Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In Search of a Common Culture

It's Political Tuesday, and I'm looking for the Common American Culture.  Do we have one?  Did we ever?  Should there be one?  What should the role of a hypothetical American Culture be in bringing terrorists to justice?  Why are people more concerned about the Miranda rights of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev than finding and stopping anyone who might be backing him?  And why, of all people, do I find myself agreeing with Bill Maher (it will almost certainly be the only time)?

When I want to bang my head against a brick wall, there's one place I usually go, and I went there this morning, and engaged in a few posts back and forth with people exploring the frightening question put forward by the original poster about this typical college kid, "How do we get from 0 to &%$ crazy in such a short time?"  There then followed a fairly predictable exchange.  Key points made by various members of the group (and I'm paraphrasing freely here):

They acted alone; they weren't smart enough to do a really expert terrorism job.  He's surely having a despairing moment now as he comes to the realization of what he's done. The anti-Muslim hate coming from the conservatives is just terrible. But wait, Bill Maher has a point... it's getting harder to ignore that all the terrorists come from one group.  Oh, but you're forgetting all the abortion clinic bombers from the Christian right, and the attacks on gays... here's a link to all the Christian terrorist incidents. But not many in the last several years; abortion clinics don't count because Christians aren't targeting civilians/ innocent bystanders... well neither one of those is quite the right word, but they weren't targeting the general public.  But Timothy McVeigh, and Anders Breivik in Norway.  These were Christian right guys.  No, they were political fanatics. It's just wrong to be offensive.  Well, only one group is killing people who offend them.  Should people be killed because they drew cartoons of Mohammed?  Well, I find South Park incredibly offensive.  Well, should the creators of South Park be killed? Really? Well, I find the people who want to end abortion incredibly offensive. Muslim terrorists, IF there are any, act out because they are disenfranchised by the wealthy and powerful capitalists of the world.  Anyone who disagrees with me is obviously a capitalist pig and therefore not to be trusted.  Abortion is not nearly as taboo as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed.  Well, actually it is, if you believe it's murder. But only anti-women extremists believe that.

At some point in the jumble, I jumped in.  I'm not sure why. I've been thinking about the lack of a common American culture and how it's contributing to the disintegration of our civilization.  I had intended to blog about that today.  I have also been reading Real Education by Charles Murray, and it's referencing Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch.  So today, instead of a completely coherent blog post, I'm going to share my own words, written out this morning at various points in a rambling conversation in a group that likes to think of itself as a kind of Fight Club.  I feel like I wasted my eloquence, but there it is... there's no energy left over to tie it all together for you.

Everybody’s scared of a random madman. But the Boston terrorists were not obviously madmen. They had a family, they were part of a normally happy, multi-ethnic American immigrant culture that has always in the past been a positive part of the Boston community. They were athletes themselves, and they attacked a sporting event. I think this has a lot of people questioning, “what holds us together as a society, anyway?”

***(Fair question, I think what holds us together is mutual respect.  Terrorists and madmen are the same thing).

I think madness and acts of terrorism are two different things that often overlap. (Ideologues become madmen when they act out their hatred; madmen are recruited by ideologues to do their dirty work). We may not ever know, but I sure hope they investigate thoroughly whether outside groups recruited the two brothers. It seems more likely, given the fact that they were not obviously unstable in the eyes of people who knew them.
As to what holds us together as a society, I don’t think mutual respect is enough to cope with terrorists and madmen. At least in part, I think we have lost the common culture that once held us together, so that we could all agree on how to respond to acts like this. How to identify and stop the madmen/terrorists before they act is even harder, especially how to do it without infringing the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

***Giving offense is okay if it's art.  What if it's just to make money? I'm sure South Park is just in it to make money.  Then it's not okay. And the Bible never says abortion is murder.  Do you think the US ever really had a common culture?

Oh yes, I do think there was a common culture up through at least the Baby Boomer generation. This isn’t to say there was political unanimity, of course. But when a national threat arose, there was always a unified response to it, regardless of politics. Individualism has been trumping community though, ever since the 1960’s.
Now, if I mention Cultural Literacy and E.D. Hirsch, for example, and talk about the need for schools to emphasize our common cultural heritage when they teach history, the kindest reaction I’m likely to get is, “how quaint!”
I don’t even want to think about what the reaction might be to a suggestion that we should look more closely at immigration law and whom we allow to enter the country, to make sure that they are in agreement with our common American culture… since even we Americans can’t agree on what it is. And that’s without bringing up religion at all.

***It was never the common culture, it was just imposed on everyone else by the media and the power group.

No, I don’t think it was just the media. In fact, we’re much more a media-centered society now than then. Actually, the proliferation of different forms of media has allowed us to pursue our individual interests to the point that we don’t feel we have to have something in common with our neighbors.

***But slavery! The Civil War! McCarthyism! The Scopes monkey trial! Japanese internment in WWII!

All of those things are part of our common history and therefore of our common culture, whether we agree on them or not. i.e., slavery happened, Northern states opposed it, Southern states practiced it, the Civil War resulted. We can all agree on that, but ask a Southerner and a Northerner about it, even today, and you’ll get very different perspectives on the details. That’s probably the best argument against a common culture, but in the end, we did hold together as a nation and we didn’t fragment. I’m not talking about who wins politically. I’m not even talking necessarily about what was right and wrong. I do think it’s important to say so when we see an injustice in history; but I believe focusing only on the wrongs will lead to a fragmented society. So that now we tend to focus on small, disenfranchised groups, and yes, we’re sorry for what has happened to them. But we’ve lost the big picture of what it means to be Americans.
The current generation knows only a fraction of the basic facts of history that are part of cultural literacy. I knew them, and I would say that they are the examples that are most frequently used to divide, rather than unite. But I know them, even if I probably would have a different political reaction to many of them than you. I don’t think even the more basic facts of American history (13 colonies, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, War for Independence, War of 1812, Lewis and Clark, Westward expansion, Civil War, Industrialism, the World Wars, etc.) are that familiar to modern schoolkids. And what they know of them, they have often seen through the lens of the disenfranchised groups: the oppressed Native Americans, the oppressed African-Americans, the oppressed women, the oppressed Japanese. I think they are tuning the rest out and coming away with the message that Americans must be bad because they oppressed all these people. In the Boston case, I question whether these young men ever Americanized at all. Both of these results are things that I believe we should all work together to fix, going beyond party lines and even religious lines.
So I guess my question is, do you believe the government (i.e., those with power) has a responsibility to promote a common culture for a nation? (I do). To what extent, and how much should it do to promote that common culture amongst the citizens? Is it offensive to teach the facts of history, and to say that there are still hotly debated opinions about those facts even today? (I support teaching the facts, mentioning the debates, but not preaching at students that they should all have one certain opinion, because I know that’s not effective or professional, and will turn students off faster than anything else). And probably most relevant to events like Boston, how far should the government and citizens be willing to go to stop young people from getting sucked into the kind of extremism that we saw there? That’s the hardest question, with no black and white answers, and one that all Americans should agree is an important one.

***What do you mean by culture? I don't understand you at all.

Culture.  Definition 1: the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
And definition 6: Anthropology . the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

What would be the non-negotiable aspects of the American way of life that we absolutely want passed on to the next generation?

So that was it, CarpeLanam banging her head against a brick wall.  That was enough for one day, and I left off and went to teach ancient language and history to middle-schoolers, who seemed so very reasonable by comparison.  Sorry I didn't have the time to organize it all for the blog, but it is what it is.  Some days are more random than others.

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