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The Hidden Work Of Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that living in Paris requires effort [1] — 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 [2], 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 [3].) 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.  [4] 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 [5], 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.  [6]

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.” [7] 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.

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18 Comments To "The Hidden Work Of Culture"

#1 Comment By Todd On August 6, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

TNC notices that there aren’t many fat people in Paris

There aren’t very many fat natives in Manhattan either.

#2 Comment By Ben in SoCal On August 6, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

Excepting small pocket of culture in northern New England, America is wholly addicted to cheap foreign goods. Consumerism is such a mental poison; Wal-Mart and the big box chain culture thrives in this country for the very reason of our nation not wanting to work hard. Nor do we know how to, as we have built up a contemporary culture that, in general, possesses no veritable skills by hand.

#3 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 6, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

I think you are missing the certain glee that Americans take in tearing down traditions. We do it because it is, well, fun. We don’t reform custom, we destroy it.

You can see it with the reaction to the Pope. No one cares about what he is saying, even if they know what he is saying. What is getting the attention is that he is driving the traditionalists up the wall. It is good to drive traditionalists up the wall, before running them over with bulldozers.

Happy Bomb Day. (this is one of the high holy days in the Cosimanian Orthodox calendar.)

#4 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 6, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

>>TNC notices that there aren’t many fat people in Paris

>There aren’t very many fat natives in Manhattan either.

What do both places have in common?

Both are places in which public transportation and walking are often the primary means of getting around (and the former implies much of the latter), as opposed to automobiles.

#5 Comment By collin On August 6, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

Why say Progressives with conservatives in notes? Those wacky progressives in city council are trying all kinds ridiculous measures to keep Wal Mart out of DC. (Read Slate for the Matt’s Progrestarian POV.) That said I still think the conservative religous are not really losing the battle against activist governments long term (yes short term is different) but to the competitve global economy.

#6 Comment By Patrick On August 6, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

“I love old things, and I loved old Europe before I ever bore witness. ”

Be careful, Mr. Coates: “old Europe” is also *Catholic* Europe. Hilaire Belloc’s “Europe and the Faith” is an underrated gem.

#7 Comment By Dan On August 6, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

So much to endorse in this post! But I’ll comment on two.

In my small town, which is on the way to nowhere but a very desirable place to live, a decision was made several years ago to keep out the chain stores (grandfathering in the two supermarket chains, a McD’s and Subway that were already here). The reason was to encourage local business. I love it! It limits choice, but there’s freedom in that (and more variety than you’d initially guess). You can go to the big-box stores 40 minutes away if you must. It encourages delving more deeply into what is local–and there’s plenty to delve into.

The fences–and what I call the intelligence of tradition–reminds me of the story that surfaced after the tsunami in Japan a few years ago. There are numerous stone markers–some of them quite ancient–set up in a good number of coastal areas, with inscriptions warning future residents not to build their homes any closer to the water than HERE. Why? Because tsunamis have swept in this far. The ancient traditions were not always heeded (at least one town went for the technological solution of a massive seawall, which failed), and disaster ensued. But there was at least one hamlet that respected the tradition/marker and was spared. Both the foresight of the ancestors and the adherence to the tradition are food for thought.

#8 Comment By Scott On August 6, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

I’ve always considered the back-to-nature commune movement in the 60s to be a reactionary one. Most people associated it with a kind of left wing socialism but it always seemed to me to a rejection of modernity and the on-rush of technology and materialism of the Post WWII culture. We see echoes of that today in community sustained agriculture, organic foods, etc. It is neither left nor right but a genuine conservatism about community.

#9 Comment By J DeSales On August 6, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

That’s one of the fundamental problems with America, that everyone thinks they know best without even considering that the past has anything to offer, much less that any old thing is better than new things. It’s always onward and upward heedlessly here. And like you said, the problem is the mindset of capitalism and of the Enlightenment (Descartes putting all philosophy out of his head to start anew), which is why it’s a problem throughout the political spectrum.

The real question I have, though, is what traditions does America really have? I feel as though America has always had this mindset and always will. That it’s part of our tradition to constantly ignore tradition.

#10 Comment By Todd On August 6, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

What do both places have in common?

Rich people?

Wealth and obesity are inversely correlated in the first world.

#11 Comment By Sam M On August 6, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

“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.”

Oh, I think we want choice. Mostly. We just don’t want other people to have choice. Or we think that their desire for choice indicates that they are frou-frou or too demanding or unpatriotic.

For instance, we have lots of choice in education. Public school. Private schools. Home schooling. I doubt Rod would want rules limiting choice in that regard, or huge food tariffs that limited access to Belgian beers.

This in not a shot at Rod. Everybody is like this. Choice is awesome in areas where we have a strong interest in making a choice. But in other areas? It’s silly and wasteful. What’s wrong with Miller Lite? Those people are snobs. What’s wrong with Top 40 radio? Those alternative people are snobs.

[NFR: I know, we are all implicated in it. I choose to homeschool because I am confident it’s better for my children, for various reasons, than the alternatives. One of those reasons is that I love that my 12 year old read The Odyssey last year, and will this year read The Iliad. I love that he is being taught about foundational texts of Western civilization at such a young age. I consider that traditional. But it is not communal, and it is not the tradition of my place and community. Similarly, I helped start a parish mission from a Christian tradition completely alien to this place and its history, rather than join one of the local expressions of Christianity, which are rooted in this place. I did it because I believe Orthodox Christianity is true, and one reason I believe it’s true is because of its traditionalism. The questions arise: Whose tradition? Where do you draw the line in the past? If you are a Christian who prizes tradition, do you view the Reformation as the Golden Age? The High Middle Ages? The Age of the Church Fathers? You see where I’m going. — RD]

#12 Comment By sk On August 6, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

“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. ”

How is this different from a bunch of Americans mocking a foreigner’s thick accent? In other words, doesn’t it make the French sound like a bunch of pricks?

“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?””

Wait, what? Isn’t implicit in this statement the view that Americans’ love of choice is something bad that should be overcome? In other words, that this aspect of American culture is worse than French (or, to use his metaphor, this American hacksaw is indeed worse than the French hammer)? Why feel obligated to change at all?

And besides: “…for that too is a kind of colonization.” Blech. Ice-in-coke cultural habits are subject to sociology graduate student pretention. You like this guy’s writing: is it always like this?

“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.””

Really? When I read it, I immediately thought it was absurd.

” 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.”

How do you know?
(Besides: you are a foodie: do you want to ban the burka?)

” 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:”

Ah, I see. You prove your thesis, that banning the burka in France was not about republican values, but rather about resisting the Other, by quoting the environmental program of a political party in Britain? Britain and France are separate countries, you know….

I think TNC’s elliptical use of metaphor and high-culture references has blinded you to his arguments…

#13 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 6, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

It seems there is a difference between “ensuring and abundance of fresh, high-quality food”, and the outlawing of canned food, junk food, and other foodstuffs deemed sufficiently devoid of freshness and high-quality.

Banning the burqa is more like the latter than the former.

Of course, this gives me an excuse to once again link to one of Krugman’s older essays, on why [8] for so long. And the essay does suggest that TNC may be on to something; that one reason that French cuisine is so good is that the French have resisted (somewhat) the commoditization of food production. OTOH, here in Portland we’ve got foodie heaven, but there are plenty of McDonalds and such to go around as well…

#14 Comment By Sam M On August 6, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

Rod,

Agreed on that note added to my comment. He says he’s a traditionalist, but in obvious ways he’s not. He does seem willing to wrestle with the fact that he’s selective about it, though.

At the end of the day, is anyone really a traditionalist? Does anyone endorse or support a tradition that infringes on aethetic or cultural choices that they care about?

I like it when tradition forces other people to speak certain ways. But I hate it when it infringes on my capacity to express myself as I see fit. I love localist food policies. Ones that make it easier for me to get the food I like, I mean. Other ones are stupid.

In a sense, we all like what we like, and we prefer to give that certain subset of choices an attractive label.

#15 Comment By Ben in SoCal On August 6, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

A new movement called “Strong Towns” posted a decent article about what they describe as “Cut-and-Paste” communities. All throughout North Carolina (where I happily lived for 9 years), sprawl has spread like wild fire for the past 30 years; this is how many of their towns are, especially in the Piedmont Triad/Research Triangle. Octopus cities absorbing smaller towns and valuable working farmland.

Where is this so-called Southern sense of tradition? Never encountered it in NC, except up in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.

Wal-Mart in every city, McDonald’s on every corner, Starbucks in every mall. And for some reason, gated communities with fancy British names/spelling are very popular in “conservative” states. Wilshire Estates… Canterbury Manor Farms… and countless examples.

Whereas in Maine, my beloved home state, you hardly see a one. Vermont, I can’t think of one at all. I truly wish there was a conservative movement that would embrace local, genuine, organic culture again.

(Forgive me if I have sounded combative. I just as distraught by the direction of this country in so many ways). God bless.

#16 Comment By Spartacus On August 6, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

Rod wrote: “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 . . . ”

Using an anecdote about a fringe political party in Britain is not a very compelling way to make an argument about a widely supported food policy in France.

“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. ”

The problem with the fence metaphor in a social conservative context is that the fences are usually erected in the complete absence of any of the problems social conservatives claim the fences are intended to protect against. Our favorite topic of SSM is the perfect example of this. Social conservatives claim marriage has been limited to opposite sexes in order to prevent the harm that is caused by SSM, but since there had never been a society that widely accepted SSM, it’s impossible to know what harm, if any, will come from it. And now that we have a least a few other that have tried it for 10 or so years without any harm, social conservatives are unwilling to acknowledge this basic fact. This history of suffrage for women and civil rights are other obvious examples.

Also, most people who call themselves conservatives today do not show any reluctance to tear down fences that serve the poor and middle classes. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc. were all established to mitigate known conditions that wreaked havoc, yet today’s “conservatives” seem to have no knowledge of what life was like for ordinary people before these programs were enacted.

#17 Comment By James C. On August 6, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

“Where is this so-called Southern sense of tradition? Never encountered it in NC, except up in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.

“Wal-Mart in every city, McDonald’s on every corner, Starbucks in every mall. And for some reason, gated communities with fancy British names/spelling are very popular in “conservative” states. Wilshire Estates… Canterbury Manor Farms… and countless examples.

“Whereas in Maine, my beloved home state, you hardly see a one. Vermont, I can’t think of one at all. I truly wish there was a conservative movement that would embrace local, genuine, organic culture again.”

I had the same experience living in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and ESPECIALLY Florida. Conservative areas? What are they conserving?! Which is why I, though a social conservative, felt more at home living in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine—not to mention my native upstate New York.

I can’t speak for Louisiana, having never been there.

#18 Comment By jacobus On August 6, 2013 @ 8:41 pm

“I had the same experience living in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and ESPECIALLY Florida. Conservative areas? What are they conserving?!”

Conserving the rights of speculators and developers to make as much money as possible.