HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 15, 2008
From Liberty Street

A Question of Unity

John Turner


Recently, I've been reading once again Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. It seems that every time I work my way through it, I find it to be a better book than I thought it was before.

The idea that caught my attention most forcefully this time is Arnold's contention that contact with the main current of national life is of great value. He was applying his opinion to the Nonconformist Protestants in Victorian England and arguing that by being out of touch with the main current of national life they were making themselves narrow and rigid, and, therefore, hurting both themselves and the nation.

I have little doubt that Arnold was right about his time and his country, but how about with respect to now and to the United States? Is there anything we can call the main current of national life? Are there significant groups out of touch with it and, therefore damaging both themselves and others?

I thought for quite a while about whether we have a main current in our national life, and nothing came readily to mind. The closest I conceived was the environmental movement, the effort to protect ourselves against transformations of nature that will leave us less able to enjoy a healthy life. A majority of people seem to be vaguely in favor of maintaining nature as we used to know it. Yet, there is small agreement about how to do it or what should be sacrificed to bring it about. It's certainly a current in American life but to call it the main current is probably an exaggeration.

I suppose certain Republican nationalists might insist that keeping America number one is the main current of the nation. But what do they mean by the statement? How does number oneness manifest itself? Is it simply a matter of having more guns and bombs than anyone else? If that's the criterion, I doubt a majority of Americans are so concentrated on it as to give it the status of the main current.

Perhaps there are people who will say that our traditions of civil rights and personal freedom constitute the main flow in our lives. Yet, whenever the government decides to destroy any of these in the so-called interests of security, there have been few complaints. The sheepish compliance of thousands each day who accept the indignities of airport checkpoints is evidence that Americans don't worry much about their own freedoms, much less the freedoms of their fellow citizens. If they did, we wouldn't have the largest prison population in the world or a criminal justice system that is widely considered to be abusive and disgraceful.

I can't find a main current nor can I imagine one coming into being anytime soon. Maybe the notion of a nation's having an identifying belief system or a distinctive set of values is simply a thing of the past, something to be pontificated about during political campaigns but nothing which affects the way people actually live.

If that's the case, is it a development to be regretted or celebrated?

I'm not sure.

Arnold had in mind, of course, a certain attitude and system of value which he called culture. He defined it as being the love of perfection and the study of perfection. But perfection is a concept Americans generally reject. In truth, much of the time they dismiss it as elitist.

Suppose you were to conduct a poll to examine whether people think that Meryl Streep's manners are more perfect than Sarah Palin's? Or what if you asked whether Bill O'Reilly were more or less educated than Bill Moyers? The result, I suspect, would be merely a hubbub, a concoction of swirling eddies rather than a current.

The concept of a unified American view of things strikes me as being gone away. I guess I'm sad that it is, though I need to reflect that a unified conception can be stultifying and oppressive. But whether it's good or it's bad, it's gone. So we need to consider how to live in its absence.

Can there be any such thing as a cultured life in a society which has no culture (in an Arnoldian sense)? There can, of course, but it has to occur within small groups who are fairly well divided from the whole, the very thing Arnold was railing against.

I used to rail against it too. I was irritated by friends who knew nothing of popular TV shows and current blockbuster movies. I said they were burying their heads in the sand. Now, I'm beginning to ask, what else can you do? I confess, I can't keep up with the latest ups and downs on Survivor.

The very fact that I will sit down and read Culture and Anarchy shows me how cut off I am. But, then, I'm no more cut off than anyone else.


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