The Three Cultures of Postmodern America: Ice Cream in the Oven

Political federalism is the only means to a healthy multicultural social whole.  That words like “diversity” are used, instead, to promote further centralization should tell us that multicultural initiatives spell death to all culture.

When my son begins college at the end of this month, he will be expected to fulfill a three-hour requirement at some point in “global awareness” (a.k.a. multiculturalism).  One can hardly find a university anywhere that doesn’t mandate some such balderdash.  I teach a course to entering freshmen myself in which—of my own volition, as a way of meeting the assault head-on rather than running from it—I address the definition of culture and the possibilities of cultural mingling.  I will return to my own rather pessimistic theories momentarily.  First, a few random observation from the past week that bear upon these issues:

1)     Have you noticed that all of the dozen or so baseball players involved in the Biogenesis scandal (i.e., named for using prohibited PED’s) are Latino, with the single exception of Ryan Braun?  Did you read that Uruguay is about to become the first nation in the Western hemisphere to legalize marijuana?  Everyone is aware, at any rate, that illegal narcotics pour across our southern border, not our substantially longer northern one.  These and innumerable other indicators point to a cultural comfort with metabolism-altering substances in Latin America far in excess of our own.  Native Americans, with their pre-rational worship of naturalistic gods, often combined various states of drug-induced ecstasy or trance in their rituals.  In more quotidian circumstances, the Incas chewed coca leaves and the Aztecs consumed chia seeds (available at your local health-food store, for some reason: I once sprinkled a few on a bowl of cereal and didn’t sleep for the next three days).  Coffee and tobacco, of course, were “discoveries” the Europeans made only after intruding into the New World.  For that matter, so was sugar.  The drug-friendly habit has a long and reverend history among groups that share roots with these native cultures.

2)     Three or four days ago, I received an unsolicited brochure in the mail for a very different kind of drug.  (My address is a magnet for such things, apparently, since I started using Seanol as a dietary supplement: basically extract of seaweed, with formidable cancer-preventive powers.  We can thank the Okinawans for that one!)  The brochure was touting, shall we say, a male-enhancement drug.  This particular observation isn’t about the drug, but about the touting—or should I say the “pimping”?  The ad was riddled with various sizes of the male Johnson represented in graphic detail.  For good measure, a blonde porn star (her “stage name” blazoned across the front page) assumed a series of bovine postures to… help drive the point home.  Her doped-up mug would have made an Inca on his last coca leaf look like Descartes solving a quadratic equation.  I think my vomited lunch could very nearly have followed the thing into my garbage can. 

The butchery of the human soul… and yet this, too, is apparently a question of cultural preference.  A distinguished college professor recently shared with me a very lackadaisical response to my essays against gay marriage, remarking sardonically that he had no use for marriage in any guise and considered all sexual taboos absurd.  A great many porn stars seem to be recruited from college campuses, if I may so close the circle.  Viagra ads certainly don’t seem to be pitched toward aging high-school dropouts.  There is a distinctly class element to the “celebration of sex”, and the class in question has founded our “counter-culture”.

3)     I have been interrupted by two phone calls as I’ve sat writing these few hundred words.  The Republicans want my money.  We need a majority in the Senate, the callers say, and we need to defeat Hillary.  As politely as possible, I tell these dutiful soldiers in the trenches that “I” am no longer part of their “we”.  Senator Cornyn’s flip-flopping on amnesty for illegal intruders makes me very nervous, and I do not share his admiration of compromise for its own sake.  Chris Christie and Jeb Bush strike me less as alternatives to Hillary than morphs of one of the Witch of Whitewater’s many horrid facets.  Why would anyone assume that because I hate dictators, I would therefore go for Chris or Jeb?  Why should I give Cornyn a dime for defending the border when his line of defense involves joining hands with people who ignore laws and rules at their least whim?

Now, it cannot have become apparent just yet… but I have just exemplified the Three Cultures of postmodern America.  Let me retreat to a certain level of abstraction, and let us return to the basic question, What are the prospects of success for a multicultural society?  History and common sense suggest three likely outcomes (which are related to our “three cultures”, but not identical to them: bear with me).  In one scenario, all cultures eventually disintegrate through wearing each other down.  Children who are raised to worship God on Saturday, to wear sandals, and to eat only vegetables cannot take such strictures very seriously when they play and attend school with children who worship God on Sunday, wear tall boots, and eat red meat daily.  Likewise, the meat-eaters must cease to regard their carnivorous cultural obligation as anything more than a quaint relic of the superstitious past through steady contact with “outsiders”; and if you stir in two or three other cultures, the dissolution proceeds yet more rapidly.  “Live and let live” tolerance spells freedom from cultural oppression because it spells death to culture in any and all forms.

A second possibility is that one culture will peacefully but decisively grind down its competitors over time and emerge as the last man standing.  This might occur because said culture’s adherents in a given society are simply more numerous.  It could also be a response to environmental factors, such as a sudden severe scarcity of meat that faces the carnivores with either dying off or changing their ways.  In the happiest scenario, the victor culture might prevail because the essential humanity of its values draws universal approval.  One likes to suppose that devotees of a culture that slaughters every first-born child would eventually grow sickened by their time-honored customs and trash them for a better way.  A more humane cultural alternative would win many quick converts among captives of such a grim tradition.  So happy a result, however, would require a steady, serious-minded confrontation of ideas.  In the case of contemporary America, our speed-of-light communications media undermine rather than promote thoughtful evaluation of “real life” conduct.  The prevailing conditions of flux, frivolity, and escapism do not favor a mature collective choice.

The third and final likely outcome is that the disparate cultures within a single society manage to reach a stable truce that allows each to hide behind effective walls even as the entire unit maintains a functional level of cooperation.  Yet this option seems to demand a confident and secure master-culture whose dominance benignly protects dissidence within it.  The U.S. has typically tolerated cultural islands like the Quakers, the Amish, and the Mormons with the generosity of a proud father who lovingly indulges his toddler’s sporting talents, even though the occasional ball takes out a window.  We have usually respected the solemn duty claimed by certain cultural pockets like the Quakers not to participate in fighting the collective’s wars.  (Not so Great Britain during World War I, when almost ten of every hundred conscientious objectors were beaten to death in military prisons; and that arch-American, Abraham Lincoln, had a nasty habit of imprisoning editors who criticized his war and having their presses smashed.)  Perhaps a keener student of history than I can think of an example where several cultures—at least three or four—have reached a stable compromise while enjoying a roughly equal number of adherents and an equal volume of political power.  Ortega y Gasset thought that modern Europe might pull it off.  How do you think that experiment’s going?

Now, we incontestably have cultural pockets in twenty-first century America: groups that do not speak the mainstream language, that do not worship a god in the mainstream manner, that do not treat females with a mainstream egalitarianism, that do not marry with a mainstream regard for monogamy or raise children with a mainstream abstinence from physical brutality, and so forth.  The vast majority of these splinter groups will eventually melt into the muddy mix which Neapolitan ice cream becomes after sitting on the table for an hour.  We typify Option One above.  For instance, our Hispanophone neighbors (legal or otherwise) already speak a degenerate Spanglish that no book teaches, and their children will end up babbling the group-speak common to most teens (and cooked up by TV and the Internet, not our inept educational system).  Our hard-line Muslim immigrants will quickly transform their three Koranically sanctioned wives into a wife and a mistress, or maybe three single wives in a succession of divorces (just as we see in “Christian” America).  Our Nigerians and Chinese and Indians will see their distinctive food and clothing and music become a profitable trend in the hands of savvy marketers-to-the-mainstream on the way to occupying just another corner of a long menu.

While they preserve vestiges of cultural distinction, these pockets are much courted by the counter-cultural Left, whose rhetoric consists of selling them on the reality of a common cause.  Some very strange bedfellows wake up together, as a result.  Fathers who would confine their daughters to a locked room for wearing too short a skirt find themselves voting with porn-producers and campus exponents of the hook-up.  Old World Catholics whose church has historically opposed abortion with more vigor than any other branch of Christendom find themselves voting with secularists who champion a woman’s right to handle pregnancy as she wants and when she wants.  Whatever balance is achieved in this gymnastic comes at the expense of the vast mainstream, which is abused as much for opposing honor-killings as for supporting capital punishment, as much for not teaching the Koran in high schools as for sending children to school wearing Crucifixes.  Eventually, and in a crowning irony, only the counter-culture will retain a distinct savor in the bowl of melted ice cream, precisely because it constantly changes its savor.  It is always not-ice cream.  Like Milton’s Satan, it takes its cue from the mainstream.  Whatever territory the middle of the Bell Curve stakes out defines the extremes to which counter-culturalists instantly gravitate.  They are pathologically counter-conformist.

So here we have two of the three American cultures (understood in generic terms): Minority Culture and Counter-Culture.  Obviously, the third is Mainstream Culture—which in our nation of today is nothing other than that muddy relic of an ice cream feast.  It is most definitely not the dominant, confident American culture that once accepted Mormonism and Quakerism, as suggested in my portrayal of Option Two: not any more.  Today, every town’s fast-food alley is a snapshot of the mainstream’s composition.  Tacos here, pizza there, Western barbecue beside the yogurt shop, Chinese take-out and the “all-American hamburger” (named for a German city)… what is the message of this insipid, traffic-congested monument to indigestion, if not that we are a culturally omnivorous Green Slime without the green (since color, too, is always under negotiation)?  We allow our minorities to abuse and revile us in a laudable sense of fair play, yes: big kids shouldn’t fight little kids.  Yet at work within this lovable bonhomie is also an absence of profound identity.  We can’t really resist the minority attack because we have no conviction with which to counter it—and our yielding response, after all, will eventually melt the aggressor down, even as he beats us up.  That’s probably the single thing that minority cultures most hate about the mainstream here in America: they know that they must at last meld into the common nullity.  To paraphrase Marx—Groucho, not Karl—“We stand for something; in fact, we stand for just about anything.”

Swamped in a flaccid laissez-fairism, American “culture” self-sabotages every moral stance it attempts to defend.  The mainstream cannot oppose gay marriage, for example.  “We heterosexuals may still marry as we wish—nobody is taking that away from us; so why can we not move over and make room in marriage for our homosexual brethren?”  The mainstream cannot justify public expressions of its religious faith.  “We faithful may still perform our rites on private turf; why should we not move over in public and give the atheist some elbow room?”  The mainstream cannot combat the proliferation of pornography.  “The prudes among us may watch whatever channels they wish at home.  Why must we be so repressive?  We can have our own values and still move over to let the audience of Tosh.O laugh at genitalia and defecation.  We may not think it’s funny… but who’s to say what’s funny?”  The mainstream always has room to move over; people with deviant or grotesque tastes, by definition, are shouldered out of life’s central forum.  What’s so hard about cutting a guy a little slack?  Isn’t that supposed to be the mainstream virtue of charity?

I have been describing the Republican Party for two paragraphs.  Did you notice?  The Democrat elite is formed of cultural counter-conformists—of moral anomists, people utterly without stable rules; and this elite constantly forges fluid coalitions with other temporarily eccentric cultural groups.  We “intellectual conservatives” deplore the suicidal Republican habit of responding to slaps and kicks with hugs… but this, you see, is what the cultural mainstream, the Republican Party, naturally does in postmodern times.  A wag might argue that the Republicans, so defined, cannot be beaten: since they are nothing other than that muddy mass into which all small, distinctive cultural groups must melt sooner or later, and since they have no guiding value other than an adoration of melting warmth, they will eventually welcome all of the Democrats’ momentary supporters into their sinkhole.  Yet to the wag I would point out that the Democrat elite wins in this formula, too; for the counter-conformist doesn’t win unless the ultimate victory remains for tomorrow.  He is a progressive: he must be in the vanguard, among the few, the misunderstood, the brilliant, the enlightened, the cutting-edge.

Everybody wins, politically.  Only culture loses—only the higher culture of humane, stable principles.

Option Three, historically, has engineered Option One here in the U.S.  We have mastered the spirit of tolerance so successfully that we truly tolerate just about anything.  We have no answer if our children should ask, “Why not smoke pot?” or “Why not live with my boyfriend?” other than some lamely pragmatic and entirely conditional observation about the risks of lung cancer or STD’s.  In other words, our only defense of the precious Western heritage of self-discipline (from the ancients) and self-sacrifice (from Christianity) is an implausible and lukewarm hedonism.  “You want to live long and be healthy, don’t you?  Well, just be careful… and if you do that, don’t do too much of it.”  This is the dogma of full cultural meltdown.

Option Two, where the master-culture eventually gobbles up its small-fry competitors, can hardly be applied to the American scene, as I suggested when sketching it out.  While our various “hyphenated Americans” are clearly losing their distinctiveness even as they grope after a hyphen to preserve it, the loss comes not through absorption into an irresistibly assertive whole.  Advanced technology, especially communications technology, is the stove that melts everyone’s ice cream.  An electronic Charybdis sucks every eccentric belief or behavior into a dizzying whirl of stereotype, caricature, compression, misstatement, melodramatization, and so forth until each frail cultural raft splinters.  No coherent system survives—not, at least, before the restless, gullible view of the “consuming public”.  Many Americans probably think that superior technology is itself precisely that humane alternative that bends all other cultural laws to its will.  Most of my students think so, at any rate.  This illusion merely feeds their confidence in Option Two’s scenario: i.e., they believe that the nation can absorb any number of rival cultures because all, eventually, will be won over to PlayStation and the iPhone.

If you are one of these Americans, then I have nothing more to write which would interest you.  If you are convinced, however, that ease, speed, and self-indulgent fantasy cannot serve as the basis of a value system, then I share this proposal with you.  The only possible way out of our culturally lethal labyrinth is a refinement of Option Three—the “agree to disagree” solution, the “good fences make good neighbors” approach.  I see no other strategy with any trace of viability.  Since our protective, paternal, “Republican” culture really isn’t a culture at all—since the salt has lost its savor—we must find ways to wall ourselves apart that are civilized and humane yet respected by non-members and resistant to malign intruders.  These ways must revive the nation’s founding political principle of federalism.  Geographical localities must be allowed to make and enforce rules reflecting regionally dominant cultural values, uninhibited except in cases where the safety or liberty of citizens is threatened. 

If the majority of a city’s residents wishes not to allow a muezzin to be broadcast through its streets, then… no muezzin.  If the majority wants prayers sung over a loudspeaker five times a day… then let dissenters find earplugs.  If the majority insists that marriage unites two people of opposite sexes, then the gay couple must travel somewhere else to say its vows.  If San Franciscans wish to permit no marriage other than the gay variety, then… let them climb aboard and see where that good ship sails!

I have even discussed with students the possibility of allowing communities to refuse jobs or habitations to members of certain races or religions.  Fines or arrests or deportations for belonging to the wrong group would of course be forbidden by the highest law of the land; but if the majority of a community really wanted you out because of your skin color or your faith, wouldn’t you want out, as well?  Wouldn’t your advantage be served by having all the local bigots self-identify and put themselves in a box?  Naturally, too, if you owned property in a newly formed community of exclusivist Aztec descendants who speak a rare Spanish dialect (and never sleep thanks to the chia seed), the local government would have to indemnify you fully for selling up and moving.  In the twenty-first century, we can pull up stakes more easily than at any point in human history.  Grave inconvenience would be suffered by none but the counter-culturalists, who are only comfortable raising hell in places where they don’t belong.  Yet what a perfect opportunity for the genuine utopians among them to launch various “alternative lifestyle” experiments!

I am being somewhat facetious just to emphasize my solution’s flexibility.  In reality, very few race-based communes would form (and these—can any sentient adult doubt it?—would mostly be black separatists and Aztlan-style agitators).  We would see in most regions, rather, an explicit preference for the right to life of the unborn, the right of citizens to bear arms, the right of parents to dictate the content of the public school curriculum, the right of municipalities to ban certain coarse entertainments, and so forth.  I myself am no exponent of public prayer, which I find ostentatious and Pharisaical; but I understand that many people of faith do not detect the undertones that I hear—and I would be more comfortable living among those who pray publicly at times than among those who find all expressions of faith so offensive as to deserve suppression.  The latter could claim their own regions and states, where they could also abort, confiscate guns, genuflect to the Education establishment, and fund plays and parades with and for talking vaginas to their heart’s content. 

Then and only then, my friends, might you witness something like the birth of a genuine multiculturalism.  If diverse cultures are to be tolerated, then that means giving them room to root and leaf—and that, in turn, means clearing a patch of the garden of all competing flora.  Anything else is sheer idiocy or lubricious political grandstanding.

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