Saturday, March 24, 2012

Culture and Conservatives

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Here is America’s “core culture,” as defined in 1993 by Samuel P. Huntington, who was born the same year as Moynihan (1927), and was a political science colleague of Moynihan’s at Harvard:
the Christian religion, Protestant values and moralism, a work ethic, the English language, British traditions of law, justice, and the limits of government power, and a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy, and music; the American Creed with its principles of liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property.
One can certainly say that Huntington’s “core culture” definition is dated by current standards, but is one with which conservatives could readily identify. It also seems likely liberals would happily use politics to, in Moynihan’s words, “save” parts of Huntington’s culture “from itself.”

Now here’s a more 21st Century definition of American culture from physicist Mark Mills and engineer Julio Ottino. They describe our culture as “high inertia,” distinguished by “open-mindedness, risk-taking, hard work, playfulness, and, critical for nascent new ideas, a healthy dose of anti-establishment thinking.” Mills and Ottino have fixed on what works in the U.S. economy.

And what about American mass culture, a force that often seems distant from “hard work” and “nascent new ideas,” but indeed shows elements of “risk-taking,” “playfulness,” and “a healthy dose of anti-establishment thinking”? Peggy Noonan was thinking about culture high and low when she wrote that American culture:
is governed and run by the entertainment industry. And the entertainment industry is, and has been since the New Deal, firmly rooted in the Democratic Party. It was invented by the ethnics of the East. . . who joined the Democratic Party as soon as they got here. And they let everyone in America know, and they do it to this day, that the Democratic Party is the cool party, and the Republican Party is the one [not cool], the one that seems like a character flaw to belong to. . . Democrats were, through most of the 20th century, better at propaganda. [emphasis added]
Earlier this year, we relayed Charles Murray’s concern about many left out of the American success story: working-age lower class whites with no education beyond high school—30% of the white population aged 20 to 49. They would seem especially susceptible to the influence of American mass culture.

Murray is disturbed that 52% of the lower class population he studied are unmarried, 44% are single parents, 32% of the males are unemployed or in part-time work, 59% of the men and women are non-religious, and they collectively live in communities with a crime rate nearly five times above that in 1960. Murray calls the lower class problems cultural. He blames them on 1960s-era liberals who made it economically more feasible for women to have a child without a husband, for men to get along without a job, and safer for people to commit crimes without suffering.

Murray’s remedy would be to reverse the 1960s-onward cultural deterioration by restoring the religious values and morality, the emphasis on hard work, that supported marriage, two-parent families, and men who provide for their families and stay away from crime. Murray strongly rejects the “nonjudgmentalism” of our current upper class toward lower class (mis)behavior. In short, Murray seems to advocate a lower class return to Huntington’s “core culture” values (he believes the upper class is already there).

Robert Samuelson, in the Washington Post, took direct exception to Murray’s pessimistic view of where American culture currently stands with our masses. To Samuelson
There is such a thing as the American character and. . . it is durable. In 2011, only 36% of Americans believed that "success in life is determined by outside forces" [Pew Global Attitudes survey]. In France and Germany, the responses were 57% and 72%, respectively. America is different, even exceptional.
While Samuelson rejects Murray’s pessimism, his “American character”--taking responsibility for one's own actions--is in line with both Huntington’s “core culture” and the values Murray supports.

John Podhoretz, writing in Commentary following the death of James Q. Wilson (the criminologist who developed the famous “broken window” theory), chose to highlight Wilson’s following endorsement of morality:
I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage.
Wilson held values that, again, are close to those of Huntington’s “core culture.”

And the same can be said for Victor Davis Hanson, the Stanford Hoover Institution conservative who, in reaction the “politics of blame” in Obama’s state of the union speech, emphasized virtue over tribal loyalty when he wrote:
The content of our character alone matters; those who are not so confident in their own, usually demand that their tribal affiliations be essential and not incidental to their personas. Most accept that culture, not race matters, but it matters still more not to say that.
Except that culture does matter, and it does matter that we speak of it. Culture can lay the foundation for productive work, for economic progress. Or it can undermine both.

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