Culture as Water

I have had the good fortune to have traveled extensively my whole life. I’ve driven through all but one of these united States (South Dakota), and a career in the military allowed me to see a good chunk of Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and beyond. A job working for an international company later in life (after the military) took me as far as Australia and landed me in an apartment in mainland China on-and-off for 20 months. As a result of all of this travel and time in other countries, I became fascinated with the concept of culture. Early in life, I think our understanding of culture is a lot like that aphorism about the two young fish swimming past the older fish, who casually says, “How’s the water, boys?” The two young fish swim on and then one young fish turns to the other and says, “What’s water?”

Culture is like that. It’s what we humans swim in – and assimilate, largely unconsciously, from the time we’re born, with no real context for understanding it until we begin to identify individual aspects of our own culture and, if we’re lucky, travel to and become immersed in other cultures. Ask an average four year-old American child why it’s wrong to lie and they’ll have no clue about existential questions of “truth,” or the finer points of ethical conduct – but they’ll almost certainly know they shouldn’t lie because mom and dad said so, or a teacher did, or because their friends say so – i.e. the culture, broadly and generally, condemns it.

I had kids young (relatively speaking) for my generation. As a consequence, my peers tend to have younger children and I’ll occasionally get asked questions about raising the little knee-biters by friends because mine are all grown up and gone. It came to me after daughter number two or three that for the first eight or nine years of their lives, you’re teaching your kids the rules. For the next eight or nine, you’re explaining the exceptions. Hopefully in the last half is where you teach them ethics; that is, how to choose between occasionally competing moral obligations, but that’s a larger subject for another time.

Culture as Value

Merriam Webster online has the simple definition for culture as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.” I think the word “beliefs” is true enough for the definition, but I think there’s an even simpler formulation and I want to use it to make some points about culture. I define culture as “the totality of our collective values.” Value itself is a loaded term, but I think the distinction from “beliefs” is important. People may or may not believe all kinds of silly shit in a given culture, but any particular belief, even one held by a majority of the populace, doesn’t really have any kind of impact until a culture gives it value. The US had chia pets, for example, and pet rocks, but their cultural significance is a non-factor for my purposes. Until a significant enough portion of a given culture decides that a belief is worthy of preservation and/or emulation, it’s a fad and little more.

Many people think Saturday Night Live is funny; many others do not. Regardless of where you fall on that dividing line, it has done well enough to have become a kind of cultural touchstone in the United States, a veritable institution. Lorne Michaels has churned out a pretty impressive collection of talent: from Belushi, Murray, Akroyd et al., to Eddie Murphy, Dana Carvey, Christopher Guest, to Kristin Wiig, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and on and on. Somehow, despite everyone always complaining about how it isn’t anywhere near as funny as it used to be, it remains a staple of American culture. In sum, regardless of how any particular individual feels about SNL, or what we could measure beyond ratings, SNL has remained a valued part of our culture – at least enough that it justifies its existence commercially. It is a successful business, so far as I can tell, and it apparently drew solid enough ratings to be able to garner advertising revenue sufficient to pay for itself – as well as launching an unprecedented array of cultural icons.

SNL is an example of a larger cultural phenomenon: the sketch comedy show. That idea had its origins long before SNL – and even television – going back to radio, and even Vaudeville before that. You could continue to broaden your scope in looking at SNL’s cultural origins to examine the value placed on comedy and satire down through the ages. These concepts themselves are ancient ideas, passed down to us from long-deceased progenitors, but in other countries they don’t manifest in nearly the same way, or at all in some cases. For example, Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Darell Hammond, and Will Ferrell all made their bones mocking Presidents; there is no Chinese equivalent.

In Living Colour was proof that the sketch comedy idea was culturally resonant for both blacks and whites, not that this should have been – or should be – a surprise. It’s just that in its earliest days, television catered to the audience that watched it – and that likely meant the audience that could afford to watch it. Blacks, who make up about 1 in 7 of the population (and even less during the television’s early years) were poorer in larger percentages than poor whites, and likely didn’t own televisions in significant enough numbers for it to be resonant. Advertisers weren’t trying to attract black consumers, as well. Advertisers buy commercial time for particular audiences – the ones they think can be convinced to buy their products, which means they need people with disposable income who can (a) afford a television, and (b) afford the products they’re pitching. Hence the early “whitewashing” of television.

I note these things without any judgment, but rather as historical incidences in evaluating and understanding culture as broadly as possible, particularly here in the United States.

Sub-Cultures and Cultural Homogeneiety

Unlike the vast majority of the world, our Country has had, at the heart of its experiment, an allowance for different sub-cultures to arise and flourish, without any need for government approval. Indeed, the First Amendment is unlike almost any other founding government charter or constitution, anywhere else in the world in that it explicitly prohibits the government from controlling one of the primary means of influencing culture, either directly or through the creation of sub-culture. Even in England and on the Continent, from whence the Enlightenment ideas arose, there is not the kind of liberty of expression that exists here in the United States. Because of that simple fact, we enjoy a proliferation of different sub-cultures here within our own borders.

While my socialist friends always point to the Scandinavian countries as some kind of possible proof of “successful socialism,” I (first) ignore the temptation to point out that this is complete bullshit; instead, I try to accept the premise and then ask them what impact they think the near uniformity of the people there has on their claim. That is, do those pointing to Scandinavian socialism as proof of that philosophy’s viability believe the vastly different cultures, races, and languages that we have here render the claim by analogy to Sweden, for example, ill-considered at all? I usually get a blank stare – or the equivalent of rhetorical handwaving – as if I don’t know what I’m talking about and I’m making excuses in order not to concede the point. Iceland, as just one example, is a candidate for the most homogeneous country on the planet. North Korea might possibly “win” out, depending upon what metrics one uses: ethnicity, language, religion, law, and politics (including issues of immigration), just to consider a few ways in which culture can be “fractured” or, on the flip side of the coin, deemed “homogeneous.” Most of the Scandinavian countries – Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark – rank very high in homogeneity. It is also worth noting that there isn’t anything remotely approaching the kind of “free-market culturalism” (I’ll call it) that exists here in the United States. Recent events in some of those countries, especially as a consequence of large-scale immigration of non-natives, has led to some second- and third-order outcomes that those places are still struggling to work out. And while this might seem to be a relatively trivial matter, it isn’t. Socialism is tribalism; that is the nature of the philosophy. It depends – and needs – a high-degree of uniformity that can exist only in very small and/or culturally uniform societies to work at all. (I’ll come back to the reasons why later on, but for now we can move past it and I’ll ask that you hold your mental objections until the end).

Culture as Control

These ideas about culture first began percolating to me when I joined one of the most well-preserved subcultures in the United States, existing before the birth of the Country itself: the United States Marine Corps (oo-fuckin’-rah!). The Marine Corps began in a tavern in Philadelphia in 1775. That EVERY SINGLE MARINE can tell you this two-hundred-forty-plus years later should begin to paint a picture about the Marine Corps’ culture – and its institutional preservation of it. History is the name we give to the transmission of culture through time. One of my favorite anecdotes about this comes from the Marine Officer’s Guide, a staple book that most Marine Officers buy as new Lieutenants – or even before – and read, cover-to-cover. It may be required reading at The Basic School, but I don’t remember for certain. As if to further illustrate my claim about the Marine Corps, I should point out that The Basic School (or TBS, as it is known) is the place where the Marine Corps sends every single officer, regardless of what Military Occupational Specialty they might eventually have, be it Supply Officer or Tanker or Pilot; everyone goes, male and female alike. It’s 26 weeks of basic infantry officer training, plus all of the indoctrination, brainwashing, propagandizing* that would make a Soviet TASS editor proud. There is an entire block of instruction called “Customs and Traditions” woven throughout those 6+ months.

*I joke, but I promise you that the people who run the Marine Corps have given considerable thought as to how to create and preserve its unique culture. Check this out, par example.

A brilliant look at this as a larger human phenomenon was done by PBS about thirty years ago, in a series called, simply, “WAR.” It was a television series narrated by Gwynne Dyer and had different sub-chaptered examinations – individual shows – dedicated to the overall discussion of the subject. The one I found most compelling was the piece entitled “Anybody’s Son Will Do” (and by the almighty miracle that is the Youtubez and the InterWebz, I can link right to it(!); never ceases to amaze me.) In the documentary, the PBS cameras follow a platoon of young high school kids who have just joined up and shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp. It starts with the camera right on the bus (about 1:40 into the clip linked above) and it follows these recruits from their arrival on Parris Island’s infamous yellow footprints all the way through their graduation from Marine Corps’ Recruit Training. Host Dyer’s commentary on the footage throughout is nothing less than brilliant in its examination of the nature of war, but particularly what it means about cultural transmission. At about one minute in, Dyer notes the following, as he stands near the changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb:

… But there are, on average, about twenty wars going on in the world at any given time, and they are all waged by men who learned to be soldiers away from the battlefield. All soldiers belong to the same profession and it makes them different from everybody else. They have to be different for their job is ultimately about killing and dying…And that doesn’t come natural to any human being. Yet all soldiers are born civilians. The method for turning young men into soldiers – people who kill other people – is basic training. It’s essentially the same all over the world and it always has been – because young men everywhere are pretty much alike. It doesn’t really matter where you’re coming from or what you’ve been doing before.

What Dyer is talking about is a process most kindly called acculturation. With immigrant populations we frequently use the term assimilation – and given all of the discussion about immigration in the news these last few decades by politicians, you’ve undoubtedly heard some downright idiocy on the topic. If you care a little more deeply about the issue, you might even have read something not completely useless on the subject. The issues are significant and they all come back to this issue of culture – and its transmission. The internet managed to deliver this link, which appears to be almost a transcript of the piece of video I’ve linked above, but I believe it’s from a book. It might seem to some to be anti-war or denigrate the military – indeed, some of that sentiment comes through in the selection of value-laden words by Dyer – but his larger points about culture and its transmission are spot-on.

In peacetime, and in a free society like the United States and most western nations, the theory goes that the transmission of culture happens through mass media. Up until recently, some people questioned the vigor of the First Amendment and its underlying tenets from the Lockean notion of the “marketplace of ideas,” generally the same people who don’t believe in free markets. After all, the claim went, only the rich and powerful have access to a pulpit. Therefore, the Progressive screed continues, only the white, male, hegemony controls what the masses hear and they use it to perpetuate existing power structures. If you think I’m making this up, try reading this story. The phrase “check your privilege” is now considered de riguer at what now passes for undergraduate universities, in classes that are now categorized as education, when they look – for all intents and purposes – like Marxist indoctrination, dressed up as part of the curriculum for most liberal arts degrees. The irony is amazing.

The Lockean notion of the “marketplace of ideas” is a concept that recognized that if one were literate, the ability to “publish” one’s ideas- in the sense of “make available to the public “- rested almost solely on the ability to read and write. Paper and pen or pencil were not economically so expensive that they were a barrier to anyone writing. (In another one of his little pearls of wisdom, my dear friend Greg Glassman pointed this out to me one day, in his inimitable style: “No one can complain that they couldn’t write the great American novel or paint their masterpiece because of barriers to entry. It’s not the cost of brushes and a paint set that prohibits it, nor is it the cost of a pen and paper that’s holding one back from sharing his amazingly brilliant piece of fiction. Bullshit. If you haven’t written it it’s because you can’t, not because it’s too expensive to do it. The same is now largely true with photographs because of the improvements in technology.”) Of course, the marketplace of ideas doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to accept your bullshit, just as no one is obligated to give one whit of consideration to my ramblings. The internet, however, has rendered nugatory the claim that only the powerful have a voice. Everyone and anyone can publish now and it can be found by search engines for anyone who wants to look for it or a related topic. People can even increase their audience for pennies using a variety of SEO techniques. In short, the claim that the marketplace of ideas doesn’t exist – if it ever had any validity – has been OBT (overcome by technology).

Notwithstanding this freedom, it turns out the marketplace of ideas can be short-circuited. Our Founding Fathers probably hadn’t thought about it at the time, but when the Nation moved to mandatory public education – followed by the insistence (from that same school system) that further college education is an absolute necessity – we now have a fifteen-year long, only-mildly-interrupted-by-the-summer, acculturation process, being run by school boards and teachers’ unions, under both state and federal guidelines. I doubt that very many parents have any involvement at all in the selection of their kids’ educational content. This is not a good thing.

This fault line was exposed and quickly went viral when Mike Rowe, popular television figure with a massive following on Facebook, responded to a tweet by Bernie Sanders. Sanders – an avowed and open “democratic socialist” (which is really a pretty funny term when you get right down to it) – of course believes that more college – and free! – is the answer. What the question is isn’t entirely clear, but Bernie – an avowed and long-time socialist – has long campaigned on the “free shit” platform, including free college. Which ought to make one wonder and ask – why is that?

We’ll pick up that thread in Part 2.

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