Friday, September 18, 2009

Dueling Perspectives

I once taught a seminar on the meaning of culture.

Often, when I told people what I did for a living, I got a look which said,

“How could that topic possibly be of interest to more than five or six people on the planet?”

My answer, which I usually kept to myself, was that I didn’t really care, so long as the five or six people in my seminar were interested.

I always started that seminar with a historical perspective, and that involved comparing the concept of civilization with the concept of culture.

The first use of the word civilisation came about by French thinkers developing an argument against Rousseau’s praise of the “noble savage.” “Civilized people,” these citified thinkers maintained, stood in contrast to rude, crude and unattractive people. Civilized people lived in cities and generated ideas. The rest were peasants digging in the earth with little to offer beyond potatoes.

In Germany, a bunch of petty states each too small to match the power of the French nation, the focus was on defending the language and customs of each small region, and “digging in the earth” was a positive metaphor for ‘cultivating’ one’s talents and skills.

For a long time, the French continued to talk about civilization while the Germans spoke instead of Kultur. Only in recent times have these two terms merged. Anthropologists have turned the German multiculture focus into a science, the French and Germans have kissed and made up, and most people use culture and civilization interchangeably.

I didn’t spend much time on this in class; there were too many other things to get to. But I did ask students to divide into two groups: one to develop the French view of civilization as a universal human quest, and one to develop the German (chiefly Herder’s) positive view of multiple cultures as opposed to the alien French notion of civilization. The debate that followed usually generated heat. If you are looking for trouble, you see the French as elitist and arrogant. And the Germans are romantic fools. Worse, you see in the French claim to civilization the seeds of European imperialism. And in the German romantic view, the seeds of fascist nationalism.

You can also see that, if managed right, both universalism and an appreciation for multiculturalism come out of the respective positions and you have two positives. It’s not about choosing either/or, but about tweaking each of them to make them fit together.

I taught that seminar three times in the last three years before retirement. What looked like a very small historical note to pass over quickly in a first class meeting continued to pay off, not only for the way it informed the goals of digging deeper into an exploration of culture, but because it set up the issue of perspectives and some basis for understanding how ideology and historical accident can lead you to those perspectives.

What’s happening today in America is an issue parallel to the French/German debate. We’re debating Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian political philosophy – Hamilton being the American founding father of the pitch for a strong central government, and Jefferson the voice of the little guy desiring nothing more than to be left alone to grow in his own way and follow his own dreams.

Two reasonable positions taken by honest informed people in large part as a result of personal experience with the strengths and weaknesses of each perspective. When people compare two cultures, they tend to compare the best of one (usually one’s own) with the worst of another. When Republicans (Jeffersonians) look at Democrats, they see ward bosses, greedy folk seeking entitlements they haven’t earned. When Democrats (Hamiltonians) look at Republicans, they see people born on third base wondering why the masses don’t hit more home runs.

These are only two examples of ideological conflict. I’m sure any reader of history can come up with dozens without half trying. There’s communism and capitalism, for example. The weakness of communism is how it can stifle incentive, reward the weak and lazy. The weakness of capitalism is how it can create a world devoid of compassion, for people, for the environment, for anything but capital itself.

What I think we miss, much to our discredit, is that the good points of each argument in which intelligent people can agree to disagree can lead to staleness, irrelevance and blindness. Jefferson’s states’ rights notion isn’t a bad notion, but it did lead to a defence of slavery. Don’t ask/don’t tell and separate-but-equal policies were improvements over what went before, but both turned out to be institutionalized abuse. We have no choice but to keep the conversation going, keep revisiting policies and seeing whether they still make sense, keep an open mind and a fresh sense of dedication. We need a healthy democracy.

When I read about this debate going on between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, I wonder if David Brooks is right (his article in this morning’s New York Times is what prompted this reflection) – that this is a healthy moment of debate, and we should not pay too much attention to the loudmouths on the perifery. If that’s what is happening – and it’s always tempting to believe the media are skewing the coverage too much toward the troublemakers and not giving us a balanced idea of what is happening – if that’s what is happening, these are not the worst of times.

Trouble is, I have lost faith in the American media and in Americans’ ability to keep their eye on the real issues – like the relative merits of republican virtue and democratic compassion.

Much as I’d like, I can’t help zooming in on such things as the loss of domestic partner rights in Arizona, the Senate’s decision not to give Amtrak any money unless they permit guns on trains, Nancy Pelosi’s tears of fear that the incivility of today is bringing us back to the days when Dan White shot Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, and the fact that the Democrats, bought off by insurance company profiteers, are selling us down the river on health care…

And I’m not blaming the media for this coverage, either. These are important issues. It’s just that I wish somehow as these lesser issues arise we could up our debate on the larger issues in proportion.

How do we keep focused on fundamental debates in a world of Bill O’Reillys and Larry Springers? How do we make democracy a topic over which we debate, not duel. We’re now trying to extricate ourselves from Iraq, which we stormed into not so long ago, claiming to be bringing the gift of democracy. What do we have to do to get it to work here?

I know this question is of interest to more than five or six people on the planet.

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