Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Culture: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

    What possible connection could there be between the ancient Mexican culinary implement called the mono and metate and liberty in the United States? Stay tuned.

    As a preface to this blog, I want you to know that I will be drawing heavily in my definitions from the work of the great philosopher Ayn Rand. There is a blinding array of definitions of culture and of political culture, but none can match the precision and the depth of Rand's.

    She defines culture as "the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men, which their fellow citizens have accepted in whole or in part, and which have influenced the nation's way of life." This is such an elegant and powerful definition because it emphasizes two aspects of culture which are almost always overlooked: culture has utility, and it is an individual, not a collective, phenomenon.

    Culture has utility in that it has survival value: those intellectual achievements of individual men to which Rand refers all contribute to the survival of that culture's adherents. Consider the simple mono and metate, a Mexican innovation for grinding corn which has been in use there for millennia. Corn has been grown in Mexico for some five thousand years, and has been a staple there for all that time. Prior to the invention of the mono and metate, we can only assume that corn was eaten whole or laboriously ground into flour by some method or other, perhaps by pounding it between two rocks. Then, some ingenious proto-Mexican had a flash of genius. He, or more probably she, conceived of a rectangular stone with a concave surface and an oblong stone mated to that surface. Corn could be placed in the concavity, and the oblong stone drawn back and forth until the dried corn became flour. Many times more corn could be ground in a given time using this new invention that had been possible before. In all likelihood, this is what happened next. The woman with the first mono and metate had neighbors who saw that she could produce a lot more flour than they could in a day. They pestered their mates to make a similar contraption. Soon everyone in the village had monos and metates. Word spread to the next village, and then the next. Ultimately virtually everyone in Mexico was using the mono and metate to grind corn.

    Today, when we see these in actual use or in a museum, we think of them as part of "Mexican culture." Millions of people have used them to grind corn, and so we think of them as a collective phenomenon. The fact that this brilliant idea germinated in the mind of one person, one genius, eludes us. Over the centuries, the mono and metate have certainly contributed to the survival and wellbeing of untold generations of Mexicans. It has improved their diet, and led to the creation of delicacies such as tacos and burritos. Without the mono and metate, taco stands around the world would have nothing to sell.

    The same could be said for paper clips, jet engines, potato chips and penicillin. An entire society did not invent these things. They were the products of an individual mind. And the sum total of these products allows us to survive, to enjoy our lives, and even to prosper.

    Ah, to prosper. We're getting a little closer to the truth now. Do all cultures allow their adherents to prosper? One would think so if one were to listen to the anthropological eyewash regarding cultural relativism. They will tell you that all cultures are equally efficacious, equally good, and equally valid. No culture is better than any other, and none are worse. I suffered through years of this blather as an undergraduate. A monumental attempt was made by my maestros to indoctrinate me with the supposed allure of its one-world egalitarianism. All for naught, I'm afraid. I rejected it then, and I reject it now. But for many, within academia and without, it was accepted truth. Those were the halcyon, embryonic days of relativism: days when everyone was watching television commercials telling us that we should "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." Remember? GAG! Michael, please row your boat over Niagara Falls. Western academia was overflowing with pretentious fools ooing and aahing over a potsherd produced by a culture so inefficacious that it never lifted its adherents out of the Stone Age. While it may be true that all existing cultures do permit their adherents to survive, some permit survival at a very basal level, while others permit their adherents to soar like eagles. Those cultures that are so horribly inefficacious that they do not permit survival have, by definition, died out. All cultures are therefore most definitely not created equal. There, I've vented my spleen over my college days. Now let's move on.

Let's assume for a moment that my old Profs were correct. If all cultures are equally efficacious, why then are the adherents of some cultures so much better off in many ways than are the adherents of other cultures? Why are some richer than others? Why do some enjoy more stable political systems? Why do some live in peaceful, relatively tranquil circumstances, and others in violent, vicious ones? It is because some cultures did not, and do not now, possess the capacity to formulate the concepts necessary to produce the desirable outcomes mentioned above. Primitive, backward cultures (yes, I dare use those words) do not possess the intellectual milieu necessary for all of those millions of geniuses around the world to invent their monos and metates, their jet engines, their cures for cancer, and so on. They are development resistant, as the Argentine Mariano Grondona put it.

How can this be? How can they not have the capacity to formulate the concepts necessary to produce desirable outcomes? This is not a technological shortcoming, but a philosophical one. I suggest that they are development resistant because of an excess of altruism. If I may quote Ayn Rand again, who wrote prolifically on this subject,


"The basic principle of altruism is that no man has a right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification for his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value."


Altruism is rampant in this world. Selfishness is looked down upon as immoral. Rand wrote an entire book on this subject ("The Virtue of Selfishness") which I heartily recommend. In cultures dominated by altruism, and that covers a very great percentage of the human species, living for one's own sake is forbidden, and self-sacrifice is mandated. Perhaps my unique contribution to this discussion is the following: in altruistic cultures, the individual expects self-sacrifice from others, BUT it is understood that at some point in the future, he will be the one who will be expected to sacrifice his interests for the welfare of strangers. Today, he expects someone to be his sacrificial animal, but tomorrow he knows that he will be forced to become a sacrificial animal for someone else's benefit. This, necessarily, creates resentment among all individuals who are adherents of a culture with such a philosophy. No sane human being will willingly, happily, accept the role of sacrificial animal. This resentment manifests itself in many unspoken, subtle ways. Cooperation among individuals is minimal. Why cooperate with someone whom you know will one day force you to assume the role of sacrificial animal? Hence, community schools and health clinics are not built. Why contribute your sweat and money to educate the children of people you distrust, and may even hate? Cities turn into armed camps, with guards patrolling the walled fortresses of affluent citizens in an effort to keep out the dreaded demanders of self-sacrifice. Politicians at all levels loot the system for all it's worth. Why not? They're only stealing the money of those who would seek to enslave them if their roles were reversed. Contracts are not signed, money is not lent, and philanthropy is virtually nonexistent. A thousand and one social pathologies stem from this resentment of the prospect of some stranger, usually using the coercive force of the state, to turn individuals into sacrificial animals. Even the filth of the backward countries, with their backward cultures and their backward philosophies, can be explained by this resentment. Why should one care if others have to look at one's trash in the cities or on the highways? Individuals don't trust each other, they don't like each other, and they may even hate each other. Everyone is waiting for the day when his neighbor will stab him in the back, all in the name of altruism.

The United States of America is certainly the greatest exception to this dominant moral code of altruism. This country was founded on the basis of individual liberty, where human beings were not expected to turn themselves into sacrificial animals. Obviously, the major exception was slavery, but we rid ourselves of that pestilence long ago. However, a sea change has been taking place in the past century or so. Altruism, with all its anti-development, anti-human, anti-life characteristics, has been creeping into our system. A great many Americans now expect someone to sacrifice himself in their interest. Where did this come from? How could it happen? This brilliant bastion of individualism is slowly, voluntarily adopting the same bankrupt code of morality as the poverty stricken, pestilential societies that dominate the earth, where altruists squat around mud holes quivering in the dark.

The answers to these questions will be the subject of the Federal Recluse's next entry.

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