Sunday, June 29, 2008

Culturist Black History Lesson

After Basketball, Barton and I were having an intense debate about culturism and censorship when he cut in with what seemed to be a total non sequitur, "That means that I and all black people's culture should not be allowed?"

Since he is black and I'm white and we never really discuss race, I felt I needed to tread delicately. "What does that mean? I'm not sure how you got there."

"Well black culture says that studying in school is acting white, that’s a big part of black culture, does that mean that black people are bad?" My reply got nodding and an acceptance of my side in a way that usually only happens in fantasy conversations.

"That is a very new kind of thinking."


“For most of history black people in this country have greatly esteemed education. The Little Rock Nine were those kids that got into the white school by the National Guard.”

“Yeah I know about them, fighting segregation.” “

“You think they didn’t want education? Slaves like Frederick Douglas especially prized education. Emancipation through education has traditionally been a black value. The whites in the South didn’t want them to have education, but they overcame and got access.”

“Yeah,” he said obviously thinking to himself. Then he asked the money question, “What happened to make the ideas change?”

It changes with leftist 1960s education historians like Michael Katz and David Tyack. These guys painted educational systems as rigged. They wrote books saying that mobility did not come from schools. Saying, it was all one big scam set up by rich people to make poor people think they had a chance and that their poverty was their own fault.”

“It all starts with them?” Barton was a little incredulous.

“Well the whole society was in turmoil then. But that was when they wrote and that’s when black people got attitude towards school. But a lot of that generation went from being on the left to being leftist.”

“What is the difference?”

“A person on the left still has hope that the system is benevolent overall and notices the improvement over time. They see things like ending slavery and integration as good proof of our nation getting better. Leftists think the system is rotten and oppressive and needs to be overthrown. They preach despair and revolution. And a lot of these people teach in education schools. That message gets passed along to students, sometimes subtlety, sometimes not.”

“You’re right, I was confused.” Then Barton laid out a beautiful conclusion, “We’ve got to teach that basic idea that black people have traditionally struggled for and wanted education again.”

“Damn straight. Got to get people into their greatest hope around.”


“That’s what I was trying to say. That’s culturism.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Culturist Tensions with my Muslim Friend

My oldest friend, Geeta, is a Muslim. I just saw her for the first time in six years. Geeta came to this country when she was 13 - the Ayatollah chased her family out. Her clothes, drinking habits and relationship patters - her basic values - are highly Americanized. Geeta is a rock n roll woman and someone I care deeply about. When we were kids, our differences did not bother us at all. But current political realities made this visit tense at the edges.

Geeta just returned from a month-long travel; she guesses that eighty percent of Iranians resent the Iranian government and it imposition of Islamic law. The economy and infrastructure are so messed up that most Iranians need to have three jobs to make ends meet. Iran's development has fallen so low that they cannot refine their own oil and have to import gasoline! If you fought against Iraq you get a pension. If you didn't, you are impoverished. She said Iran’s conservative election results reflect corruption, not popularity. Most Iranians, she reported, love Americans and Western products.

Geeta's descriptions of Iran were meant to convey that Iran and Muslims are not inherently anti-Western. As her parents are currently in Iran, she worries about our wanting to bomb her country. She fears the demonization of Muslims. As a positive and contributing citizen, she resents being automatically considered a terrorist. Geeta's only terrorism has only been against me in pinball. Her concerns illustrate that we needlessly increase our domestic and international tension when we demonize people and nations. Many Muslims are good Americans and there is a real chance that Iran will someday be a relatively benign partner.

Cultural affiliation, though, are real. And assimilation has limits. Likely due to the political climate and the multiculturalism of her native Oakland, California, Geeta still identifies Muslims as her people and her country as Iran. She even calls Palestinians "my people." This need not be harmful. Geeta's voting could restrain our impulse to go to war. Geeta identifies with Iranian sovereignty and does not want Islam to spread. My culturist views also respect Iran's sovereignty and cherish our freedoms. If we follow culturist principles and do not needlessly antagonize Muslims domestically or internationally, citizen’s affiliation with non-Western civilizations need not be so bad.

We must be aware of cultural dynamics. Geeta’s description of Iran shows that twenty percent of the population can rob eighty percent of the population of their freedoms. If we invade Iran, as Geeta and any culturist can tell you, the percentage of Muslims that hates the West will rise internationally and domestically. If we target Iran's nuclear facilities – and I think we must - we should be careful to avoid jingoistic demonizing of Muslims at home and abroad. Such talk would needlessly and insensitively hurt Geeta’s feelings and increase the odds of destruction from the Muslim community.

While I could discuss the culturist principle of isolationism with Geeta, I thought it would endanger our relationship to explain the correlated culturist policy that we should safeguard ourselves by stopping all immigration from Muslim nations until worldwide Islamic terror has long ceased. Immigrants identify with their homeland. If twenty percent of immigrating Iranians or their children wants Sharia law, increasing their numbers endangers us. Such an immigration policy would safeguard us and tell people living here that we value our nation and culture.

Looking backwards, I should have discussed all aspects of culturism with Geeta. The discussion could have been a test case to see if explaining Western interests could minimize the hurt from discriminatory culturist policy. Had I appealed to protecting the U.S. from the Sharia law Iran has been devastated by, our relationship may have survived the confrontation. Having seen what she has in Iran, Geeta likely appreciates Western freedoms more than your Western average citizen.

I regret that political events have shoved issues between us that we never had to consider as teenagers. I love Geeta and dearly value our friendship. Perhaps, our nation will follow wise culturist policy and the world will be fraught with less cultural tension when we next meet.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Creating Vibrant Culturist Communities

Coldwater, Michigan sounds like culturist heaven. In their newspapers one finds endless lectures prepared for citizens by citizens on literature, history and science. Debates and free classes must have reflected the historical, biblical and classical allusions evident in their two leading newspapers. They were culturist in that the town constantly sought to cultivate themselves through knowledge. Coldwater citizens built a full school system, a library and a YMCA. Coldwater’s citizens also displayed culturist propensities in that they sought to improve their world’s culture. Articles on social purity, reverend’s speeches on the duty to improving society regularly appeared in the newspaper. Women’s Christian Temperance Union meetings regularly filled the calendar. There was a Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. All of this action happened in a town with a population of about 2,500.

Thomas Bender’s wonderful small book, Intellect and Public Life, asserts that in the first half of the 19th century, “even places with small populations aspired to a full intellectual life.” The more one reads about small towns like Coldwater, the more one understands what vibrant associational communities small towns had. We also see that some retained vibrant intellectual communities longer than Bender notes. But, still and all, his tale of their decline rings true. Intellectual life has declined, and he sets out to explain it.

Professional universities helped to kill intellectual life. Originally, even in larger cities, intellectuals were enmeshed in their local civic culture and this emanated to small towns. When East coast intellectuals were discussing a book, all small towns knew of it and took it up. As urban centers got more diverse, there was less of a unified audience to whom to speak. “The urban intellectual, now standing essentially alone, faced a heterogeneous, anonymous, and vastly expanded audience.” (35) Professors professionalized and started talking to themselves. Intellectual life became something specialized professors did and they did not think it dignified or deep to spread their detailed research among the masses. Size and diversity killed community.

To prove a point, Bender shows this pattern repeating in the 1950s. Lionel Trilling’s 1950 The Liberal Imagination became the first serious paperback and made him one of the most influential intellectuals of his generation. Trilling used literature to make us critical thinkers and better citizens. He sought to jar us out of blindly accepting the alternatives given. Liberal in his work’s title referred to a wide spectrum of opinion being investigated – as in the liberal arts – not the narrow political sense of the word as we use it today. By the late 1960s, his audience had bifurcated into identity interest groups such as blacks, women, immigrants, gays, etc., Trilling’s assuming a cohesive national audience makes him totally irrelevant today.

In his conclusion Bender decries the distance from society and specialization that has overcome the university. Academic concerns include PC language concerns that do not speak to average citizen’s concerns. No one, he notes, wrote about the savings and loan debacles before they happened. Instead we get gendered discourses about the marginalized. He asks academics to engage in the search for truth with the community in pragmatic ways – to always make sure that our discussions resonate in the communities in which we are situated. This way we can affectively attack social problems and find relevance within the community once again.

Trilling would, I suspect, teach us another lesson. People do not look to their universities to tackle social problems. While this Liberal political agenda may be noble and appeal to half the populace, it does not inspire us. Outside of union rallies, Marxist materialism never made a community. Rather, universities must return to the role they have held since their founding – teaching Western thought and spawning debate. These subjects invigorate the imagination and encourage discussion. Rather than becoming objective policy advisors, as Bender shows academics did, they need to reclaim their positions as keepers of the Western flame. Unless we cultivate a common public cultural vocabulary, intellectual leaders will not have community to join, let alone lead.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Travel Lessons From Inside America

On my current road trip, my wife and I have been to Detroit, Birmingham, Ann Arbor and Coldwater, Michigan. In Birmingham we stayed with my uncle. He has some power in the automotive industry. I thought it a duty to tell him that I do not think American executives have been putting America first. He came back with some good culturist points. We agreed about the impact of international competition. Where he and I greatly disagreed was his putting so much of the blame on what unions have done to our work ethic.

We have been down sizing at an amazing rate. Detroit is an example of that which I speak. The industry has been slaughtered. One corporation went from 250,000 to 85,000 jobs within the last four years. Detroit's downtown has many, many closed businesses. That means that people like my uncle have to move to suburbs like Birmingham. The entire city of Detroit has been stranded. He told me that a lot of the jobs have gone to the South of the U.S. where unionization isn't as entrenched.

Not having the statistics to contend his assertion, I spoke generically about the merits of localism and the peril of globaism. Globalism not only bodes ill for those fired. Abandoned executive mansions circle downtown Detroit. While we were there a blackout that lasted five hours impacted our suburb. No American can get off of the grid and remove themselves from their fellow Americans. A big house, without power, surrounded by impoverished ex-employees does not strike me as ideal.

Ann Arbor appears to be a model for success. In Ann Arbor we went to Zingerman's famous deli. Their food is sublime. The passion for their staff for their specialties inspired me. University of Michigan has created a learning culture that has brought people from all over the world and seems to have created research centers that are supporting themselves. There is, as my uncle would say, opportunity in America if people would only have a progressive and disciplined culture. This is true, but not all people will create small businesses and staff research facilities.

We came to Coldwater because Frances Kellor, the head of the 20th century Americanization movement, grew up here. As a classic sociologist Kellor looked at society holistically. One half of her program to Americanize the immigrant involved getting native born Americans out of the blaming mode and into the helping mode. Workers need to ask themselves if their implementation of our traditional Protestant work ethic is falling behind that of China. But Kellor's Americanization told those in power that blaming is too easy. Americanization put pressure on all sectors of society to recognize that the West is a team that must compete with others. Where ever you travel in our Western nation you learn the culturist truth that we are all, rich and poor, in it together.