The concept of “culture” permeates many aspects of our lives. A ‘culture’ search for recent articles on Google News returned no less than 70,000 hits. One hears of high-brow culture (or used to), low-brow culture, American culture, black culture, white culture, gay culture, cultural homogeneity, cultural wars, and, more recently because of immigration, cultural assimilation.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that without a “common culture and a single society…, the republic would be in serious trouble.” Neoconservative Sean Hannity argues that immigrants should “adapt to our culture” and be “assimilated into the culture.” Rudolph Giuliani (depending on what office he’s running for) has maintained that immigrants “infuse our…culture.” And the Hudson Institute even has a Center for American Common Culture, which “provides analysis and policy advice on issues of citizenship, patriotism, civic education, the assimilation of immigrants, and American common culture.”
But do we have a common culture? What is culture? Does it denote anything of importance? And if so, how do we preserve it? Isn’t, after all, the fundamental meaning of ‘conservatism’ to conserve?
The word ‘culture’ is at best ambiguous. For something as central to our battles today—the “culture wars”—it is interesting that this word is a relatively new creation, at least in its modern meaning. Until recent times, the primary meaning of ‘culture’, based on its Latin etymology (colere—to cultivate, till), was the cultivation of soil or the raising of plants or animals. Slowly, the extended meaning of “the training, development, and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners” had begun to take hold in the 19th century, which in the 20th century eclipsed the original meaning. Dictionaries today might define ‘culture’ as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.”
Matthew Arnold, who defined culture as “the best which has been thought and said,” sought to use high culture as an antidote to the rising barbarism of industrial 19th-century England. Institutions, he believed, could instill high culture, and thus raise the general level of civility. He favored the “transformation of [barbarians, Philistines, and the populace] according to the law of perfection.” Unfortunately, institutions, such as universal public education, did not produce such perfection, and state-sponsored programs, which briefly were committed to disseminating high culture, were later transformed into spawning grounds for Marxism and multiculturalism.
The contemporary guardians of the status of culture (found in Cultural Studies departments, Critical Theory studies, et al.), are post-Marxists intent on undermining Western Civilization. Culture has proved a useful tool for change, and the left’s (and neoconservatives’) latching onto culture probably resides in culture’s facility for change. Culture presupposes deracination and lack of rootedness. “The culture is changing,” we hear. Liberal newspapers indicate that groups A, B, or C, on a whim, can adopt culture P, Q, or R, as they see fit, and, when this is no longer trendy, they will opt for cultures X, Y and Z. As John Derbyshire recently wrote, proponents of a theory of culture hold that human nature is infinitely resilient, “like a water-filled balloon. Any of its characteristics can be pushed into almost any shape by ‘cultural’ forces…, but will submit to radical re-shaping if different forces are applied.”
Culture, presupposing man is infinitely resilient, facilitates radical reshaping, but does it actually exist? Any proponent of culture must first prove its ontological status. Does culture really exist or is it only a façon de parler? We speak of many things, which prove important for how we see ourselves, although there is not a shred of empirical evidence for their actual existence, e.g. the subconscious, Attention Deficit Disorder, etc. And if it is only a façon de parler, what is it? If culture is a property of certain things in the world and what they share in common, what is it that underlies culture that makes it meaningful? Is ‘culture’ a substitute for something else?
Is culture a theory how the world operates? If one were to ask a proponent of a theory culture to articulate its criterion of falsification, could he? In other words, what would need to be true in the world for culture inadequately to explain the reality of our experiences? If any such piece of evidence cannot be found, or only turns out to be further proof for the existence of a theory of culture (as Popper showed was the case for Marxism or Freudianism), then this idea of culture might better be thought of as a modern ideology. And ideological it probably is, especially in light of its replacing older forms of understanding.
John Lukacs (in “To Hell with Culture,” Chronicles, Sept. 1994) made the case for the primacy of civilization over culture, criticizing the modern widely held belief that culture supersedes civilization. Although civilization, the antithesis of barbarism, is the older concept, culture, a recent creation, has held the upper hand since nearly 200 years of intellectual support. Such a shift, Lukacs notes, has resulted in our present state of affairs where “one can have culture without civilization.” The liberal narrative thus runs that we have advanced from a state of primitiveness to civilization to culture. Today, culture (often a very crass culture) trumps all.
One must stop to ask himself: If culture is a recent creation, how did we get along without it for so long? From the ancient Greeks to Renaissance Europeans, civilization continued without any modern notion of culture. In fact, it could be argued that the pre-Moderns got along better without it. If one were to graph the rise of the popularity of culture, one would chart a negative correlation to the decline of Western countries. The more deracinated a people becomes, the more it requires culture.
How did “pre-culture” countries survive? Prior to the Enlightenment, people spoke in more concrete terms. One would hear of Celts, Germans, Anglo-Saxons, the Franks, the Dutch, etc., but rarely would description dissipate into the abstraction of culture. The ascension of culture only occurs after the elevation of the abstraction of man, after the belief in the malleability of man, which De Maistre famously rebuked, “I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians…but man I have never met.”
The moral implications from such a change are profound. As culture entails deracination, so pre-culture civilizations emphasized the ancestral. For example, the role that genealogy plays in ancient morality cannot be understated. The Greeks believed in inherited guilt, and crimes committed by ancestors would be paid by the offspring. Greek tragedy contains countless characters whose destiny is determined by the wrongdoings of their forefathers. Although such a belief may seem unfair to modern sensibilities, it exemplifies the time-tested truth that the apple often does not fall far from the tree.
Pre-culture civilizations spoke on concrete terms, not in abstractions such as “culture.” These societies were rooted blood and soil, kith and kin, kin networks, and blood ties. Both Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism were predicated upon tribal systems, and classical political terms (e.g. nation) often imply link by blood. Aeneas was to found the gens Romana (Roman race), not invent or spread “Roman culture.”
Whereas modern morality seems to presuppose abstractions such as culture to transform, ancient morality was rooted in the ancestral. Even classical natural law, although equated with the mind of God, still manifests itself, as Cicero noted, in the mos maiorum, the tradition of one’s ancestors. Ancient morality, in other words, involved not simply a set of ideas, but the acting in accordance with the customary, time-tested ways of one’s forbearers. Unlike the modern phenomenon of choosing one’s culture, one was born into a set of ancestral traditions to which he was expected to conform.
Elements of the ancestral sill survive today, and what one means when he speaks of culture often overlaps with a classical understanding of the ancestral. When one speaks of assimilation and immigration, he inevitably he speaks of culture, but something deeper lingers. Patruck J. Buchanan once stated, “If we had to take a million immigrants in, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them up in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?” Such inquiries demonstrate the shallowness of culture and the naïve belief that one can simply assimilate people into a culture, as one would record data onto a CD.
People possess ancestral loyalties, which persist regardless of attempted cultural assimilation. Third-generation, well “assimilated” Americans desire to learn their roots. Quite often, Asian Americans want to learn of Asia; African Americans, of Africa; and European Americans, of Europe. They want to learn about their ancestral traditions. Is this wrong? No. It demonstrates the call of the ancestral.
But regardless of the power of the ancestral, culture’s luster will continue to dazzle and deracinate. Only when Westerners put aside such ideological pretensions and again take seriously the ancestral will any hope of recovery seem possible.
Matthew A. Roberts writes from Parkville, MO.
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