“I am I and my circumstance”

José Azel

With his phrase “I am I and my circumstance,” Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) summarized the belief that human beings can not be isolated from their circumstances. For Ortega y Gasset individuals and societies are not detached from their past; to know a society we must know its history.

Yet, we often make reference to something we call human nature. Today, social scientists such as economist Thomas Sowell, and psychologist Steven Pinker, echo Ortega y Gasset arguing that there is more to us than just a biological nature. Our actions do not result from an immutable human nature, but from nature interacting with culturally generated behaviors that are subject to change.

“A culture is not a symbolic pattern, preserved like a butterfly in amber. Its place is not in a museum but in the practical activities of daily life, where it evolves under the stress of competing goals and other competing cultures.” (Thomas Sowell)

In other words, we are all biologically the same, but we have a malleable nature. We are a living drama that survives by conquering difficulties along the way. Culture is the aggregate of the methods we gather to help us live our lives. This concept helps explain why cultures differ, and why some cultures can accomplish things better than others. Steven Pinker asks:
“What allowed small groups of Spaniards to cross the Atlantic and defeat the great empires of the Incas and Aztecs, rather than the other way around? Why didn’t African tribes colonize Europe instead of vice versa?”

The standard answer is that the colonizers had better technologies and social organizations. But that response avoids the fundamental questions as to what accounts for the greater sophistication of the conquerors. A better answer is that culture develops as a tool for living our circumstances.

I offer this superficial introduction to the scientific debate over human nature vs culture to frame a discussion of the multicultural society of South Florida, and more broadly of the United States. In some respects Cuban migration to the United States over the past sixty years offers a good microcosm to study the thesis of how our living culture is linked to our life experiences.

Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 over 1,500,000 people (approximately 20% of the population) have left Cuba in several waves and modalities such as the Pedro Pan exodus, and freedom flights of the 1960s; the Mariel boat lift of 1980; or the rafters’ crisis of the 1990’s. This migration continues to this day and, from a social science perspective, it is a migration that approximates the difficult ceteris paribus condition of holding all variables constant except for the variable being studied. The constant is that all these migrants share a “Cuban culture,” and the variable is that they have lived in different sociocultural environments.

In the context I am exploring, if there was such a thing as a “Cuban culture”, there would be little observable cultural differences between, say the exiles of the 1960s and recent arrivals. And yet, one often hears from earlier exile generations a melancholic assessment that, “they are not like us” in reference to recent arrivals from Cuba.

One grumble is that those leaving the Island today act more like economic immigrants than political exiles. Yet, this is a blurred distinction when applied to people leaving a totalitarian state that exerts control over both political and economic domains. To the honor of earlier exiles, they have always embraced the new arrivals, albeit, at times, with some reservations.

What we do observe is that human nature responds to cultural conditions and, over time, the newer arrivals become culturally indistinguishable from their predecessors. In the South Florida of 1980, those arriving in the Mariel boat lift were deemed to be “not like us” by some earlier arrivals. Today, no such cultural differentiation is made.

Social scientists make the case that “the fates of human societies come neither from chance nor from race.” Or, as Ortega y Gasset put it, “Man has no nature; what he has is history.”

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”

“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.