Doing Our Cultural Thing

Whereas the word “culture” once generally meant the high arts, this elitist sense is now almost obsolete; the anthropological usage has so triumphed that “culture” now means “the stuff people do”, down to hot dogs and mud-wrestling. If “culture” is everything I do, therefore, and my “culture” must be protected, venerated and practised, then it follows inexorably that I must be allowed to continue doing “the stuff I do”, without let or hindrance. “It’s my culture” then becomes a universal defence to a charge of being an antisocial bastard. The full consequences of this innovation for the rule of law have yet to unfold.

If “cultural heritage” meant knowing about the past and keeping the best bits, that would be one thing, but “the best bits” implies a standard of value that is higher than “cultural heritage” and can thus sit in judgment on it. As soon as we make cultural heritage an absolute, however, that higher standard vanishes in a puff of folklore. And if there is no higher standard than cultural heritage, it follows that no one can condemn me for practicing my cultural heritage. This is extremely convenient for anyone who has the imagination and quick-wittedness to link his “culture” with an antisocial private agenda.

Since there is no official lower limit for the number of people who can claim to be a “culture”, this way of thinking can be taken to its logical conclusion by declaring the habits of quite a small group to be sacrosanct. Are we going to declare gang-rape to be an authentic and hence protected cultural practice of the Hell’s Angels, and if not, then we have accepted the principle that people ought not necessarily to be allowed to continue “the stuff they do”; and if once we accept that principle, why should we not also apply to it to cultural groups numbering in the millions?

These principles are, of course, highly selective, both within a culture and between cultures. One group may demand the right to bear the “tribal weapons” carried by its ancestors, while recognising no obligation to be restricted to those ancestors technology in any other respects; and meanwhile no one either expects or permits Northern Europeans to walk around with battleaxes, broadswords and epées.

A society in which a proportion of the population considers its cultural practices uniquely privileged, and so is tempted to try for statutory exemption from the laws that govern the majority, may prove to be unsustainable. There have indeed been societies in which law followed the race of the person rather than the territory, as for example the Italy of Theoderic, where Romans and Ostrogoths were judged under their own, very different, national codes. The Ottoman Empire operated with “ethnarchs” to govern the various peoples as far as possible according to their own laws. Of course, the moment one needs to adjudicate between a Roman and an Ostrogoth, or a Turk and a Greek, things get suddenly very complicated. There is also the problem of knowing who is sufficiently Roman or Ostrogothic for the full application of the racial law code, once people have started to interbreed. If our societies now choose to balkanise themselves and replace the concept of the “citizen of a nation” with that of a “member of a cultural group”, they may soon encounter these problems.

The idea that the desirability of traditional cultural practice applies only to the “ethnics” and not to white Westerners may also be a way of holding the former down. The masters of the world shall be free to invent and acquire as much new technology as possible, and experiment with new social forms, while their serf peoples are encouraged to “cultivate their heritage”. That is, Massa counts his money in the big house while the slaves play their drums in the dark.

Leave a Reply