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A guest column by Harvey Hartman & Jack Whelan
Assimilation is what used to happen to immigrants when we thought that America was a big melting pot. Immigrants arrived as young men and women, adapting as necessity required to their new environment, but still living very much out of the traditions and values of their culture of origin. And as they grew older they watched as their children became more American, and as their grandchildren grew up with hardly any sense at all of the kind of world from which their grandparents came.

The grandkids, maybe when they're older, will take an interest in their ethnic heritage, but it will have been too late. It will be a kind of hobby, not something that they live from as their grandparents did. We create museums for those elements in our culture that are no longer alive, and for the third and fourth generations and beyond the traditions of their grandparents have become, for the most part, museum pieces. These later generations have become Americans.

It's a different story, though, for the Caribbean and Asian people who have come to this country since the 1970s because, for all kinds of reasons, there just isn't the same kind of Anglo-dominated mainstream culture for them to assimilate into anymore. What it means to be an American has been rapidly changing in the last 30 years. The old Anglo culture is still there, of course, and for now it's still very influential in the government and corporate halls of power, but we are seeing more and more people, mostly kids, who are prodigiously adaptive to any number of cultural influences, and they move from one subculture into another with equally prodigious ease. That's what the sociologists mean by "multi-acculturation."

But we doubt this will remain a permanent feature in American society. In a few generations' time we will be seeing the emergence of a global fusion culture mediated through the inevitably homogenizing power of electronic information technologies. This fusion culture will draw from the pre-modern traditions of Asian, African, Latin American and various indigenous cultures, but in an increasingly hi-tech idiom.

This fusion will occur most easily in the US where there is already hardly any vestige of the pre-modern world, but will slowly transform even those societies in Asia or the Middle East or Africa or Latin America where pre-modern cultural forms are still strong. It's not just about what happens to people who immigrate here; it's about the cultures that they import with them that are being slowly woven into the fusion culture and how that will be exported back to the cultures from which they came. This trend will be abetted by what we're exporting through the Internet and MTV. Rap, for instance, started in inner-city black culture and is now a style imitated throughout the world. A global style is something you can see already everywhere, and this is just the beginning.

All traditional ethnic identity is rooted in pre-modern cultural forms, and the pre-modern roots of cultural identity will all but disappear by the end of this century. They won't go without a fight, as we're seeing now in the Islamic world, but we're convinced that ethnicity or any rigidly defined traditionalist worldview is simply fading as a dominating source of cultural identity. Ethnic identities simply will not be able to withstand the enormous consciousness-changing and power of the new information technologies.

There will be from time to time moments of nostalgia when it will be cool to get into one's ethnicity and to search for one's "roots." And there will continue to be enclaves of traditionalists who reject the postmodern fusion culture. But they'll just live like the Amish live in Pennsylvania or the Hasids in Brooklyn. They'll just keep to themselves and vote, if they vote at all, for whoever promises to leave them alone.

But the future does not lie in that kind of nostalgic clinging to the past. This is different from saying that the past isn't important for the future. The past will have an enormously important influence on the way we shape lifestyles in the fusion culture. That's where "retrieval" comes in. Retrieval is not about going back to the way things were, but of salvaging the all-but-lost elements - valued for their soulfulness - from fading pre-modern cultural traditions. The goal of retrieval is to integrate cultural elements from the past into a postmodern lifestyle that gives it more "soul," and this will be done in an eclectic, irrational way that will be very hard to predict except for its general outlines.

This is a complex phenomenon and deserves more discussion than we can give it here, but the broad-strokes concept is this: If you want to understand the future, try to understand better what modern societies left behind. What the culture has lost to "modern progress," it wants now to retrieve, and that's the key to understanding what we mean by the soul age and soul values. Modern societies, dominated by commercial/technological values since the mid-19th Century, have become slick and soulless, and while hardly anyone complains about the material benefits that commercial/technological societies have generated, there is nevertheless a profound dissatisfaction with the fundamental soullessness that has become associated with them. There is a growing hunger now for anything that has a soulfulness about it.

Tomorrow: "Cultural Connections & Disconnections"

"Fusion Culture" is a product of The Hartman Group, one of the nation's preeminent research firms focusing on the health and wellness markets.

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