Saturday, December 30, 2006

Culture this!

Aaaaah, a review of a book about the English character! As English as a blog about England and driving on the wrong side of the road at dawn. What exactly do the English think of themselves nowadays? Not a lot, it seems:
The expatriate Alan Pryce-Jones observed in 1968 that England was “an aquatinted country, full of very nice people, half asleep”. Mandler’s concluding pages portray a nation that has become deeply unsure of what it is, or wants to be. In the past half- century, most of this island’s inhabitants have become more concerned with personal than national identity. A 1963 poll for New Society showed that 73% of respondents thought that “individual happiness” was much more important than “national greatness”. I fancy that majority would increase in a similar poll taken today.

Even the nationalistic historian Arthur Bryant gave up, lamenting that “there is no unifying faith to bind us together”. In the late 1970s, the novelist Antonia Byatt without embarrassment applauded the virtues of multiculturalism: “I see our nation increasingly as a bright mosaic of little, unrelated patches.” Today, of course, we can see what dangerous tosh this was.

We perceive the threat not only to our social cohesion, but to our physical security, posed by an ideal of a nation in which nobody is required to display commitment to anything beyond self. If the age of John Bull, and that of Bulldog Drummond, is unlamented, we are learning by bitter experience that it is preferable to acknowledge almost any national character than none at all.


So what about the French and the Americans? Are they faring any better?

Since World War II, the French have been variously surprised, dismayed, irritated and outraged by the power of American culture and its effect on France and the world. Their only consolation has been the conviction that French culture is superior to anything that Walt Disney or Hollywood can offer.

What France's cultural elites have rarely done, however, is examine how both serious and pop culture actually work in the United States.

Rather, in the view of Frédéric Martel, a Frenchman and author of a recently released book on the topic, they have preferred to hide behind "a certain ideological anti-Americanism."

...

Still, what really intrigues Martel is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions.

And that leads him to the crucial role played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities and community organizations, which in practice do receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives.

"If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found," he writes, "cultural life is everywhere."


The French, it seems, have no identity outside of the state. It seems to me a tad daft to think that any cultural output of any value could come from a government ministry. Even the focus of culture as a product, an output, rather than something that radiates naturally from the everyday activities of people doing anything and everything but trying to make culture, speaks to our level of confusion and insecurity on the subject. I think that too many Westerners are too introspective of their national identities for their own good.

Of the three countries, I'd have to say that America is in the best cultural shape, mainly because we don't fret about it as much. We have two models of cultural development in the US. There is the academic model of cultural theory, high-brow conceptual art and institutionalized funding and distribution networks of non-profits, government agencies, galleries, museums and universities. The other is the popular, market driven model of Hollywood studios, record labels and media conglomerates. One gazes at navels, the other watches ratings and box office receipts. One is mostly ignored by the majority, the other is followed by the majority of Americans and people around the world.

What is the point of worrying about culture in this way anyhow? The point of the two lamentations about culture seem to be asking not whether the national culture is good or bad, but rather whether it is correct. Are British people British enough? What does it take to be British, other than being British? Is it worthwhile being French if being French doesn't make you superior to everyone else on the planet?

Americans are considered uncultured by both the British and the French, and in the sense that being cultured involves consciously following a scripted set of behaviors we generally aren't. Being American means being free to enjoy or disdain any form of cultural fare or affecting any set of manners without having to worry whether one is being American.

There is some movement toward more narrowly defined cultural identities for Americans, and you can see it in the Red/Blue state propaganda from the elections. Lets hope our culture war never brings us to the point that we feel the need for a new cabinet position, the Secretary of Culture.

3 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

At the end of 'The Wizard War' ('Most Secret War' in the UK), R.V. Jones laments the decline of national sense of purpose in Britain since 1945.

That was written over 30 years ago.

The presence of national sense of purpose in 1939-45 is what surprises and impresses me.

Considering the deep cultural/social/political divisions that existed in the '20s and '30s (think General Strike of 1926 -- we've never had one of those except in S.F. and [I think] Seattle), including a strong pro-German, pro-Nazi element, the coming together of the British seems remarkable.

To pick one example of many: Who would have expected a man like Orwell, having written 'Burmese Days' and 'The Spike,' to have been invited to become a chief propaganda writer; or to have accepted?

It's as if -- I dunno -- Ward Churchill had been invited to fulfill the role played (and none too well) by Karen Hughes.

December 30, 2006 2:25 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Is it the time of year that causes articles like this, nearly pointless, and completely unreflective when they get near a point, to proliferate?

The expatriate Alan Pryce-Jones observed in 1968 that England was “an aquatinted country, full of very nice people, half asleep”.

Granted, that was during the heyday of Labor socialism, but certainly this article's author must have heard of the Falklands War.

A 1963 poll for New Society showed that 73% of respondents thought that “individual happiness” was much more important than “national greatness”.

Here the author strays so far from logic that it isn't even a shadow on the horizon. First, he treats two dissimilar concepts as joined by an "exclusive or" without the slightest justification, or even a hint he is aware of having done so.

Second, for a individuals, their own happiness is, if not easily put into words, a concept whose boundaries they can surely grasp. But "national greatness?" Nazi Germany was "great." Nor is there any inclination to discern what purpose "national greatness" fulfills, or whether it is a quality that is largely inversely proportionate to threat.

We perceive the threat not only to our social cohesion, but to our physical security, posed by an ideal of a nation in which nobody is required to display commitment to anything beyond self.

Britain's social cohesion might be threatened; but if it is, the cause is not due to some lapse in national greatness, or the nonsense juggernaut crammed into "nobody is required to display commitment to anything beyond self." Rather, it is in the left's failure to understand, let alone apply, the symmetry argument that is the core of Western Civilization, and completely alien to Islam.


The second article had this nugget of un-hinted irony:

Still, what really intrigues Martel is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions.

It is hard to discern how the obvious can be so intriguing, but there you are.

Should you replace the word "culture" with "religion" the statement would be no less obvious. What is intriguing, though, is that many US religionists, and at least one locally prominent blogger, are similarly immune to the glaringly apparent.

December 31, 2006 7:48 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Nazi Germany was "great."'

One of the factoids that give me to think is the fact that to Mongolians, Ghengis Khan is the great national hero.

December 31, 2006 12:24 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home