One day, the unremarkable town of Leavenworth, Washington, decided to become a quaint, mock Bavarian village. This raises some questions.
What’s required in order to belong to a particular ethnic group or culture? Can we determine when a person’s claim of cultural identity is fake or should be rejected? In the years ahead, advancing technology will make these questions even more complex.
Consider the town of Leavenworth, Washington.
Leavenworth, a small town high in the Cascade mountains, was dying and had been for a long time. The railroad and timber businesses that had sustained the economy had faded. In the 1960s, a group of civic leaders convinced the city to reinvent itself as a Bavarian village. Over a number of years commercial buildings were redone in Bavarian style, businesses proliferated offering German food and products with clerks in Bavarian costume, an Oktoberfest and other festivals were created and a gazebo in the park became host to oom-pah bands. Everywhere you looked were murals of rural Bavarian villages, balconies with carved wooden railings and signs in German script writing.
It worked. Leavenworth grew into a popular tourist destination, bringing the county over $300 million in travel-related spending, according to Dan Runyan Associates.
The problem is that the city wasn’t actually settled by people from Bavaria. Reinventing itself as a Norwegian village — also proposed during the 60s — would have better reflected the heritage of a significant fraction of the population, but those pushing the reinvention preferred the Bavarian idea.
So Leavenworth isn’t like Solveig, California, which parlayed its actual Danish heritage into making itself a tourist destination. Yet both cities had to construct buildings and businesses to create an attraction, an artificial sense of history that never existed in the past. In contrast, plenty of tourist destinations — like Bourbon Street in New Orleans — however modified and commercially packaged, at least grew out of an authentic history.
Lonely Planet travel guide judges Leavenworth one of the five “best German towns” in America. But does it really count as German?
Deciding on your culture
Suppose Leavenworth had decided to become a Native American village reflecting the culture of those who lived in the area preceding the arrival of white settlers. This likely would have generated significant controversy, despite the local connection. Why would that be different than adopting Bavarian heritage? For one thing, there is a very conflicted history of cultural interaction between Whites and Natives in the United States.
In general, we tend to agree that people shouldn’t appropriate the culture of others. But which appropriations have triggered outrages shows the convoluted side to this ethos. Irish immigrants to the U.S., we know, suffered discrimination, Armenians were subject to targeted killings in Turkey and Jews suffered a Holocaust. None of those groups, however, were subject to lengthy, serious, targeted attacks by the U.S. government as Native Americans were. Had Leavenworth chosen to emulate, say, the Jewish culture, perhaps we’d anticipate complaints only from Jewish leaders. Bavaria, meanwhile, seems to be far from outraged over Leavenworth.
What is culture?
What Leavenworth, and other tourist towns do, of course, is promote the aspects of culture that involve consumption. Tourists can “experience” the purchase of sauerkraut and ornamented beer steins but they aren’t going to learn about German philosophy or Bavarian high art in Leavenworth, unless the Nutcracker Museum counts.
So Leavenworth could be dismissed as fake culture, as superficial as the Impressions de France “attraction” at Disney’s Epcot world.
The reality of a fake heritage
But consider this complication. What about a child who grows up in Leavenworth, goes to school there, considers the chalet houses normal, adores the town and its flower boxes and Bavarian costumes — just as anyone tends to love and identify with the place where they grew up. Is that child Bavarian? If not, what?
Adopting a heritage
This issue of cultural identity is set to become far more complex in decades ahead. The first examples of what it can mean are seen in children adopted by parents of a different culture. There is controversy over White parents adopting non-White children, but non-Whites also adopt children from outside their cultural group. Is a White child who grew up with Native American parents on a reservation a Native American?
Whatever legal judgment a tribe gives about this issue, it certainly challenges our assumption that heritage comes with blood and only blood (which is to say DNA). Heritage — our identity — also comes from our experiences and crucially, from the choices we make.
We can chose to move to the South and identify with that cultural variant. We can marry someone from a different group and blend our heritages or adopt our partner’s. Not everyone will accept our choices, and there can be conflict, but the fact is that people do make these kinds of choices.
The attraction of categories
It isn’t just conservatives and blatant racists who focus on blood and racial purity. Liberals can behave as if cultures should be in hermetically sealed compartments that never interact or mingle. It was liberals as much as conservatives who objected to the U.S. Census Bureau’s allowing people, beginning in 2000, to identify as belonging to more than one race. In 2010, nine million Americans did so.
While the interaction of cultures can lead to loss and obliteration, it can also lead to creativity.
The next challenge
We seem poised on the brink of a biomedical revolution. Cloning, gene therapy, advanced surgeries and a spectrum of other techniques will soon allow prospective parents more choices and control. Someday, soon-to-be parents may be able to select genes for hair color, body type and other options turned on or off in the womb to design a child to fit into some notion of cultural identity.
At some point we will be able to manipulate brain chemistry to allow us, or our unborn children, to like or dislike certain things we select. We can decide to like certain foods, find certain people attractive, prefer certain music or other things associated with a given culture.
As more of our world becomes digital it will be easier for a town to invent a digital experience of another culture. Take on a Black avatar and walk among digital representations of prejudiced Whites, perhaps. Nor would this be limited to ethnicity. It might be considered a real service if through various prosthetics (already under development) you could live for a day as an elderly person or someone confined to a wheelchair.
While such experiences could be valuable, they would likely be as superficial as the tourist towns. The experience would likely be capped off with a trip to the gift shop where you could buy mugs, t-shirts and postcards.
Tourism and travel
Does visiting Leavenworth have any impact on people? Does it make them any more appreciative of cultural diversity? Perhaps, in the end, it’s just another trip to the store.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.