Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Culture falls apart: a Ken Myers dissent

posted by Rod Dreher

Last week I posted something lamenting the fragmentation of our culture in postmodernity, but trying also to identify some good things about it. Excerpt:

When I think about how relatively monotonous the culture of pop music was in the 1970s, when so much was driven by radio play, I think kids today must be living in a kind of paradise.
That goes for TV too. And, thanks to Amazon.com and similar retailers, books as well. A Catholic priest friend gets tired of Catholic laymen bellyaching about how the local parish is not teaching the faith adequately. He keeps pointing out that any Catholic with a credit card and Internet access has open to him the possibility of putting together a library of Catholic theology, philosophy and literature that Aquinas could only have dreamed of in his time. This is a great blessing of our time.
That said, culture is more fundamental to a people’s sense of itself than politics. It’s interesting to think about what the spectacular diversity of choice a cultural consumer has in this society does to forming one’s sense of belonging, and solidarity with others. That many more Americans watched the same TV shows, listened to the same music, got our news from the same sources, in the past did create a sense of blandness and monotony that is not to be missed; but it also created a sense of belonging and shared experience that is to be missed, I think. How do you unify a nation or a people when their cultural experiences and passions diverge so greatly? Is the diminishment of the possibility of unity something to be mourned, or celebrated? Why or why not?

My friend Ken Myers, the host and producer of the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal — if you like this blog, you will love MHAJ, which is what this blog would be if I were an actual intellectual instead of a got-up wiseacre who reads widely — e-mailed a dissent from my silver-lining-finding. He wrote, “I think postculturalism (or autoculturalism), whatever goods it might offer, is a really bad thing.” And Ken included as an attachment a recent lecture he delivered about arts education in the current era. I’m not going to quote extensively from it, because the lecture is going to be published in a forthcoming book. But I have to give you a taste.
Ken begins by talking about how important it is to cultivate tradition in the arts — tradition, not as stiff, rote formalism, but a living thing, handed on in a culture from generation to generation, with each one adding something to it. That has been broken in the arts of Western culture. Myers:

[O]ne of the assumptions that I think stands in opposition to sound arts education is the disposition to imagine ourselves as consumers. Not disciples, not heirs, not apprentices, not recipients. Consumers. That class of people who, when labeled customers, are said to be always right.
The consumer worldview perceives the world as raw material, not a sacred trust requiring
sacrificial stewardship. The consumer worldview regards culture as a series of autonomously
selected commodities, not a valuable inheritance. The consumer worldview is an orientation
toward Creation and toward culture that promotes the modern ideal of the sovereign self.

This, Myers argues, is the natural (if ersatz) progression of the Enlightenment’s ideal of the sovereign self. He goes on to discuss sociologist Christian Smith’s recent book about the spirituality of adults in their 20s (“emerging adults”), and how it is shaped by the bedrock principle that the only authority worth following is the autonomous choosing self. Smith, says Myers, writes that in his team’s research, they found that their subjects had no objection at all to any aspect of consumerist materialism. Myers, quoting Smith:

As far as they were concerned–almost every single emerging adult interviewed–shopping falls on a spectrum of enjoyment between being simply uninteresting to being a major source of happiness, and there is little to no problem with the amount of material stuff everybody owns. . . . The idea of having any questions or doubts about the cycle of shopping, buying, consuming, accumulating discarding, and shopping appeared to be unthinkable to them.

This attitude toward the shopping mall has moral and metaphysical implications. Here’s Smith again, below the jump — and let me say that what follows is pretty jaw-dropping:

The majority of emerging adults . . . have great difficulty grasping the idea that a
reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could
have a significant bearing on their lives. In philosophical terms, most emerging adults
functionally (meaning how they actually think and act, regardless of the theories they
hold) are soft ontological antirealists and epistemological skeptics and perspectivalists–
although few have any conscious idea what those terms mean. They seem to presuppose
that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased
interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything
beyond themselves. They are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared
reality might exist across and around people that can serve as a reliable reference point
for rational deliberation and argument. So, for example, when we interviewers tried to
get respondents to talk about whether what they take to be substantive moral beliefs
reflect some objective or universal quality or standard are simply relative human
inventions, many–if not most–could not understand what we interviewers were trying
to get at. They had difficulty seeing the possible distinction between, in this case,
objective moral truth and relative human invention. This is not because they are dumb.
It seems to be because they cannot, for whatever reason, believe in–or sometimes even
conceive of–a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature of the world that is
independent of their subjective self-experience and that in relation to which they and
others might learn or be persuaded to change. Although none would put it in exactly this
way, what emerging adults take to be reality ultimately seems to consist of a multitude of
subjective but ultimately autonomous experiences. People are thus trying to
communicate with each other in order to simply be able to get along and enjoy life as
they see fit. Beyond that, anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems
impossible to access.

That’s sociologist Christian Smith, on the spirituality of “emerging adults” in America. Myers goes on to conclude in this section of his lecture:

The myth of the sovereign individual–who engages the world as an unimpeachable
consumer–unites the spheres of morality, metaphysics, politics, and aesthetics. My hunch is that children who grow up in unconventional subcultures–children who know that their imaginations need to be trained, that there is an order of beauty in the cosmos that they need to learn to perceive and according to which their affections might be properly aligned–might be less repulsed by ideas of duty or obligation and less perplexed by the concept of an objective moral order. Awareness that there is a tradition, a canon (however open and revisable), a body of honored artifacts that orient our imaginations well is the way that people first become aware of larger cosmic order. Marion Montgomery has said that “Education is the preparing of the mind for the presence of our common inheritance, the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of the truth of things.” A good education isn’t just the acquisition of sound abstractions; it is the inauguration into a community that has been wrestling with reality, and the assumption of the obligation to acquire its inheritance with the obligation of preserving and improving it.

There’s much more to this lecture, but I’ll leave it right there. I have what I fear is a rather feeble response to Ken’s point, but I think it’s the only hopeful response possible in this culture at this point in its history. At least it’s the only one I can think of.
Ken is right, and so is Alan Bloom, whom he quotes in the lecture: the tradition has been severed by modernity. This isn’t true for everyone — it isn’t for Ken, who gives a dramatic example of how the tradition of Western classical music was passed down to him in an unbroken line from Bach — but I think it’s true for the overwhelming majority of us. At some point, the decision to break the silver cord with the past was made for us, before we were born. This is not only true of music and the arts, but of architecture, cooking, and many other aspects of culture. This is the meaning of Modernity. Postmodernity entails … well, postmodernism is a complicated thing, and lots of impenetrable b.s. is written about it, but it generally entails the idea that there’s no ultimate meaning in anything other than what the choosing person imputes to it, and that therefore we are free to mix-and-match any number of styles, ideas, and what have you, according to our own creative whims. This is why postmodern architecture can self-consciously “quote” design features from much older and styles; this is not a flaw, but a feature.
The cultural catastrophe Ken Myers laments is that the children of postmodernism no longer have any felt connection to tradition. It’s all the same to them. Bach, Bob Dylan, Britney Spears — it’s all the same to them, according to the individual’s taste. There is no objective value, no reason for anyone to work hard to connect with anything beyond the limits of their own pleasure. For a cultural traditionalist, no matter which culture he comes from (i.e., one can be a folk music traditionalist), the real cataclysm is not rebellion against tradition, because it is only through limited rebellion that any living tradition develops, and keeps from decaying into stasis; no, the real cataclysm is indifference to the idea of tradition. Even the conscious rebel knows what he is rebelling against. But if his rebellion is total, his children, and his children’s children, will be lost to the tradition, and to the culture.
This is where we are now: cultural chaos. In the bits of his lecture I’ve quoted here, you see why Ken believes the breaking of tradition in music was simply one aspect of a much more profound cultural catastrophe. I think he’s right.
But here’s why I have hope. Because the means of transmission of cultural values and knowledge has so fragmented now, we are able to access that which our parents, and even our grandparents, generation denied us by rejecting it. I don’t know classical music, but I do know something about food. The industrialization of American food production was a modernist act. Traditional cultural knowledge, in all its regional and ethnic diversity, was marginalized and in many cases lost outright. But now it’s coming back, in large part because the great fragmentation of the mass media made it possible for voices of protest and traditional renewal to get the word out, and to pass knowledge on to others interested in learning these traditions.
Similarly, in religion, it is now possible for rebels against the washed-out, wan pop religion that emerged out of the Sixties and Seventies to find each other, to organize, and to help each other refound traditions that were violently cast aside by the last of the Modernists. Think of that scene from that Denys Arcand film “The Decline of the American Empire” (or was it the follow-up, “The Barbarian Invasions”?) in which a character goes into a storage room at a church, and finds it filled with religious statues ripped by the Church from parishes after the Sixties. Well, today people who do not wish to have their traditions murdered have the possibility of Restoration, in some sense, in a way that wasn’t feasible 30, 40 years ago. This is in part the gift of communications technology, the Internet most especially, which makes the spreading of ideas and knowledge possible in a radical way, and even in conventional ways (e.g., Amazon.com being a resource for buying books that not long ago would have been very hard to find, if you could find them at all).
If you were me, growing up in my small town, it would have been very difficult to have educated yourself in classical music. There was no record store. There were very few if any performances. You had to have parents or grandparents with serious record collections, and a passion for the stuff. Today, though, if you live there, it’s still not easy, I would imagine, but far, far easier than it used to be. Again, this is because of the Internet, and because it’s not as weird for a kid to be interested in classical music as it was when I was a boy 30 years ago. The culture has fragmented, but it’s also easier to reach back in time and claim what was discarded.
The point I’m making (badly, I fear) is that yes, we do live in an era of cultural catastrophe, with the fragments of our shattered traditions all around us. This is the world into which we’ve been thrown. The good thing is that for those who have the creativity and the will, it is increasingly possible to live out in miniature a “Benedict Option” of one’s own, and reclaim, or attempt to reclaim, what was lost. We are condemned to be free to choose. But for those who wish to reacquaint themselves with the tradition that previous generations rejected, we are free to choose it in ways that we were not before. And that’s good.
The obvious objection to all this is: the moment you choose a tradition, it is no longer a tradition; what makes a tradition binding is the awareness that one doesn’t choose it, one submits to the prior claim it has on one’s loyalty. The moment you become aware that you have chosen tradition, its power over you, and therefore its power to sustain itself in time, weakens. This is what Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” is about, in part. To that, all I can muster is: What else is there to be done? We have to do the best we can in the conditions we’ve been born into. I very much share Ken’s deep concern over the metaphysical and moral consequences of the shattering of tradition and cultural authority. That said, I believe that resistance and even, in the future, restoration is far more likely now than it appeared to routed traditionalists 40 years ago. This is the paradox of libertarianism for traddies: in the postmodern era, the very culturally libertarian ideas that helped destroy the cultural hierarchies that sustained us may be the only possible construct that makes it possible for traditionalists and their communities to organize and sustain themselves.
You have thoughts. Let’s hear them.



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Bill H

posted June 2, 2010 at 7:42 am


Think of that scene from that Denys Arcand film “The Decline of the American Empire” (or was it the follow-up, “The Barbarian Invasions”?) in which a character goes into a storage room at a church, and finds it filled with religious statues ripped by the Church from parishes after the Sixties.
Definitely “The Barbarian Invasions” fwiw. Really sad scene.



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MMH

posted June 2, 2010 at 7:53 am


Rod: We are condemned to be free to choose. But for those who wish to reacquaint themselves with the tradition that previous generations rejected, we are free to choose it in ways that we were not before. And that’s good.
MH: You can also look at it as the tradition choosing you (“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”). If you accept a tradition because it is valid, you are adhering to something outside of you, no matter how the situation appears to an outsider. This is very different from how I choose pistachio over chocolate gelato, or even Anna Karenina over Pride and Prejudice.
Rod: The obvious objection to all this is: the moment you choose a tradition, it is no longer a tradition; what makes a tradition binding is the awareness that one doesn’t choose it, one submits to the prior claim it has on one’s loyalty.
MH: No, no, no. Choosing a tradition need in no way undermine that it is a tradition. It’s a tradition because it is real and true and handed down. And tradition can be handed down in many ways. One of the ways is that a person be born into it, but that’s not the only way. And even someone who’s born into a tradition, if this person is at all thoughtful, will, at some point, consciously adhere to it, i.e., he will choose it.
Yes, you are right: “what makes a tradition binding is the awareness that one doesn’t choose it, one submits to the prior claim it has on one’s loyalty.” But I say that if you adhere to Orthodoxy, for example, because you see it is true, because it has a prior claim on your loyalty, you are not approaching it as a consumer, as an individualist, as a postmodernist, but rather as someone to whom the tradition is handed. In this case, you don’t so much choose a tradition as submit yourself to it.



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EHH

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:16 am


I think MH has it essentially right. To the extent that choice comes into it, it is simply to choose to act in conformity with the truth one has come to know.
I would also point out that the situation of many is not unlike that of early Christians, or about-to-be-Christians, in the Roman Empire. They, too, made a conscious choice and were not, in a sociological sense, “traditional” Christians. Are they in any sense less real Christians for that?



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Artie

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:20 am


For me, the late Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan provided the most apt metaphor for understanding culture, the metaphor of media ecology. Culture is what grows in a medium, or media. Chaotic media produce chaotic culture(s).



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:30 am


Well Myers is right.
Rod is mostly right except for that he is making his point pretty darned well and also when he says “…what makes a tradition binding is the awareness that one doesn’t choose it, one submits to the prior claim it has on one’s loyalty.”
MH is right in his response to Rod – “No, no, no. Choosing a tradition need in no way undermine that it is a tradition. It’s a tradition because it is real and true and handed down. And tradition can be handed down in many ways.”



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Joseph

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:46 am


It’s not too late to learn about classical music, Rod, if you want.



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Indy

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:53 am


What about politics? Hasn’t the intrusion of politics into culture (and vice versa) messed up some of this? There’s no need to stereotype or to put down people by the type of music they like, what products they buy as consumers, what they read, what their hobbies are. Yet there are people who keep muddying the waters by doing just that by trying to define people negatively or positively by the choices they have made in those areas. And to claim the mantle of tradition and goodness and self worth and righteousness for their own tastes and choices, when those things have little to do with various choices of hobbies and likes and dislikes. Much as people come to be defined in high school by superficial characteristics such as how they dress and the music they listen to. One has to resist that, too, in my view, and to discern where differences matter and where they really do not. Too many people fall into the trap of letting political bloviators define some of that for them, in my view.



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crowhill

posted June 2, 2010 at 9:15 am


Yes, any Catholic with a credit card and internet access can get himself an education. And from that education he learns that his church says he’s morally obligated to attend mass where he’s assaulted with silly music, a horrible translation of the Bible, and trite, boring and often simply wrong sermons.
His education served to show him how good things could (should) be.
He’d have been better off if he’d taken a page from the old timers. They figured out long ago that it’s better to have low expectations and learn as little as possible so that the 2nd grade level sermon almost sounds interesting every once in a while.



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Chris

posted June 2, 2010 at 9:22 am


Conversion, repentance, and taking one’s place in the corporate Body of Christ is an eternal invitation. Thus, at least Christians who embrace the Body of Christ ecclesiology, subtmit to the Great Tradition not as post-modernist consumers trying to choose our way through a nostalgic buffet, but as disciples trying to be faithful given life among the ruins. We are like Jews in Babylon, preserving a tradition, letting the tradition save us, and re-inventing the tradition all at the same time.
Put that way, an honest way for a Christian to express it that dodges the false choice of being a “free-rider” (cf Patrick Deneen) on tradition or a post-modernist self-constructor. We really are doing something different when we apprentice ourselves to a catholicity of faith, and let our choices flow from there, guided by a sense of vocational discernment. It’s less us following our preferences, and more humbly listening for a summons, constantly reconverting and doing penance when we confuse the summons with our own anxieties and prefernces.
Perhaps all this reminds me of William Cavanaugh’s “World in a Wafer” essay, wherin he offers the Eucharist as the authentic Christian response to globalism. In the Mass, he argues, we are simultaneously cosmopolitan and local, universal and particular, and thus we catholics (is the lower case “c,” appropriate? or is this a uniquely Roman and perhaps Orthodox thing, as it takes a concrete heirarchy to which to be accountable?) have a place to stand that avoids the false polarity of “homogenized globalized nowhereville” and “parochial xenophobic localist.”
BTW, putting this post about classical music together with yesterday’s post on learning from children: my autistic daughter LOVES classical music. She is always playing air violin and singing these days. Her listening requests are teaching me the difference between Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi, Mozart and Grieg. The little children are leading.



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Oengus

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:19 am


Rod: “we do live in an era of cultural catastrophe”
We live in an era where the people are all like the characters in Seinfeld, the famous “show about nothing”.



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naturalmom

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:31 am


This, Myers argues, is the natural (if ersatz) progression of the Enlightenment’s ideal of the sovereign self
I suppose, but the natural progression of culture before the Enlightenment had led to things like severe religious persecution, slavery, and acceptance of other abuses against those who questioned or stood outside of tradition. Be careful not to over-romanticize past eras.
That said, I agree there is something to be lamented here, especially in the notion of ourselves as consumers first and foremost, a truly disturbing direction that our culture has taken. (FWIW, I’d argue that the consumerist problem is more a natural progression of Capitalism, and thus only indirectly a product of Enlightenment. I think you could have Enlightenment without unrestrained Capitalism, though perhaps not the other way around.) I share your hope that the ability to share experience widely via the internet just might help us save the baby (or several babies) who got thrown out with all that bathwater. I don’t go so far as to say I’m optimistic, but I’m hopeful. This finding a middle ground will be a very long-term endeavor spanning several generations, I expect.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:47 am


I find the argument for tradition over innovation here a bit bizarre. Where do you think these traditions came from? Do I have to remind you that they were innovations in their own day? Bach was not a “traditionalist”, he was an innovator, just a brilliant one. If he hadn’t been allowed to innovate, he wouldn’t have been Bach. And do I really have to remind you that Jesus was a rebel against authority, who challenged the traditional authorities of his day, broke their rules, and instituted his own new commandment? If Jesus hadn’t broken with authority and set out on his own, would there even be a Christian tradition? Of course not. We’d all be Jews, or something else entirely.
I have nothing against tradition, but it’s dead and lifeless if it isn’t subject to innovation in every generation, by every generation, as each generation grapples with both past and present. Myers is imposing his own views on the modern generation, which in my view and experience is far more robust than Myers is. The lack of belief in a single, objective reality is one of the best and most realistic things about this generation, because guess what, there is no such thing as an objective reality. We really do live in a transient world. Those who can’t accept it will always be rebelling against the present, trying to keep the past from changing. And thus, they will be rebelling against reality, which doesn’t do anyone any good.



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Oeno

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:48 am


Condemned to be free to choose? Wow Rod, that sounds like Camus. Sticking to only aesthetics (metaphysics is such a philosophical tarbaby) one has to learn to differentiate a hierarchy. Rodin for example (must be a Philly thing for that to come to mind first)was a great sculptor, but he is lower in the hierarchy of sculpture as a defined art than Michelangelo. We wouldn’t compare Picasso to either of them because even though he worked within a physical medium, it was the canvas and not marble. Even within a common form we have to differentiate. We do not use the same criterion for a play as we do a poem. We don’t compare the work of Dostoyevsky to Dan Brown, even though both are technically novels. I like to think about it in zoological terms. Though both Wagner’s “Parsifal” and Lady Gaga’s new song (sorry, I have no clue, she just happens to be something people talk about)are both in the same “Family” of Music, but are not the same “species”, let alone the same “genus”.



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Rich

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:55 am


This is the paradox of libertarianism for traddies: in the postmodern era, the very culturally libertarian ideas that helped destroy the cultural hierarchies that sustained us may be the only possible construct that makes it possible for traditionalists and their communities to organize and sustain themselves.
A great point, and one I made a few times on the old Crunchy Cons comboxes. It’s something that occurred to me when reading about traffic laws in Europe.
A Dutch traffic engineer named Hans Monderman found that by removing signs and lights from busy streets, people would slow down and be considerate. The number of traffic accidents declined dramatically. Pedestrians and motorists began to cooperate and form new patterns of movement. In short, removing the many laws created a sense of community and responsibility. Monderman called the concept Shared Space. He described his insight this way:
“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”
It’s counterintuitive yet brilliant. The removal of arbitrary laws and restrictions actually enables spontaneous cooperation and community to flourish.



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Elena Grell

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:57 am


The key thing now is to press again and again and again on the key contradictions at the core of post-modernity (which does, in fact, have a core): The key contradiction that post-modernity asserts as an objective truth that absence of objective truth, The key contradiction that post-modernity asserts a universal freedom of choice, except the choice to recognize limits on freedom of choice.
The key also is to turn the rhetoric of post-modernity against itself.
Another way of doing that is to challenge the tradition that post-modernity itself already is.
The only thing that post-modernity can do is to challenge the existence of objective truths that might impose limits of freedom of choice.
The only thing it can do in terms of cultural expression is to reiterate that gesture of challenge again and again and again.
As those gestures are repeated, a tradition is made — a tradition which can be attacked, ironically, on post-modern terms.
Take an example from the popular culture which inculcates “emerging adults” in post-modernity.
Madonna and Lady Gaga — Madonna as precursor to Lady Gaga and Lady Gaga as successor to Madonna.
One way to help young people to recognize the ideological nature of post-modernity is to historicize post-modernity, such that young people recognize the now-traditional nature of post-modernity and the unexamined truth-claims on which that tradition is based: the self-contradictory truth-claim that truth-claims cannot be made.
Once “emerging adults” are made to recognize that they do in fact inhabit a tradition with its own history and its own truth-claims, some of them may become more open than they presently are to alternate traditions with alternate histories based on alternate truth-claims.
This would be a step in the right direction toward reconstituting, say, Christianity on counter-culture grounds, on grounds explicitly alternative to the conventions of the regnant post-modern paradigm of the culture at large, or at least of the elites control the regime that indoctrinates “emerging adults.”



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Rod Dreher

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:02 am


Yogi: I have nothing against tradition, but it’s dead and lifeless if it isn’t subject to innovation in every generation, by every generation, as each generation grapples with both past and present.
I said precisely this thing in my entry. A tradition that will not accomodate innovation becomes stifling and dead over time. The point is that even innovators recognize that they are working within a tradition, and realize that the tradition is the point of departure for their own work. This is something distinct from the creator who rejects the very idea of tradition. Myers calls them “autoculturalists,” for people who think it’s perfectly good and natural to create one’s culture ex nihilo.



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:32 am


Can I just ask for a clarification of terms here?
What is meant by the use of the term “modern” in the context of this post? I’m not trying to be obtuse, but in most historical discussions, the term “modern era” usually refers to the period of history that began around the Fall of Constantinople, Columbus’ voyage to the Americas and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. An inaugural period of time that roughly coheres around the year 1500 A.D.
There’s an awful lot of tradition to be found from the year 1500 on (the Uffizi, Shakespeare and Bach are all examples) and within this timespan are to be located the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
So what is meant specifically by the phrase, “the tradition has been severed by modernity”? Are we talking about “severing” our way of thinking from a medieval mindset? Are we talking about the fact that Luther was disgusted by the base corruption of the Renaissance-era popes and that he refused to be cowed by their bullying? Are we referring to Descartes’ reaction to the degraded state of Scholastic philosophy in his day? Or might we be thinking of the Founding Fathers’ notions of “sovereign individuals”?
Severed when? In the year 1500? 1800? 1970? Did the Medicis sever it? Did Luther? Marx? Was it the coming of the printed book as opposed to illumined manuscripts? Is Eli Whitney the culprit? Francis Bacon? Or was it David Bowie?
Again, not trying to be obtuse or cute, but just trying to understand the specifics of the timeline when we use the terms “modern” and “postmodern.”



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:34 am


Sorry meant to say “illuminated manuscripts” in the comment above.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:42 am


Rod, the notion that such “autoculturalists” exist is also an absurdity. There are no such people, it’s just part of Myer’s own reaction to modernism, which is itself a tradition rooted in the past, as is post-modernism, as is consumerism even. None of these things just appeared magically out of thin air, they have a long history behind their development. Myers just doesn’t like the tradition many people are working in and innovating from. Nothing wrong with that, but that is itself just him trying to assert his own favorite traditions as being the only ones which are of value, as opposed to the traditions he dislikes, including the capitalist market-driven tradition, which goes back thousands of years. There have always been marketplaces, and there have always been consumers, and there have always been people who didn’t like marketplaces and consumers. The modern world is built on traditions of many kinds, it simply represents an increased rate of innovation and change. To pretend that this represents some decay in culture and some new decadent attempt to create culture ex nilio is not only absurd, it’s a criticism as old as mankind itself. This dynamic has always been around, and there’s always been an older generation looking at the younger generation as decadent and without culture because they don’t embrace “tradition” enough. A lot of things change, but not this.



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GingerMan

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:56 am


I really have trouble with these kinds of posts. To take Myers example directly, that of classical music, was there really a period of time when classical music was uniformly revered and enjoyed by the populace writ large? Given the trajectory of technology (no radios or iPods, in other words limited access) and literacy more broadly (limiting our capacity to be trained to appreciate Bach as Myers does), this strikes me a very unlikely.
Maybe the case could be made, in comparing high culture vs. low culture, that high culture was previously more “unified” and that low culture, in a pre-mass communication age, had a less influential “voice.” But, in general, my suspicion is that the unification of culture is a mythology we foist upon the past because it fits the narrative we have (or some of us have) of ourselves now.
Rod had a couple recent posts on the Rolling Stones, and a few commenters lamented the impact of rock-n-roll and the Sixties more broadly on our “culture,” yet clearly for Rod’s children, Exile On Main Street is becoming a part of their musical heritage and Tradition (with a capital T). It is really hard for me to see this as a bad thing.
The point would be made (and has been above) that there is a difference to innovating within a tradition and simply rejecting it out of hand as something that has nothing to teach us. But, musically, the Stones are drawing upon prior musical traditions (just not necessarily classical ones).
For myself, our roiling modern culture opens up and exposes all of the fascinating possibilities of human creativity and makes for a richer cultural experience. Much of it seems like trash and it is, but that which will be remembered 50-60 years from now will only be the cream of the crop, so I don’t worry too much about the long term cultural impact of Britney Spears.
Maybe it is all to the good that Rod/Myers point out that there is something that we “lose” in making the transition to modernity/post-modernity with a less commonly recognized cultural canon that we all pay fealty too (if such a time ever existed). Yet, the maintenance of Tradition requires cultural police, so to speak, to monitor its boundaries and maintain the pecking order, which often quickly descends (people being what they are) to formalistic rigidity and blunt demands to “Respect My Authoritay,” to quote the inimitable Eric Cartman.
As Rod quoted a friend once on this blog, “The Sixties came from somewhere.” Maybe that’s a tradition we have something to learn from that too.
- GingerMan
Captcha: Everyone Door (that’s about right I’d say)



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:57 am


Another minor quibble — much as I enjoy philosophical musings, I find sentences like this a bit irritating:
In philosophical terms, most emerging adults functionally (meaning how they actually think and act, regardless of the theories they hold) are soft ontological antirealists and epistemological skeptics and perspectivalists– although few have any conscious idea what those terms mean.
I hate to break it to Smith, but there are few people of any age who know what those terms mean — I’m lucky that I’ve had a smattering of education in philosophy so that I have a vague notion about what those terms mean.
But sentences like this seem to reek of “angels on the head of a pin” obscurantism (to use another -ism, while we’re at it).
Jacques Barzun — who wrote the wonderful “Simple and Direct” and would tend to agree with the thesis of a culture in decline — would be appalled.



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Charles Cosimano

posted June 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm


To write a full rebuttle to Myers would take a book, not a combox, so I am forced to use one of my one liners.
Myers might as well command the Sun to stand still in the heavens for all the success his ideas may have.



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J. V. Sharpe

posted June 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm


“Culture is more fundamental to a people’s sense of itself than politics.”
Indeed, one’s politics, by and large, are an outgrowth of one’s culture. Herein lies the issue that, America in particular, is facing today: We have no culture, we have cultures.
Of course this has always been the case to a degree, but it seems increasingly so today. And given that we have multiple cultures, we’ve also developed multiple politics built on multiple beliefs and values. I would argue that there is a point of optimal fragmentation (to borrow a phrase from Jared Diamond) past which the cohesiveness of a society and its culture begin to disintegrate. Moreover, I would argue that we’ve begun to pass that point.
To my mind, there are but two things that hold a community together: internal coherence and/or external compulsion. A culture doesn’t exist for itself in some sort of acontextual sphere. It’s the common property of a community (think “common unity”). When sources of common unity break down (e.g. ethnicity, language, religious belief, etc.), so too does the community, its culture, and its politics, and once this process begins in earnest, only some form of external compulsion (be it some type of crisis or the establishment of an authoritarian state) can hold it together.
This is where we find ourselves today and this is why culture is important. What may seem on the surface to be simply about musical taste or fashion sense is, more deeply, an issue of identity that has very real consequences. The chord to our heritage (The Western tradition) has, for all intents and purposes, been cut and with it any sense of authoritative culture. In it’s place we’ve established a kind of cultural cafeteria plan where we, as Rod’s article states “the customer is always right.” Such a state of affairs simply doesn’t lend itself to the maintenance of a society with any prospects for long-term viability.
JVS



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Broken Yogi

posted June 2, 2010 at 12:29 pm


“Such a state of affairs simply doesn’t lend itself to the maintenance of a society with any prospects for long-term viability.”
People have been making this criticism of America since it began, and every generation seems to prove the critics wrong. The diversity and lack of cultural authority in America has been long been observed and seen as a sickness rather than as its strength. These predictions are based on the idea that only adherence to tradition can produce long-term viability, when in reality the opposite is actually the case. It is innovation, mutation, and constant change that produces long-term viability.
In some ways this is an argument between evolutionists and creationists, between those who see nature as a competitive field of ongoing adapation to changing conditions, over those who see adherence to some originalist ideal of perfection as being the only safe route to longevity. As in most real life matters, the evolutionists have the upper hand, reality being on their side. Of course, a genuine traditionalist would note that traditions themselves got they way they are through a long road of evolutionary adaptation and change, and that this is their true value. Genuinely meaningful traditions have found a way to incorporate innovations into their tradition, and thus represent a wide range of mutative diversity, not a rigid or monotonous lack of imagination. In that sense, the modern era simply represents a period of intense mutation and adaptation, much of which will be discarded, but the best of it incorporated into our evolving traditions.



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mike

posted June 2, 2010 at 12:45 pm


Not sure there’s a way out. Your religio-cultural discoveries run along a spectrum of food and spiritual traditions. Gay lifestyle, abortion, orthodoxy, etc all embrace and are sustained by a culture and ethos of choice; we just retire to our respective communities and their corollary blogs. This is how culture dissolves, becomes a parody.



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John E - Agn Stoic

posted June 2, 2010 at 12:54 pm


In that sense, the modern era simply represents a period of intense mutation and adaptation, much of which will be discarded, but the best of it incorporated into our evolving traditions.
Along those lines, anyone remember “A Fifth of Beethoven”?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3lPocF6HuU
Maybe the Western Tradition isn’t being lost, but rather recycled…



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Geoff G.

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:20 pm


A few thoughts: the rejection of tradition that is embodied in modern art (by which I mean much of the stuff from Dada on in visual art and the advent of twelve-tone and its successors in classical music, say mid-to-late Schoenberg and his successors) was initially a direct emphatic rejection of the traditions that were associated with (and largely coöpted by) the same forces that led to The Great War (Follow the link and read the article through for a much fuller description of this process).
It must be remembered in this discussion that the reason Tradition was so emphatically rejected in the Modern era was because it helped produce such horrors.
It probably didn’t help that traditional forms of art (and I include Socialist Realism in that category) as well as traditionalism generally were heavily coöpted by later authoritarian regimes, both fascist and communist.
We tend to forget just what kinds of sins Tradition has been used to cover up, now that we are more remote from traditional culture. There are worse things than living in our current cultural chaos.
Recaptcha: “insist He” heh.



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J. V. Sharpe

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm


Broken Yogi,
An important point you’re missing is that of ‘optimal fragmentation’. Your implicit contention that what’s been true in the past (America’s cohesive resilience) remains true now or will remain true in the future overlooks the reality that, historically, we’ve been far more homogeneous than we are now. I should like to bring your attention to the fact that any society has a finite number of binding cultural agents, e.g. ethnicity, language, religion, political temper (i.e. conservatism, liberalism, etc.), geography, and the like.
Ethnically, we’re manifoldly more diverse now than we’ve ever been, no? Before you use the “nation of immigrants” argument, consider that traditionally (with the glaring exception of slavery) the lion’s share of our nations immigrants have been of European descent. While some may have been German, other Irish, etc. Europeans typically have more in common with other Europeans than they do with non-Europeans. Ergo, as a binding agent, ethnicity or “blood” is in decline.
Linguistically, our accommodation of non-English speakers is also an historical novelty. Heretofore, immigrant went through a process of assimilation (while retaining aspects their own heritage. Think “little Italy”, etc.) that included their functional mastery of English. Such an expectation of assimilation is decreasingly the case and, indeed, is labelled by some as a form of “cultural imperialism”. Another binding agent on the wane.
The story of America’s slow march towards de-christianization is so well documented that it seems redundant to give it more than a cursory me nation here. America is religiously pluralistic to a much greater degree than it ever has been. this is a statistically verifiable fact. What is the soup dejour today? Spiritual, not religious? indeed. Another binding agent in recession.
Politically, there seems to be a fairly standard split down the middle between the more liberal and the more conservative, though the edge fluctuates from place to place and period to period. this might be viewed as one of our more constant variables. However, it should be noted that our politics, regardless of it’s leaning, merely expresses the socio-cultural element that underpin it and to the degree that those elements vary, so to do our politics.
Last but not least, we have geography. I think we can agree that the sheer mass and ecological variety of America is bars this from being a serious binding agent. We’re hardly analogous to the ancient Greeks secluded by foothills and mountains in this respect, and our state is not that intimate polis of yore.
As you can see, the historical resilience you seem to be referencing existed in a significantly different context. As with investments, “past results are not an indicator of future returns.” I’m afraid you point simply doesn’t hold.
JVS



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J. V. Sharpe

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm


As an aside, using your evolutionary analogy, after a finite number of adaptations, doesn’t the specie in question (America) “evolve” into a completely different specie? Indeed, it would seem so. And that, in a nut shell) is my point. America will, current patterns holding, becoming the ancestor of a completely different specie, or (in the case of balkanization) the progenitor of numerous other species. Whatever it becomes, it will no longer be (or will only nominally be) America.
JVS



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N.A.O.

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm


Rod: “But here’s why I have hope. Because the means of transmission of cultural values and knowledge has so fragmented now, we are able to access that which our parents, and even our grandparents, generation denied us by rejecting it.”
One thing I’ve noticed about the internet is that every argument that ever was is now current somewhere. Who knows what will come of that if the pipes are kept open in their current form. Myself, I think post-modernism was an imposition and that it won’t survive a more open public square.



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Karl G

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:51 pm


One of the biggest traditions that will probably never leave us it people decrying the imminent cultural collapse of civilization.
The only real change here is that we’re a bit more academically aware of what culture looks like up close and we can travel, never mind transmit media fast enough to see different pockets of it quickly.
Contrary to what the claims are above, I’d say that we actually are seeing unprecedented levels of cultural similarity and cohesion, where most of the past had been dominated to cultures that were confined to your local village or to the social classes wealthy enough to travel and intermingle (and very little crossing between the two different sets)
Now our poor and wealthy listen to the same music, watch the same entertainment, and even often have the potential to attend the same schools (attend at all, even) and correspond with, if not travel to, similarly distant locations. This isn’t disintegration, but effectively overload- millions of people generating culture and tradition into one big pot instead of little islands of tens or maybe a few hundred each living in their own isolated worlds.
And all along, because it’s different from what our nostalgia wishes it would have used to be like, our instinct is that it’s falling apart rather than simple growing and changing beyond any mortal will or control.



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Elena Grell

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:53 pm


Houghton,
If we really have reached a point of such abject intellectual collapse that even very basic philosophical terms like epistemology, ontology, realism, skepticism, and perspectivism are too “high-falutin’” and “obscurantist” for us to use, then God help us all — I mean, God help us all, anyway, all the time, but especially in this case, if what you say is true.
BTW: If you think Jacques Barzun will agree with your assessment that the very basic philosophical terms I mention above are too “high-falutin’” and “obscurantist” for us to use, then I think you need to reread Jacques Barzun, and more closely this time. Doing without the terms I mention above would be tantamount to doing without philosophy at all. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think Barzun — of all people — would advocate that.



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Karl G

posted June 2, 2010 at 1:57 pm


“Linguistically, our accommodation of non-English speakers is also an historical novelty. Heretofore, immigrant went through a process of assimilation (while retaining aspects their own heritage. Think “little Italy”, etc.) that included their functional mastery of English. Such an expectation of assimilation is decreasingly the case and, indeed, is labelled by some as a form of “cultural imperialism”. Another binding agent on the wane.”
That’s just the opposite of what such ghettos were- they were isolation wards where people _didn’t_ have to learn the language, didn’t have to assimilate, and were able to be kept out of daily lives to good, “real” Americans. In those times those Europeans you’re mentioning were considered different enough that signs like “No Irish Need Apply” were not uncommon. Every neighborhood was more or less a self sufficient community and stayed that way until industrialization started requiring enough manpower that it was forced to pull people across groups and shift the focus of work toward more mixed environments rather in or near the places that they lived.



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Ken

posted June 2, 2010 at 2:16 pm


Much of it seems like trash and it is, but that which will be remembered 50-60 years from now will only be the cream of the crop, so I don’t worry too much about the long term cultural impact of Britney Spears.
What I worry about is the future makers of culture who are influenced by Britney. it’s through them that she’ll have a long term effect.



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm


Elena,
I find your mischaracterization of my observation, by arbitrarily reaching for the term “high-falutin’,” offensive. Was that last sentence quite periodic and Latinate enough for you?
How difficult would it have been for Smith to have said something like “most emerging adults think and act in ways that reject a shared reality, that express the idea that none of us can know anything for certain, and that embrace an everything-is-relative view.”
I find techno-philosospeak off-putting. It’s not something Socrates engaged in, at least according to the dialogues attributed to him by Plato. Philosophy should not be the sole province of academia, and it is something we can participate in using plain language. Otherwise, let’s all go stroke our beards while reading Derrida, and call it a day.
But this is a silly argument. The particular sentence used by Smith created an intentional barrier — in order to make the “in the know” crowd feel better about themselves — and we all know it. How droll of him.
And I see that no one actually has addressed my request for a more defined understanding of the term “modern.” What does it mean, specifically, in the context of this discussion? Is the “severing” of tradition something we’d date back to 1500? 1800? When?
Captcha: “devour Times” Indeed.



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Cecelia

posted June 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm


I’m with Houghton on this one – reading Smith’s paragraph exhausted me – and I have a Ph.D. Smith managed to make academic speak look good compared to that atrocity.



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J. V. Sharpe

posted June 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm


Karl G,
Irrespective of your observation on historical prejudices in American society, (an issue, by the way, that I never raised be it to confirm or deny) my point on linguistic accommodation still stands. A factory worker in early 20th century America would have been meet with documents and postings written in English only, not English, Spanish, French, etc.
JVS



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Erin Manning

posted June 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm


The most fundamental unit of cultural transmission is the family. The Church, the schools, the civic institutions etc. are all aids to this cultural transmission, but without the cooperation and example of the family, no cultural transmission from one generation to the next is possible.
The reason we have so many competing cultural choices–the reason, indeed, that culture itself is seen unfortunately as a type of consumer product rather than something which has anything essential or wise to teach about the human experience, handed down from those who have gone before us–is that we no longer have a unified cultural definition of what a family is, or an ideal of what it ought to be.
In Zimmerman’s “Family and Civilization” (which I’m presently finishing, having started reading it a long time ago), Zimmerman’s thesis is that the different types of families, which he identifies as the trustee family, the domestic family, and the atomistic family, profoundly impacts civilization and influences the shape of the culture to a significant degree. Briefly, the “trustee” family is the type of the strong patriarch-ruler who presides over an extended family group with great power; the domestic family is the father/mother/children setup with traditional roles and rights/responsibilities within the group (e.g., father has authority, but not absolute, and has corresponding duties, etc.); and the atomistic family is composed of autonomous individuals who maintain the “family” unity only at their own will (e.g., easy divorce, children with no sense of duty toward parents, etc.). Each culture, according to Zimmerman, was strongly shaped by the type of family that was dominant at the time.
So where are we, now? Having been in an “atomistic” family-dominant culture for some time now (arguably sometime after the dawn of the twentieth century, but certainly rising to prominence by the post-WWII culture of ever-easier divorce and the weakening of traditional family ties), we are now, I think, in a period where the “post-atomistic family” is rising. The post-atomistic family increasingly rejects even the *appearance* of family ties, preferring to form loose associations of autonomous adults seeking hedonistic pleasure, temporary companionship, and, in some cases, children who are the mother’s sole choice (and thus, argue many men these days, ought to be her sole responsibility). That this type of family is rising may be seen by the rate of out-of-wedlock births–about 40% of all American children are born to unmarried mothers, but this number rises to 51% of the children of Hispanic mothers and 72% of the children born to African-American mothers. There are other cultural indicators which suggest that at the very least, Americans lack a unified concept of what a family is, and that to a not-insignificant segment of the population “family” means “the people with whom I am currently (and, it is implied, temporarily) choosing to live.”
The more fluid and deconstructed the notion of “family” becomes, however, the more fluid and deconstructed the culture will be. It is simply not worth transmitting a culture of dysfunction to one’s offspring, and the attempt to pick and choose among competing cultural ideas is a luxury for those whose family situations are relatively stable–the people most at risk from this present cultural chaos are often unable to access the education and other means to inform themselves about anything more relevant that their present materialistic desires which are informed primarily by a community made up of people whose family structures, and thus culture, are as dysfunctional as theirs is. The pinnacle of human achievement becomes, not art, or music, or any similar thing of lasting import, but the latest consumer symbol of wealth or luxury–of a facsimile of that item mass-produced and sold at a discount.
Given the decline of the atomistic family and the rise of the post-atomistic family, something which Zimmerman didn’t specifically address (at least, not so far) I think that the future will consist of one of these two scenarios, which will take a very long time to unfold:
Scenario one: the cultural chaos leads to a renewed interest in the domestic family and a greater appreciation for the cultural stability this type of family affords. In miniature, we can see this happening among some people, a lot of them motivated by an appreciation for traditional religious ideas; it is no longer an “invalid” choice for a woman to be a stay-at-home mom, for instance, and I would place the rediscovery of certain domestic arts (e.g., cooking, gardening, useful crafts, habits of thrift, etc.) among the good things coming from these groups.
Scenario two: the atomistic family continues to disintegrate, while the post-atomistic rises, leading to a cultural collapse of the sort that would make it possible for a culture with a strong trustee-family order (e.g., radical Islamic culture, for one example) to grow to ascendancy, filling, in a matter of speaking, the cultural vacuum caused by the collapse.
The optimist in me hopes for the first scenario–that is, that enough people will make their cultural choices with an eye to the good things of the past, and the aspects of human achievement worth treasuring and honoring; but the pessimist in me admits to thinking that two is rather more likely, because no one wants to give up that individualistic sense of self-autonomy and self-centeredness that has become the most identifiable hallmark of our present culture.



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stefanie

posted June 2, 2010 at 3:12 pm


Is “tradition” here a code-word for “Christianity?”
Broken Yogi: I find the argument for tradition over innovation here a bit bizarre. Where do you think these traditions came from? Do I have to remind you that they were innovations in their own day?
Good question. Human behavior comes from somewhere else; you can trace it back to earlier cultural forms, and see how things changed and were molded. Sometimes it’s admittedly harder (such as when records get destroyed, or there was no written language to start with.) But culture doesn’t occur from nothing, and any anthropologists from Mars studying “postmodernists” would find they fit neatly into the Western stream.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 2, 2010 at 4:17 pm


With due respect to the users, some terms here beg more questions than thay answer. I echo Houghton’s plea, but to the more general case.
First, terminology is chronologically contextual. “Modern” or “classical” in reference to music or literature, always imply two things: That the perspective is hindsight, and that the perceiver has some amount of projection implied in his or her context.
“Classical” music, for example, exists as a label only for contemporary views of such music. The composers, when they were alive, were writing and performing “modern” music. I have a personal bias in this, as an amateur musician and listener of “folk” music, some of which survives in its original form from centuries in the past.
Tradition is what we define it to be. It has looser or stricter definitions not in an objective sense (unless one happens to be a cultural anthropologist; I’m not) but as is expedient for the individual or group insisting on one or the other. An obscure (and esoteric) example is the show “Riverdance”. It employs two musical traditions that have a common root, Flamenco and Irish, with (to the cognoscenti) some explicit links to it with the use of a Bulgarian folk trio playing Irish-sounding music with Arabian rhythm structures (Bulgarian rhythms are fascinating, being much more often odd (in beat structures) than even). Most people are ignorant of the fact that Flamenco music is distinctly Arabian (see the instrument called the oud) even in its current form. An Irish air would sound very familiar to a Bulgarian musician, as would some Bulgarian songs to an Irish musician.



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Jillian

posted June 2, 2010 at 4:26 pm


So, for example, when we interviewers tried to get respondents to talk about whether what they take to be substantive moral beliefs reflect some objective or universal quality or standard …. what emerging adults take to be reality ultimately seems to consist of a multitude of subjective but ultimately autonomous experiences. People are thus trying to communicate with each other in order to simply be able to get along and enjoy life as they see fit. Beyond that, anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems impossible to access.
This is an abstraction-based thinker (Smith) trying to grasp situational thinking in a horribly clunky fashion (trying to define it on abstract terms and, necessarily, failing) and aghast that the kids don’t find the abstractions that constitute traditional metaphysics inherently plausible or desirable. Over- and misuse of abstraction based thinking is a running fallacy on that side.
If you were me, growing up in my small town, it would have been very difficult to have educated yourself in classical music. There was no record store. There were very few if any performances. You had to have parents or grandparents with serious record collections, and a passion for the stuff. Today, though, if you live there, it’s still not easy, I would imagine, but far, far easier than it used to be. Again, this is because of the Internet, and because it’s not as weird for a kid to be interested in classical music as it was when I was a boy 30 years ago. The culture has fragmented, but it’s also easier to reach back in time and claim what was discarded.
But at bottom, not everyone has the need to recapitulate Rieff stages 1 (e.g. Southern-ness as a paganism, in your case) and 2 in their teen and adult lives as thoroughly as you have, Rod. The next generations are quite evidently finding them increasingly wierd and unhelpful and easy to let go.



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm


Cecelia,
Thanks for the shout-out. Orwell wrote it better than I could ever say it:
“Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.”



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm


Franklin, I have to agree. All “classical” music — at least as that term is understood these days — is actually part of our modern epoch, much of it having emerged during the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment and the Romantic era. In each case, the particular style of music roughly corresponds to the atmosphere and ideals of each era. Baroque for the Age of Reason, Rococo/classical for the Enlightenment and Beethoven and his contemporaries for the Romantic era.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 2, 2010 at 4:54 pm


Mozart is just one of many examples supporting my rhetorical question: Does anyone really believe that when he composed those pieces, that he expected people to sit on their butts and just listen? ;-D
Given my folk music bias, I have a deep appreciation — including as a dancer — of Brahms’, Bartok’s and Kodaly’s dance suites. Some of the Romanian and Hungarian tunes are quite familiar to me, though the recordings of them were made by “folk” musicians who learned them by ear, not by reading “classical” manuscripts. ;-)



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Anti Dhimmi

posted June 2, 2010 at 5:53 pm


Indy writes:
What about politics? Hasn’t the intrusion of politics into culture (and vice versa) messed up some of this?
“The personal is political” has become part of US culture. Seems to me you are about 35 or so years late. But thanks for noticing.
Rod, what makes you think this is so new and unique? As others have pointed out, the early Christians were consciously adopting a tradition that wasn’t theirs. Sure, this lead to some difficulties. A guy named Paul got so worked up, he was moved to write letters to various churches pointing out how they were messing up. In time, things changed. There were any number of cults and traditions to consider adhering to in places like Rome, Constantinople, Hippo and other places. Native Romans complained pretty loudly about all the danged furriners with their un-Roman ways, too.
Cosmopolites trumping traditions isn’t anything new under the sun, neither is rediscovery of traditions. Maybe you could spend some time reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes some time? It might be good for your state of mine.



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Jon

posted June 2, 2010 at 6:46 pm


Re: The Church, the schools, the civic institutions etc. are all aids to this cultural transmission, but without the cooperation and example of the family, no cultural transmission from one generation to the next is possible.
But the family can’t do it alone, and the nuclear family is remarkably ill-suited to transmit tradition. For that you need the extended family: grandparents and great-grandparents and old widowed aunts and eccentric great-uncles and the occasional family hanger-on whom no one is sure how he fits in, but is accepted by all.
Re: Scenario two: the atomistic family continues to disintegrate, while the post-atomitic rises
What you are missing here is the hard fact that family breakdown is a class-based phenomenon. Below the middle class it’s rife, above and it is rare, except at the most rarified levels of wealth and fame. And this points to something cultural conservatives are weirdly blind to: family breakdown is largely caused by economic factors. If you have large numbers of men who cannot obtain steady and secure work that pays a family-supporting income then you will have lots of unwed births and lots of single parents. Want to do something about this problem– then give up on laissez faire economics and start supporting a better deal for today’s working people, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, even if it means less growth overall and an occasional whiff of “socialism”. Otherwise you’re just standing at the seashore trying to command the tide not to come in.
Re: Linguistically, our accommodation of non-English speakers is also an historical novelty.
Huh? Back in the 9th and 10th centuries the English assimilated a bunch of Norse speakers, then later a whole lot of Norman and French speakers. In this country we absorbed a lot of Plattdeutsche and Dutch early on, while adding Cajuns, various Native Americans and several million speakers of Niger-Congo languages.



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Karl G

posted June 2, 2010 at 7:40 pm


“Irrespective of your observation on historical prejudices in American society, (an issue, by the way, that I never raised be it to confirm or deny) my point on linguistic accommodation still stands. A factory worker in early 20th century America would have been meet with documents and postings written in English only, not English, Spanish, French, etc.”
Of course he would, as well as a person holding them that spoke his language, assuring him that it was a good deal, and he just had to scribble a mark on that line there and he’d get a place to live and make plenty of money. And then only later would he discover that the money was really company scrip, only spendable paying rent at the company house and buying food at the company store. (And that if the company somehow miscalculated and paid him more than just short of enough to break even so that he’d have to borrow a bit from the company to keep afloat, they’d fine him for retaining the extra.)
Documents, when they existed, in English? Sure. But that’s because the signers weren’t intended to understand them fully, even the English speaking ones. Heck, at that point if you were signing documents at all to work, it was probably to your active disadvantage.



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Anti Dhimmi

posted June 2, 2010 at 7:42 pm


Jon writes:
What you are missing here is the hard fact that family breakdown is a class-based phenomenon. Below the middle class it’s rife, above and it is rare, except at the most rarified levels of wealth and fame.
Only if you look at the issue in a short period of time. 40 years ago, when Daniel Monyhan was being accused of racism for pointing out what the Great Society was doing to the black family, it could be said that out-of-wedlock childbearing was purely a race-based phenomenon. Because while it was rife within black families, especially in the inner cities, outside of there it was rare. Over the course of the 1970′s, as unilateral divorce kept liberating families, out-of-wedlock childbearing began to become more common within the white community. Almost every year for the last 40 years, the percentage of children born to single mothers has increased in all groups. Since 1990, it’s been increasing within the middle class at the same rate that we saw in the 1970′s for lower class whites. Therefore, there are other cultural forces at work, and not just in the US, either.
The same pattern can be seen in Europe, especially the Scandanavian countries as well as the UK.
And this points to something cultural conservatives are weirdly blind to: family breakdown is largely caused by economic factors.
If that were true, then we would not be seeing it in the middle class in the US or in Europe or the UK. In the 1980′s and 1990′s it became more and more common for young men and women to cohabit, and then marry after the birth of their first child. This pattern can be seen in Denmark, in Norway, in England…and more recently, marriage isn’t happening until after the birth of the second child, or not at all. Given the extensive social welfare states that exist in Norway, Denmark, Britain, etc. the economic argument seems weak.
If you have large numbers of men who cannot obtain steady and secure work that pays a family-supporting income then you will have lots of unwed births and lots of single parents.
That argument was plausible 35 years ago. it isn’t anymore, given the increasing number of single middle class women who elect to bear a child without marrying the father. I know some of these women, they have jobs, they just don’t have a husband.
Want to do something about this problem– then give up on laissez faire economics
Strawman alert. The US hasn’t been a laissez faire economy for a long time, arguably since
the turn of the last century. Certainly it hasn’t been one since 1932; a laissez faire economy would not have a minimum wage, or a graduated income tax, just for a start. It also wouldn’t have hundreds of thousands of other regulations on labor, management, and the rest of the economy. So this talking point simply doesn’t match reality. It therefore undercuts your argument rather severely.
and start supporting a better deal for today’s working people, especially at the lower end of the spectrum, even if it means less growth overall and an occasional whiff of “socialism”.
The law of supply and demand suggests that a good first step in this direction would be to reduce the supply of unskilled labor in the US. Since that would mean limiting immigration and reducing illegal immigrants via attrition. Are you prepared to endorse those ideas?
However, as noted above, the economic argument does not seem persuasive any more, as we see unmarried mothers more and more in the middle class in the US as well as Europe.
Of course, we could discuss the fact that marriage for men nowadays is a bad economic deal, that they bear tremendous risks of financial ruin in getting married. Therefore, increasing numbers simply aren’t going to marry at all, preferring Game. But that gets into some topics that seem to be taboo here on the kinder and gentler website…



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Rich

posted June 2, 2010 at 7:46 pm


Huh? Back in the 9th and 10th centuries the English assimilated a bunch of Norse speakers, then later a whole lot of Norman and French speakers.
It’s a bit cheeky to claim you’ve “assimilated” a people who have brutally conquered you.



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Anti Dhimmi

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:19 pm


In this part of Britain, 66% of births are out of wedlock. In the next 3 to 5 years, 50% of all births in Britain will be to unmarried men and women. How much Socialism should Britain add on to what it already has, Jon?
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1267009/The-towns-births-outside-marriage.html
According to the Community Survey, in 2008 over 45% of women with only a high school diploma who gave birth did so outside of a marriage, while 10% of the college educated and 6% of those with graduate degrees did so. But that is a single year data point. Not that many years ago, the numbers were along the lines of 5% of college educated and 3% (statistical noise) of post grads. So the trend is not static, it has a slope to it.
The atomization of the family proceeded fastest among the financially less well off, but it’s working its way through the middle and upper middle class as well. Perhaps not as fast, but it isn’t stopping or even slowing down. It is not a recipe for cultural stability.



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Anti Dhimmi

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:23 pm


Drat, forgot one more point: the irony with regard to poverty and childbearing is simple. People who graduate from high school, who don’t have children outside of marriage, who do get married and stay married, don’t remain poor.
If there was a communicable disease that did to children what divorce or worse yet out of wedlock birth does, we’d all be demanding a cure, a vaccine, a telethon. But because divorce is part of the great Liberation of the Boomers, it’s sacred and cannot be questioned…even when it clearly is contributing to great hardship, and even decay of culture.



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Indy

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm


Erin, does Zimmerman address the type of family found nowadays which is not (1) ruler partriarchal, as one found before the 20h century (2) or has the husband as primary authority and mother as raiser of children, (3) or has “autonomous” members? I’m thinking of the marriage based on the concept of the husband and wife as intellectual and emotional partners, with only slight imbalances one way or the other? With either being the primary breadwinner, and either being willing and able to stay at home with the kids as economic and medical conditions require?
That equal partner model is what I see more and more with younger couples and it’s a good one. We’ve all heard those funny-sad stories from friends or relatives of older women who were unable to balance a checkbook after their husbands died because they never handled finances, taxes, etc. And we’ve all seen stories where a young or middle aged husband is injured or disabled. If the wife is able to take charge and to become the primary breadwinner, the family obviously is in a better position than it would have been in the old days, when only one of the partners was likely to have a college education and the job skills to compete in the workforce. The equal partner model, where people can switch off as needed, is much more flexible than what you describe but is far from being based on individual autonomy as the two pull together. They just have the ability to adjust to circumstances and expect to do so, as necessary.



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Indy

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:38 pm


AD, you write, “given the increasing number of single middle class women who elect to bear a child without marrying the father. I know some of these women, they have jobs, they just don’t have a husband.”
Just as in the divorce thread many of us said you never know from outside what is hapenning between two people, how can anyone know why men don’t marry the women they impregnate or why the women don’t marry the men whose children they bear. To say categorically that women elect to bear a child without marrying the father doesn’t fit with what I’ve observed and heard. It’s not a subject people really open up about but you do get some clues, enough to know it’s complicated. Talk to young dudes and you’ll see that there are a lot of them who don’t want to be tied down, not in their 20s, not in their 30s. That women also may decide not to enter a formal arrangment also happens, especially for ones in their 30s who hint to about biological clos and stuff. It just sounds unrealistic to me, based on what I’ve seen and the little bits I’ve heard people reveal, to say you know why births occur outside of marriage and to point in one direction. It could just be that we know different types of people but what you say just doesn’t ring true in my circle (most of whom actually did the trad thing and marry).



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Elena Grell

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:41 pm


Houghton and Cecelia,
Should we also not use words like “recession” and “inflation” and “unemployment” when discussing economics — or even the word “economics” itself.
After all, those conceptual terms are “latinate.”
And using such terms is ipso facto bad.
Oops, I did it again!
; )



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Indy

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:41 pm


That should be biological clocks, obviously. I’ve had women mention that to me, indirectly, haven’t actually had any in depth discussions with anyone, however.



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Indy

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm


EG, those words are cool for them to use. Ya see ‘em in newspapers, right?



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Elena Grell

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:48 pm


Houghton and Cecelia,
I just reread the paragraph that caused you two offense, and — again — had no problem following the argument, which was dense, but perfectly clear.
And I don’t have a PhD or any special knowledge of philosophy beyond an introductory college survey years ago and a little bit of laywoman’s reading around here and there.
Again, all the terms used in that paragraph are very basic ones, none of them “obscurantist” at all.
Not that “obscurantist” discourse doesn’t exist — just not in that particular paragraph or anywhere else in Rod’s post.



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Elena Grell

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:51 pm


Indy,
You see words like “epistemology,” “ontology,” “realism,” “skepticism,” and “perspectivism” in blog-posts, also, and even, sometimes, in newspapers, too.
; )



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GingerMan

posted June 2, 2010 at 8:55 pm


Anti Dhimmi,
Ta-Nehisi Coates had an interesting post a while back about the dreaded out-of-wedlock birth rate in the black community. I don’t know if the same logic would apply more broadly, but in a nutshell…
The basic conclusion is that the birth rate for unmarried black women is–and has been–declining. In 1970 the birth rate for unmarried black women was 96 per 1,000. In 1980, it was 87.9. In 2005 it was 60.6. There is a huge spike in the late 1980s, but the overall trend is clear–the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for almost 40 years.
The reason that the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks is as high as it is, is not due to greater out-of-wedlock birth rates, but because MARRIED black women have far fewer children. So when one looks at out-of-wedlock rates you have to consider changes to the denominator as well as the numerator.
I say this not to pick a fight with your argument, but just because I found this interested and had not seen this data before reading it on TNC’s blog. Obviously, this data would also be impacted by rates of marriage (i.e. fewer marriages means fewer children within marriages).
See link if interested…
http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2009/02/the-math-on-black-out-of-wedlock-births/6738/
Captcha: To Oneness (we can all hope at least)



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Indy

posted June 2, 2010 at 9:02 pm


EG, not really. Certainly not ontology. (I have no idea what that is and what field it stems from, and I read a great deal of non-fiction. I also have graduate degrees from a good university which enable me to draw a 6 figure salary. That term just isn’t part of my vocabulary). Language choices are deliberate and they point to goals. In my profession, I’ve found that it’s best to use language that the widest readership can understand — if my point is to engage with the largest number of people. On the other hand, if my goal is to show off for my peers, I can think about using using arcane terms and jargon from my field of study. There actually have been academic papers written about the way people out-jargon each other sometimes as a means of testing each other. That mostly occurs in dudedom but if you know to look out for it, you can see it elsewhere, too.



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GingerMan

posted June 2, 2010 at 9:03 pm


Elena,
You’re reaching the doth protest too much stage.
This one is for Houghton by TKO.



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Jon

posted June 2, 2010 at 9:13 pm


Re: Only if you look at the issue in a short period of time.
That short period of time defines the ongoing economic destruction of the working class– which started first, quite understandably, with racial minorities.
Re: The same pattern can be seen in Europe, especially the Scandanavian countries as well as the UK.
The UK, yes. But not so much the Scandinavian countries. A very different family form rules there: many out of wedlock births, but very few single parents. In effect in that part of the world, the old Common Law Marriage has made a major comeback. (Historical trivia: did you know old Ben Franklin and his “wife” were maried only in a common law way, not with benefit of clergy? Nothing new under the sun, as they say). You are conflating two very unlike things when you confuse formally unmarried parents permanently living together with a single mother who has only an endless succession of boyfriends.
Re: If that were true, then we would not be seeing it in the middle class in the US or in Europe or the UK.
The middle class is the dividing line. In the upper middle class you see very little of this. In the lower middle class though the condition is now metastizing up from the working class.
Re: That argument was plausible 35 years ago. it isn’t anymore
OK, you are now in alternate universe territory. Every statistic out there points to an ongoing economic holocaust among lower-class men. Blind yourself to it if you will, but your POV is as absurd as if someone were to deny the link between UV and skin cancer.
Re: The US hasn’t been a laissez faire economy for a long time
OK, agreed. I reached for an adjective and grabbed the wrong one. How about this one: oligarchial economics. Winner take all. Them that has, gets.
Re: The law of supply and demand suggests that a good first step in this direction would be to reduce the supply of unskilled labor in the US.
The law of gravity suggests that airplanes can’t fly and that iron ships should sink like rocks. And yet– they can, and they don’t. We need to stop treating economic “laws” as if they are commandments of God. If we can do end runs around gravity, a basic force of nature, we can do end runs around the laws of economics.
Re: Of course, we could discuss the fact that marriage for men nowadays is a bad economic deal, that they bear tremendous risks of financial ruin in getting married.
Maybe, if they have something to lose to start with. And yet– those men do tend to marry (and more often than not they stay married). It’s the ones with nothing and no hope who stay away from the altar.
Re: However, as noted above, the economic argument does not seem persuasive any more,
Sigh. Of course not. It would inconvenience those of us who are doing well (yes, I count myself). Can’t have that now, can we.



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Broken Yogi

posted June 2, 2010 at 10:05 pm


J. V. Sharpe,
re your long reply of June 2, 2010 1:41 PM, I’ll try to respond here:
Re “optimal fragmentation”, I don’t mind the concept, but I think we have to admit we can’t know what optimal means except in retrospect. In some sense we have to trust our own evolutionary progress and our highly developed ability to foster assimilation without alienating the assimilated in the process. The US has centuries of experience in assimilating a wide variety of people, and this ability has increased over the years, not decreased. Some of us think it’s reaching a breaking point, but that’s how evolution works – the greatest adaptations occur under the most pressure. If we had not already adapted to a multi-dimensional culture, it would be disastrous, but because we are already the most flexible and adaptable culture on earth, we jump these hurdles without missing a step. The same thing was said many years ago when Irish, Italian, and eastern Europeans began swarming onto our shores, and that was proven wrong
As far as language assimilation goes, the current generation of immigrants learns and uses English much, much faster than the immigrants of the past, despite what you’ve heard from politicians and critics. Mexicans and Asians come here to find work, not to play radical chic games about “cultural imperialism”. They know that to get good jobs they need to speak very good English, and so they learn it. Simple as that. They know from experience that putting time and energy into learning the language helps them immensely in their paychecks.
Also, while you are right that our immigrants are more diverse now, the countries they come from are more like the US than ever before also. They have all adapted to global capitalism and see the US as their ideal, not their rival. That’s why they come here. They are quite eager to be accepted into our economy and culture, even if they of course cling to their roots for a generation or so. But even second generation immigrants are almost completely Americanized, to a much greater degree than was true in previous periods. And America itself is much more homogeneous than in previous generations, due to the sweep of national and global economic forces, including all forms of media.
Regarding the de-Christianization of America, this is an obvious evolutionary process that is going on in every industrialized, highly educated nation. In my view, this just means that Christianity itself must adapt, as it has in the past, to changing conditions. Immigrants, however, tend to be more Christian than the natives, especially among Mexicans, who are strongly Catholic, often much more so than native Catholics. I see nothing wrong with the growing religious diversity of America. We have a very powerfully adapted ability to not only tolerate, but encourage religious diversity without it leading to conflict or violence. The religious wars of European history have no counterpart in America. Instead, we are free to evolve our religious views and traditions as we see fit, which like all evolutionary processes produces lots of duds, but it’s a very healthy situation overall. Even Christianity itself will emerge stronger from this, once it sheds some of its antiquated modes of thought and interaction.
As for the political split between liberals and conservatives, I think the idea that it’s greater than ever is a bunch of media hype designed to grab attention. Remember the divides between libs and cons from back in the 50s and 60s? There was real bloodshed and deep venom back then, and if you go back in time you see even worse. We really did have a Civil War once with half a million casualties. Today’s divisions are more like professional wrestling – a staged drama meant to entertain and sell books. It’s all about phony emotions and posturing. Where’s the beef?
As for geography, you have to realize how much smaller and more homogenuous the country has gotten over time. It used to take months to travel across country, then we built a railroad, and now airports, that get us there in half a day. And we have phones that can reach virtually everyone, television and radio and the internet which make connecting with different parts of the country easier and virtually instantaneous. All in all we are shrinking in functional cultural diversity much faster than we are becoming diverse in our origins or geography.
As to the idea that America will evolve into something that is no longer America, yes, you are completely right there. But that’s just how the world works. Nothing is forever. America isn’t the same country it was in revolutionary times, or in Civil War times, or in WWI or WWII. It’s always changing, that’s why it’s so powerful. Of course, even this will one day fade and the world will look at America the way we look at Rome. One can’t help that, or stop it. Nor should we want to. Eventually, you’ll be right. I just don’t think that time is now. This actually looks like one of our best periods, potentially. Not necessarily for “empire”, but economically, culturally and religiously, yes. I know that might seem out of touch with the current crises, but the kinds of crises we are in are actually positive in my view and seem geared to set us on the right track.



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Houghton

posted June 2, 2010 at 11:09 pm


I have to say that if I were firmly ensconced in the “tradition” of the region in which I grew up, where I still live and where my forebears lived going back four generations, I would be a strikingly ignorant hayseed filled to the brim with bigoted notions. There’s much to be said for the “postmodern” patchwork culture we’ve got now. It’s enabled me to have access to a level of learning that would have been inconceivable only a generation ago.



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Cecelia

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:11 am


Interesting comments – but I think an element critical to this discussion has been missing.
The modern era has been like no other historic era in human experience. All other human cultures experienced slow and incremental change and growth. In the modern era we have had constant, huge, exponential growth and change. Our population has grown at a rate and to a size unprecedented in human history, whereas all previous eras were characterized by the majority of people engaged in agricultural pursuits and living in rural areas, the modern era sees for the first time very few people in agriculture and the majority of people in industry and service pursuits living in urban areas. The growth of knowledge and technological innovation in the modern era has been extraordinary,unprecedented and constant. The growth of wealth has also been unprecedented – 7 of the 10 wealthiest men in history are from the modern era. All of this wealth, growth, innovation has been made possible by the cheap and abundant availability of fossil fuels.
Given the amount and pace of change during the modern era how could any culture remain stable? Given the population dislocation of the modern era how can any people pass on traditions? Given the constant changes in technology how can any culture have a common definition of objective truth?
This “me” culture, this culture of truth is what one decides it is for the now, this cultural of consumption is the highest value is only possible with prosperity. Philosophies did not create this prosperity, the enlightenment didn’t create this prosperity. Growth and wealth and fossil fuels created it. A people who do not have to struggle daily to produce their food and shelter do not need cohesive communities. They can wallow in their individualism. They can ignore norms about marriage before kids. They can ignore the past and live in the moment. Surplus makes this all possible. Surplus which is produced by fossil fuels and minerals and metals mined by fossil fuels, a technology utterly reliant on those fossil fuels.
Take away cheap and abundant fossils fuels and all this prosperity and all this surplus disappears. Life becomes a struggle to provide food and the means to live. Survival becomes dependent on being embedded in a cohesive cooperative community. Cohesion made possible by shared norms and notions of what is worthwhile about life. The “me” culture does not thrive in a world without surplus.
The “choice about what I consume” culture cannot thrive in a world without surplus.
People with full refrigerators have ideas and philosophies – people without said fridge have the need to work long and hard to produce food and maintain their shelter. They do not risk their ability to survive by exercising their choice to have kids without any means to support said kids, they do not have time to play video games or hang out at the mall. There is no Mozart without the wealth that the salt mines outside of Salzburg produced.
That song Billy Joel had called Allentown – said more about what really matters in a culture than a lot of intellectual 6 syllable word blathering – “iron and coke chromium and steel”.
When growth is no longer sustainable, when there is no more cheap fossil fuels – postmodernism will end.



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Erin Manning

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:21 am


Indy, Zimmerman wrote “Family and Civilization” in 1947, so no, he didn’t address independent equal-partner marriages as a type, because it didn’t really exist. But I would probably group these with the “atomistic,” because the notion that the individuals are interchangeable and the notion that each is equally free to leave the relationship often go together.
GingerMan, the article you linked to was interesting, but I still think it doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing, the marriage rates of African-Americans have been dropping since the 1960s; ten years ago the census showed that about 40% (+/-) of African-American men or women had never been married, as compared to about 30% of white men and 20% of white women. While there has been a slight recent upswing in the numbers for African-Americans, there still remains a significant segment of the population which does not see marriage as a goal–even if they *do* see parenthood as a goal. So while Coates is arguing that the higher birth rate of unmarried African-American women has to do with the relatively low birthrate of married African-American women, it’s also true to say that the low marriage rates of African-Americans overall contributes to the out-of-wedlock birth statistics.
But deciding that marriage is not related to childbearing or family structure is a deeply significant cultural choice, one that has impacted not only the African-American community, but other communities which make that choice. Other cultural elements end up being tossed aside in the aftermath of the chaos of familial destruction.



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J.V. Sharpe

posted June 3, 2010 at 5:58 am


Re: Ethnicity:
Even accounting for the ho homogenization of foreign cultures in light of globalism, Europeans still have more in common with other Europeans than they do non-Europeans, as do Africans with Africans , Latin Americans with Latin Americans, etc. The degree of ethnic diversity among immigrants in America today is greater than it ever has been, and as I indicated, that works against cultural unity, , not toward it.
Re: Linguistic accommodation:
Irrespective of one’s ability to learn and utilize a language, the accommodation of other languages is at an historical high. Think of public documents, postings, etc, posted in English, Spanish, sometimes French, etc. There’s an inverse relationship between the degree to which non-English is accommodated and the degree of urgency to functionally adopt English. As with ethnicity, this accommodation of non-English speakers works against commonality of culture.
Re: Religion:
While you may see nothing wrong with every increasing religious pluralism, religiously rooted beliefs and values inform innumerable aspects of ones culture. Despite the historical revisionism that would have us believe our nation is the product of doctrinally neutral Theists, evidence indicates it to predominantly be the work of Christians or, at best, Theists that were heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions, norms, and mores. Consequently, the bedrock of our culture is Judeo-Christian in nature. That being the case, the more our nation drifts from that bedrock, the more it risks sliding into a sea of lost religious identity, a slide that will take with it yet another agent of cohesion.
Re: Politics:
As I stated earlier, political temperament tends to run at a fairly even split, so I don’t lend as much importance to it (in itself) relative to cultural cohesion. However, It does matter with respect to what undercurrent of ideology it’s expressing, and that ideology is heavily influenced by the factors listed above.
Re: Geography:
While technology reduces the influence of geography, it doesn’t eliminate it. The point that i was making earlier is that while geography is an effective binding agent for some (Greeks, Italians, etc) the massive nature of our country simply precludes it’s influence from being repeated here. The closest we come to such a culture of common geography is in our splits between North and south, mid-western, etc.
As to America being an ever evolving nation that is different today than it was during X period, your point is well taken. However, during each of the preceding periods of its history more remained the same in terms of the issues listed above than not. There was still a greater degree of relative cultural commonality than we have today, and certainly more than were trending towards now. What’s at issue are matters of core identity; what makes America “America” (What makes specie x “specie x”) and how many of those elements need to change before it become something other than America (something other than specie x)?
As a caveat to all of this I’d like to make one small point regarding your use of evolution as a metaphor. “Evolution” in and of itself doesn’t necessitate that what is being evolved into is inherently better than that which preceded it. Evolution is simply adaptation to the environment and to whatever traits that particular environment “selects”. If our cultural environment selects those adaptations that are stronger relative to its own demands but weaker relative to the demands of the world as a whole, our ability to survive and thrive
in the course of competition with other nations will be compromised.
Indeed, historically, “Western Civilization” has been the “fittest” of all human civilizations, having evolved the most robust set of features relative to its competitors (much to the chagrin of it’s detractors). Moreover, America has been the most beneficial descendant of that civilization and its concurrent benefits. Sadly, we’re ashamed of that heritage and have, under the influence of the “school of resentment” (to borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom) gone to great lengths to jettison all the best aspects of that civilization in favor of a more “politically correct” hodgepodge of milquetoast, second and third rate cultural slapdashery.
but I digress.
In sum, quality culture matters and cultural cohesion matters. Unfortunately, we’re increasingly lacking in both.
JVS



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Jon

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:32 am


Re: Despite the historical revisionism that would have us believe our nation is the product of doctrinally neutral Theists, evidence indicates it to predominantly be the work of Christians or, at best, Theists that were heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions, norms, and mores.
On this we need not worry: Christianity remains by far the dominant religious form in this country. and it myriad splinterings are not imported but are mainly home-grown schisms.



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Jon

posted June 3, 2010 at 6:45 am


Re: But I would probably group these with the “atomistic,” because the notion that the individuals are interchangeable and the notion that each is equally free to leave the relationship often go together.
I think you are making an unwarranted leap here. The notion of equality within a marriage does not presuppose that husband and wife (let alone parent and child) are interchangeable. It merely takes as its postulate that both are human beings with equal rights and equal dignity and one ought not arrogate to him (or her) self dictatorial powers in the marriage.
Re: While there has been a slight recent upswing in the numbers for African-Americans, there still remains a significant segment of the population which does not see marriage as a goal
Actually, if you heed surveys taken, most people do see marriage as a goal– even the very poor say they hope to marry. The problem as I noted above is the lack of marriageable men in these communities. It’s all very well for us to sit on high and wag our fingers down at these people. But unless we are willing to sacrifice some of our comfort and luxury so as to create a nation where any willing young man can find a secure job that pays a family-supporting wage we are not addressing the problem at all.
Re: They do not risk their ability to survive by exercising their choice to have kids without any means to support said kids
How then do you explain the high birth rates (a large fraction of it out of wedlock) in very poor nations where most people lack even very basic technologies like indoor plumbing?



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Karl G

posted June 3, 2010 at 7:12 am


“Growth and wealth and fossil fuels created it. A people who do not have to struggle daily to produce their food and shelter do not need cohesive communities. They can wallow in their individualism”
I disagree on this connection here- growth fuels the undesirable elements of modern culture, but it’s not the availability of base needs that’s the problem- in fact, the availability of those resources on it own allows more people to devote themselves to culturally valuable production- arts, music, philosophy. The problems lies that, in spite of plenty, our consumer culture forces us to work overtime producing things that beyond not filling needs, don’t even supply normal luxury or cultural wealth. We make junk, then hire people to use psychological tricks to confound people into believing that the need to buy the junk, all to fulfill service to the accumulation of further wealth by those who control it.
It’s not even individualism that’s at the root, but the labor myth that’s pushed to force people to work at pointless tasks and produce meaningless, disposable junk instead of being able to devote their time to cultural ends.
And end to modern industrial society would certainly lead to the results you mention, but because it would actually give most people more time to spend on meaningful things even after their needs were seen to, rather than making them spend all their energy working in service to the labor myth.



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GingerMan

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:16 am


Erin,
But deciding that marriage is not related to childbearing or family structure is a deeply significant cultural choice
I guess this is where I would not necessarily agree, and disputing this is the point of the data Coates cites. The black out-of-wedlock birth rate stat is often quoted in the frame of a clutch-my-pearls lament at the declining morality of our modern age. If the data about the behavior of unmarried (in this case black) women is accurate, then their choices to engage in seemingly irresponsible behavior are actually improving.
What is impacting the ratio is the decline in married fertility and changes in the rates of marriage (increasing the proportional percentage of women who are unmarried as you note). So these are the trends that need to be accounted for.
As to the declining rate of marriage, it is not at all clear to me that the lack of desire for marriage or a Murphy Brown attitude towards child-rearing is a driving factor. There are a lot of articles written about the lack of marriageable men in the black community which (given socioeconomic differences) is disproportionately impacted by both the “war” on drugs as well as de-industrialization and the stagnation of blue collar wages.
For myself, I don’t KNOW what the answer is, but explanations that are driven by pragmatic facts on the ground seem intuitively more persuasive to me than cultural theory, although there is clearly a long run interaction between them.
- GingerMan



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GingerMan

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:24 am


To clarify, this is not to say that the out-of-wedlock birth rate is still not meaningful. It clearly indicates that are much higher percentage of our youth are growing up in single parent households (myself being one of them) than in the past.
It’s just that I don’t think that it is necessarily for the reason that is commonly supposed when people cite the statistic.



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Elena Grell

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm


Indy,
“Ontology” is as basic a term in philosophy as “recession,” “inflation,” or “unemployment” are basic in economics.
Just because you are not familiar with what a term means doesn’t mean that it should not be used.
I have no doubt that there are newspaper readers who don’t fully understand even the basic sense of what “inflation” means as a conceptual term within the field of economics.
But that doesn’t mean the term should not be used.
There’s a reasonable balance to be struck between accessibility to a general readership and the precision that comes with conceptual terms within particular fields.
I think that the use of both “ontology” and “inflation” get that balance right.
Doing without terms as basic as that risks doing away with philosophy and economics too.
And I continue to think — “obscurantist” that I am — that that would be a mistake.



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Elena Grell

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:24 pm


Cecelia,
“The study of being” has six syllables.
“Ontology” has four.
Your point?



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Broken Yogi

posted June 3, 2010 at 1:28 pm


JVS,
Yes, you’re right that evolution only rewards adaptation to existing conditions, not some abstract notion of “quality”. But such definitions are subjective, whereas it is adaptation itself that is objective. You may not like the state of this country or the decline of the things you value, and the rise of and success of new adaptations you don’t like, but that’s irrelevant to the basic survival of our country and our civilization. Without adaptation and change, there’s no doubt that our country and civilization would collapse. With it, it will certainly change, but it won’t vanish under the waves. And that’s how it’s always been. That’s how the great achievements of every culture and civilization come about, not by clinging to the past, but by adapting to the present.
Your arguments against present-day America exist only in a vacuum in which values are supposed to remain unchanging, and if they change, it can only mean decline. The fact is that all the factors you bring up are indeed changing, and yet the overall strength of America increases rather than decreases. By virtually every objective measure American life is getting better overall, even for the poorest among us. You cite subjective measures of quality, but that’s only in relation to a nostalgic ideal where a certain kind of person and culture dominated. My sense is that you would consider America a success if it remained a white European Christian bastion of privilege while objectively slipping by the wayside rather than a thriving multi-ethnic and religiously diverse nation continuing to rise by such objective measures.
Yes, Asians are still different from Europeans, but only in the first generation. My son is marrying a second generation Korean girl who is more like him than we are, simply because she grew up in the same generation, regardless of her parents’ origins. Overall, the US is more cohesive than before, even though it is more diverse, and in part that’s due to the fact that our previous cohesiveness was illusory and masked the unhappiness of those being excluded from the mainstream culture, but largely because mainstream culture has become stronger and healthier and more inclusive, and that’s not some PC jazz, that’s a real and powerful adaptive characteristic that makes us stronger.



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Alice AN

posted June 3, 2010 at 1:41 pm


The reason for a traditionalist’s discomfort with modern society is that culture is not dictated. Your belonging to a sub-group neither implies or translates into a shared cultural experience. Otherwise, almost all traditions are alive and thriving. I daresay, more people today listen to Bach than could during his day. And yes there is cross-pollination too, which means my diet consists of cuisine not traditional to me but hardly invented. Today’s world is one in which a Japanese exchange student meets a Kansas farm-boy and both are fans of Fela Kuti’s African beat.
Tradition is being passed onto the next generation, not by figures of authority your generation might be accustomed to, and maybe not to those with the right pedigree, but – except for a technologically debilitating event – little of the accumulated human experience will ever be lost going forward.
The frustration of not being able to force feed your idea of your culture to your progeny should not blind you to the possibility of passing it on to others nevertheless. Welcome to the modern world!



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BobSF

posted June 3, 2010 at 2:31 pm


Could someone explain why we’re supposed to be troubled by the re-diversification of a society that was brought together by near-monopoly television driven by materialism?



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Cecelia

posted June 3, 2010 at 3:14 pm


my point Elena is that – one can philosophize away all you like with whatever language you like – but it has nothing to do with material culture – soil fertility is what matters. Everything about our post modern world will disappear when the affluence which allows it dies.



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Karl G

posted June 3, 2010 at 5:58 pm


Elena – “Just because you are not familiar with what a term means doesn’t mean that it should not be used.”
I don’t think that anyone was making that argument; there was a complaint in the original referenced articles that the average young adult off the street wasn’t familiar with such terms. As if there was ever a time when those words weren’t mostly the domain of philosophers and were in use in common discussions.
“ontological” is a good and fine word. But it’s never been in the average person’s immediate lexicon; it’s part of a highly academic linguistic domain.



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J.V. Sharpe

posted June 3, 2010 at 9:13 pm


Re: “You may not like the state of this country or the decline of the things you value, and the rise of and success of new adaptations you don’t like, but that’s irrelevant to the basic survival of our country and our civilization.”
This couldn’t be further from the truth. A country and a civilization are defined by certain features, just as species are defined by certain features. When enough of those features change, the specie, country, or civilization in question becomes something else entirely. At no point have I argued that our country and/or civilization ought to cease adapting. However, the adaptation I have in mind is microevolutionary rather than macroevolutionary. Take the protestant reformation for example. The protestant reformation is an example of the microevolution of Christianity, which I would argue is an historically defining feature of Western civilization and certainly of American culture. In the case of microevolution, the underlying beliefs, values, traditions, norms, and mores of a society find novel means of expression, but their core remains the same. in the case of macroevoltion, entirely different beliefs, values, traditions, norms, and mores develop, to the degree that they bear little to no resemblance to their ancestors. According to your definition, the Roman Empire didn’t collapse, it evolved.
Re: “Your arguments against present-day America exist only in a vacuum in which values are supposed to remain unchanging, and if they change, it can only mean decline. The fact is that all the factors you bring up are indeed changing, and yet the overall strength of America increases rather than decreases. By virtually every objective measure American life is getting better overall, even for the poorest among us.”
Indeed, the core values of a country or culture are to remain unchanging if that country or culture is to maintain its identity. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, private property, equality before the law, and due process, just to name a few, are indeed core valuational features of American culture (that have been increasingly perfected over time rather than abandoned). That being the case I wholeheartedly agree that were such valuational features to “change” that it would mean decline. In certain respects, one could argue that over the past decade or so such a decline seems to be on the march. As to your ‘Morning in America’ contention that “American life is getting better”, well, I’ll leave that to another discussion.
Re: “My sense is that you would consider America a success if it remained a white European Christian bastion of privilege while objectively slipping by the wayside rather than a thriving multi-ethnic and religiously diverse nation continuing to rise by such objective measures.”
Now we get to the meat, no? My championing of the western tradition as such gives you the “sense” that I would prefer a white, Christian (and I’m shocked you didn’t include male) country on the decline to any potential alternatives, even if they mean a more robust society. Here are just a few of the problems with your assessment.
Firstly, what has been at issue is the existence of western civilization in general and America in particular as historical phenomena distinguishable from other civilizations and countries. I’ve stated from the outset that each have defining characteristics which set them apart from others, and that when those characteristics begin to disappear, so to do the phenomena themselves.Remember, when a specie “adapts” or ‘evolves’ past a certain point, it becomes something entirely different. And like it or not, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political commonality are defining characteristics of any culture. Of course those taking the “utopian view” (nod to Steven Pinker) may not like those facts, but they are facts none the less. In the wake of fundamental changes in those four areas whatever a given culture once was, it unarguably becomes, all but perhaps nominally, something else.
Secondly, I happen be a member of a multi-ethnic family (thank you very much) that, while largely Christian, is hardly privileged. I must admit that your implicit accusation of prejudice, ethnic or otherwise, is disturbing, given the absence of any such indications on my part and the heretofore genial nature of our discussion.
What you’ve attempted to make this into is a “clash of civilizations” argument, when, in fact, what it’s been about from the outset is the enduring identity of countries, civilizations, and their cultures. A discussion which you ultimately conceded that I had the ascendant position on (“As to the idea that America will evolve into something that is no longer America, yes, you are completely right there” – Broken Yogi, June 2, 2010 10:05 PM). I find your contention that America is “stronger” and “more cohesive” than ever to be a bit pollyannic, but as I said earlier I’m happy to save such arguments for another discussion. Suffice it to say that I’m thrilled you see the soundness of my argument on the unlikely sustainablity of America as such in light current trends of cultural “evolution”.
For the record, I do happen to believe that western civilization has been the most powerful, productive, influential, and awe inspiring civilization in the history of mankind, irrespective of what her enemies in the “school of resentment” (who, incidentally , and ironically, fire their relentless arrows of criticism from within, using all the luxuries afforded to them by what they attack) and their allies claim. But, as has been said, “what is right isn’t always popular, and what is popualr isn’t always right.”
JVS



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Charlie B

posted June 4, 2010 at 1:18 am


I think the internet plays an important role in all this, but not only as a means of reclaiming culture of the past. The communication people can have with each other and the content they can all access using the internet is on a much larger scale than at any other time in human history. For instance, let’s take Youtube. You’ll get no argument from me that there is (much) more worth to Shakespeare than, say, Charlie the Unicorn, but the capacity for everyone to access this cultural piece is there with Youtube, and on a much larger scale that Shakespeare. If you didn’t live in England, you probably were not going to ever see a Shakespeare play during his time. Now, new cultural content can be on the other side of the world in seconds. I don’t think my generation (I’m a teenager) has no culture. I don’t think culture has gone totally down the tubes. But, modern culture lacks a lot of the depth of times past. Maybe we need an internet renaissance, let’s start writing plays and putting them on Youtube. :P
Also, I agree with MH about choosing traditions. I’m Orthodox, and don’t we choose church tradition?
Captcha: lifelong organization. O_o is captcha sentient yet?



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Broken Yogi

posted June 7, 2010 at 6:31 am


Sharpe,
Your arguments are so vague and lacking in real content I don’t think there’s much to say in reply. If you could actually describe the decline and fall of the west in a way which had any meat to it, I’d be happy to discuss, but you only make the vaguest insinuations about things you seem too polite to mention openly. so we are all just left guessing at what you are reacting to. Perhaps in a later thread you might just summon the courage to speak out about what, specifically, you find so distressing about the modern world, America, and the West.



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