What Culture?

Clyde N. WilsonMy late friend Sam Francis often wrote about the need for Americans to defend their “culture.”  Most assuredly Americans have lives, families, land, and property that they need to and have every right to defend and preserve (which they are not doing a very good job of).   But “culture”?  I always wondered exactly what Sam meant by that and if he were in this instance slipping away from his usual clarity and precision of thought.

Culture is, of course, a big and elastic word that covers anything from flint arrowheads to Michelangelo to religious faith to indoor plumbing.  So Americans, I suppose, do have a culture.  They speak the same language, more or less, watch the same sports events and sitcoms, enjoy the same creature comforts, participate to some degree at least in similar institutions, and share certain expectations of behaviour (mostly a debased form of bourgeois manners).  But in regard to the higher forms of culture, in a long civilizational perspective, Americans, apart from what we can see and count, don’t seem to have much at all to defend and preserve except some remnants from their own and the European past.  (America as “the universal nation” need not concern us.  It is a phantasm that does not and cannot exist.)

Culture, along with language which makes it possible, is uniquely human (although one can find analogies in animal behavior and societies: after all, humans and other beings have the same Creator).  In its deepest origins culture rests upon “cult,” that is to say, religion, and “agriculture,” human dependence upon the management (not the impossible mastery) of nature.
Americans have not had much affinity for the spiritual—in fact, Americanism has been defined as pragmatism—a particular affinity for  the tangible and useful.  The pragmatic Yankee never cared about theory or meaning—he wanted to know what works and how much it pays, and his religion was more bookish than spiritual.  Some time back he even turned agriculture, man’s immemorial subsistence on the land, into a scientific business proposition.

Probably, the possibility of an American high culture was damaged irreparably when the idealist General Lee handed over his sword to the pragmatist General Grant (who politely refused the impractical gift).  Lee’s American republicanism embraced the equal right to strive for aristocratic excellence.  Grant’s democracy rested on the equal right to seek maximum profit.  Mencken, reflecting on the tragedy of Appomattox, wrote that it had wiped out any hope of humane civilization on this side of the Atlantic. He came to that conclusion by comparing the character of the honourable ex-Confederates who governed his native city of Baltimore to the crooks who ran most American cities.

Yet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a strong outpouring of significant  literature, scholarship, painting, sculpture,  and architecture that was of high quality and recognizably a new, American, expression of Western culture.

The 20th century did that in.  For whatever reasons you may wish to offer: I blame war, industrialism, Yankee pragmatism, and polyglot immigration for strangling American civilization in its tender youth.  The “culture” which the 60s generation rebelled against was already so lacking in humane quality that one almost sympathizes with them—except that their rebellion accomplished nothing but a further alienation of America from civilization.  We now live in a world in which young white men, the heirs of two thousand years of Western civilization, adopt baggy pants, earrings, backwards baseball caps, and primitive music because that is the nearest thing to a cultural expression that their American environment has ever exposed them to.  Even cinema, in which Americans in the first half of the 20th century made great accomplishments, has now become almost entirely the possession of actors, directors, and writers from Britain and its Commonwealths who still have some purchase on the Western cultural tradition.

If you want to discuss American culture, don’t tell me about art museums showing European pictures and symphonies playing European music.  And don’t tell me about Irving Babbitt and the New Humanists who tried to restore the culture their New England forebears had destroyed at the root by pouring in European culture from the top.

Everything that America has produced in literature and music of enduring cultural value since the mid-20th century has come from Southerners who were raised in an environment that was still incompletely conquered by Yankee pragmatism.  Whether our Southern bit of cultural residue will survive for much longer, and whether it can possibly do so without political separation from the American Empire, are questions that will probably be decided in the present rising generation.

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