely, good food, good music, fun parties, and pretty girls, the South is infinitely superior to the North, and New Orleans is the cultural capital of the world.

Who would be right, the German or the Neapolitan?


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