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Sunday, November 7th, 2004

Time Event
Alpha Male Displays
celticdragonfly and I watched Whale Rider the other night. It shows a poor Maori community struggling with keeping their traditions alive in modern times.

One scene showed the chief teaching some boys the Maori war face--eyes rolled back, tongue stuck out, grunting loudly--and explaining that it was a threat to crush and eat your enemy. celticdragonfly was boggled by that but I laughed and said it was a classic alpha male display, something I had a complete emotional grasp of. The movie ended with the men who'd gone overseas or lost themselves in crime or drink enthusiastically participating in the launch of a ceremonial boat as dancers showed the war face.

I liked the movie, it's a very moving story, but the ending bothered me. I started comparing the Maori tribal displays to the customers of the English who conquered them. The English middle class are famous for their lack of classic alpha male displays--the stiff upper lip instead of screaming rages, plain black suits instead of elaborate costumes, the protestant work ethic instead of conspicuous consumption. The progress of the societies was also very different. While the Maori stayed in the stone age the English developed ships that could go around the world and equipped them with cannon and muskets. But the English advantage wasn't just in military technology. Progress in agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, hygiene, and social organization put the English ahead of the Maori by any measure I can think of.

So what happened when the two cultures were living peacefully together? The English-descended New Zealanders were raised with the cultural tools to succeed in school and business. The Maori toolkit was optimized for beating off raiding parties and didn't help in those settings. So the Maori were outcompeted, failed, and turned to crime or drink. Or they would assimilate, leaving their traditions behind. Some would trade on their tradition for art or entertainment but this was condemned by the chief in the movie.

The movie ended with everyone participating in the traditional ceremony, throwing off their despair in a celebration of their heritage. But that's where it ends. I didn't see any reason to think that they'd be any more successful economically then they had before. If all this effort leaves still falling behind their neighbors they'll lose hope again and wind up where they were before the revival.

What they need is a new culture, one that gives them the tools they need to compete in the modern world. Not simply adapting English traditions--especially not the soccer hooligans--but adding new elements to their tradition. Most important would be respect for status from useful work instead of heredity or violent confrontation. An aggressive appreciation of risk could give them an edge over the risk-averse English business culture. Other possibilities are personal responsibility, holistic thinking, and testing assumptions against reality. I'd like to have more of those traits in our culture. But Americans aren't afraid of being outcompeted right now so there's not much pressure to change.

Oh--regardless of what you think of this, go see the the movie. It's good.

Current Mood: thoughtful

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