Our recent post on differing views of the importance of tradition led to a disagreement, in the comment thread, on whether American culture was in decline. No, said our interlocutor “the One Eyed Man”, quite the contrary:
While you fret about “our own rapidly vanishing culture,” the rest of the world frets that their cultures are being subsumed into American cultural hegemony.
The French are furious that foreign films fail to fly in Florida, while Hollande’s homeland is a haven for Hollywood. Muslims from Mombasa and Malays from Malacca make money for manufacturers of Macs, Big Macs, and Mack Trucks. Go to the mall in a Latin American banana republic and you’re sure to find a Banana Republic.
The riotous and robust American culture, which runs the gamut from Duke Ellington to the Dukes of Hazzard, is in no danger of vanishing.
I replied (rather churlishly ignoring the outstanding alliteration in that second sentence):
We no longer have a “culture” — just a disintegrating and acentric multicultural congeries whose only distinguishable feature is continuously to seek the lowest available level of materialistic sensualism, and to pass along the bill. The rest of the world is right to worry.
Our reader David Duff chimed in:
Oh dear, I find myself siding with ol’ One Eye particularly when he points out that it is western, ie, American, culture which is consuming (word chosen deliberately) other cultures. This, of course, is precisely why the “mad Mullahs” are, er, mad – that’s ‘mad’ in the American sense, natch!
However, it will not be ‘total victory’, to quote a phrase, for American culture. Already, even in my miniscule circle of friends and acquaintances, I am meeting people who can only be truly defined as ‘international’. I just met a family of Chinese ethnicity whose background is lodged somewhere between Hawaii, Hong Kong, mainland USA, Singapore and Britain where they are already seeking places for their children at Oxford. “Oh, brave New World!”
It strikes me here that we need to be clear about the meaning of the word “culture”. The word, properly understood, refers to the ideas and folkways that are characteristic of, and above all shared by, a particular group of people. Indeed it is the sum of these commonalities of culture, as much as anything to do with biological relatedness, that defines “a people”, and binds them together as one people — and that defines nations as something more than mere patches of land enclosed by frontiers.
Culture, then, is what a common people share. Its very essence is its distinctness. The commonalities that have until now formed the essential foundations of culture, throughout history and around the world, are such things as language, religion, moral norms, history, myths and legends, great heroes, music, poetry, literature, cuisine, dress, and rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Above all, there is always a sense of extension in time: a reverent awareness of the shared culture’s unique embedding in history, and of the duty to preserve it for future generations by honoring and propagating its traditions.
By contrast, look at modern American (or more generally, Western) “culture”. Its highest value, its summum bonum, is now the very antithesis of culture itself: not commonality, but “diversity”.
At the heart of this unnatural, Utopian ideology is a fatal paradox: the notion of a single “culture” that is, somehow, all cultures at once. But if culture itself is that which is common to a people — that which is shared — then, given the profusion of incommensurable features that make up the world’s cultures, any hybrid that seeks to combine and assimilate them all can only have as its own core of commonality the vanishingly small area of overlap between them.
It is like a Venn diagram linking an ever-increasing number of sets: as each new human group is added to the collection, the intersection between them — the set of what is common to all, and thus the limit of what can form the shared basis of the new metaculture — becomes smaller and smaller. In the end, as is now plain to see, all that remains are the basest commonalities of our animal nature, grafted onto a few philosophical abstractions about the form of government.
In his essay Looking for the Barbarians (from his 1997 book Modernity on Endless Trial), Leszek Kolakowski asks us to consider the following quote from Arnold Toynbee, 1947:
Our own descendants are not going to be just Western, like ourselves. They are going to be heirs of Confucius and Lao-Tze as well as Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus; heirs of Gautama Buddha as well as Deutreo-Isaiah and Jesus Christ; heirs of Zarathustra and Muhammed as well as Elijah and Elishah and Peter and Paul; heirs of Shankara and Ramanujah as well as Clement and Origines; heirs of the Cappadocian Fathers of the Orthodox Church as well as our African Augustine and our Umbrian Benedict; heirs of ibn Khaldun as well as Bossuet; and heirs, if still wallowing in the Serbonian bog of politics, of Lenin and Gandhi and Sun Yat-Sen as well as Cromwell and George Washington.
Kolakowski replies (my emphasis):
In a trivial sense we are already the heirs of these men, in that we live in a world they all helped to shape; but Toynbee clearly has in mind a heritage in a stronger sense, a positive continuity of ideas. But in order that our descendants may be heirs in this sense, we must admit that everything that makes the values and ideals of these people incompatible today will lose its significance; and then, far from having them all as our spiritual ancestors, we will have no one at all.
The difference between Catholics and Protestants could conceivably vanish, but then Bossuet and Cromwell will not so much become synthesized by our descendants as vanish altogether, losing what was specific and essential to each, and heritage will have no discernable meaning. It is, similarly, difficult to imagine how someone who values spiritual liberty might one day consider himself the heir of Lenin or Mohammed. We can imagine the question of liberty losing all significance in some future society that is perfectly totalitarian and accepted as such by its members; but in that case our descendants will indeed be the heirs of Lenin, but not of George Washington. In short, to imagine our grandchildren combining all these conflicting traditions into one harmonious whole, being at once theists, pantheists, and atheists, advocates of liberalism and totalitarianism, enthusiasts of violence and enemies of violence, is to imagine them inhabiting a world lying not only far outside the scope of our imagination and prophetic gifts but also beyond the possibility of any tradition whatsoever; which means that they will be barbarians in the strictest sense.
What remains of the high culture of the West in our new, barbarian metaculture is shrunken, withered, pecked by crows. As for the metaculture itself: what are its pillars? Where are its heroes, its mythos, its religion, its language, its great literature? Where are the commonalities that bind its people together? Gone, gone, gone.
Worse: where is its history? Not only gone, but despised. Our new “culture” has lost its sense of extension in time. Under modernity’s ascendant doctrine, the long history of the West is only a litany of sins, deserving not propagation, but repudiation. We have no legacy, no heritage, to cherish for posterity; we have pulled up our own roots. If our new American “culture” has any history worth remembering at all, it is no more than a few decades old, and consists almost entirely of the destruction of the past.
In our “brave new world”, then, we are cut off from both past and future, imprisoned in the present as no generation of people has ever been before. We have lost — jettisoned — both our rudder and our compass, and are unmoored and adrift. And as for “American cultural hegemony”: it is only this tottering, gibbering thing, this fly-blown, stitched-together corpse of a “culture”, that is “in no danger of vanishing”.
Macs, Big Macs, and Mack trucks: our mortal remains. Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.