Culture is an unsolved problem

Among those who are willing to entertain hypotheses other than “systemic racism” for the woes of American blacks, pathology of black culture is an often-suggested culprit. They try to put it delicately, but the gist is that black culture is anti-intellectual, discourages responsibility and hard work, encourages its men to respond aggressively to minor perceived slights, and resists law enforcement while protecting and celebrating the criminals that prey upon it. There would be no shame in admitting to most of this, since none of it is unusual among the cultures of mankind. To give just one example, one needn’t look back very far in Western history to find many examples of whites romanticizing criminals. I think it’s pretty clearly true that such aspects of black culture do indeed impose inconvenience and suffering on the majority of blacks who are reasonably conscientious and law-abiding. Saying that black culture is whites’ fault, whether this is true or not, doesn’t change the problem or help formulate a solution.

The implied solution would be for black culture to become more like white culture. Whites have presumably figured out how to do culture. Just look at affluent liberal white neighborhoods. Low crime, encouragement to studiousness and responsibility, high civic engagement, a surfeit of compassion overflowing to third-world strangers, stray animals, anything anyone could imagine as an object of pity. Only the Jews and the Asians might be said to exceed these splendid whites; they’re just like whites, only more so. On the other hand, lower-class, rural (“racist”) conservatives are the the only group of whites blighted with a trace of black oneriness.

In fact, the white solution to culture is not as satisfactory as it superficially appears. There is a reason God cares more about the motives in mens’ hearts than outward acts, a reason Augustinians and Calvinists believe that the good works of the reprobate are only splendid vices. Notice how uncritically these same whites jump on every moral panic the media feeds them, how their infinite compassion immediately vanishes when dealing with anyone their moralistic crazes mark as a scapegoat. See how they denounce their own parents, their own children, anyone the moralistic mob turns on! How remarkable it is that they are immediately willing to credit any accusation against one of their friends that comes from a victim group. Such noble even-handedness, that any human sentiment of loyalty should be so totally alien to it! A man with only white friends has no one in the world who will give him the benefit of doubt. A room of a dozen affluent liberal whites is a room of as many spies. If black culture is “snitches get stitches” culture, white culture is snitch culture. I’m no longer shocked by the number of Germans who reported to the Stasi on their neighbors and friends–Americans are no different. At the sight of such shameless treachery one recognizes white conscientious, white civic-mindedness for what it truly is, an overriding terror of ostracism.

(The conformism and docility of the white upper classes should be distinguished from the virtue of obedience, which can be thought of as loyalty to legitimate authority. Conformism is a mere psychological predilection. Morally, it is neither positive nor negative in itself, although it is ordinarily a useful trait, since society depends on people conforming to group expectations most of the time. True loyalty to one’s leader, on the other hand, remains resolute whether one is surrounded by fellow loyalists or by mutineers.)

(Also, the docility of upper class whites should be distinguished from simple cowardice, since a coward might only pretend to conform while secretly dissenting, but these people are terribly sincere. They really think the convictions being fed to them are their own. However, when a school of fish executes complicated movements in unison, one does not think that each fish is acting independently. The fact that all our moral betters manage to erratically change beliefs in unison is the tell. I can believe that old-school class-warfare Marxists and trans-exclusionary feminists have independent beliefs–they zigged when the collective zagged. But those who never miss a turn?)

Culture is an unsolved problem. We know how to make aggressive, reckless men and high-crime, low-trust neighborhoods. We know how to make docile men in neighborhoods that are very pleasant as long as one is a conformist oneself and doesn’t mind being surrounded by snitches. Neither is exactly the human type we are after. One can also find intermediate cases, where the virtues and vices of both extremes are present but at lower intensity. We do not know how to combine independent-mindedness with public-spiritedness, both at full strength, so that when such men arise, we must simply take them as a gift from God.

Whig history is unsatisfying, both intellectually and emotionally. Whigs believe both that their preferred policies are self-evident to all men of good will but also believe that human civilizations went by for thousands of years without ever suspecting them, and often violently rejected them when they were first proposed. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it leads us to have a low opinion of our ancestors, who must have been very great fools, and our inheritance, which would then be less valuable than this morning’s newspaper. Faced with this alternative, the idea that something is an unsolved problem is a surprisingly happy thought. No ethnicity has any cause for shame or chauvinism. None of us has found the magic formula for a successful culture; it hasn’t been found yet at all, if it even exists. We can still hold out the hope that there is something better in store for mankind than affluent white closed-mindedness and self-righteousness.

13 thoughts on “Culture is an unsolved problem

  1. Hi, Bonald. That’s a good point that there is plenty of revoltingness to go around. Presumably the first step in altering cultural pathologies is acknowledging them as your own responsibility, not some other groups’.

    • Surely, white culture has been too forthcoming in acknowledging its pathologies compared to other cultures? Not to mention that all platforms of acknowledgement come courtesy of white culture.

      • Methinks rather that ‘white culture’ has been too forthcoming in acknowledging all the pathologies which do not, in fact, afflict it, and extremely lax in acknowledging those that do.

  2. Personally, I’d prefer to live in a society of ‘snitches get stitches’ than a snitch one. The latter implies an all-consuming totalitarianism.

  3. It is often said that culture shapes attitudes with its celebrated heroes, but the hypothesis is disconfirmed in this case. A majority of American children’s books celebrate rebels, non-conformists and oddballs, but those children grow up into a mass of highly conventional nonconformism. Writers beginning with Tocqueville have argued that democracy breeds conformism because social status is precarious in a democracy. Tocqueville also argued that democracy encourages ostracism because opinions that are good enough for one man are good enough for another. I think both of Tocqueville’s points apply with special force in the upper middle class because we have a serious overproduction of elites. But even this doesn’t fully explain conformism. Tenured professors are theoretically somewhat sheltered from status anxiety and job insecurity, but they are more conformist than doctors and lawyers.

    I don’t want a culture that produces more nonconformists, only a culture that treats me a little better when I color outside the lines.

  4. I think part of the problem is regarding this as a problem of the kind that could be ‘solved’ – presumably by some kind of analysis, policy or restructuring; to be devised and implemented by some wise person or group – presumably?
    But if mortal life is well designed (by God) for individuals (God’s children) to have experiences and learn from them (in preparation for resurrected life eternal)… then this is the wrong level of analysis and the wrong set of expectations. Social life is then merely secondary, a kind of shorthand statistical summary of very-many individual (and sometimes loving/ familial) salvation-theosis choices.

  5. Pingback: Culture is an unsolved problem | Reaction Times

  6. Missing is the realization that many of our neighbors are deceived by the Myth of the Noble Savage. Mental illness and violent tendencies are not noble.

  7. I think the intermediate cases (roughly, Italians) are a good enough solution. Look, men are supposed to be masculine. Armed fathers can deal with some amount of bad behavior in their neighborhoods. In an overly peaceful, unchallenging life, masculinity withers. It is a positive good to keep culture somewhat challenging, meaning, somewhat but not overly aggressive and reckless. Here the real problem is how does one keep that balance? However, on the average, Catholic cultures are closer to this middle than Protestant ones. Apparently you guys have some kind of a social technology you are not even aware you have.
    Maybe, on a hunch, maybe it is forgiveness. Why didn’t they Irish went with the Reformation? What they could see is perhaps that the Ulster Scots were a very straightlaced people, no drinking etc. while in their Catholic churches bouts of drunkenness would be confessed, forgiven and hence tolerated.
    What you call here white culture, more like WASP culture, what I find striking about it is the lack of forgiveness. Lack of the acceptance that humans cannot always live up to high moral standards, they must strive but will sometimes fail. So maybe it is that predestination stuff behind such a lack of forgiveness.
    I remember a pretty interesting story. Americans and Russians were asked what is better, what is less bad, to live in an open relationship, or to cheat on your partner? And Americans usually answered an open relationship is better, because if you have agreed with your partner about its rules and you both accept, then it is acceptable. Promising to be faithful and breaking this promise is not acceptable. The Russians said an open relationship is inherently wrong. Cheating, if understood as trying to be faithful and sometimes failing, is better. It is less bad to strive for the good and fail sometimes, than to promise something bad and then keep your promise.
    And I am not even religious… but I have always considered forgiveness a great social technology. I mean, imagine designing a society from the ground up. Do you want lax morality or strict morality? If you have lax morality, people will do a lot of bad stuff. If you have strict morality, people will weaponize that, accuse their rivals of wrongdoing and get them punished. Only solution is to have strict moral standards but also forgiveness. Nothing else can work. Whether we are fallen sons of Adam or risen killer apes, any moral standard we are capable of upholding 100% of the time is not worth having. Any worthwile moral standard has to have some room for failure.

    • I think the religious divisions of the British Isles map the national divisions because rejecting the Church of England was a good way to reject the hegemony of England. The Scotts at first tried Jacobite Catholicism, and some stuck with it, but most eventually rejected the C of E (and England) by the Presbyterian route. In any case, it is impossible to untangle a people from its theology, since causation runs in both direction. There was something about Presbyterianism that appealed to Scotts (including the fact that it was not the C of E), but the strait laced Scott was thereafter shaped by Presbyterianism.

      I think you are right that Americans are uncomfortable with hypocrisy. The word appears so often in our moral discourse that one might think we were a nation of hypocrites, but I say the reason is that we mostly prefer plain dealing. This is easily overstated, since Americans are no strangers to lies and shams, but we are nevertheless outraged by lies and shams. The sardonic or worldly laugh is not natural to the American (or at least wasn’t), and we have historically viewed the jaded cynic as morally dubious.

      • But there is hypocrisy and there is hypocrisy. Preaching water and drinking wine has two different, distinct versions 1) when the preacher keeps willingly and cheerfully and cynically drink wine and basically deceives the people whom he is preaching to 2) when he honestly tries not to drink wine, but sometimes the temptation is too hard and he fails.

        These are very different cases. The problem is of course that it is hard to prove the difference between them. The obvious solution would be in the case 2) that the preacher would confess his failure to the people whom he preaches water. But, and there is the issue, the social expectation of perfection. When people expect, at least from their elites, that they should be perfect. No slip-ups. Imagine a politician, such as a mayor, especially a mayor who got elected by succesfully unveiling the corruption scandals of his rival, confessing that at that one time he, too, took a bribe, because the temptation was strong, as the bribe was big and the favor asked seemed to cause little harm. Would the public forgive? Or would he be branded a hypocrite and never forgiven? That is the big question here.

        Again for the cultures in the middle I see such forgiveness. Berlusconi’s voters had a lot to forgive him for… even though he didn’t even show remorse. But they were thinking, either a crook, but a crook who is anti-communist, or a commie. Easy choice…

      • Hypocrisy has gotten a bad reputation because Jesus denounced a particular form of hypocrisy in the new testament. I think he was right to say that acting pious was not enough. But there are plenty of situations were acting X, Y or Z is plenty. I would deal with public figures by respecting their privacy, not by forgiving their public peccadilloes. I think it was wrong to expose Bill Clinton as a horn dog, for instance. So long as he didn’t roger Monica Lewinsky on the White House lawn, I would have blushed and turned away. That invasion of privacy only served to normalize the rogering of interns.


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