a bit more about DARE

A few thoughts have been brewing since I heard that the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)the project William Safire called ‘The most exciting linguistic project going on in the United States’ –has lost its funding. In no particular order, and wish some effort to avoid simple ranting, they’re these:

If crowdsourcing really works, it needs to work now. Kickstarter and similar initiatives, can garner funds to support indie albums and amateur theatricals. But frankly, I’ll be inclined even more to dismiss crowdsourcing as one more idle fashion if DARE is allowed to fade away. The indie albums will as likely as not be largely forgotten in ten years or so; if seen through to completion DARE will be a treasure to scholars and readers and human knowledge for the next century or so. So the question is: can the crowd really step in to give aid where the government has failed?

I have to agree with John McIntyre’s fulminations, largely (“Beneath the dignity of a great nation”, 7 April 2013). For all our talk in America and elsewhere—about diversity and equality, we’ve still maintain a general stereotyping of America and Americans—or Britain and Brits—or Anywhere and its people—which is decidedly un-progressive. This is reinforced by new stereotypes of what “Un-American” people are like; whether we vilify dirty conservatives or poncing liberals makes no difference. The point is that the world remains divided in Them and Us.

I think that—especially in an age where global awareness and diversity are sung so loudly—we would do well to teach our children, and young adults and undergraduates, a keen awareness of and pride in place—regional identity and speech, ethnic culture and tradition, and so on. It’s precisely this clear self-identity that makes diversity possible. Not simply to perpetrate the mistakes of the past, mind, but to understand enough to heal and forgive. We find ourselves, and recognize ourselves in the stranger, at the sharp, crystalline edges of things; we lose the chance for mutual understanding and welcome in the torpid middle.

A project like DARE , and kindred endeavours in England and elsewhere, is unique in that it creates a compendium that houses an entire national range of diversity without apology, without erasing its idiosyncrasy and individuality. It allows mutual respect and understanding, even admiration and delight, for a widely diverse national immigrant culture—diversity without homogeneity.  I say ‘unique’ but now I’m reminded of the vast folklore repositories in Germany and elsewhere—the impulse is the same. To celebrate and enrich humanity by recognizing the distinct variants of the the culture we hold in common.

I’m Polish-American, but I don’t know what that means. The Polish-American heritage is an oral tradition; the records in the Old World were destroyed in the war. My Polish-American grandfather didn’t have much to do with his family, certainly never talked with me about Poland or growing up in Polish neighbourhoods in Chicago. (Stories of his time in the Pacific in WWII—he told me those instead, and I still cherish them.) That part of who, where I came from, I am is gone now—perhaps irretrievably. Those words are lost, and I will never own them without much labour. And I’ll never really own them anyway, if I find them: they’ll be acquired through research and not through childhood development. That’s the real loss.

On the hand, did you know that goozlum is a kind of gravy? I didn’t, until I started writing this post and found this link. I knew what lutefisk was, though, and just seeing the word brought back memories of so may Swedish-American Christmas celebrations in the upper-Midwest, even the one slightly embarrassing-but-entertaining comic duo that sang Scandinavian versions of Christmas Carols: O Christmas Tree became O Lutefisk. Seeing that word was like bumping into an old friend, for all I never eat the stuff.

There is, I’m convinced, a virtue to being expatriate, being—in the words of a French travel writer whose name I forget—“a stranger, a passer-by, a man without place or fire.” And there is, for a writer, what we could call an aesthetic of displacement—a keen awareness of places not one’s own, a liminality, and wilfull estrangement that leads to compassion. This will emerge more and more as my generation keeps finding its voice literarily, I think. But for that to mean anything, there needs to be the initial sense of belonging, the strong sense of native place that become part of one’s memory and speech patterns; the words that give texture to our ideas. So strong regional writing should co-exist with the literature of displacement, the same way cultural and ethic heritage should sit alongside multiculturalism in our pedagogies.

Consider this advice from an Indian ad designer:

One of the members of Type Camp (my wife, actually), asked Prakash, “Since your audience is so large and diverse, do you try to make your message more broad or universal in order to cover everyone?”

Prakash answered that digging in to cultural specifics of a particular group — even if the group is outside of the larger audience you wish to reach — always leads to greater responses from all groups. Doing work that seemed safely universal is never as strong as work that is culturally specific, even if the specificity seems out of your audience’s experience. It is only in embracing a vernacular, a specificity, that a work can achieve any semblance of universality

I wonder—perhaps more accurately, I worry—whether we really value multiculturalism as much as we say we do, if we can so flagrantly allow DARE and other projects to flounder. Or do we want everyone to look like use—standard, politically correct, benignly multicultural. This is symptomatic of a steady devaluing of literature and the wider humanities in our institutions and our culture—whether by cutting funding or mindlessly decrying and blackballing great literature that doesn’t accommodate our prejudices. But the point is in the frisson. We can admire something without defining ourselves with it.

Sure, times are hard all over. I understand that. But when even something like DARE is going down—what should be a great and unassailable American institution—that to me suggests something has gone terribly wrong.


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