Liberal Culture?

by Mark T. Mitchell on August 20, 2012 · 12 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

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The word “culture” readily falls from our lips, but what appears on first glance to be a clear-cut notion becomes much more complex as soon as we attempt to define it. “Culture” is employed in a variety of ways and contexts. We hear of “American culture” and under that rubric include everything from baseball to NASCAR, from hamburgers to marshmallows, from Hollywood to Broadway, from rock-n-roll to country. Does that litany help us better understand American culture or merely induce more confusion? We speak of “pop-culture” and Lady Gaga and Batman might come to mind. Upon reflection we muse that “popular culture” must somehow be different from “high-culture” which suggests snooty people who claim to enjoy music and films that few understand. Rarely do we hear of “folk-culture” which brings forth images of homespun clothes, homemade music on the porch, and jokes only the locals understand. In our day, pop-culture reigns. We hear of “consumer culture” and the tone suggests it is frowned upon by the speaker. We see heads sadly shaking as the “the decline of culture” is discussed, and as “cultural indicators” are pored over we hear of “culture wars” and conclude that much must be at stake in a conflict between at least two competing cultures.

But with all that, the definition of “culture” still eludes us. Perhaps we can mine the word, itself, for meaning. When we speak of “agri-culture” we are speaking of the practice, indeed, the art of growing things. When we “cultivate” something we carefully tend to its growth and health. It seems that one aspect of “culture” is the wise oversight of healthy growth: “human effort and artifacts to encourage flourishing” might be one succinct way of putting it.

Yet, hidden within the word “culture” is the word “cult” which is the abbreviated form of the Latin “cultus” which means “religion.” It would seem that buried in the accretion of memory and language is a connection between the cult and the culture, between culture and religion. If this is the case, the notion of a “secular culture” appears, at least on its face, to be an oxymoron, like a non-citrus lemon or a non-feline cat.

However, what exactly is it about religion that ties it so closely to culture and perhaps makes it an integral component of it? One facet of religion is its attention to those things that cannot be seen. Religion speaks of the reality of God and His doings with the world of men. But, more precisely, religion speaks of a transcendent realm that includes obligations pertaining to human action. These obligations exist prior to any human will, which is to say, we are obligated to an order we did not create or even consent to. There are limits that exist and to which we are obligated by the very nature of things. To live well as a human being is to respect those limits that we know intuitively, that are taught by religion, and that are manifested in the particularities of culture.

At its heart, a culture is a complex articulation of limits. To inhabit a culture is to inhabit a social structure that both forbids and enjoins. A culture creates the outline of the permissible actions available to us. It gives us the resources to make sense of the complex array of information that we encounter every day and provides the cues that make meaningful action possible. A culture provides a context for the multifarious aspects of our lives; it is the tapestry into which our own stories are woven and by which they are given meaning.

But here we encounter the first rumors of a problem, for it is an underlying assumption of liberalism that limits are an offense that can and should be overthrown. Liberalism, in its pure form, is a doctrine that asserts the liberation of the individual. It asserts that autonomous individuals are (or should be) free to act however they please as long the rights of other autonomous individuals are not violated (and even the existence of equal and reciprocal rights becomes problematic if the issue is pushed). For the liberal, all obligations are rooted in consent, which means that all obligations are a consequent of human will. There are, therefore, no obligations antecedent to our choosing them. There are no limits imposed by nature or by the divine that constrain or direct my actions. Or if such limits exist, they only matter if I agree to submit to them.

The problem is obvious: Liberalism denies limits. Culture is, at its heart, a complex array of limits, both positive and negative. Thus, a liberal culture is a contradiction in terms. Pure liberalism is simply incompatible with a coherent culture. Liberalism seeks to erode and overturn all limits while a coherent culture continually affirms and reinforces the outlines that both limit and direct action. Liberalism is, then, inherently anti-culture, and to embrace liberalism in its pure form is to actively undermine one’s culture.

It is at this point we need to ask if the liberal project—which is one of the major strands of the American Founding and subsequent history of our country—can somehow be made compatible with culture, for if this is not possible, then eventually one must give way to the other: either culture (with its unavoidably religious elements) triumphs and liberalism fades away or liberalism plants the flag of victory upon the hoary corpse of culture.

The great observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted that the genius of the Americans was rooted in the fact that they had managed to combine the spirit of freedom with the spirit of religion. The spirit of freedom seeks to test limits, explore new frontiers, and to throw open questions once deemed settled. But in the America visited by Tocqueville, this frenzy of exploring and questioning pulled up short at the gates of religion and went no further. The spirit of religion—specifically Christianity— stood guard, flaming sword in hand, and although the spirit of freedom produced a riotous foment of energy and innovation, the spirit of religion ensured that the riot remained within definite parameters. Tocqueville was convinced that the spirit of religion harnessed the energies produced by the spirit of freedom and channeled them to benign ends. One must wonder, though, what would become of the spirit of freedom if the spirit of religion absconded. A skeptical age would seem incapable of maintaining the delicate, though crucial, balance extolled by Tocqueville, for the skeptic denies the very thing that fosters limits, and a society that brooks no limits is one that has jettisoned any coherent and sustainable culture in favor of sating the appetites of individuals at the expense of everything else. Tocqueville saw how Americans tamed the most virulent impulses of liberalism by respecting the countervailing force of religion. But unless religious belief is continually renewed, the spirit of freedom will eventually prevail, and when that occurs, the demise of culture will eventually follow.

This discussion implies that the so-called culture wars are a misnomer, for the term implies a struggle between two competing cultures, but a more accurate description points to a struggle by the forces of anti-culture to wrest free from the limits imposed by culture. We must never forget, however, that the tools of culture are fundamentally different than the weapons of anti-culture. The tools of culture are creative and preservative and are rooted in a sense of reverence and gratitude. They are tools of cultivation. The weapons of anti-culture are aggressive and antinomian and are rooted in resentment and ingratitude. They are the weapons of destruction. To wage a war to preserve culture on terms set by the forces of anti-culture would be to jeopardize the stability and the integrity of the culture itself. The pervasive use of the language of “culture war” suggests that the forces of anti-culture have won a significant tactical victory. Defenders of culture, while resisting the aggressive attacks by those who seek to deny all limits, must make the creative cultivation of culture their first priority. A culture, if it is to remain healthy—if it is to survive over the long haul—must be revitalized by each generation.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar bubba August 20, 2012 at 8:59 am

“The problem is obvious: Liberalism denies limits.” If the ‘problem’ is indeed that obvious, then conservatism must be the assertion of absolute limits to the exclusion of all else. The tension between the two is what makes the resultant culture vibrant. A culture with absolute limits cannot grow.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell August 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Bubba,
No, I don’t think so. First, conservatism is not “the assertion of absolute limits to the exclusion of all else.” It is, though, the acknowledgement of the existence of limits and the attempt to respect them. Furthermore, plenty of “conservatives” today are suspicious of limits, which means that they are not as conservative as they might imagine. “I can to anything I want with my property, my money, my body, etc.” is not a sentiment unique to those on the political left.

avatar bubba August 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm

If you want to assert that “Culture is, at its heart, a complex array of limits,” you’re certainly free to do so. But you’ve put the cart before the horse; culture is not the limits, culture is the the result of mankind interacting with the limits imposed by Nature. It is a living thing that waxes and wanes. Granted, the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are ambiguous at best, especially when considering those who affix those labels to themselves today, but the gratitude and reverence you’re searching for is not antithetical to Liberalism.

avatar robert m. peters August 20, 2012 at 10:40 pm

A culture is the set of principles, institutions and traditions which restrain the lusts, desires and whims of the person so that the person is emancipated from them and thus free to fulfill his duties, obligations and responsibilities to God, to Church, to family, to community and to associations which make up that community. Culture through family, church and pedagogical institutions helps the person gain character by acquiring, internalizing and living out the great virtues – the cardinal, the capital and the Christian. Character is by definition an imposition of limits on the individual. It is the way we come to see that we are creatures, mere and fallen creatures, in a created order.

The anti-culture purposes to deconstruct the principles, institutions and traditions of culture so that the person, an autonomous individual in the anti-culture, is emancipated from the taboos and limitations of those principles, institutions and traditions so that those newly minted autonomous individuals, now outfitted with abstract rights and aided and abetted by an abstract corporation with a monopoly on power quite capable of leveling principles, institutions and traditions, are free to pursue their lusts, whims and desires, giving rise to the cult of personality.

These autonomous individuals, these would-be Promethean selves, turn out to be estranged, alienated and shriveled selves, Hollywood and the gutters of our cities being full of them. It is little wonder that the vampire is the modern “hero,” the ultimate estranged, alienated and shriveled self, a parasite. The “Twilight” series is not nearly as evil as the anti-culture which it reflects.

avatar David Smith August 21, 2012 at 7:25 am

Gentlemen, this is me thinking out loud as much as anything else, but, to clarify, when we’re talking about limits, we’re ultimately referring to those boundaries God has placed, not the imposed limits of the Pharisee or his modern successors, correct? Simply put, Christian liberty consists of the ability to perform according to my design, not the licentious idea of absolute choice: “I can do whatever I want.” or “My rights and my rights at your expense.”

A trout’s freedom is limited by the stream, but oh how that swift flowing water defines the very trout-ness of the trout! I suppose he could long for the treetops, but what would that result in, “freedom”? Obviously, a lot of flopping around and ultimately death.

I guess that’s an adequate (if awkward) metaphor for our “culture” today.

Anyway, thanks for you patience!

avatar bubba August 21, 2012 at 12:16 pm

David, I agree that the limits are those that Nature, or God if you prefer, has created, although we can and do place limits on ourselves. Neil Postman used the metaphor of the petri dish, that small container in which a culture grows in a soupy medium of nutrients. Planet earth is the container of the medium in which our various cultures grow. Ours is obviously not a monoculture. The growth and health of cultures is determined and ultimately limited by the media they grow in. Unlike the fuzzy stuff growing in the petri dish, we as humans can exercise a limited amount of control over the media in which we live. The health of our cultures reflects our decisions.

avatar Joan August 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I’m troubled by your redefinition of culture as a synonym for what is better known as a life of faith, apparently for no other purpose than to argue that we have culture and liberals have some other thing called anti-culture that has no reason for existing other than to . For one thing, our culture in the conventional sense, our way of life, is not strictly faith-based. It includes constraints and requirements that are not Biblical but have become hallowed by tradition. Since Mitt Romney’s candidacy has brought increased public attention to the insights of Joseph Smith, let me offer as an example one of Smith’s more infamous insights: the Bible does not rule out marriages of one man to two women simultaneously. The prohibition against polygyny comes down to us from Europe’s Pagan past, but it’s now a firmly established part of the Western Christian way of life.

For another, if you spend any time with liberals, you find that they do not deny all limits in all aspects of life. They deny some of the limits conservatives value and would preserve, but they have limits of their own, a culture of their own, and to the extent that we deny this, we exchange an effective understanding of what we are up against for what amounts to a little bit of an ego boost.

avatar Joan August 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Oops. Dropped the end of that first sentence. I meant to say “I’m troubled by your redefinition of culture that turns it into a synonym for what is better known as a life of faith, apparently for no other purpose than to argue that we have culture and liberals have some other thing called anti-culture that has no reason for existing other than to undermine our culture, and thus give ourselves the double pleasure of feeling both superior and victimized.”

avatar Rob G August 22, 2012 at 8:55 am

“For another, if you spend any time with liberals, you find that they do not deny all limits in all aspects of life.”

True, but their limits have no ground beyond the human, and thus are arbitrary. They reduce to either will-to-power or sentimentality.

avatar RiverC August 22, 2012 at 10:06 am

I should note that liberalism provides a kind of center here, where further to the left you get into the veneration more of equality than liberty.

So here’s how I see it – what are originally two branches of the left, the liberty branch and the equality branch – are the two forces of anti-culture fighting one another. In American politics, (though not true of European politics) ‘liberty’ is a rightwing thing, whereas ‘equality’ is a leftwing thing. This holds an inherent conflict, since much of what is genuinely traditional is not necessarily pro-liberty… it is generally a force of limit or restraint on the one hand, and on the other of hierarchy and discrimination.

The center party of our state generally accepts both equality and liberty as goods, for each wing of that party there is a reluctance about which the other wing’s good is accepted, but it is acknowledged that liberty creates innovation and wealth, and that equality provides for social welfare. While both sides of this coin think of themselves as diametrically opposed to the other, they in fact exist as kind of coherent, albeit conflicted whole.

This is a whole which although it for the most part excludes radical left wingers — real communists, radical environmentalists, truly radical feminist, anarchist and homosexualist groups, and so on, it also excludes those to the right of center, libertarians and traditionalists. I’m not convinced wholly that Christian fundamentalists even are outside of the center party; their religious views may be extreme vis a vis the scripture, (and I mean Protestant fundamentalists) their politics ultimately fall into this liberty-equality spectrum of the center.

My final thought is that liberty somehow does indeed become an actual feature of the Right here in the USA, but in what capacity? What has liberty to do with tradition and limits? How to unite these two strands of the Right – the libertarian and the traditional?

Then again, maybe it’s the wrong question. Maybe us traditionalists in the US already are effectively libertarians. It’s a matter of where we hold the point of tension between liberty and restraint. The extreme libertarian believes in no limits, but this is actually a reactionary stance in our context. His desire for no limits is not positive, but negative; get the government out of our business.

In short, it requires there to be some kind of concordat between libertarians and traditionalists. Most libertarians I know are fine with the limits traditional groups place on their members, as opposed to those in the center and left, who think of these things as unthinkable.

Something to think about, anyway.

avatar John Feldmann August 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm

We have to be careful to distinguish between the spirit of liberalism and the spirit of egalitarianism. I am very much an egalitarian, but very much opposed to liberalism and its idolatrous worship of negative liberty. The dilemma of order is quite obviously that it tends to privilege some groups over others. It is not surprising that the majority of writers on Front Porch Republic are seemingly white, heterosexual males. 9 out of 10 writers on the front page are white males with only one white female contributing. We white, heterosexual males (and I am one) have the most to benefit from a conservation of the status quo, and an appeal to order.

Yet egalitarianism and communitarian ethics can co-exist and supplement each other nicely. For example, I follow queer theory and assert that sexuality/gender are socially constructed phenomenon, and that categories such as “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” are not reflective of reality, but rather serve to privilege one category over the other á la Derrida. Society should not care what the gendered-object of a person’s sexual affection is based upon their own gendered-bodied. However, I am also quite comfortable with social/cultural limits contrary to the edicts of liberal philosophy. I do not believe society should allow people to purchase other bodies for personal sexual use/gratification. And the societal limitation is based in the egalitarian declaration against inequalitarian power-relationships rooted in Marxist analysis.

avatar Hattip February 27, 2013 at 5:02 am

Culture also implies the pursuit of excellence, which of course is what is the foundation of “high culture”. A true culture set standards. THis is somewhat muddled inyour argument about “limits”. Some of what you call limits are really standards.

In the pursuit of excellence all act an artifacts of “culture” are not equal. Bach and Lady Gaga do not inhabit the same level

In this sense, the Liberal proposes a world where there are indeed limits–they have limited excellence.

As an aside, Liberals are generally primitives and nihilists, and this beyond the reach of what you propose.

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