Saturday, January 5, 2008

How liberals see Western culture as a vacuum

Back in August, Mark Richardson of Oz Conservative and John Savage of Brave New World Watch commented on how liberals often admire traditionalism and "authenticity" among non-white, non-Western peoples but despise those same traits in the white Western world. Their posts sparked a few thoughts which I made a note of, but I never got around to actually writing a post. More recently, however, a post from Vanishing American and a comment on her blog from John Savage have brought this concept to mind again, so I was inspired to comment.

Richardson quotes Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University, waxing nostalgic about the Australian Aborigines, and then provides his own comments:
Manne recently defended the traditional Aboriginal way of life by referring to the work of white anthropologists who, Manne believes, observed:
not an Edenic but an enchanted world, in the technical sense of the sociologist Max Weber. They discovered an intricate social order in which, through the kinship structure, every human being held a precise and acknowledged place. They discovered a world that was filled with economic purpose; leavened by playfulness, joy and humour; soaked in magic, sorcery, mystery and ritual; pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning.
It's difficult to imagine anything more out of line with liberal modernism. At the moment the bookshops are full of works by the liberal intelligentsia claiming that religion is a dangerous threat to humanity. Yet here the Aborigines are given a free pass to live in an enchanted world in which there is not only religion, but a world "soaked in magic, sorcery, mystery and ritual" and "pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning".

Why isn't the ethos of liberal rationalism and scientism applied to Aborigines?

Similarly, liberals have pressed for an ideal in which we are unimpeded in choosing who we are and what we do. We are supposed to be self-determining individual agents, who aren't constrained by unchosen forms of identity based on gender or ethnicity, or by traditional social roles or patterns of family life.

Again, Manne doesn't apply the logic of liberalism to Aborigines. Not only do they get to keep basic forms of family life and gender identity, they are even praised for having "an intricate social order, in which, through kinship structure, every human held a precise and acknowledged place".
Indeed, one hears this sort of thing all the time. How can liberals praise the authenticity of nonwhite, non-Western groups like Australian Aborigines, American Indians, African tribes, etc., and then, far from admiring medieval Europe or red-state Evangelicals for their authenticity, decry them as evil and oppressive? It's impossible to imagine a Robert Manne looking at, say, the insular Dutch Reformed communities in the Midwestern USA, with their traditional gender roles, prayer meetings, and Sundays that revolve entirely around church, and extolling their world for being "pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning" and for possessing "an intricate social order, in which, through kinship structure, every human held a precise and acknowledged place." After all, they support homeschooling and oppose same-sex marriage!

Richardson, his commenters, and John Savage all had some thought-provoking ideas, but I wonder if something more basic is being missed. Recently I was ruminating on the epithet "white-bread," used to mean boring, bland, and homogeneous, as when Charles Murray said that he'd "a hell of a lot rather live in a Little Vietnam or a Little Guatemala neighborhood, even if I couldn’t read the store signs, than in many white-bread communities I can think of." The idea being that white-bread communities don't have the festive music, the vibrant colors, the spicy foods of Little Vietnam or a Little Guatemala, so no intelligent sophisticated man of the world would want to live in one. Yet, of course, traditional Western culture does have exciting or "vibrant" aspects--just listen to Beethoven's 9th symphony, visit a museum with a collection by Leonardo da Vinci or Manet, sample some French cuisine, attend a German Oktoberfest; the list goes on.

So what explains this? We conservatives, rightly, make much of the fact that the left simply hates traditional Western culture (for, e.g., its inequality) and wants to destroy it, as Richardson and John Savage have commented. Yet perhaps it is not always necessary to dig so deep. I believe that liberals fail to see the cultural distinctiveness, the "authenticity," of our own society because they have been immersed in it since birth; it is what they see as the "default," the state of man without any interesting cultural adornments. They view Western culture as a vacuum, a blank template onto which can be written all kinds of "enriching" distinctive cultural traditions, a kind of foundation for a culture, but inadequate as a complete culture.

In fact, this could be seen as a reason the left hates Western culture, that they view failure to provide any interesting "add-ons" as a moral failure. We could have had interesting cultural traditions, but we failed to develop them. Meanwhile, look at these wonderful non-Western cultures. They add loud, exciting music, parades with elaborate costumes and rich colors, spicy foods, and what do we do? Eat our dinners of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and cooked peas and then retire to the living room to put our feet up and read the Saturday Evening Post until little Jimmy gets home from Boy Scouts.

I can't point to any published examples that show this is how liberals think; it's based mainly on my observations of and interactions with college-student-style liberals. Based on the way they behave and innumerable little things they've said, I get the impression that they view that dinner of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas not as its own, perfectly legitimate cultural particularity, but as the base one is left with if one strips away the curry powder, habanero peppers, wasabi, or whatever.

This explains the incident Vanishing American referenced in the post I linked to above. David Yeagley was having a discussion with a student:

"Look, Dr, Yeagley, I don’t see anything about my culture to be proud of. It’s all nothing. My race is just nothing."

The girl was white. She was tall and pretty, with amber hair and brown eyes. For convenience’ sake, let’s call her "Rachel."

I had been leading a class on social psychology, in which we discussed patriotism – what it means to be a people or a nation. The discussion had been quite lively. But when Rachel spoke, everyone fell silent.

"Look at your culture," she said to me. "Look at American Indian tradition. Now I think that’s really great. You have something to be proud of. My culture is nothing."
Notice what this girl was saying. She didn't say her culture was evil, racist, discriminatory, intolerant, oppressive, imperialistic, etc. She may have believed it was all of those things, but that wasn't the particular objection she was raising to it at the time. She merely said it was nothing. In other words, you have your fancy feathered tribal headdresses, others have Cinco de Mayo, others still have the Chinese New Year. But we have nothing. Thanksgiving, fireworks on the Fourth of July, Christmas choirs in colored tuxedos and dresses accompanied by an orchestra and majestic pipe organ, those are all nothing. They're not interesting cultural traditions in their own right; they're just there.

It also explains something John Savage wondered about in a comment:
Thus I think most stereotypes about whites are pretty well justified (the "racist" one aside). The question should be, though, what qualities are necessary to create an advanced and free country. Whites possess all those qualities better than others. Blacks and Mexicans may have certain qualities we appreciate, but not those that help to sustain the kind of country we want. They don't spontaneously create cultures that sustain advanced and free civilizations. Asians, it would appear, can sustain advanced ones, but only with a minimal amount of freedom. It's telling that leftists usually care more about having people with "rhythm" who can jump, than the fundamental abilities and virtues that have traditionally made America what it is.
We know that liberals think that human beings are blank slates, that our natures are all fundamentally the same and it is only our environments that make us different. When we combine this fact with the concept of Western culture as blank slate, it makes sense that liberals would think the way John Savage describes. They don't see the fundamental abilities and virtues that have traditionally made America what it is--i.e., an advanced and free country--as being in conflict with having people with "rhythm" who can jump; they don't see the two as being the same kind of thing at all (i.e., civilizational characteristics particular to a population group.) They think that the ability to create a free and advanced country like America is present in everyone; it's part of the foundation or template which we see as Western culture, but which is unexposed but still present in other cultures because it has spicy foods and exciting parades built on top of it. America, or more broadly Western Europe, is nothing but the ability to create a free and advanced country, for we have no cultural traditions built on top of it. Other cultures are the ability to create a free and advanced country plus all sorts of interesting cultural traditions. Therefore, liberals think we will always have a free and advanced country, and in their view are merely "improving" on our society by painting on that blank canvas, by importing characteristics like rhythm and the ability to jump.


John Savage said...

Hermes, great post. I've had that idea of Western culture as a "default" or "lack", too. You see that in the way that immigrants react if they ask you your ethnicity, and you just say "American". They expect you to identify with some foreign country; failing to do so shows that you are (horror of horrors!) assimilated! It shows that you supposedly have no identity. "American" doesn't count, since America is supposedly the universal nation.

Great post!

RobertHume said...

Great Post!

It's been said that the fish doesn't realize that he lives in water.

Our white bread culture is the envy of the world. Everyone wants to come here. That's a prima-facie case that we have a desirable culture. And it's not just the ability to shop.

It's very hard to see your own culture. I dare say that the aborigines think their culture is boring when they see Paris. Or New York. Or Dubuque.

Vanishing American said...

Hermes, very insightful post.
I think you have put your finger on an important factor in how Americans have come to view their own culture so belittlingly.
But I wonder how far back we can trace this tendency?
I'm old enough to remember a time when people did not have this disparaging view of their own heritage.
Interestingly, I only first heard the term 'whitebread' used in the 1970s. Around that same time we began to hear frequent uses in entertainment of words like 'honky' and other such epithets. And there were suddenly a lot of ethnic comedians who poked fun at stiff, boring white suburban people, comparing them unfavorably to colorful, exuberant ethnic people. I think as the society grew more multicultural and obsessed with white guilt, people often became ashamed of their own heritage and they began to make invidious comparisons to all those 'vibrant' minority cultures among us.
So I tend to think it's developed around the multicultural system.
Whether we can reclaim some sense of pride in our own traditions remains to be seen, but it's very much needed.

Hermes said...

John, I have noticed that expectation that we will all identify with a foreign country too. Specifically, I have noticed that cultural leftists--and here I'm primarily thinking of left-wing whites, though I suppose it could apply to immigrants too--give whites a slight "pass" if we identify with a particular mother country, for example, if we claim specifically to be Irish or German or Italian and to keep some of the old cultural traditions alive (eating old world cuisine, celebrating old world holidays, etc.) Not that such is as "good" as being non-White, but it's seen as a step up in authenticity from identifying as plain old American.

"Lack" is another good way of putting it that I didn't use in the post. Western culture is unconsciously defined not as a unique collection of specific cultural characteristics, but as a lack of any specific cultural characteristics.

roberthume, the fish analogy is a good one. Thinking of the issue that way, I often wonder if nonwhites find their own cultures as blank and boring as so many of us seem to find ours. I suspect they don't, and I had considered speculating in this post about how the culprit in our malaise ironically might be one of our greatest strengths: our development of and emphasis on abstract reasoning, which allows us to step back further and look at the world from the outside in a way that other culture's don't. But I don't know enough about the subject to discuss it in depth.

VA, this also relates to the point you raise. I have wondered the same thing: where did our boredom with our own culture originate--and the concomitant fascination with other cultures? In thinking about the past I'm inevitably reminded of my own grandparents. They have all passed on now, but I daresay that they would have hated sushi and falafels and sitar music. Far from finding other cultures exciting, vibrant, "enriching," I suspect they found them weird. That strikes me as a much more natural and human reaction to the foreign and exotic, and one which, I think, most other cultures have to us. So why have we stopped finding other cultures weird?

Mencius Moldbug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mencius Moldbug said...

Killer post. When I read essays like this I just think of all the people at Harvard and Yale and Stanford who think they are the smartest, most thoughtful, and most enlightened human beings not just in the world today, but in all of human history forever. Needless to say, none of them will ever read this blog. But do they need to?

I would say, though, that the great secret of liberalism is that liberalism is a culture. Read the
McKenna book
- not only is it excellent, it comes to us from Yale University Press. If liberals were vampires, this book would be a cross-shaped silver gun that shot bullets made of garlic.

The culture war in the US is very simple. It is one Christian sect against another. As McKenna argues very convincingly, what we call "liberalism" is actually the main stream of American Christianity.

Born-again Christianity (which is certainly a lot more Christian, at least to this non-Christian's eye) has essentially assumed the old place of Catholicism in the English political spectrum. If you compare Bush-hatred to Stuart-hatred, the parallels jump right out at you.

For the last four hundred years, Calvinists, Dissenters, Puritans, and other low-church types have been whitewashing church frescoes, banning Christmas, and (of course) seizing control of the State and establishing socialist communes. It's their MO. It's what they do. The fact that they no longer believe in God is a small, small detail.

Liberals have a culture. They see their culture as meaningless because they see it as universal. It is also soulless and devoted primarily to destruction, which is great, because it makes it harder to identify as a competing tradition.

When you see the contest between American liberals and conservatives as a context between two sects of Christianity, all these tropes explain themselves. Of course liberals hate conservatives and love aboriginals. It's because aboriginalism is not a threat to liberalism.

Ergo, the phony, saccharine love of the Other that is multiculturalism is a device whose primary adaptive purpose is to conceal the violent, hateful, intolerant, and generally pathogenic nature of the liberal church.

I am not saying anyone had this idea consciously, mind you. In fact the thought is very, very far from the liberal mind. But, like any feature of any adaptive system, it exists not because someone thought of it, but just because it works.

Mark Richardson said...

Hermes, you've raised a really interesting topic.

I don't doubt that the view that the West has no culture of interest has become widespread.

However, like VA I can remember a time when this wasn't so. I don't think it became common to think like this in Australia until the 1990s.

Mencius observed of liberals in his comment that:

"They see their culture as meaningless because they see it as universal."

I think there might be something to this, because Australians were much more self-regarding in terms of their own culture when their culture was more obviously parochial.

In the 1970s, when I was growing up, parochial loyalties were still strong. The outside world was a long way over the horizon and there was a much stronger sense of inhabiting a world of your own.

In the 1970s Australians still identified strongly not only in terms of nation, but also in terms of city and state.

There was a more vital interest in Australian history and in past achievements, a stronger sense of what constituted the national character and an assumption of Australian cultural distinctiveness.

The more radical liberal types, as I remember, didn't so much disparage Australian culture as being empty, but as being parochial and therefore backward.

Hermes said...

Mark, thanks for stopping by.

Perhaps I should have titled this post "How people see Western culture as a vacuum" or "How Westerners see Western culture as a vacuum," because I've realized that this phenomenon is seen not only among avowed liberals and leftists, but in virtually everyone in our society (I'm speaking from my experience as an American, of course; I don't know enough about Australian or European society to say how common it is there.) I don't think most middle-class suburbanites who dwell within the "white-bread" world see their own culture as a distinct one worth preserving any more than the liberal intelligentsia does.

In fact, I probably should have gone into more detail about the two ways of looking at Western culture: the one that sees it as a vacuum, blank template, or default culture, and the one that sees it as intolerant, oppressive, racist, and evil. I'm not at all surprised that the more radical liberal types in Australia didn't so much disparage Australian culture as being empty but as being parochial and backward; one certainly hears this from American hard-leftists too. They seem to acknowledge that the boring white American everyman has a culture; they just think it's a really lousy one.

It must have been really nice to experience a world where one's people still thought of themselves as a distinct people and acted accordingly. I grew up in the 1980's, and while multiculturalism was ascendant, there were still some vestiges of the older order, just enough to get a glimpse of what it must have been like. I had the sense when I was a child that being a white English-speaking country was part of the essence of America, and had the impression that all Americans thought the same, if only implicitly. I thought that the vast majority of people celebrated Christmas and that it was OK to publicly acknowledge this. We learned about Christopher Columbus without being taught that he was an evil oppressor for bringing pestilence upon the Indians, and George Washington without being taught that he was an evil slaveowner. I got the impression that these were basically "good guys" and heroes of our culture, men to be admired. At the same time Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were starting to make their way into the schools as well, and there was definitely some subtext that America had been a dark and uncivilized place before they accomplished what they did.

Incidentally, that glimpse, which I owe only to those vestiges of the older school curricula and to having grandparents who were conservative Christians and came of age in the old America, was instrumental in my becoming a traditionalists. That is why I despair of future generations: today's university students were born and raised entirely within the liberal multicultural secular regime.

Mark Richardson said...

It must have been really nice to experience a world where one's people still thought of themselves as a distinct people and acted accordingly.

It was, in many ways, a much richer experience of life.

That is why I despair of future generations: today's university students were born and raised entirely within the liberal multicultural secular regime.

There are other reasons for them to reject multiculturalism. Violence, affirmative action, double standards, travelling overseas and observing other cultures, and basic loyalties will still lead some to question the status quo.

Hermes said...

That's a good point. I used to spend some time on a popular internet message board for pre-medical and medical students. One of the interesting trends I noticed about a year ago is that of some posters there, who were presumably in the 18-25 age range and who were not necessarily conscientious traditionalists or conservatives, saying things like "if it's not only OK, but even praised and encouraged, for blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and others to celebrate and perpetuate their own cultures, why shouldn't we white people do the same?"

It's interesting. Young people who have been raised in a multicultural world have never known a world where their own people were a conscious majority whose culture and mores defined the entire society. Because of this, they may be likely to view whites as just another ethnic group. And if they do, it's possible they'll start to look at the constant denigration and excoriation of white Westerners as responsible for the problems of all other peoples, the affirmative action handouts being given to all other groups except whites, the popular portayal of whites as boring and lacking the "spice" other cultures have, say "screw this," and begin to cast it all off. So, ironically, multiculturalism itself may provide the spark which ultimately causes us to start believing in our civilization again.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne.

Please check out this reference plus associated website which gives a profoundly conservative (but not right wing) assessment of Western so called "culture" which is in its most "advanced" form in the USA.

The "culture" brought to one and all by capitalsm which is itself an "advanced form of social Darwinism---the war of all against all dramatised all over the planet.

A "culture" which has quite literally brought the entire planet to the brink of cultural & ecological meltdown.

And paradoxically the loudest champions of this so called "culture" are those on the "right" of the culture wars spectrum.

So yes its true the West has no culture. It (the West) basically destroyed its culture in WW1, and then finished itself off in WW2---it has been downhill ever since---hence the scenario described in my first reference.


Plus associated reference on the origins and consequences of the universal psychosis (the war of all against all and everything) described therin

RobertHume said...

Gee, I guess we have to spell it out.

The American culture conquered the Indians, settled the West, won WWI and WWII and the Cold War.

Invented modern republican democracy, votes for women, free public education, public libraries, mass production, planes, telephones, movies, national parks, the sky-scraper, Frank Lloyd Wright, the suburbs,woman's lib, jazz, bluegrass, baseball, basketball, rock and roll, Charleston dancing, modern dance, comic books, Coca Cola, Bourbon, Cocktails, bluejeans, McDonalds, supermarkets, automobile culture, FM radio, television, computer languages, integrated circuits, personal computers, browsers, the internet, the biggest telescopes, getting to the moon, San Francisco. Oh well. It's the water you live in and you can't appreciate it.

RobertHume said...

The US invented modern republican democracy, conquered the Indians, civil war to end slavery, won WWI, WWII, Cold war, votes for women, free public education, free public libraries, (Twain, Frost, Faulkner), mass production, planes, telephones, movies, national parks, the sky-scraper, Frank Lloyd Wright, the suburbs, woman's lib, jazz, bluegrass, baseball, basketball, rock and roll, surfing culture, the Charleston, swing, modern dance, abstract expressionism (Pollock), Pop Art, comic books, Coca Cola, bourbon, cocktails, bluejeans, McDonalds, supermarkets, automobile culture, FM radio, television, VCRs, modern quantum chemistry (Pauling), computer languages (Backus, Thompson et. al.), integrated circuits (Kilby, Noyce), personal computers, browsers, the internet, the biggest telescopes, making the bomb, getting to the moon, industrial farming, green revolution (Borlaug), Walmart, San Francisco.

Amaya said...

Keep up the good work.