HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 16, 2008
From Liberty Street

American Culture

John Turner


In Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869, Matthew Arnold said, "a true conception of culture is, as Monsieur Renan's words show, just what America fails in." Most Americans, I suppose, if they were to know of this judgment, would dismiss it as an example of Victorian snobbery. Certainly, it does have elements of snobbery in it. But I wonder if we are justified in ignoring it altogether.

I was thinking of Matthew Arnold yesterday as I watched Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich hold forth on Sunday morning talk shows. They were both expressing puritanical assessments of the recent Supreme Court decision on habeas corpus, and in doing so. They had no respect, whatsoever, for the reasoning of the majority. They appeared not to want in the least to know what that reasoning was. They were staunch in their denunciation, and their staunchness in their own minds was solid evidence for their rectitude. They were doing what Arnold tells us puritans always do, walking staunchly in the best light they have and taking no care to insure that their light be not darkness.

Is this American culture? Are Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich the representative samples of what we have brought forth. And if they are, what does it portend for our future?

Later in the day, after having watched the Sunday morning shows and suffering a certain nausea as a result, I went to my front porch to chat with two young Mormons who were there on their annual quest to show me how I should think of God and his dispensation for humankind. As usual, I enjoyed the conversation. These young representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were unfailingly courteous, and appeared to listen attentively to everything I said. But when I studied their eyes I saw they were not listening, but waiting. It didn't matter what I said, or what I thought. They were ready to let it wash by them, and then to return to their preachment which was actually the only thing they had in mind.

I mentioned as I always do when the Mormon youth come to my door, a couple of books they might find interesting. Though these are generally books that have been reviewed prominently over the past months, not a single one of the Mormon boys has ever heard of one of them. This isn't surprising. After all, they're just kids, and most young people of their age, Mormon or not, are unaware of what's being written and published in America.

One item I mentioned was James Carse's recent book titled A Religious Case Against Belief.  I pointed out that when belief cuts off questioning and wondering, then an important -- and probably essential -- element of religion has been lost. They nodded, as though they understood what Carse was saying. But, actually, understanding what anybody else said was not their concern. They had the truth and their job was to impart it. I'm pretty sure that by the time they got back to the sidewalk, Carse's name, his book, his argument had passed completely out of their minds. After all, they have to make sure their minds are reserved for purity and purity alone. Is that the American way? Is that American culture?

We talked a bit about other faiths. I discovered they thought that Islam and Muslimism are two separate religions. But what does that matter, since neither could possibly be of any consequence? They are false and these two boys have the whole truth, or a pretty close approximation of it, in their own heads.

Matthew Arnold maintained that an essential element of culture -- again in its true sense -- was a stretching out towards totality. It's often said that America is intensely insular, that Americans care only about what happens inside their own borders and that they will notice anything else only when it promises to have an impact inside America. And America's prime impulse with respect to outside impacts is to shoot them down, or build a fence to keep them out. There's not much totality in that desire.

To a degree, American culture may have been set on a course from the beginning which sought to keep everything else out. In America, we define what the coming world is going to be and we don't really need to hear from anybody else what they think about the future.

Perhaps that's the culture we really want. But I suspect that in pursuing it we will increasingly run athwart the rest of the world. And that might cause turmoil from without more intense than any we have conceived. It may well jump over any fences we can build -- and then where will we be with our purity?


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