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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Culture and society

People who’ve read my second book, Public Access, know that I haven’t always liked Terry Teachout’s work (one of the essays in Public Access deals briefly with an essay Teachout wrote in 1993 for the New Criterion, titled—I hope not by Teachout—“Another Sun Person Heard From”).  But over the years, I’ve come to respect him—not that he should care about this—for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, because he is a member of what I fear is a dying breed: conservatives who care deeply about the arts.  There are still a couple hundred of them in the country, clustered mainly around places like the New Criterion and the Hudson Review, and lord knows they don’t usually have anything good to say about people like me.  But when you stop and realize that most of their ideological brethren these days have embarked on jihads against PBS because a cartoon bunny visited Vermont, or are trying to remove all books written by or about gays and lesbians from state libraries—well, I guess I’m just a softie, but it makes me want to extend the Endangered Species Act to cover intelligent, literate conservatives.  Seriously.  Look what passes for right-wing “cultural criticism” these days: Michael Medved on Million Dollar Baby and John Podhoretz on Star Wars III.  The Neo-Zhdanovites.  Actually, compared to these folks, poor old much-maligned Andrei Zhdanov was a model of discernment and restraint.

Terry Teachout, however (and this is the other reason), is quite often surprising.  I do not mean this as faint praise: on the contrary, it’s the salient difference between a real critic and a hack.  You don’t have to read hacks, whether they’re Podhoretz on the low end or Hilton Kramer on the high, because you already know what they’re going to say the minute you see their byline.  So, at one point during my convalescence, when I came across Teachout’s essay, “Culture in the Age of Blogging,” I read it eagerly—partly because I didn’t know what it was going to say, and partly because Teachout’s blog is usually full of good stuff.  (And here’s another thing that distinguishes him from the rest of the people on his side of the aisle: when he writes, “Laura and I do not write about politics on About Last Night, both because our views are not identical and because (as I noted on the blog last year) we believe that ‘it’s important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it—and nothing else,’” he really means it.  As opposed, say, to the legions of conservative culture warriors who, when they say “art should not be tendentious,” actually mean “we need more tendentious artists producing the kind of tendentiousness we like.”)

And sure enough, it’s a fair and substantive piece, marred by only a few moments of residual hackery that Teachout really would be better off without in the future.  For instance, he sticks close to the party line in seeing Stanford’s 1988 curriculum revision as a “watershed moment” in the American Kulturkampf:

A watershed moment came in 1988, when a group of minority students and faculty members at Stanford University marched in protest against that school’s introductory course in Western culture. Led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then at the height of his influence as an advocate-without-portfolio for progressive causes, they chanted: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go!” While the battle cry was apparently chosen for its euphony (and because the course in question was called “Western Culture”), it also offered a simplified but nonetheless telling clue to the ultimate purpose of those academics who repudiated the universal significance of Western civilization.

Ahem.  I am now going to make a declaration: this represents the very last time that a conservative cultural critic will be allowed to peddle this account of what happened at Stanford in 1988.  All of you who were going to repeat this story yet again, or merely cite Teachout’s account, will have 48 hours to back away from your keyboards, beginning at midnight tonight.  For although I have tired of the good Reverend Jackson in recent years, I continue to believe that people should be praised or blamed only for things they actually do.  And Jackson did not lead this chant.  Bill Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza said he did, but one is a compulsive gambler and first-class hypocrite, and the other is a pathological liar.  Not being a pathological liar himself, Bennett did retract his claim almost immediately, saying, “I suppose the students were chanting, and perhaps the Reverend Jackson was not chanting.” But Bennett declined to note that Jackson actually rebuked the students for the chant, insisting, when he spoke at the rally, “the issue is not that we don’t want Western culture.  We’re from the West.” And Stanford’s Black Student Union seconded the motion, saying “we would like to remind Mr. Bennett that we, too, are a part of Western culture.” (See John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness, p. 67.)

And may I add, as Stanford professors Herbert Lindenberger and Mary Louise Pratt have long since pointed out, that the “Western Civ” course at Stanford had been in place for only eight years when the students asked for it to be revised?  (See Herbert Lindenberger, “On the Sacrality of Reading Lists:  The Western Culture Debate at Stanford University,” The History in Literature:  On Value, Genre, Institutions, pp. 148-62; Mary Louise Pratt, “Humanities for the Future: Reflections on the Western Culture Debate at Stanford.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89.1 (1990), pp. 7-25.) Holy Boethius, Batman, it wasn’t like a bunch of minorities showed up one day to destroy everything it took you cultured people millennia to build.  You all really need to save your outrage for something more consequential, like perhaps a local production of The Vagina Monologues.

As for “the universal significance of Western civilization”: don’t go there.  Don’t.  Please.  Do you know what happens when you claim “universal” significance for the West—or the East, or the Antarctic?  It gives universalism a bad name, that’s what.  And universalism actually doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s gotten on the cultural left in the past few decades—but false universalism, that is, merely “significant” or “potentially transcultural” stuff passing itself off as universal, that deserves all the grief it’s gotten and more.  If you want to defend introductory courses in Western civilization, then, just do what I do: say, as I did in my review of David Denby’s Great Books, that “people who hope to think seriously about their place in that world have a positive obligation to verse themselves in the history of human thought and achievement, and that at this time, in this country, Plato-to-the-present courses in ‘Western thought’ are as good a place as any (and better than most) to start.” That’s really all you need.  Keep the appeals to universalism for when you really need them—say, when it comes to talking about universal human rights.

Which brings me to the core of Teachout’s essay, which is that the core no longer exists, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the Internets: “One thing of which I am sure,” he writes in his penultimate paragraph, “is that the common culture of my youth is gone for good.” Again, it’s surprising that a cultural conservative who says such things nevertheless embraces blogging, even as he identifies blogs as “indicative of a sea change in American culture.” And what sea change was that?  Oh, come on, you know:

the common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped to unite Americans of all creeds, colors, and classes no longer exists. In its place, we now have a “balkanized” group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways.

All right, then, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.  Teachout is only five years older than I am, having been born in 1956.  Was there a common culture of widely shared values and knowledge in the United States at any point between 1956 and 1976, if we accord Teachout a “youth” of twenty years? Actually, yes there was, but it lasted for only for one week during 1967.  In the words of Langdon Winner, “the closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. . . .  At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80.  In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi.  It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.  For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”

Other than that, folks, American culture in the early 1960s was plural and incoherent, being part of that irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West and all.  Some people cared about exciting recent developments in the New York art world, some people cared about the Yankees, some people cared about those four young men from Liverpool, some people were reading Saul Bellow, and some people were concentrating on the important shit, like Gilligan’s Island.  And before that?  Before that, things were fragmented.  Don’t take it from me—take it from Henry Adams.  He’ll give you an earful on the subject, mainly with respect to how it’s been all downhill since the twelfth century.

So, then, I like Teachout’s praise of blogging, I like most of his own blogging, and I even like the conclusion to his essay:

At the same time, however, I still feel the need for a common space in which Americans can come together to talk about the things that matter to us all. And so my hope is that the blogosphere, for all its fissiparous tendencies, will evolve over time into just such a space. No doubt there will always be shouting in the blogosphere, but it need not all be past each other. When the history of blogging is written a half-century from now, its chroniclers may yet record that the highest achievement of the Internet, a seemingly impersonal piece of postmodern technology, turned out to be its unprecedented ability to bring creatures of flesh and blood closer together.

But if we’re going to talk about things that matter, we have to get a few things straight about this here “common culture” fetish.  One: there was no common American culture in our youth, except for that week in 1967.  Two: whenever you hear someone talking about that common culture, even though it didn’t exist, you’re probably safe in assuming that they’re playing a curious kind of three-card-monte game with the word “culture.” They start off using the word to mean something like “works of art, literature, music, etc.” and before you know it, they’re really talking about “ethnicity.” Teachout admits as much in his second footnote, citing Norman Podhoretz’s 1972 denunciation of “ethnic enthusiasts,” and in his penultimate paragraph, where he echoes the point, blaming the loss of our common culture on “the rise of ethnic ‘identity politics.’” There are two very different senses of “culture” at work here, and basically, the right-wing alarm bells go off the minute those ethnic people (with their “culture” in sense number two) stop caring about the works of art, literature, music, etc. (that “culture” in sense number one) that “we” allegedly cared about at some point in the past—or maybe our parents did, or our professors did, just before Jesse Jackson and the ethnic hordes showed up.  (In earlier decades, you’ll recall, the folks who were screwing up the common culture were known—to quote T. S. Eliot’s notorious essay on the subject—as “freethinking Jews.” Rootless, cosmopolitan, and yet indelibly distinct, they messed with common cultures simply by showing up.)

Third, and most important: to date, not a single conservative thinker has managed to explain why a “common culture” is so important.  When they try, they resort to another three-card-monte game, except that sometimes they’re not even aware they’re playing it; and when they are aware of it, what they do, subtly or unsubtly, is to substitute the ideal of a common society (which is what Teachout is really talking about when he speaks of a “common space in which Americans can come together”) for the notion of a “common culture.” And on this substitution, O my readers, everything depends.  Some conservatives insist that a common culture is the very foundation of a common society, which is why they worry so much about Mexican-American families in Texas hanging Frida Kahlo reprints in their living rooms.  Others insist that a common culture is a salve and a balm for social inequities, and they tend to be perfectly OK with Frida Kahlo reprints in people’s living rooms so long as the artwork keeps people from agitating to raise the minimum wage.  And some conservatives simply don’t see the difference between “culture” and “society” at all.

But you’d think that the recent history of the Middle East—not to mention the Balkans, which always get invoked here, as in Teachout’s reference to “‘balkanized’ groups of subcultures”—would cast doubt on the idea that common cultural foundations have anything to do with fostering social harmony.  The balkanization of the Balkans was not the result of the breakdown of the common culture of southeastern Europe; on the contrary, one might argue that the Balkans would have been a happier place in the 1990s if fewer people in the Balkans had been obsessed by the events of 1389.  Robert Pattison made this elementary point back in 1988, in a critique of E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy:

every Irish person north and south knows the date of the Battle of the Boyne, when Protestant King Billy whipped Catholic King James.  This was the Gettysburg of Irish history, and every Irish person can debate the high and absolute values at stake in that conflict.  We know where that universal knowledge and that universal dialogue have ended.  Similiar observations obtain in the Middle East.  The Arab students are undoubtedly better versed in their culture than their American counterparts are, and many times more adept at arguing the primary values on which their culture rests.  Yet I would not hold up Ireland or the Middle East as models for the education of the young in postindustrial societies.

The key here lies in the final two words: postindustrial societies.  For what really fragmented the “common culture” was modernity itself . . . but that’s matter for another time.  The immediate point is that I can agree with Teachout that we need common social forms, and that the blogosphere might just evolve into such a form: so far, it actually doesn’t have any country clubs or gated communities.  (It is rare to hear conservatives talk about common social forms; more commonly, cough cough, they’re primarily concerned with gutting what remains of the public sector.) But there is no reason to predicate common social forms on the idea of a shared common culture.  And I would say this not only to nostalgic conservatives but to nostalgic leftists as well, the kind who think that modernity and technology have rendered asunder what was once an organic green gemeinschaft.  Back in 1993, in a judicious essay on the life and work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall noted that talk of a lost common culture could be found on a certain wing of the British left, and he warned against lapsing into the belief that such a culture could serve as the foundation for the idea of a nation.  Hall thus took issue with Williams’ critique of “a merely legal definition of what it is to be British”; in 1983, Williams had written that “to reduce social identity to formal legal definitions at the level of the state is to collude with the alienated superficialities of ‘the nation.’” A decade later, Hall replied, in words that should resonate even more richly today,

If you are a black woman trying to secure rights of citizenship from the local DHS office or an Asian family with British residence running the gauntlet of the immigration authorities at Heathrow, “formal legal definitions” matter profoundly.  They cannot be made conditional on cultural assimilation.

It should not be necessary to look, walk, feel, think, speak exactly like a paid-up member of the buttoned-up, stiff-upper-lipped, fully corsetted “free-born Englishman” culturally to be accorded either the informal courtesy and respect of civilized social intercourse or the rights of entitlement and citizenship. . . .  In the matter of citizenship, of course, there are minimal responsibilities to those others with whom one shares a political community, just as there are “rights.” But, far from collapsing the complex questions of cultural identity and issues of social and political rights, what we need now is greater distance between them.  We need to be able to insist that rights of citizenship and the incommensurabilities of cultural difference are respected and that the one is not made a condition of the other.  (Emphasis in original.)

In other words: common social spaces, and shared norms of citizenship, do not require a common “culture.” Quite the contrary: too much common culture can actually be corrosive of common social spaces.  So, then, may the blogosphere evolve into a common social form, and may a thousand uncommon cultures bloom in it, writing about last night and about the Beatles and about all manner of cultural phenomena.  Except, of course, for the culture that recycles suburban legends about curriculum revision at Stanford.  That one we can do without.

Posted by Michael on 06/15 at 02:13 PM
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