Yuri Tarnopolsky
Essay 11. On the Rocks

tectonics. ethnic fragmentation. balkanization. order. freedom. globalization. frontier.  melting pot. gel.

Use Firefox browser or see  essays-complete.pdf



Essay 11. On the Rocks


A glass of whiskey on the rocks is a heterogeneous (or fragmented) system. It has a solid and a liquid phases. The molecules of water in ice cubes have almost no freedom of movement. The cubes cannot move freely within the glass because their size is comparable with that of the glass and they have large mass. The liquid contains alcohol, which the cubes do not have. After the ice has melted, the glass will contain a homogenous and weaker solution of alcohol.

A glass of whiskey on ice is a melting pot. Ice melts at 0ºC. Glass melts around 1000ºC.

The Melting Pot  was the title of a play that opened in Washington in 1908. It has been a patented buzzword for America for almost hundred years.

It is assumed that the American melting pot has been cooking up a homogenous culture for centuries, but I doubt not only that there is any homogenous culture in the world but also that there is any agreement about what culture is.

Anyway, second and third generation immigrants were losing their language, appearance, and former cultural habits and accepting the dominating culture of  the ambient society. Today adaptation can take just one generation. It is always and adaptation to a subculture, however.

With my still not completely adapted eye of a newcomer I see at least three major dimensions of culture in America.

The first dimension, most visible on the surface, is the unified and standardized culture of interaction between people. Greatly influenced by the spirit of individualism, it is seen in behavior, civility, work, business contacts, communication, entertainment, and service. Individualism, synonymous with separation and alienation of people, is generally mistrusted outside America, but here, paradoxically, it unites the population and is as good or better glue as any other culture.  

In a highly individualistic society, ideally and typically, one is on his or her own, with enormous degree of freedom, up to complete estrangement from society. An individual competes, theoretically,  against millions of others. Conflict, challenge, and oddity make little chance of success except to movie heroes. You have to respect not just your friend and customer but your competitor and even your enemy, too. It is done to keep a stranger at a friendly distance and most feel compelled to play by the rules or let the lawyers fight in the mud.

Individualism is a universal solvent, the old dream of inventors. The problem is that it cannot be stored because it dissolves any vessel. It softens all kinds of blocks, chunks, groups, loyalties, and even families. An isolated individual starts looking for a new block to stick to. This liquid culture makes the society very mobile: solid lumps segregate from the liquid phase, in due term melt in it, and new aggregates form in turn. Independence is surrogate wealth: one can buy an allegiance with it.

Complexity in nature develops on the flow of energy from heat to cold, and this very general principle can be applied to all large evolutionary phenomena seen on earth. Evolution of American society reminds me of plate tectonics: formation, movement, and meltdown of large areas of the earth crust because of the hot molten magma underneath and cold outer space above. As result, North America became an isolated continent around 100 million years ago. It is to the process of continental drift that we are indebted by the historically recent discovery of America by the West.

It turns out that our planet has been a melting pot, too. It melts the rocks and casts the melt into a diversity of landscapes. I believe that the American melting pot has always worked that way.

Humans are pack animals by origin, and the cognitive dissonance (see Essay 8) between  the acquired individualism and inherited collectivism tends to be resolved in a peculiar way: individualists love to unite around a leader.  In the otherwise muddled American movie Convoy (1978), this tendency found an impressive symbolism:  maverick truck drivers and their sympathizers revolt against the authorities by flocking into a long convoy moving through the Southwest states without any apparent sense , but with a lot of wreck along the way. I believe that the same pattern of individualists seeking submission to a leader repeats in TV Evangelism  and deadly American cults.

The second dimension is entirely collectivist. It is the baffling diversity of subcultures of status, ethnicity, origin, location, occupation, consumption, hobby, family, wealth, and tradition, from the Harley-Davidson bikers to university professors and from Croatian Americans to Militia of Montana, with multiple memberships, or without any formal organization at all. What is done within a subculture might not be done along the first dimension. On the group plane, people may not be completely free and they have to follow some rules and obligations in order to stay in a comfortable environment, but they can always drift to another subculture, move to a distant place, or just follow their own way. An individual in a subculture retains freedom of choice, unless it is drug or mafia culture, although this freedom is what a TV addict has with a remote control in hand.

The third dimension is radically different from the other two. It is the competitive, unscrupulous, and mechanical corporate culture of a business association where everybody, even the single owner, gives up part of freedom and sometimes soul for money. Retirees aside, few people can afford not to work, and, therefore, most have no choice. A company—capitalist or socialist—is a more or less liberal totalitarian mini-state and it cannot be anything else for the sake of its profitability, survival, and well-being of its employees and stockholders.

In America I realized that the totalitarian character of the Communist Russia was a natural consequence in a country designed as a single manufacturing company, strictly private and run by a small group of owners-managers. While you are employed, you don't need to fear tomorrow. People can be, and often are, happy in both capitalist company and totalitarian state.

The second and third dimensions demarcate solid chunks floating in the American whiskey. The analogy with ice, however, is flawed. The ice cubes of society are more labile than those in the glass. A better analogy is gel, like in jelly, GELL-O, or aspic.

Gel is mostly water, but a small amount of an additive (gelatin, pectin, agar) creates a quasi-solid structure. Most of our body mass is water gelled with proteins chemically very similar to gelatin (which is a protein). Another metaphor might explain what gel is.

The movement of water molecules in gels is constrained by the loose structure of an additive in the same way as riding on horseback is slowed by a forest: the rider can move, but only carefully.  Both water and human molecules can gradually move in, out, and through their corporate chunks and migrate to other blocks. There is an equilibrium between the gelled and liquid phases, and gels can melt. Of course, the rigid group structure is created not by an additive or trees but by the rules of the group. The entire physical parallel should not be taken too seriously: it is just a metaphor. Paraphrasing what Picasso said about art, metaphor is a lie that makes us realize the truth. Metaphor is art (see Essay 10: On Clouds and Elephants.)

By the way, the DNA analysis is based on the movement of DNA fragments  through gels. The fragments, driven by electric current, have different mobilities, like horse, dog, and monkey running through the woods.

Whatever we call culture, one cannot wake up in the same culture twice. On the surface I have seen big changes since 1987: internet, news as entertainment, progress of women, political correctness, pop stock market, postmodern fringe, mass gun violence, terrorism, consolidation of publishing, commercialization of everything that had been under-commercialized, globalization, and, of course, the changing ethnic composition and fragmentation, alias, balkanization of culture, politics, and education.

Out of context, the expression "melting pot" is ambiguous. Its usual meaning is the pot that melts its contents, and the odd one is the pot that melts down itself, as if it were made of wax, spilling its contents. It already happened once, in the Civil War, but the pot was repaired at a high price, on a high interest loan, with some symbolic payments still due.

Of course, I am interested in everything odd.  Can the melting pot melt down?

Anything related to race, nationality, and ethnicity has always been a difficult topic for me: a can of worms, a hornets' nest, a pit of vipers. It is all irrational, tense, dark, and brooding. It is full of sinister draw, troubling memories, and spiritual minefields. It brings unpleasant discoveries about myself.

Race and ethnicity perform a rather threatening to a liberal society function: it carries a potential  apparatus for establishing a hierarchy of domination and exploitation, something like the pecking order and food chain among animals. In good times, people can live together. In bad times, homo homini lupus est. But worst of all, any large enough group carries genes of an army.

The greatest blessing of individualism is that an individual does not make an army.

(Disclosure: I am an individualist but not proud of it. )

I have come from a country with over two hundred ethnicities. It was also a melting pot of a kind, like America, with standardized culture and common, for practical purposes, language.

Looking back, I can see the same three dimensions of culture in the bygone Russia as in America. The major difference was the prominence of the second level because most ethnicities lived on their historically inhabited territories and, in addition to the universally taught Russian language and culture, if they wished, could preserve, study, and develop their own language, historical memory, and culture—up to a point.

The diabolical system of residence permits strongly obstructed the free movement of people inside the country, but the Russian melting pot, with some exceptions, worked pretty well.  In San Diego after Rhode Island, I had the same, only slightly off, feeling as when I was in Uzbekistan after Siberia. Nevertheless, Russia was a typical empire with its dictatorial Rome in Moscow, and all ethnicities were well aware of that.

I belonged to a minority without any territorial anchor, although historically the Jews in Russia were concentrated in a wide strip along the western border. Anti-Semitism had deep roots in Russian history, popular views, and even classical literature. Although the Communist government kept it at a certain calculated level and did not encourage any extremes, I knew what it meant to face discrimination and hostility.

I knew no culture other than Russian because Jewish culture was practically extinct, but I never felt myself Russian, I carried my Jewish yellow star in my documents, and had to paste one on all the forms necessary to apply for a job, take books from a library, and get married. The airplane tickets, strangely, did not require it.  I lived knowing that I was different by birth. In America I was disturbed by an inquiry about my race in response to an application for an academic position.

Because of my origin and past I can understand any form of nationalism, except the virulent and violent one, but I would like to look at the social tectonics from a more detached position.

While protesters expect from globalization the pillage of environment, depletion of American jobs, and exploitation of poor countries, I look at it as a problem of the integrity of the pot, remembering the fate of the empire I was born in.

The Soviet melting pot always seemed stable to me but it has melted down and the chunks of the former empire cling to the soil like boulders after the retreat of a glacier, sometimes pressing down on smaller stones underneath. In the recent past, the chunks were bound by solid ice. I can imagine the terrible trauma that the collapse of the empire inflicted on the ethnic Russians, but for the next generation it will be simply a fact of history. It just happens and it can happen anywhere.

The heat for the cataclysmic event came from the West after the thick insulation that Stalin put between Russia and the West had been gradually, in 1956-1986, dismantled. The wall of insulation could not reach up the near space with spy satellites and missiles and was acknowledged useless. It was also the heat of economics: business does not know borders, and the needs of the moment prevailed over ideology, history, and pride.

Talking about tectonics, we descend onto the ground from the realm of cosmic proportions.  The outer space is cold, pierced by radiation and meteorites, frozen to almost zero, empty and stretching over unthinkable distances that make instant communication impossible, but our energy, heat and light comes from it. The Earth is lucky to be rich of water, insulated by atmosphere, and enjoying the incessant flow of productive (“free”) energy from the sun.

The former Soviet Union was a stiff, frozen system, designed to function  as a clockwork but always showing a wrong time, with the hidden volcanic heat of human emotions compensating for the cold.

The United States still works mostly for its internal consumption, insulated by the continental location and lack of interest in the rest of the world, united by the cult of money and pleasure instead of philosophical or ideological rumination. It is pragmatic, willing to compromise and give credit, tolerant, good-natured, and with a dash of idealism and craze as much as needed to spice up the metallic taste of  routine life. The pockets of dissent and discontent are scattered and small, far from networking out into catacombs fit for explosive charges. The society is highly dynamic and capable of self-repair. The picture might certainly look different from the outside and to a critical or upbeat insider.  After Russia, people are angelically nice.

There is Europe, on the ideals of which I was brought up, with culture ennobled by centuries of bloodletting. It is the same balkanized for millennia Europe that supplied the first batch of seed to plant the New World shores, as if anticipating the moment when she would be in a dire need of its crop. After my American experience, however, no homogenous national state attracts me in any way. I find American diversity enchanting and dilating my blood vessels. Apparently, the ultimate form of national state does not look attractive to Europeans anymore: its many subcontinents drift not apart but toward a mini-Pangaea, while their own diversity tends to increase, showing same turnover of matter.

There is Africa, the continent of betrayed hope and great destruction, self-rejecting, as in an autoimmune disease, but guzzling on arms instead of medicines.

There is enormous Asia, the true center of gravity of the world, varying from Afghanistan to Japan, with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, ambivalent Russia, and with China so big that its moon-like presence disturbs night dreams and swings the tides of excitement between greed and fear.

I know very little about South America. In spite of all the contrasts of history, food, music, and climate, there seems to be some vague historical parallel between Russia and the nonexistent averaged Latin America. It follows from the similarity between the authoritarian components of Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, encouraging both patience and revolt, anarchy and submission, as well as extreme emotions.

This is a very superficial view, of course, because we know what we know mostly from TV and tourist impressions, but we can also look much deeper into different cultures through the microscope of literary fiction. Reading Latin American authors while in Russia, I often thought that the Russians could be the most responsive audience for them outside South America. Too late for both.

What if all that world becomes an economic melting pot and the continental insulation is unwrapped?  What can be its source of energy, its heater for the winter and its air conditioner for the summer? Will it melt under the hot tropical sun? Will it  freeze, radiating the last heat off into the space? Does the American gelatin have any chance of survival in the melting pot of the future? The global economy sounds like the single company on the globe. Who will own and manage it? There will always be a struggle for control and domination.

Those are idle questions. Any transition state can go either forth or back (see Essay 8: On the Buridan's Ass  ). To predict the final result of a long sequence of historical transitions under such conditions is risky, almost hopeless (but magnetically attractive) gambling. The chess of history is played if not between God and Devil, then between God's right and left hands. The only conclusion I can draw from the mechanisms of history is that anything is possible.

If the American melting pot is not destined to survive, it may be because of its inability to digest the most numerous (nobody knows how many) ethnicity: the Things (see Essay 6: On the Yahoos, or Apologia of Samuel Butler). It is the third dimension, the globalized economy, the Things riding humans, that could have the last word. The culture of Things is indifferent to banners, borders, ideals, and idiosyncrasies. It can offer both nationalism and ecumenical humanism for sale, neatly wrapped up, and even as a salt-and-pepper set. Companies split and merge as easily as modeling clay and they don't care about geography.

There is a bright side, however: the Things are indifferent not only to race, gender, ethnicity, weight, and sexual preferences, but they also love, in neat pill boxes, the sick and disabled with all their thingish hearts. They even sincerely love the poor: their labor cost is lower.

The rest of the world, with few exceptions, seems to be immune to the individualism of the American kind. The North American continent was the only known phenomenon of the open global frontier on the planet in the age of Industrial Revolution, and the extreme, almost religious individualism was entirely shaped by it. In the rest of the world, including Europe, people lived for millennia on a limited space expandable only by war, which could be waged only by a large group.

The phenomenon of frontier is very general and it repeats, like fractals, on different scales. I could see the phenomenon of the spatial frontier in my own neighborhood. Ten years ago half of it was woods. Now it is completely built up. They cut down even the beautiful catalpa trees with dainty flowers, heart-shaped leaves, pods like fingers of Martians, and seeds with furred gremlin's ears! The little frontier is closed. For the sentimental folks, wasn't our youth an open frontier? Frontier is what seems infinite but always ends.

The second global open frontier—the resources of liquid mineral fuel—shows signs of coming to a gradual closure.

The end of the third frontier—that of science and technology—is by no means certain, at least it seems to be far behind the horizon. Science and technology today play the role of the major mechanism of adaptation of life on earth to the changing balance sheet of energy. It is only in imagination that we can reconstruct from the fossils the arduous march of biological adaptation. We could see with our own eyes, however, how contraceptives, cars, and computers, these wagons of evolutionary pioneers, create a new civilization, as much biological as technological.

Since the closure of the spatial frontier, the American culture seems to be undergoing not so much fragmentation as aggregation, a kind of self-determination, like in the old Old World, where for a long time one could survive only as a big group—the bigger the better. America learns, like everybody else, how to live within the limited borders and limited resources. It started with the skyscrapers, but now even computers boast small footprint. I believe it is a historically natural period not only in the life of any empire, industrial or whatever, but also of any continent, nation, and even ecological system.

 I would call the trend "deindividualization," but it sounds like a tong twister.  In America it means something that is, probably, not applicable anywhere else: the change of bias from individualism to group mentality. It is a process that distantly and mostly metaphorically reminds of the formation of European nations on the footprints of the Roman Empire.

Fragmentation is usually seen as weakening of bonds between people. I see fragmentation as strengthening of corporate bonds: women are no more just citizens, they are members of the quasi-nation of women, and their corporate power works for them. The minorities of all kinds unite and consolidate into quasi-nations: gays and lesbians, concerned mothers, Blacks, Hispanics, disabled, alcoholics, retirees, libertarians, conservatives, fundamentalists, trade unionists, Christian Coalition, and environmentalists. Microsoft, with its monopoly on Windows ä is a government (if not a god) in itself: it dictates how the extensions of our brain communicate and work.

This is what it means to be a quasi-nation and a quasi-solid body. It means to cool the whiskey. It means to leave less free space and less choice. It means to increase order at the expense of freedom. The solid body retains its shape, and when it moves, all its points move in the same direction. Only a solid body can be a material for a mechanism that is capable of performing a function repeatedly.

I understand the American fragmentation, contrary to common notion, not as a process of breaking up but as aggregation, a transition from a system of a very large number of highly independent entities to a system consisting of a much smaller number of corporate subsystems where independence is partly lost, but competitive power is increased. The melted stuff solidifies in a labile landscape of corporate forms, and the initial American idea of individual equality evolves toward the new idea of group equality, which I instinctively like less, not even realizing why. Maybe, if we look at the evolution of the United Nations, based on the group equality, we will better understand the difference. See also Essay 33: The Corg.

The American melting pot seems to work, but it is cooling down, like the earth itself, like Europe after the Dark Ages, like Europe of the European Union, after three world wars (one cold), like Africa will, probably, cool down, like the world will cool down, probably, through a series of earthquakes and holocausts, to a more tolerant and civilized community because the more Things humans have the more they value their own lives and the less they want to rob the neighbor, whether across or within the borders.

American history seems to display between the hot magma of individualism and the cold of the outer, addicted to authority world. The pot is now divided into the melting zone and cooling zone, with an internal turnover between the two.

If some American subcontinents drift apart, which can certainly happen, it may not be a tragedy, after all. It can also turn the other way around so that an external subcontinent will moor at the underbelly, like the Indian Peninsula to Asia, and blend in. And what is tragedy, after all? In the theater of history for any tragic mask there is a comic one to match, but you never know who in fact is behind


which. We enjoy the play most while we do not know the end.

   History is an even better source of optimism than whiskey, as far as I am (not really) familiar with both.

Page created: 2001                                                     Revised: 2016

  Website: spirospero.net                          To contents                            email
   Essays 1 to 56 :
   Essays 57 to 60: 
   Essay 60: