Tag Archives: culture

Can We Stop Yelling and Talk a Minute?

For those of us who believe in turning the other cheek (or at least we believe in the one who said we should turn the other cheek, whether or not we think at all about cheek-turning), civility is never futile. But it may be ignored.

The Intercollegiate Review is talking about civility this season. Alexandra Hudson notes the example of most American abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison “knew that true civility was more than trivial courtesy or naive ‘niceness.’ Civility requires taking our opponents’ dignity seriously, which means taking their ideas seriously, and that sometimes requires forceful and robust argumentation.” Frederick Douglass said, “’If there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ But for Douglass,” Hudson explains, “‘struggle’ did not mean winning at any cost. He knew that if he was to ensure that all enjoyed the advantages of the rule of law, he could not undermine the rule of law in the process.”

Here’s a word from Douglass that still resonates today: “Had the pulpit been faithful, we might have been saved from this withering curse.”

Gracy Olmstead recommends pulling back from our current hot spots and talking face to face.

This would help take the hot air out of online debates and put such discourse back into a humane context. It would also help citizens remember their duty to the physical spaces and neighborhoods around them. The decline of civility is part of a larger trend toward isolation in our society—a pulling away that, while not caused by the internet, has certainly been exacerbated by it.

Who Are We or Is Self an Actual Thing?

Alan Jacobs has written a moving essay on the self, pulling together a few stories of people pushing against cultural influences on them. He begins describing a podcast that intends to show “the invisible forces that shape human behavior.” People in different situations remark on how certain cultural norms are deeply ingrained in them, even those contrary to their chosen beliefs.

The really interesting and important point here is this: It never occurs to anyone associated with the podcast that smoking is as much a “cultural norm” as disapproval of smoking, or that a commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racism emerges from “cultural messages” just as surely as does racism. And the really interesting and important question that follows is: Why not? How is it possible that a point so blindingly obvious could utterly escape the notice of people making a podcast about “the invisible forces that shape human behavior”?

Jacobs presses on with something of a take-down of secularism, an appeal to Nietzsche, and the blinding light of man’s hopelessness with God. “We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us.”

Our selves, in other words, are real things, not blank slates being written upon by outside forces, but ugly blocks of mud, both corrupt and corrupting. We are not chemical reactions or autonomous individuals. We are people born into families with history in a changing culture. Yes, that culture influences us. We can resist to a point and influence others in response, but we do as corrupt souls incapable of purifying ourselves.

The Party of the ‘Aggressively Aggrieved’

Hal Niedzviecki was the editor of Write magazine, a quarterly published by The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), until the other day when The Controlling Party (operating this time under the name of TWUC Equity Task Force) forced him to resign. The pressure came in response to an editorial in which Niedzviecki argued that cultural appropriation isn’t really a thing, but on the other hand is kinda cool.  Perhaps there should be a prize to honor writers who successful write about cultures that aren’t their own.

But if you’re going to accuse someone of the worst and Nazism seems so yesterday, then cultural appropriation should be your go-to charge. Niedzviecki and a member of the editorial board, who “would have strongly objected to this piece had I seen it prior to publication,” resigned.

Christie Blatchford labeled all “this is the thuggish attempted takeover of a public (and publicly funded) organization by a single aggressively aggrieved group of activists.” And they will not stop until they have victimized everyone in the name of vindicating their own victimization.

This is not healthy culture; if anything, it’s cannibalism.

How Victorian Literature Inspired African-American Writers

Despite many arguments to the contrary, many writers and literary advocates have yearned for unique voices within single cultural traditions. In the early days of this country, we wanted to forge distinct American literature that was not dependent on our British roots or British authors. We continue that yearning in all artforms today. You’ll remember that one of the strength’s of the Netflix original Luke Cage is how culturally black it is.

In his fascinating and original new book, Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature, Daniel Hack provocatively joins the contrarian chorus by examining the relationship between one of the most marginalized literary traditions and one of the most dominant. He has found that a wide range of the most important 19th-century African-American writers drew from and engaged with writers of equal importance to the Victorian literary tradition.

While it may be natural to want one’s own voice in art, many of us may unrealistically define that uniqueness. We may chafe at anything at smacks of dependency while ignoring the relationships and influences we cannot avoid. Nothing, after all, is truly original. (via Prufrock)

Make Moral, not Materialistic, Arguments

Americans are not materialists. Most find materialism noxious and ugly, as they should. They are uneasy at its presence in their own lives and they rebel against it in public life. So when conservatives present the policies America needs with materialistic language, we are placing our ideas in a box so ­unattractive that people simply don’t want to look inside. They instinctively side with moral over materialistic rhetoric, and often vote for progressive politicians as a result. But many of the policies they subsequently get are materialistic to the core. The people are left dissatisfied and convinced that both sides are awful.

Arthur Brooks explains how conservatives lose arguments, even with good ideas. He says conservative Republicans, energized by the Reagan revolution, began to view themselves as primarily economic advocates. If we can just explain how money and taxes work in the real world, people will listen to us. But that’s the way we lose. Instead, Brooks recommends leading with our hearts.

Church Without the Sermon

The hard-shell Baptist doctrine upon which I was raised plays very little part in my worldview these days. But that church music draws me still, and those singing conventions in my memory were its purest expression. Hundreds of voices coming together in rough harmony, most all of them untrained except perhaps for a weeklong “singing school” at some church. No “program” to dictate the day’s events. The “president” of the local singing convention would just call on a singer from the crowd to stand before the choir and lead the song of his or her choice. After a moment of hymnal browsing, you’d hear something like, “Please turn to page 36 …” A piano player would roll through the first few bars of the song, and off they’d go, making a joyful noise. You never knew what you would hear next.

These Southern singing conventions thrived because the untrained singers, who had to sing from written music, could learn how through a technique called “solfège,” to use the music-school word for it. Plainer folks called it shape notes. You know the system. You’ve heard it a thousand times.

“The thing that I love about Sacred Harp is that when you walk into that church door, you have people from all different kinds of walks of life. You have people from different denominations, you’ve got people that are young, people that are old, people who have grown up loving the Lord their entire life, and you have people that do not know the Lord, who have rejected the Lord. Strong contrast, from any way you look at it.”

The End of Democracy?

Democracy can lose its soul when it “exaggerates” its principles, when it forgets the legitimate place of hierarchy, authority, and truth within their own spheres. As Dominique Schnapper argues in a brilliant new study inspired by Montesquieu’s insight (The Democratic Spirit of Law), in an “extreme democracy” equality risks becoming indiscriminate egalitarianism, the defense of novelty risks giving rise to the “temptation of the unlimited,” and healthy skepticism risks decaying into “absolute relativism.” As another contemporary French thinker, Pierre Manent, has put it, “To love democracy well it is necessary to love it moderately.”

This is what we should mean if we say we want to get back to a better America, rejecting hubris and restoring healthy boundaries in our civilization. People in the old days were not sinless, but they did understand the morality that builds and maintains a nation a little better than perhaps we do today. How do we get back there? It is partly by politics, but politics only as an outgrowth of godly community, by healthy church life, and by following the Good Shepherd wherever he goes.

How Un-European America Is

A brief story about the aftermath of September 11 nicely illustrates how different things are in secularized Europe. I was at a conference of European and American lawyers and jurists in Rome when the planes struck the twin towers. All in attendance were transfixed by the horror of the event, and listened with rapt attention to the President’s ensuing address to the nation. When the speech had concluded, one of the European conferees—a religious man—confided in me how jealous he was that the leader of my nation could conclude his address with the words “God bless the United States.” Such invocation of the deity, he assured me, was absolutely unthinkable in his country, with its Napoleonic tradition of extirpating religion from public life.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia in his 2002 essay, “God’s Justice and Ours.

Also, The Federalist has collected fifteen quotations from Scalia’s wonderful pen, like this one: “Campaign promises are, by long democratic tradition, the least binding form of human commitment.”

Origins of Ghetto Culture

Dr. Carl Ellis describes what he calls “ol’ redneck culture” in the South and how it produced a group of African-American underachievers who celebrate the ghetto. “The values of this culture,” he says, “produced self-sabotaging, self-destructive behavior patterns, including: drunkenness, gang formation, ‘talkin’ trash,’ a scornful attitude toward education and boisterous exhibitionism, to name a few.”

[The achievers] who participated in the great northern migration generally succeeded in spite of racial discrimination in housing and employment. However those who continued to wallow in the ol’ redneck culture became what I call “non-achievers.” Unlike the achievers, they generally did not succeed when they migrated to the urban North. Thus, for many non-achievers, the ol’ redneck culture morphed into what we now recognize as “ghetto culture.” The values that governed their lives included devaluing work as a means of getting ahead, instant gratification with a disregard for the future, and crisis orientation with no planning.

Black Lives, In Fact, Matter

HarlemOn Twitter, I have supported #BlackLivesMatter because I saw it in the Ferguson context and felt those who were using the hashtag were making good points. That’s the way hashtags are used. I didn’t think it might have been created for specific purposes. Today, Steven Wedgeworth describes the origins of what was meant to be a cultural movement and asks if Evangelicals should be co-opting the tag or consider themselves co-belligerents with them.

So far [Evangelicals] seem to be doing exactly what BLM asks them not to do. They are denying that BLM applies to a number of specific controversial political issues and are instead saying that it should primarily be understood as a generic affirmation of the defense and respect of Black life. There has been little to no interaction with the profound emphasis BLM places on sexual liberation, and Evangelicals have certainly not credited this ideology as the founding genius of BLM. In other words, you might say that Evangelicals have been stealing Black Queer Women’s work.

Wedgeworth suggests Christians advocate for the value of the black community and individual dignity in Christian terms and avoid draw unnecessary criticism to themselves by using other people’s banners.

Also in this vein, Jason Riley reviews Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, by Michael Javen Fortner.

The book’s broader point—and Fortner makes it in a clear, fluid prose style that rarely lapses into academic jargon—is that a black silent majority at the time “was much more alarmed about drug addiction and violent crime than its white analogue” and ultimately motivated to take action. It was blacks who instigated the crackdown on black criminality, often over the opposition of white liberals and black political elites.

Black families, particularly in New York City, were suffering from drug-related crime in the 60s and 70s, so they pressed for tough penalties for drug-related offenses, which incarcerated far more blacks than whites because of the criminal culture of the day. Now this racial disparity is criticized as racism within the law. Riley quotes Fortner, saying, “While the literature on mass incarceration has correctly highlighted racial discrimination within the criminal justice system, it has unnecessarily discounted the hurt and terror of those who clutch their billfolds as they sleep, of those who exit their apartments and leave their buildings with trepidation, and of those who have had to bury a son or daughter because of gang activity, the drug trade, or random violence.”

UPDATE: Ed Stetzer offers this brief perspective on the matter with his tag #HellenistWidowsMatter.

From Honor to Dignity to Victimhood

Jonathan Haidt has written an edited version of a sociology paper that attempts to explain microaggressions among American college students.

We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Now, the paper’s authors conclude, we’re moving into a culture of victimhood, where slights against one’s honor are being defended by appeals to authority and public opinion. Being a victim is rewarded in different ways and universities are encouraging their students to view slight offensives or potential insults as system problems.

Haidt has written about this bizarre collegiate environment in an essay for The Atlantic this month, providing examples of what and his coauthor call “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”

All of this is working to create “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

...non fidarsi è meglio - my scared cat / gatto

P. D. James on Modern Society

P.D. James discusses life in today’s world:

Our society is now more fractured than I, in my long life, have ever known it.”

The isolation, she argued, flows from a fear of difference and is fed by the sense, common in our disparate communities, that engagement is not worth the risk.

“Increasingly,” she said, “there is a risk that we will live in ghettoes with our own kind.” Behind the disintegration was a spread of “pernicious” political correctness that made attempts at understanding harder.

“If, in speaking to minorities,” she added, “we have to weigh every word in advance in case, inadvertently, we give offence, how can we be at ease with each other, how celebrate our common humanity?”

“Look at those,” she says, pointing to the heavy bars on her windows. “This is how we live now. Behind bars in our own homes. I find it intimidating but I understand that it is sensible. Several of my friends have been mugged. Some of them quite horribly.”

The problem, she says, starts with the breakdown of the family and refusal of men to act like men. (via Books, Inq.)