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The Hidden Work Of Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that living in Paris requires effort — physical effort, given all the stairs, and the “strong culture of pedestrianism.” Adapting to life in the French capital requires more than physical effort, though; it requires readjusting your American norms, and accepting that things in Paris are just different. TNC notices that there aren’t many fat people in Paris, but there aren’t as many sleek or musclebound fitness obsessives as back home. He says people look like he remembers them looking in America in 1983. Here’s more from this great post; he’s talking about how overwhelmingly old France looks to American eyes:

With that age comes a great dose of tradition, and a sense of the conservative. Things are done at a certain way. You don’t just roll up on someone and say “Excusez-moi…” and then proceed into your query. You had better start with a “Bonjour” or a “Bonsoir.”  The specifics of their language means much more to them then it means to us. I think actually all of this suits me better. I love old things, and I loved old Europe before I ever bore witness. I wanted to study Charlemagne in high school. I didn’t really know how. And I am terrorized by choice back home–by the take-out menus, the calorie counts, the organic, the local, the low-fat. By the end of the day, my brain is mush. I can’t regulate.

We talk about culture as a way of establishing hierarchies — as though a hammer could, somehow, be innately better than a hacksaw. I believe that cultures take shape for actual reasons, responding to real environments. If Americans love choice, if we love our air-conditioning, and our ice, if we love our comforts, and our elevators, the question should not be, “How do we change?” for that too is a kind of colonization. Better to ask “Why do we love those things? How do they profit us? What we do we stand to lose should we abandon them?”

I love the tradition of low architecture here. But I also wonder how that tradition affects the cost of living for actual people. And so this is the other thing about culture. It tends to be an interlocking network, a machine of related gears, pulleys and levers. The thing you find so valuable may well be related to something else which you find utterly objectionable. I suspect that the instinct toward ensuring an abundance of fresh, high-quality food is not so distant from the instinct to ban the burka.

There is surely some knowledge to be taken back home. But in thinking about myself and my country, and “cultural” change, I find that I am more reformist than revolutionary. We are who we are. Our unchanging acre is forever our own.

You know, I take it, that TNC is very much on the cultural left, but here he’s expressing an innate conservatism that reminds me of Peter Kreeft’s illuminating 1996 essay on “the politics of architecture” in First Things, in which the theologian writes of discovering that he, a traditionalist-minded Catholic, and a secular radical friend had more in common regarding their opinions about architecture than either of them had in common with their conventional liberal and conventional conservative friends. Please read it!

About being “terrorized by choice” back in America: that’s a real thing. Studies and analysis by Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister found that the act of making a decision depletes our brain’s energy. When one is confronted by lots of choices, and has to make them to navigate through the day, mental fatigue sets in, and one falls back on instinct or custom, simply as a matter of coping. (See Baumeister talk about this process here.) There is a physiological reason why choice, which is what we all say we want, is not what we really want — as Devo taught us.  It’s hard for modern Americans to recognize it, but there is freedom in submitting to tradition and custom. I think about how much more devoted to traditional manners and etiquette Southerners are, and how once you know the code, it makes social life so much less stressful. You know the correct way to behave no matter the situation, because That’s The Way We Do It. Once you begin to think a lot about why we do it that way (whatever “it” is), you may think your way to a reform of a custom that has outlived its usefulness, but you may also destroy a custom that was useful in ways you won’t fully appreciate until it’s gone.

Which leads me to TNC’s point about culture as an interlocking but hidden network. This is the most basic social-conservative conviction, and why social conservatives are deeply suspicious of change. As the saying goes, before you tear a fence down, you should ask why it was built in the first place. We Americans are very bad at considering why fences we find block our desired path might have been constructed. All we know is that we want to go this way, and that fence is in our way. Lacking a sense of history, of tradition, of custom, we do not see in the fence a sign that might tell us that what we desire is a bad idea, even if we don’t fully understand why. We simply see an obstacle to fulfilling our desires — and we work to tear it down.

Maybe the fence needed to come down for moral or aesthetic reasons. Or maybe its removal will occasion a host of ills that we wouldn’t have brought on ourselves if we had respected prescriptive wisdom and left it in place. This describes so many of our debates and controversies. It gets to the heart of liturgical reform. It gets to the heart of the same-sex marriage debate.

TNC is onto something when he intuits that “the instinct toward ensuring an abundance of fresh, high-quality food is not so distant from the instinct to ban the burka.” For the French, food culture and food tradition is a central part of their national identity. Banning the burka was justified in terms of republican values, but it’s really all about protecting national identity against the Other. This basic sentiment connects Jose Bové, the radical French farmer and anti-globalization activist, with his burka-banning countrymen. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the environmentalist plank of a British political party’s platform:

– The removal of unsightly overhead power lines from beauty spots and their burial underground;

The creation of a bulk transport tax regime that pushes supermarkets to supply more local and seasonal produce;

– The encouragement of an extensive and rapid switchover to organic and low fossil fuel farming techniques;

– The banning of the ritual slaughter of animals without pre-stunning, and the sale of such meat;

– The elimination of the unhealthy, energy intensive and cruel factory farming of livestock;

– The abolition of all “stealth taxes” and other charges on household rubbish collections.

– Develop alternative transport fuels such as bio-diesel and hydrogen;

– Develop renewable energy sources such as wave and sea currents energy, tidal and solar energy;

– Investigate the feasibility of cutting-edge, intrinsically-safe, fast-breeder nuclear stations;

– Invest in a high-speed, magnetic levitation, inter-city rail network;

– Allow the building of a new privately-funded airport on reclaimed land in the Thames estuary to reduce the pressure on, and stop the constant expansion of, the South East’s airports.

How very green and progressive, yes? That is the environmental program of the far-right British National Party. 

Closer to home — and closer to TNC’s main point — I think about the longstanding tension in my own parish (county) about whether or not Walmart should come here. Some say that welcoming Walmart would destroy what few local businesses we have left, and permanently change the physical, economic, and cultural texture of our area. Others say that the local stores don’t provide adequately for our needs, and not having a Walmart here makes everyday life more difficult for folks. They’re both right. The question is whether or not the change that building a Walmart would bring is a positive one or a negative one.

The thing progressives on the Walmart question (and their number includes many political conservatives, just to be clear) say is that the cultural, economic, and physical environment should change to suit contemporary needs. The thing traditionalists (and their number includes many political liberals) say is that accepting this particular change would destroy something good that can’t be recovered once it’s gone.

Progressives: But we want it! Why shouldn’t we have what we want?

Traditionalists: Your desire is disordered. You should want what is best for you and for us all. 

For all its history of political radicalism, America, the Enlightenment liberal country par excellence, really is more culturally radical than France, precisely in this way. This, relatedly, is why capitalism is far more revolutionary than anything else in modernity. The French, who are far more socialist than we are, allow themselves to be far more bound to tradition than we Americans do. It’s in their nature, and in ours — for better and for worse (e.g., France’s economic stagnation is tied to its traditionalism). It’s something that you have to experience, as TNC has, to really understand.

Finally, to draw this rambling post to a close, I commend to you Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Work Of Local Culture.” Excerpt:

In the woods, the bucket is no metaphor; it simply reveals what is always happening in the woods, if the woods is let alone. Of course, in most places in my part of the country, the human community did not leave the woods alone. It felled the trees, and replaced them with pastures and crops. But this did not revoke the law of the woods, which is that the ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation, and that the growth of the years must return—or be returned—to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance, within the bounds of domesticity, of this natural law. If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil-building will be resumed by nature.

A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this. Once we have acknowledged this principle, we can only be alarmed at the extent to which it has been ignored.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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