During the end of the Vietnam War I met a US Marine in Hong Kong. We discussed Western involvement in this part of the world and I explained my admiration for the Chinese and Indochinese cultures. The Marine said: “What can you expect from a person who carries a grain of rice with two sticks but two buckets of shit with one.” I found that funny and we had a few good laughs that night, before he had to ship out. But this little episode made me think deeply about the importance of politics and culture.
Culture contains the nature, character and essence – the DNA if you will – of a society. It defines a community’s position within the entire civilization. Culture is more than Cowboy hats and Rock’n Roll. Understanding the system of the essential cultural institutions is important to shape social development, as there cannot be politics or statehood without it.
Language is the most important of all cultural institutions [Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of language are the limits of philosophy.”] The institution of language (together with the ability to reason) distinguishes us intellectually from animals and should be an unbridled blessing, education is based on it. However it can also be used for deception, to control and manipulate fellow man and even to start wars. Some prominent figures are more remembered for their words, than their deeds (with Obama the jury is still out).
Since the late ‘60s politically correct language became a rhetorical WMD to silence the opposition and to manipulate society. People think the way they talk and eventually adjust their behavior, attitude and even physical demeanor accordingly. The ability to process complex intellectual tasks and efficient learning is reduced by excessive usage of abbreviations as in the use of electronic messaging and the codified pop-lingo of the hip-hop culture.
Governments of every political variety prefer a population which is on one hand highly educated in order to gain economic and scientific supremacy, but on the other hand, they wish for a citizenry which is politically ignorant and socially conform. Since the turn of the 20th Century, the US seems to emphasize on the latter part. This can be achieved through a slow dismantling of cultures, tradition and moral values. More accurately, the government absolves the individual of his personal responsibilities and values, redefines them for him and acts as their custodian. Thereby society becomes responsible for the acts of her members and behavior is being collectivized.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was a French aristocrat, politician and historian whose Grandfather died under the guillotine of the French Revolution. He recognized manners and decorum as the prerequisites for a moral and free society and he paid the American people the greatest compliment of his time:
“The manners of the Americans of the US are […] the real cause which renders that people […] able to support a democratic Government; and it is the influence of manners which produce the different degree of order and of prosperity that may be distinguished in the several Anglo-American democracies.”
And he believed that: “Too much importance is attributed to legislation, too little to manners. I am convinced that the most advantageous situation and the best possible laws cannot maintain a constitution in spite of the manners of a country, whilst the latter may turn the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws to some advantage.”
Tocqueville was in a unique situation to compare European and American societies. He traveled extensively through Britain, Germany and the Americas and spoke the respective languages. His talent for keen observation and his ability to reason, to assimilate and process knowledge were second to none and were appreciated by his American hosts who marveled at his understanding of their society and culture.
Tocqueville pointed to the nearby state of Mexico, which, having adopted a similar democratic government as the US, could not achieve the same social and political success. When the Spaniards colonized South America, they found even better geographical conditions than their northern competitors. Yet, their European culture and social traditions ruined their efforts to establish coherent communal order and effective self-governing institutions under a democratic rule of law. It was the European system of 3 social classes, especially the aristocracy, preventing equal and even spread of unifying communal concepts.
Had the early Americans succumb to the British Empire, the US would have not become this strong, homogeneous and dominant world power of today. Through the mutual interests of the Americans a nation was established with a society of free, independent and self-responsible individuals, who would, however, at any necessary occasion combine to a solid unified force to protect their common ideals with irresistible zeal and conviction: „The Anglo-Americans are the first nation who, having faced [a] formidable alternative, have been happy enough to escape the domination of absolute power. They have been allowed by their circumstances, their origin, their intelligence, and especially by their moral feeling, to maintain the sovereignty of the people.“
American society started without the burden of class-consciousness and every citizen and settler was a part of the whole, to which everyone equally subscribed. The most important aspect of the cultural diversity was the fact that cultural strengths were not mixed, but combined. The experience with the Native American Indians shows clearly, that forced cultural adaptations do not work. It did not work for the colonialists in Africa and it certainly did not work for the French in Indochina: At the end you did get a baguette in every fishing hut along the Mekong, but it was not enough to give them lasting rule over the oldest and strongest cultures civilization has ever produced.
New immigrants to the US are as culturally divers as the first arrivals at Liberty Island. However, they differ in their backgrounds and motives from their vanguard settlers. Most importantly, the new generations do not carry the same manners and attitude as their predecessors. They expect the modern, liberal style of forbearance, tolerance and social generosity. Among the liberal constituency they can find a welcoming harbor for their own ways and interests, demanding acceptance, but cherry-pick the conditions. Modern liberal progressive ideology does not accept that “society” is actually not an independent separate entity, but the sum of its individual members. Liberals incessantly aim to promote egalitarianism. However, they aim to achieve their uniformity by forcing the majority to adjust to the wishes, demands and ambitions of their minority and fringe clientele. Their concept of “inclusiveness” is to define the “maximum” and “minimum” of all remaining cultural institutions and to lower the standards for the masses to the smallest social denominator.
Decline in manners has also caught up with our governments. To my surprise, already Tocqueville noted: “When great political parties begin to cool in their attachments, without softening their antipathies, and at last reach the point of wishing less to succeed than to prevent the success of their adversaries, one must prepare for slavery – the master is near.”[sic] AMEN.
Alexis de Tocqueville, On Democracy, Revolution and Society, 1980
Abram Kardiner, M.D. The Individual and his Society, 1939
Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order, 2012