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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Global Portable Identities

I just finished a lovely book of essays edited by Susan Ossman called The Places We Share:  Migration, Subjectivity, and Global Mobility. Nicely written and redacted and I recommend it to you.

There was one essay in particular that I noted and went back to.  It's called "A New Take on the Wandering Jew" and it's about Jewish identity as it is experienced in different countries by people who are globally mobile.  As the author of the essay, Shana Cohen, put it, "Acting on my Jewish identity has seemed to provide continuity as I have migrated from place to place."  Wherever she has lived (US, Morocco, England, Egypt and Israel) that identity has served to ground her.  It isn't about integration so much as it is having a kind of worldwide plug adaptor so that wherever a migrant lands there is something that he or she can connect to that is not tied to one country, culture, nationality or citizenship.  It exists separate from all those things.  There are local variations, certainly, but there is something under it all that connects where you came from, where you've lived, where you are right now and where you might go.

Furthermore, it's a something that you feel that you have a right to be a part of based on criteria that is not determined by border guards or states or even to a certain extent, the local culture and community.  You belong.  Period.  And all you have to do is show up and in most cases, they have to honor your claim to belong.  Or at least if they don't they forfeit some important principles in their own rulebook such as their claims to universality.

In my own life the Catholic church functions in exactly this manner.  It is a constant wherever I go.  By virtue of this identity, this membership, I can simply find the local church or cathedral wherever I happen to be and plug in.  Christianity is a universal creed, a world religion that was already global before anyone ever noticed there was this thing called "globalization."  As the essay so ably points out, so is Judaism.  Islam too, for that matter. You can be affiliated to any one of these world religions and find an instantiation of it in just about any country you wish to visit or live in.  If you like (and I do) that provides a thread of cohesion that can mute some of the psychic distress of culture shock and adaptation to new places.

This function of world religions may be completely lost on adherents who do not travel widely or migrate.  In France, for example, I see this very strong identification of Catholicism and French culture and sometimes even claims to a kind of special culturally-based version of Catholicism that is unlike any other in the world.  I was asked once by a family member here if American Catholics baptized their children, too - a question that I found highly amusing.  Yes, there are culturally specific traditions around Catholic rites here but the creed, sacraments and rites are the same and don't fundamentally change between the US and Canada or France and England.  For all that the French have misgivings about mondialisation, a fair number of them are (and have been for generations) members of these global organizations/communities whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism or any other religion with a global presence.

So far I've talked only about world religions and the question that followed my reading of the essay was:  Are there secular equivalents out there?  Identities, organizations or movements that have the same characteristics:  a universal creed, shared rites and rituals, open membership and a global presence.

And the answer is Yes.  Alcoholics Anonymous.  Believe it or not, AA is worldwide and a recovering alcoholic can find a meeting just about anywhere he or she goes in the world.  I know personally any number of serial migrants and travellers who use AA as their base in every country, region, city, town or village.  I have seen people walking into a meeting with their luggage having just come from the airport.  They find and go to a meeting before they check into the hotel.  It's that important to them.  There are local traditions and different languages depending on the country/culture but the basic principles are always the same and they are universal.  

Now I have heard the argument that AA is a religion.  My experience in France, the US and Canada is that, if there is a religious component to it, it varies according to the place with atheists and agnostics very prevalent in French meetings. A bit different in North America but it depends on the particular meeting.

So I do argue for AA as a secular transnational organization with a global membership and a  portable identity that gives a migrant or a traveller  a place to "plug in" anywhere he or she goes in the world.

Are there others?

You tell me.



Mark Louis Uhrich said...

I think that one can look at other large international organizations also. Examples would be Lions Clubs and Toastmasters. Because of their shared structure and purpuse and values, one can go anywhere and plug in. As a Lion, I can travel almost anywhere, find that there is a local club, and be welcomed to attend their meeting.

Sauve said...

What separates me from other countries are their cultures and my ignorance of those cultures. The base of any culture is pretty easy to become informed about simply by wiki now. Language is another ball game though.

I have seen no religiosity in France. Most of the people I know, with the exception of this blog, never speak of any religious convictions if they have them. It doesn't bother me at all that I have no religious identity except when I go back to the states where I asked if I have a church, want to belong to church, or would like to find god. I'm also asked about my stances on communism which I think is because the majority of Americans don't understand the difference between communism and socialism. But that brings me back to religion. My son considers himself a Christian. All and good for Easter Sunday. He doess't own a Bible and what's more has never read one in its entirety. This is true of my two daughters also. I believe this is because I raised them to Christian ethics in moral because we lived in America and I wanted them to be acclimated to that climate. However, I've have read the Bible through 5 times. I have studied it at the various houses of worship I took my children to. I followed study guides at home. There were years when I read the Bible daily. Which is probably why I am not a Christian nor a Jew. I do not find solace in any religious community because I just can't believe what they accept.

Interestingly enough, most religion-faith based people can't pass a multiple choice quest on the dogma of their own proclaimed religious faith. Pew study for 2010 indicated that over 80% of people world wide answered incorrectly the multiple choice tenets of their own chosen religious faiths.

So how do I connect in a different culture? I have always connected via cooking, art, music, and fiber arts such as clothing, quilting, embellishments. Only later, once I have been in place for a time do politics enter into the equation. Religiosity never has, except in certain regions or employers of the USA.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I am a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst in Brazil. In my practice I am quite concerned when someone gets dependent on alcohol. I believe that immigrants are particularly vulnerable to mental problems, including alcoholism. Although recently I have read books from colleagues questioning the AA model, I still believe that they have better results than anyone else, for the ones who gather courage to attend the meetings.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Mark, And may I say how lovely it was to meet you at last? Yep, absolutely, those are clubs with a global reach.

Sauve, Oh I agree. Religious convictions in France are definitely out of the public sphere (or at least not talked about in general conversation). But then neither is "What do you for a living?" and "How much did you pay for your house?"

Because religion is not a topic of conversation one might get the mistaken impression that there are no religious folks in France at all which isn't at all true. And once you get to know someone and you both figure out that you belong to a church/synagogue/mosque there are some very interesting conversations to be had.

I'm interested in the Pew study. Was that a worldwide study or was it just one country?

@Anonymous, Oh yes alcohol dependency is a worldwide problem. How that fits into psychological/emotional health has always been a question for me. I look back on my drinking days and I'm convinced that I was insane. There is a term in AA - "pulling a geographic" that you might want to look into. This is when an alcoholic gets so desperate to stop that he or she takes the radical step of completely changing his environment (within a country or to another country).

The AA model has been much criticized but it's curious how it's managed to travel the world over. I think the key here is a core set of very simple basic principles around which there can be an infinite number of local variations. Because no one owns the system or controls it (think open source)it is easily adopted by anyone anywhere. And it does work though even recovering alcoholics can't say why it is effective. I think the closest anyone ever came to explaining it is this book: The Spirituality of Imperfection