Over at Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander identifies what he refers to as “universal culture” as being a key factor in how the West was won. His opening point is that there is nothing eternally Western about what we call Western culture. Its main tenets today would be unintelligible to a person of the West a thousand years ago. True, there is an unbroken line between that man of the past and the man of today . . . but is there anything especially Western about the arc of that line?
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead.
To Alexander’s mind the best way to conceptualize the arc of change is not according to some artificial set of principles but in a Darwinian way, following the principle “what works?”
Maybe every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift.
What has resulted, as much from drift as design, is what he terms universal culture. I doubt whether he would argue that cultural change ends here (though there are some troubling End of History resonances to be discussed below). Things will continue to change. Most likely, universal culture is just “the collection of the most competitive ideas and products” under current conditions.
Improved trade and communication networks created a rapid flow of ideas from one big commercial center to another. Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, egalitarian gender norms, sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t. It happened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were inducted into the universal culture in proportion to their participation in global trade; Shanghai was infected before West Kerry; Dubai is further gone than Alabama. The great financial capitals became a single cultural region in the same way that “England” or “France” had been a cultural region in the olden times, gradually converging on more and more ideas that worked in their new economic situation.
So far so good by my lights. It seems to be a sensible description of how culture changes.
But Alexander’s discussion then begins to pick up some problematic moss as it rolls along.
For one, there is the issue of why universal culture does not spread instantaneously.
The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural – Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time – universal culture can’t assimilate every little valley hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.
In other words, of course people will prefer Coke to yak’s milk, and individual liberty to pesky cultural constraints, any old time. It’s a mopping up exercise at best.
But is this so? The very fact that “censorship” rears its head suggests that it’s just not a matter of the spread of memes that go down as easy as a fine single malt, with a lack of instantaneous communication being the only barrier. There is, and will be, actual resistance, with censorship one of its tools. In turn, any effort to take account of the spread of universal culture has an obligation to take its opponents seriously.
Alexander may then argue back that, sure, there may be resistance. But that it will be fruitless since it will disarm itself once it fully grasps the new culture on offer. Under this account, the genius of universal culture is that, done correctly, it need not threaten a darned thing. That is because it is awfully good at a particular kind of ju-jitsu capable of handling perceived threats to established cultures in a multicultural environment.
(U)niversal culture is going to win, simply because it’s designed to deal with diverse multicultural environments. . . . I think universal culture has done a really good job adapting to (cultural conflict) through a strategy of social atomization; everybody does their own thing in their own home, and the community exists to protect them and perform some lowest common denominator functions that everyone can agree on. This is a really good way to run a multicultural society without causing any conflict, but it requires a very specific set of cultural norms and social technologies to work properly, and only universal culture has developed these enough to pull it off.
Because universal culture is better at dealing with multicultural societies, the more immigrants there are, the more likely everyone will just default to universal culture in public spaces. And eventually the public space will creep further and further until universal culture becomes the norm.
I don’t quibble with the notion that this has been the thrust of change in our country. True indeed that we are yearning to square more individual liberty with some neutral public square. But how is that working out for ya?
Let’s skip over to Rod Dreher’s article at The American Conservative, entitled Make America Small Again. This is mostly a review of Yural Levin’s new book, The Fractured Republic. Dreher and Levin might well agree with Alexander that the shift to universal culture is in full-swing–but is that a good thing and what are the consequences?
(Levin) makes a strong, data-driven case that by every measure, America today is a less cohesive nation than it was in the immediate postwar era. We are politically more polarized, economically more unequal; socially atomized, religiously diffuse. As the culture and the economy have liberalized, giving the individual more lifestyle options and consumer choice, the bonds holding Americans together have become much thinner.
To which Alexander might reply: give it time! The full flowering of universal culture will end with a society in which a hundred, or a hundred thousand, flowers may bloom. And all will be well. All we will have to do is follow certain baseline rules in the public square, retreating to the private worlds of our choosing for everything else.
Of course this is not a new conception. It rhymes with the idea of the United States as a proposition nation. Cultures can be what they want; just accept the proposition.
Of course it is not exactly the same thing. Trump has been pilloried by the Hillary crowd for suggesting we ought to take formal account of The Proposition in our immigration policies.
Plus, if universal culture were so darned effective and easy, why would you suppose we are having all the problems we are having today managing this shaggy beast? Is it really just a matter of time before we master the public-private trade-offs, connecting from time to time on public matters and retreating happily to our private realms on private matters? Or is the opposite more likely the case: that, sure, you can push the public-private thing pretty far but that sooner or latter you hit a tripwire. After all, the things that may be considered arguably private include marriage arrangements, drug use, the rights of women and the demands of religious belief–all matters where public and private must collide.
It’s like the mythical wall between church and state. It is, or can be, a beneficial heuristic. But there is no such thing as that wall. Religion is never just a matter of prayer in the home. It is about other things too, things that are unavoidably public in nature. And if you believe too strongly in the actual existence of the church-state wall you are blind to the risk of pushing matters too far.
Alexander may be right about where we are headed. I suppose it is entirely possible that economic conditions are pushing humans to accept universal culture, and if there is a downside it is just the cost of doing business. And so it is possible to envision a form of government that will find ways to adapt as well. Maybe it will be a kind of empire. Maybe it will be a kind of Dark Enlightenment corporate-style state. But whatever the form, it will have left any notions of self-government far behind. A responsive and effective government must be moored in the values and habits of the people. Once you make that last word plural–“peoples”–things get awfully tricky, and I don’t see universal culture as handling the problem in a graceful way.
If the people are fractured, as Levin argues, then we can tilt in one direction toward a fractured government, in which differences in core values manifest themselves in endless squabbles over issues that real people find important. I’d argue that more or less characterizes out current condition. As an alternative we can accept Alexander’s view as to the magical effectiveness of universal culture. But in the real world, that will mean rule by fiat, with an entrenched elite making for a “neutral” public square by running roughshod over deeply held values of multiple publics. Just consider how core tenets of free speech are under assault because “we must respect differences”. Or how comments sections are being purged because we must cleanse public debate. OK, proles, now go back to your private spaces, with your public voices silenced and your balls cut off. And have a nice day!
I suspect that much of the resistance to universal culture stems from the recognition that you cannot privatize the public sphere all that well without an elite using force, and ultimately to its own advantage. Universal culture won’t repeal history any more than Fukuyama’s End of History did. Culture will always have a particular side to it. The values and habits of the people (or peoples) will out in one fashion or another. And the resistance to universal culture won’t easily lay down its arms if it is persuaded that there are real and permanent things at stake.