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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Culture Wars–What Culture Exactly? Factionalism Without Substance

Europeans often say that America is a land without culture – without the thousand-year history of art, literature, philosophy, and religion which expresses the best of human ability and enterprise.  America is not a nation of thinkers but one of entrepreneurs, industrialists, developers, and financiers for whom no artistic or intellectual underpinnings are necessary.

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The arts have their place, appreciated for beauty, style, and historical context, but little more substantial or relevant.  We are not constituted nor oriented to turn to the arts for guidance or insight.  They are pleasant diversions – welcome distractions without significant value.  They come piecemeal – exhibits at the National Gallery, the Kennedy Center, or the Phillips; a historical novel, the art of the American Indian – but have no centrality.

Culture in France, on the other hand, is central to French identity. It has less to do with the individual achievements of Hugo, Moliere, Lavoisier, Renoir, and Delacroix but an appreciation for artistic and intellectual enterprise itself.  Such enterprise is not peripheral to French culture but an integral, absolute, and essential part of it.  It is not only the product of creativity that matters but the process that contributes to it.  An act of creative expression has intrinsic value.  It represents the continuity of culture, patrimony, and historical legacy.

Culture is a social institution of intellectual and artistic expression. Regardless of quality, technique, or design, its individual creations represent a collective activity that is as inseparable from society’s overall enterprise as street life.  Culture is France.

Because culture is as much a matter of attention to aesthetics than any individual work, it extends beyond the traditional categories of painting, music, dance, and writing.  Haute couture and haute cuisine are as much admired as tableaux or statuary, even more so because they are universal.  While a woman in the 15th may not be able to afford Balmain or St. Laurent, she can dress in a style which reflect the same respect for line, fabric, composition, and accessory as the original.  She may not cook with the sophistication of a Michelin four-star chef, but understands the complexity of sauces and the importance of presentation.

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Of course the notion of high culture has lost resonance in a multi-cultural, pluralistic age.  The universality of culture relies to a large extent on ethnic homogeneity.  A nation of Algerians, West Africans, and Syrians as well as native French cannot possibly retain its sense of cultural unanimity; and given the ethnic separatism of its immigrant population, the cultural ethos which has characterized France for centuries may also be dissolved.

Nevertheless, centuries of tradition cannot be overlooked or disregarded.  Just the opposite.  In an age of ethnic, racial, and ethnic factionalism, such cultural foci are even more important. Although France and other European countries have enough to consider, struggling as they are to resist the centripetal forces  straining the social and political commonweal, there is something to be said for a restatement of and a renewed conviction to the French, Western, Christian intellectual and artistic values which have defined the nation since its inception.

America has the same problem.  It is becoming  fractured by the demands of its sub-cultural groups whose demands for individual rights, full and immediate integration into the socio-economic mainstream, and a long-overdue seat at the capitalist banquet have eroded any sense of ethos, the commonweal, and the previously universal principles of community and respectful individualism.

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More fundamental is the fact that America has never been defined by its cultural achievements or character but by process and procedure -  enterprise, individualism, civil rights and authority, equality and justice.

The history of France dates from the Gauls, the Danes, Frisians, Romans, and Normans.  Its culture is defined by the Catholic Church, monarchy, and the secular civilization of arts, letters, and science that both enabled.  A Frenchman when asked what it means to be French will not reply in American terms but with reference to Louis XIV, the Sun King; Descartes, Pascal, Moliere, Rabelais, and Montaigne; Roland and Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, and the Crusades.

Indians speak of the Aryans, the Mauryan Empire, and the sophistication, complexity, and all-encompassing authority of Hinduism.  Muslims more and more are subsuming their secular life within a religious one.  Islam is their culture, their religions, and their Law.

‘The business of America is business’, said ‘Engine’ Charlie Wilson, President of General Motors many decades ago; and although he has been parodied as a latter-day Babbitt, bourgeois Middle American, and caricature of American ambition for wealth, he was right. 

America has no culture like that of Europe or Asia – no ancient dynasties like Egypt and China, no intellectual history like Greece or Persia, no Versailles, Chartres, or Reims.   Our culture is as assimilative and accretive as the process which created us and continued to sustain us – waves of immigrants all subscribing to the American dream (culture) of ambition, opportunity, mobility, and success.

The myth of American cultural exceptionalism prevails because that is all we have; and it is very fragile when compared to the glories of Imperial Russia or the idea of a vast, multi-regional caliphate.  Even France, la fille  aînée de l’Eglise, the country that defended Europe from Islam, that spread Christianity through the Crusades, and set the socio-political standard for the world in The Revolution of 1789, is perplexed by the wave of Muslim immigrants and residents who want no part of French laïcité.

When liberal democracy is questioned as it is now.  Yet however  the political philosophies and politics of India, Russia, or China may change, they will still have Hinduism, Empire, and Confucianism.

Culture does matter, and countries without a distinct, substantive moral, ethical, and religious core around which civilization has been built will be lost in the coming scuffle.

America may still embrace Christianity as the moral foundation of the nation (like the Founding Fathers did), and restore democracy to Jefferson’s original vision – individual rights and the pursuit of happiness only within the context of community and social harmony.  Not much, perhaps, when compared to the great Egyptian dynasties, Ido, or Versailles; but at least a recognizable central core around which our modern cultural, scientific, and technological achievements can be built.

The myth of American exceptionalism may have to be destroyed; but a nation built on solid and unquestioned moral, philosophical, and religious principles without the arrogance of myth does indeed have a culture.

The so-called ‘culture wars’ are anything but.  The opposing sides have no particular ethos, distinct culture, or enduring characters; and are defined by their grievances more than their substance. There are no Crusades, no defense of the motherland by Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, no Roman battles against the Visigoths, no Islamic religious hegemony.  The fights are only for respect, recognition, and acceptance – worthy demands but narrow, secular, and temporal.

Worst of all these parochial, process-based demand are corrosive and destructive to the commonweal.  Such radical individualism would be unconscionable for Jefferson who understood that a nation of individuals without universal principles and uniform respect for them would surely disassemble.

In these fracturing, contentious, and angry times we have neither the central ethos envisaged and articulated by Jefferson nor the higher culture of art, literature, and ideas to which we can appeal.

Multiculturalism means nothing if there is no unifying force to bring disparate groups together.  A country without an ethos and cultural core cannot possibly survive.

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