Wednesday, October 19, 2011


An Essay on the Rather Unfortunate Idea of the "Culture Wars" And On a Few Older Ideas Currently Out of Fashion

"Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being."
- Thomas Carlyle

"There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side."
- Patrick Buchanan

"Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living."
- T.S. Eliot

"We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles."
- James Dobson

Alright, let’s face it, your and my personal tastes are subjective and transitory.

Whether we like or enjoy something at any given time can entirely depend on what day of the week it is.

Your personality affects your own personal tastes and opinions. And this is what makes us different from one another. We all prefer different things, think different thoughts, go through different experiences, enjoy different pleasures, and ... acquire unique perspectives.

In other words, whether you realize it or not, you are heavily influenced by your upbringing, by your environment, and by your surroundings.

Another way of putting this is by saying that who you are as a person is shaped and influenced by the culture in which you live. However, saying that sort of thing is derived from a very deliberately designed line of thinking. And while this is precisely the idea that we are going to explore, let’s dispatch with a few preliminary assumptions first.

Once upon a time in America, or so the story goes, people were approximately uniform. Everyone lived comfortably and safely with the same ideas, same religion, same politics, same morality, and same ... culture. Sure, there were Democrats and Republicans who voted differently in elections more or less in the friendly way that you'd root for different football teams. Of course, every once in a while, bad guys would come along, like Hitler, and all the decent people would have to band together and stop him. And that's what they did. But, we at least all knew what right and wrong were, believed in the same God, and didn't make each other lock our doors at night.

But then, something happened. Other cultures started invading the land. Diabolical influences like Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Betty Friedan, Margaret Sanger, John Lennon, Timothy Leary, Jane Fonda, and Carl Sagan marshaled their invading armies of "Secular Humanism" against everything that was decent in the world. Pagan philosophers like John Dewey and Karl Jaspers decided to be sneaky and capture the hearts and minds of the children by taking over the education system. W.E.B. Du Bois and William James started talking about something weird called cultural pluralism, multiculturalism, mosaics and tossed salads. A liberal intellectual elite covered the university landscape with enemy fortresses by making up things with "-ology" at the end of them (sociology, psychology, pathology, anthropology, ecology, ethnology, historiology, synecology, tegestology ... sexology). Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was much less pleasant than the story of the Garden of Eden. Albert Einstein said everything was relative. And, well, everything went to hell. Time to head for the bunkers. Never give in. Never surrender.

It may depend upon your social circle or upon your level of attraction to politics or religion. But if you’ve ever happened to peruse the rhetorical excesses engaged in by the religious right over the last two or three decades, then you’ve probably heard of it. If you listen to the modern news media, then you’ve absolutely heard of it. And if you should have ever had the misfortune of sitting through even one day of speeches within the chambers of the United States Congress, then you’ve heard it repeated so many times that the phrase is already meaningless for you.

Culture War ...

There are certain rhetorical exercises specifically designed to arouse deep feelings within the heart of the listener. Using military idioms related to battles and war is one such exercise. If one is persuaded that "Secular Humanism" is an enemy that we ought to engage in combat with, one will feel slightly stronger about it than if merely told that Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky were bad writers. If persuaded that Charles A. Beard was a Red Commie intent on destroying American history, I will care much more than if poor Mr. Beard was merely a conspiracy theorist who, unlike Harry Turtledove, forgot to add the word fiction to the end of his science. Talking in terms of a war, you first of all have to make sure you know who the enemy is. Next you need to build defenses and fortifications to protect yourselves. Finally, you need a plan of attack.

Now, lamenting extreme partisan politics today is old hat. Unless you are a member of the ACLU or the Christian Coalition, or unless you're a politician or journalist, you probably think unfavorably on the idea of "culture wars" anyhow. Many of us are likely to see questionable rhetoric and propaganda for what they are. When Patrick Buchanan waxed crusade-like about the cultural religious war that those liberals had brought against us, you ought to have forgotten about it five minutes later. When the news media praised President Obama for how his message of hope and change transcended the culture wars, you ought to have yawned. When Dr. James Dobson announced that the Christian church was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of their children, you ought to have checked up on baseball scores. And, when Jonah Goldberg and Peggy Noonan worried that Texas Governor Rick Perry would encourage the "culture war," you ought to have casually dismissed the idea that governors who declare "Confederate Appreciation" months have the slightest chance at winning presidential primaries in the first place, let alone general elections.

This is the point. The idea of "culture wars" is a political and divisive idea. It's an us vs. them mentality. It's a fun game to play in high school government class. It's an exercise in rhetorical overkill.

However ...

We've got to admit that all this sort of thing has still been brainwashing us a little. Even if you don't realize it, these dumb ideas about culture wars have affected the way that you think. I'll prove it to you. How do you define the word "culture"? What is a culture, anyway?

Defining the Word "Culture"

1 - The American-Heritage Collegiate Dictionary defines “culture” as “The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “culture” as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group ... the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization ... the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular societal characteristic.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “culture” as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group ... the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

So a culture is a set of social conventions, beliefs, values, practices, traditions all specific to one group of people as distinguished from another. This is how the word "culture" is most often and generally used. But, there is another definition of the word.

2 - The American-Heritage Collegiate Dictionary also defines “culture” as “Special training or development ... A high degree of taste and refinement formed by aesthetic and intellectual training ... Development of the intellect through training or education ... Enlightenment resulting from such training or education.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary also defines “culture” as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education ... enlightenment and excellence in taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training ... acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science.” The Oxford English Dictionary also defines “culture” as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively ... a refined understanding or appreciation.”

So culture, according to the second definition, is the cultivation of that which is of value, of worth - the moral and intellectual virtues. Interestingly enough, this other definition is the older one. This is evidenced by the fact that the first definition is not found in older English dictionaries. Instead we have -

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, which defines the word culture simply as “The act of cultivation; tillage; the art of improvement and melioration.” Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines the word as “The application of labor or other means to improve good qualities in, or growth; as the culture of the mind; the culture of virtue ... Any labor or means employed for improvement, correction or growth.”

I think my favorite discussion of the older definition is found in the 1889 Century Unabridged Dictionary, which defines “culture” as ...

“The systematic improvement and refinement of the mind, especially of one’s own. [Not common before the nineteenth century, except with strong consciousness of the metaphor involved, though used in Latin by Cicero.] ... The result of mental cultivation, or the state of being cultivated; refinement or enlightenment; learning and taste; in a broad sense, civilization: as, a man of culture.”

Rather to the pomp and ostentacion of their wit, then to the culture and profit of theyr mindes. - Sir T. More, Works, p. 14.

The culture and manurance of minds in youth hath such a forcible (though unseen) operation as hardly any length of time or contention of labour can countervail it afterwards. - Bacon, Advancement of Learning (Original [English ed.], Works, III. 415.

O Lord, if thou suffer not thy servant, that we may pray before thee, and thou give us seed unto our heart, and culture to our understanding, that there may come fruit of it, how shall each man live that is corrupt, who beareth the place of a man? - 2 Esd. viii. 6.

Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit. - M. Arnold, Literature and Dogma, Pref.

There you have it. Two completely distinct and separate ideas of what culture is. Our understanding of what the word "culture" means has changed over time. So the next question I'm interested in is why this is so. What does this change in definitions mean? But, before we get to that, let's consider for a moment the purely elementary notion of semantic evolution. Granted, many words in the English language have more than one meaning. In fact, many words in almost any language have multiple meanings and represent different ideas, depending upon how they are used. Over time and history, a number of English words have gained multiple meanings that they didn't originally contain. All this is true. And yet, there is still something more interesting than semantic diversity going on here.

In order to process this distinction further, we next need to decide if these two definitions simply contain two distinct ideas to which one can hold to at the same time. Are these two meanings complimentary or are they contradictory? Do they both contain separate ideas that are worth conveying in different contexts, OR do they each contain a philosophy that excludes the other? Of course, one of the most immediate things to come to mind here involves the fact that the entire idea of a "culture war" is impossible when using the word by its old definition. The "us vs. them" way of thinking is only possible if you use the word "culture" according to its more recent definition. The more recent definition is how we distinguish ourselves from others. The older definition is how we distinguish who we are now with who we could/ought to become or grow into. When Patrick Buchanan talks about the culture war, or when Pat Robertson talks about our different values and beliefs about something like gay marriage, the old definition of culture hasn't even crossed their minds.

It is entirely possible, if not even probable, that both definitions of the word "culture" are perfectly legitimate uses of the word.

At first glance, the idea of cultivating virtue and improved aesthetic taste within yourself doesn't seem to exclude the idea that different groups of people have social characteristics that distinguish them from one another.

There's something interesting about these two ideas, however. One is old, one is new. And it took a group of philosophers to advance the new idea. For example, early 1800s philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, advanced the newer definition of culture that we have today. Hegel is a philosopher most famous for talking about "progress" in history. To Hegel, cultures (plural) exhibited different contradictions and embodied different sets of values which were opposed to each other. In order to have a deeper appreciation for one's one culture, Hegel taught, one has to understand how it is different from other cultures. This involves a focus on language, customs and social norms. In doing this, Hegel considered himself in opposition to what he thought of as the Kantian view of culture. (See The Phenomenology of Spirit and Lectures on the Philosophy of World History).

Hegel describes culture as "I that is a We, and the We that is an I." He often writes about what he calls the "spirit of a culture" or the "spirit of a nation" when distinguishing between different groups. For example -

"The spirit of a nation is reflected in its history, its religion, and the degree of its political freedom. The improvement of individual morality is a matter involving one’s private religion, one’s parents, one’s personal efforts, and one’s individual situation. The cultivation of the spirit of the people as a whole requires in addition the respective contributions of folk religion and political institutions."

In other words, a culture (religion, political institutions, etc.) shapes and forms the people contained within it. This is to be distinguished from the older idea of culture as it applies to the individual person, something Hegel is less interested in.

"Hence it is that, in the case of various kinds of knowledge, we find that what in former days occupied the energies of men of mature mental ability sinks to the level of information, exercises, and even pastimes, for children; and in this educational progress we can see the history of the world’s culture delineated in faint outline ... In this respect culture or development of mind (Bildung), regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself. Looked at, however, from the side of universal mind qua general spiritual substance, culture means nothing else than that this substance gives itself its own self-consciousness, brings about its own inherent process and its own reflection into self."

While we shouldn’t blame him for it, it is no coincidence that G.W.F. Hegel was one of Karl Marx’s favorite philosophers. Adherent’s to Hegel’s dialectic can point out that Marx did not follow all of Hegel’s ideas with satisfactory logical consistency, but it cannot be denied that Hegel’s advancement of the newer view of “culture” heavily influenced Marx in developing his ideas on class warfare. In fact, in distinguishing between the bourgeois culture and the oppressed proletariat, Marx had every reason to be suspicious of the old view of culture. The old view of culture can look like the property of only the educated elite, of the upper class in society, of the conceited bourgeois. Again, once culture means the differences between groups of people then it’s not too difficult to begin viewing the world as a war between the values of those different groups of people.

Another philosopher primarily responsible for this new way of thinking of culture was Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder not only advanced the idea of cultures (plural) but he criticized the older idea of culture. So, if these two dictionary definitions merely represent two separate ideas, why is it that the thinkers who advanced the new definition of the word high disliked the old definition? Herder wrote the book Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind and said of “culture” that “Nothing is more indeterminate than this word, and nothing more deceptive than its application to all nations and periods.” And yes, it’s true. The older idea of culture is universal in its application.

Herder preferred to speak of cultures in the plural rather than of culture in general. He argued that, in doing so, this allowed us to focus on distinctive sociological patterns rising from social, economic, political and climatic differences, as well as occupation, class, and religion. If there was one thing Herder disliked, it was the idea of objective standards within culture.

“Least of all must we think of European culture as a universal standard of human values. To apply such a standard is not just misleading; it is meaningless. For ‘European culture’ is a mere abstraction, an empty concept. Where does, or did, it actually exist in its entirety? In which nation? In which period? ... The culture of man is not the culture of the European; it manifests itself according to place and time in every people.”

Raymond Williams, famous for being one of the first thinkers to begin what is now called “cultural studies”, applied Herder’s preferences. On pg. 27, in the book entitled Popular Culture: A Reader (edited by Raiford Guins and Omayra Zaragoza Cruz), Williams explained how Herder’s believed that the old idea of culture was limited because it only focused on what was considered valuable (and different people have different ideas about what is valuable). “It is then necessary, he argued, in a decisive innovation, to speak of ‘cultures’ in the plural: the specific and variable cultures of different nations and periods, but also the specific and variable cultures of social and economic groups within a nation.”

Herder and Hegel's ideas sound alike, because both continued to view each group of people as possessing their (possessive pronoun) own culture which consisted of a distinct collective consciousness. Like Hegel, Herder referred to this as the “national character” or “national spirit.” In other words, he decided to view culture as identical to a nation/society/civilization’s identity as a group. And you establish self-identity by distinguishing yourself from others.

Consider this for a moment. The idea of national or ethnic identity already existed. Before the last century, plenty of thinking people were interested in studying and understanding civilizations other than their own. But these philosophers intentionally wanted to replace the idea of culture as cultivation with the idea of these societal differences. This allowed them, like this allowed Marx, to begin focusing upon class or “culture” conflict between groups of people.

Tracing the history of the idea of culture, Louis Dupre explains in Marx’s Social Critique of Culture that “The idea underwent a final, somewhat ambiguous development when, in the eighteenth century, the meaning of culture (now used as an independent term) changed from an individual creation - cultura animi - into the objective expression of the spirit of a whole nation.” Suddenly growth and cultivation of that which is valuable is spoken of in terms of a national spirit and its own separate values. The focus on cultivating the virtues turned partisan precisely because these philosophers disliked the idea of cultivating things of objective worth in the first place. The old idea of culture implied that there were objective things of value out there that actually did exist.

In An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Roger Scruton explains how "The German romantics (Schelling, Schiller, Fichte, Hegel, Holderlin) construed culture in Herder’s way, as the defining essence of a nation, a shared spiritual force which is manifest in all the customs, beliefs and practices of a people. Culture, they held, shapes language, art, religion and history, and leaves its stamp on the smallest event. No member of society, however ill-educated, is deprived of culture , since culture and social membership are the same idea." (pg. 1)

If culture is purely an assorted collection of social beliefs and practices of any given group of people, then the older idea of culture is sort of elitist. And anyone who defended it would be elitist as well. There were, to be sure, some philosophers who did defend it, but that just made the traditional idea of culture, to the followers of Hegel and Herder, even less popular.

Raymond Williams claims, on pg. 29 of Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, that -

“Hostility to the word culture in English appears to date from the controversy around Arnold’s views ... It is significant that virtually all the hostility has been connected with uses involving claims to superior knowledge, refinement and distinctions between ‘high’ art and popular art and entertainment.”

We'll get to Matthew Arnold later, but the hostility among those who preferred the newer definition of "culture" towards the older is clear and distinct. Today's attitude, as Roger Scruton says, has turned into "what has come to be a routine dismissal of culture and the pursuit of it."

This disdain for the old definition of culture is currently prevalent. It may be possible to accept both definitions, but the philosophers who backed the newer one didn't. The next question I'm interested in is what happens once you decide that the idea of cultivating an understanding and appreciation for what is of value and worth is only for abstract intellectuals. Even though the older idea of culture seems elitist, even though it is specifically worded by men like Dr. Samuel Johnson to require work, labor and effort, I wonder if it isn't universal. What is of great value can potentially be found in any society, civilization, or nation (no matter what little or time-honored social traditions they each may possess on their own). But considering what is of value means making distinctions and judgments. It is this exercise that is frowned upon because no person's personal taste in what he or she likes to focus their attention upon is supposed to be better or worse than that of anyone else.

Isn't it being a snob to say that one person's personal tastes are bad while another person's personal tastes are good? Why can't we all just have our own separate cultures where anything in particular that we do, or decide that we want to construct as our own unique little social conventions be equally valuable? What happens when we decide objective standards are too oppressive?

In his book, Culture Counts, Scruton writes -
"All that is left is the curious but unfounded fact that some people like looking at some things, others like looking at others. As for the suggestion that there is an enterprise of criticism, which searches for objective values and lasting monuments to the human spirit, this is dismissed out of hand as depending on a conception of the artwork that was washed down the drain of Duchamp’s ‘fountain.’ The argument has been rehearsed with malicious wit by John Carey, and is fast becoming orthodoxy, not least because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all those venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that reality TV is ‘as good as’ Shakespeare and techno-rock the equal of Brahms, since nothing is better than anything else and all claims to aesthetic value are void." (pgs. 9-10)

To Be Continued ...

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