The Culture is Upstream from Politics, Again

united_states_of_america__mgn_flag_collection_2013_by_magnaen-d5mls6uWhen I was a boy, my grandfather and I spent summers buying cattle throughout Colorado. Mostly of course, he was the buyer, but there were moments when, with a certain twinkle in his eye, he would let me be the bidder, nudging me to know when to move my hand so that the auctioneer knew that we were still bidding. I learned much that matters from him over the years of being a boy, some of which still runs through my life.

For example, in that same time of apprenticeship, grandfather to grandson, he also taught me to care about the common good. Summer after summer, we would drive together through colorful Colorado, from southwest to northeast, talking about the world. He would ask me questions about life, especially the political order, and expected to me know. A reader of two newspapers for most of life, he showed me that it was important to keep up with the ways of the world.

Years later, when I was ready to finish college, my professors gave me the prize for the senior student who cared most about political responsibility, which had a certain irony because I was not a political science major. I had taken courses in politics, but my interest, while passionate, was more for understanding political responsibility within the larger vocation of cultural responsibility. Some friends chose differently, entering into years of public service with political vocations, and I honored them. But my questions were different.

And though I spent many years of my life teaching at the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill, year after year engaging motivated undergraduates with the complexity and challenge of political responsibility, it was always the dynamic of the cultural context of politics that most intrigued me.

It still does.

A week ago I published an essay, “The Culture is Upstream from Politics,” and was glad to see that many were interested, even sending it around to their own communities. We have all been perplexed in our different ways by what happened last week, some of course very glad about the outcome, some very distraught. What does it all mean?

Over the very long election season, with too many words said by too many people, true to my long interests, I kept thinking that the most important book for this year, and for these years, was one written by Neil Postman a generation ago, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. At the heart of his analysis was the question, “Who won? Did Aldous Huxley see most clearly into the future with his Brave New World, or was George Orwell the most seeing seer in his 1984?” A remarkably gifted writer, Postman argued that Huxley won, hands down, and that we were, simply, sadly, amusing ourselves to death.

The best analysis necessarily accounts for complexity, and must do so with nuance; otherwise we dismiss the argument as simplistic, a reading of the times that fails to understand the times. For my money, Postman read the world of the late 20th-century with uncanny prescience, seeing into who we are and why we are with rare insight. Much more could be said.

Last Saturday I decided to ask a question of some friends, near and far, hoping for a paragraph. What do you think of the thesis “the culture is upstream from politics,” in light of the election this past week? Not wanting anyone to harangue, saying one more time why so-and-so was a dastardly candidate, but more, “What does it say about us? Why was this our election? What happened?”

In the hours and days following the vote, some cried out in agony, some cried out in glory. Whether we saw this as a “scylla and charybdis” moment for America, being bashed into the shoals of history, destroying ourselves in the process, or whether it means something else altogether, we have all been asking ourselves, “What does it all mean?” We hope that these responses from men and women of different tribes and traditions will be its own grace for you. They represent big cities and small towns, the left and the right of the American political spectrum, farmers and musicians, older and younger, and some voices from other parts of the world too, each in their own way wrestling with who we are and why we— as they must, as we all must.

— Steven Garber —

For all 50 responses, here is the link — and as Augustine said so many years ago, “Tolle lege… take up and read.”

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