“Love the house you live in, otherwise it may fall down and land on your head.” – Greek Proverb
When I started traveling the world about 20 years ago, I became sad and jealous. The USA, my country of birth, didn’t have much of a culture (I thought) compared to the places I was visiting, like England where they had afternoon tea, Scotland where they had bagpipes, France where they had the French language, beignets and ancient cathedrals, and Ireland, the land of Irish pubs and Celtic music. America’s McDonald’s, bland pop music, sitcoms, mega gas stations, and smug political correctness didn’t seem like much of a culture to me. Culture was something unique, historical, local, even sacred, and worth fighting for. Back home seemed to be more abstract, ahistorical, unrooted, profane, secular, abstract, and gnostic. Why did my own homeland not seem to have anything unique about it, other than big corporations and a global homogenized vibe?
I credit New Orleans with opening my eyes to what we did have culturally in the USA. Throughout my 20s, and early 30s, I loved going to New Orleans. I loved the food, the architecture, the walking, the old mossy oak trees, the laid back southern vibe, Cajun music and Cajun and creole food. And I loved the Louisiana southern accent, which seemed to be a cross between Brooklyn, New York and the south. That got me thinking more and more. The Southeastern United States has a distinct culture. I didn’t know exactly what it was, what it meant, or how even to articulate it at the time, but I knew there was something there.
What I realized is that the South, where I grew up, still has a culture, not intact completely, but it’s still there and hanging on by a thread. Like all cultures, say Sunni Islamic culture, or French Canadian culture, it has a lot to love about it, but it’s not above criticism. The reason the south, and southern culture matters is because people, all people, need a culture. Cultures imply “givens” or ways of life and something to belong to. Cultures infer and identity. Because the primary health and sociological problem of our time is social isolation and social disintegration, culture is the last chance for saving humanity.
To express this philosophically, cultures allow people to “exist” in the world, they provide what in German would be called a “lebenswelt” or a “lifeworld”, a world experienced by people together. For example, if you and I belong to the same culture, with the same values, customs, and traditions, we live together and experience the world together. This is real community, and this is what makes life worth living. So culture brings people together, allows them to live in a founded world, and exist together in a community.
Philosophical critics of modernity have even called modern life characteristically a state of “non-being.” In contrast, culture allows people to live, to exist. Participating in a culture bestows a sense of identity, of relation to nature and to others, and a sense of belonging to the “chain of being” from God down to his most seemingly meager creations. Culture makes people happier and healthier, takes the harsh edges off of the inevitable sorrows of life, and gives people, especially the poor and less fortunate, a life to live.
Starting earlier but really ramping up with the Boomers in the 1960s, America went the extreme direction of individualism and materialism to the maximum degree. Since the 60s and on into the 70s, 80s, and 90s, culture has disappeared for most people. As this has happened our society has only become more extreme. I don’t mean to blame everything on the Boomers, because there’s plenty of blame to go around, but now millennials can’t sit under the shade of a tree that Boomers never planted.
I was typical of younger people in that I wanted distance when I was young, if not to rebel, then to halfway rebel and understand from a distance what I was brought up in. The situation for young people is much more challenging and different now (I’m 45), because there’s nothing as far as cultural expectations left for them to rebel against. When I was a young person in the 80s, there were still some remnants of a national culture left, and southern culture was pretty much intact. By traveling, reading, and distancing myself somewhat from my own upbringing I ironically came to appreciate it more.
You may be wondering what I’m referring to when I refer to “southern culture.” The powers that be, who are quick to loathe differentiation, localism, and who are enthralled to materialism, secularism, and consumerism and making a one-world economy that they can control and benefit from, are not fans of any unique culture that doesn’t show them ultimate allegiance. They want control, and culture, is a type of resistance. Southern culture is just such a culture, and this is why it’s often maligned in popular media.
Why…you may ask do they hate southern culture? Because the south, despite all the attempts at negative stereotyping and despite its role as a useful scapegoat in American culture, is the last humanist cultural resistance in the USA to dehumanization, secular fundamentalism, materialism and consumerism. In the south, God still matters, small towns and counties matter, neighbors still matters, our music still matters, our dialect and food still matters, our history matters, and we care about all those things and more. The south resists and the south knows that a culture can’t be built on any other foundation than the sacred. It isn’t even aware of all these things, and certainly doesn’t articulate it well, but deep down and subconsciously it is aware of the need to fight and resist subjection.
The best and easiest way to describe a culture is to first start from its founding. The reason southern culture still exists somewhat intact, is that the south believes in God. The south is the most religious part of the country. Without a belief in a God, or in gods, a “lifeworld” or culture cannot exist. God (or the gods) creates the world, and then we live in it. This is how culture works.
As far as our nation itself is concerned, the majority of the founding fathers, and certainly the most influential ones, were southerners- Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Patrick Henry uttered his famous words, both as a Virginian and as a southerner – “Give me liberty or give me death” and southerners hold to those words still to this day.
The catholic principle of subsidiarity is important here. Subsidiarity refers to things being done best when done on the local level. The south has always clung, albeit imperfectly, to this truth, our greatest loyalties in life as southerners are to our families, then friends and neighbors and local areas, then states, and then nations working out from there. This is why Robert E. Lee, despite his disdain for slavery, correctly chose to support his home state of Virginia in the Civil War. The modern world posits the opposite and tries to promote a “global community” of anonymous people and even more anonymous problems, but a “global community” is an oxymoron. If it’s global it’s not a real community.
So the south is a culture founded by God, sustained by localism, with a hierarchy of values. A hierarchy of values is important. For example, the market is important but it’s not the most important thing. When the market interferes with sacred values, the market must take second place. This is how a real culture works. When people are more important than speed, then a person values a conversation over the next appointment to rush to, and this too is how a culture works.
We hear quite a bit about community- community health, community wellness, the global community, community banking, etc. but these are mostly amorphous platitudes. A better word for an “international community” would be an international cooperative, not community. In communities, people live together and crucially they know each other. In cooperatives, on the other hand, people cooperate, even though they may sure few values and be relatively anonymous.
People who don’t care about their ancestors won’t care about their descendants either. This is playing out broadly speaking in the USA as statues of ancestors are being torn down and founding generations are being slandered and written out of history, while at the very same time the hopes for the future generations are dimming. The country’s young people as a whole are more depressed and suicidal, have less hope and faith in the future, are reproducing less, marry less, and know less and less about their own history. They will probably never achieve the middle class stability that their parents had.
This is why a return to culture is the right thing to do, morally speaking, because to honor mothers and fathers and their ancestors is always right. But building up culture is also the right thing to do for purely utilitarian reasons, it creates healthier and happier homes.
Culture is important because it gives people a place to stand, it creates communities, and it gives people a reason to live. I’ve been blessed and fortunate and lucky to get to travel to somewhere around 45 countries, and I can see more clearly now than I used to. What little culture we do have left we should cling to with all our might, because it’s our only hope. I’m not denying that national culture can have a place, but the US is too big for that to make much difference. The hope lies in building up local cultures, and for me, that means southern culture. My roots are deep here and go back to the very beginning of British settlement in America. Some excellent books on Southern (and American) Culture are- I’ll Take My Stand : 12 Southerners on the Agrarian Tradition, Albion’s Seed by David Hacket Fisher, Born Fighting by Jim Webb. But dust off those old cast iron skillets, plant some Collard Greens, sit on the porch longer than you should, open up the Hymnal while you sit around the piano, and break out the guitar and fiddle.
The modern world is rootless, globalized, atheistic, sterile, and isolating. To embrace culture, the real culture of the sacred in the public square, is to reject the modern world and it’s ills. It’s not always easy to live this way, but to live itself is not easy. Love your history, your culture, customs, and traditions. If you need to, then restart old ones and begin new ones. Do what you can, with what you have, to make something bigger for when you’re gone.
I write about:
Wellness- the good life.
I love helping people and trying to make the world better. Have any questions? Drop me a line.
P.S. Check out Front Porch Republic to learn about a wonderful organization defending local culture.