The Culture is Upstream from Politics

This article first appeared in the journal Maxim, a publication of The Maxim Institute, a research and public policy think tank in Auckland, New Zealand.

‘They were taught by their cause.” So observed William Marshal Howse, a University of California professor in the 1950s, writing about the Clapham community who lived in London two centuries earlier. After ten years of political push-and-shove, the British MP William Wilberforce, and the community of men and women who shared his vision, began to see that the effort to address the issue of slavery was going to require a different strategy.

Empowered by conversations with John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned abolitionist, and William Pitt, son of the Prime Minister and himself on his way to the same position, Wilberforce took up the abolition of slavery as his “great object,”l-that which would give shape and substance to his calling and career. For a decade he introduced bills to parliament, only to have them rejected year by year. The slave trade was the primary engine of the British empire, and there was no political will in parliament to change a law that would so radically alter the social economy of a nation whose ships sailed the seas and ruled the world; believing as they could for that brief shining moment that”the sun never set on the British Empire.”

“They were taught by their cause.” As right as their cause seemed, as important as their moment was, as motivated as they were to address the slave question, what they had not counted on was the reality that the culture was upstream from politics. One of the truest truths of the universe, it is way the world works; whether in 18th century London or 21st century Washington, or in cities the world over.

Politics is a crucial arena of human responsibility. In the political realm, decisions are made about ideas, and the ways that those ideas will shape history. Lawyers and lobbyists, politicians and the people, together they come to parliaments and congresses the world over, to argue their cases; for a thousand different reasons wanting to put their shoulders to history. And beyond that, there is an important pedagogical character to the law, and to law-making. We learn about what matters to us through the laws which are ours. They reflect our best and our worst, and mostly of course they are, as Lord Bismarck once observed,”sausage being made.”

Politicians the world over are finger-to-the-wind people, perhaps at their best; so it is mostly true that politics is a more responsive work, than an initiating work. If the wind blows hard enough from the far places of America, sometimes it is felt on Capitol Hill-and sometimes, legislation is offered as a way of addressing the questions and issues that have come from the people. And it is always sausage that is made.

This is not an historical abstraction. Bono has had to come to Washington to plead for Africa; not to Dublin, not to London, not to New York or Los Angeles, not even to Auckland. But he has come to the city of the White House and the World Bank, knowing that at the dawn of the 21st century he would have to persuade both places of his cause, if his cause was to prosper. And for his efforts, hard -won as they have been, he has attracted huge amounts of funding to address the complexity of AIDS in Africa-billions and billions and billions of dollars.

And it is also worth noting that it was Bono, perhaps the most visible pop icon in the world of the last generation-not a leader in global politics like the Secretary-General of the United Nations, not a President or a Prime Minister of an African nation, but a rock star who brought unusual passion, charisma, and intelligence to an issue of almost unbearable and intractable need. In our mediated world-remembering Thomas de Zengotita’s very good book2-it is almost as if we need Bono to say that it matters.

What do we learn about the world, as we reflect on this social and political dynamic? Perhaps we ought to listen again to Wilberforce and the colleagues who were also his community. When they began to rethink their strategy, realising parliament would not change unless the people required a change, they stepped into the deeper truth that the culture is upstream from politics.

One member of the Clapham community, Josiah Wedgwood-the English potter who grew a company into an economic icon of Britishness-offered to make a plate. Ingeniously, he designed a Wedgwood blue plate with a cameo of a slave in chains in the very middle, with the words “Am ] Not a Man and a Brother?” in a half-moon over the top. So beautifully imagined, the plates sold all over England. Envisage sitting down at dinner, beginning to put knife and fork to the roast beef, and finding a question coming up out of the plate, a question vvith far-reaching consequences!

Along with almost countless efforts by these same people, developing 60 different societies to address social ills such as the sorry conditions of chimney sweeps, and the groaning needs for agricultural and educational reform, they together took up a second”great object” -what they called”the reformation of manners.”

Today we would call their work “the renewal of the social ecology” perhaps, but the truth is a perennial one, that culture is upstream from politics. If a people wants a society of more justice and more mercy, then the culture itself will have to change before there will be political change. It is .in the aspirations and hopes, the commitments and the loves, over time twined together, that the social fabric is woven, giving answers to questions like “what is a human being?” and “what is our responsibility to our neighbour?”

“They were taught by their cause.” The Clapham community stepped into history ,vith two great objects: the abolition of slavery, and the reformation of manners. The former needed the latter, and even though it took years to understand that, they eventually did. English life, and life the world over, changed. After a literal lifetime of political labour, Wilberforce finally achieved his goal-the slave trade and slavery were abolished. But it was only because he and his community gave themselves to the renewing of the social fabric of society that there was a political will to change the laws.

Over the last several years I have been involved in working out this wisdom in my own society and city of Washington DC realising that-for blessing and curse-the visions and hopes we have about who we are and how we live echo all over the world. America has a long shadow.

Taking this story of Wilberforce and Wedgwood, we decided to call ourselves the Wedgwood Circle. Inspired in part by these words of Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish politician of the 17th century, “Give me the making of a people’s songs, and I care not who makes its laws,”we began to realise that in our own time and place that still, the culture is upstream from politics. Some of us were longtime Washingtonians, people working in various vocations on and around Capitol Hill. One was a musician and producer of music in Nashville, one a businessman in Kansas City, but each was someone who cared deeply about the world; the way it is and the way it ought to be.

Our vision is to bring together artists and investors, and to ask, “What about history? What about the way the world turns out? What if we invested in the culture together?” And so filmmakers, novelists, playwrights, singer/songwriters, graphic novelists, etc, alongside people \-\-ith more-than-average financial resources who are also passionate about the common good, come together under the banner of the Wedgwood Circle year by year, each time going “further up and further intt3 to a common life and a common commitment. That is, to work on history, on the way the world is and the way it ought to be.

Fletcher’s words have been good grist for us, and we are sure that he was right about the relationship of songs to laws. Both matter, both are worthy vocations, both are arenas of responsibility-period. But we are convinced that songs do shape our souls, and that culture is upstream from politics, and therefore that people who care about the future must be willing to enter into the complexity of cultural formation-and forgo a primary focus on political solutions.

Some of those in the Wedgwood Circle are remarkably gifted storytellers, and their plays are some of the best known in the world. Some are rock stars, and their songs are ones” everyone” knows. Some are filmmakers, and their movies are seen on screens in every comer of the earth. Like Wedgwood, we are committed to the marketplace, to selling excellent expressions of human creativity.1his is not philanthropy principally-though there is something profoundly philanthropic about the choice to invest in history rather than one more shopping mall. But also like Wedgwood, we are working hard to communicate something of the true, the good and the beautiful-sometimes even something with an artistic edge, viz. “Am I not a man and also a brother?”

We talk a lot about the task of translation, of being able to take our deepest commitments about life and the world, and learning to sing songs that everyone can understand and make sense of. We have often rooted our vision in the astute observation of the novelist Walker Percy/Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition:” And we ask ourselves, in thinking about a film, a play, a painting, a novel, a song/Does it tell the truth of the human condition?”At our best, we are doing thatand not because we making a parochial point, but rather that we are working hard to tell a story that allows everyone a window into the heart, into their own hearts, yes, into the truth of the human heart.

The film Ray, the story of Ray Charles is one example. The screenwriter laboured over the reality of Charles’ life, both the glory of his gift, but also the tragedy of his addictions. The production company, Walden Media, is owned by a Wedgwood Circle member, and he has long loved Ray Charles’music. One of his great desires was to make a film about the man and his music, but he also knew that he would have to make sure that it was story of the glOriOUS ruin of Charles’life, if it was to be true to the human condition. The film is that, wonderfully and painfully. The same company is behind the Namia films, and in their own very different way they too wrestle with the reality of the human condition-more playfully perhaps, but no less poignantly.

More recently, the music of The Fray is another window into Wedgwood. Several years ago, when “How to Save a Life” was beginning to have world-wide resonance-close to the top of the charts in every country on earth-we began to talk to the band about their vision, asking them about art, vocation, culture-“What are you doing? What do you want to be doing? What do you believe about the deepest things?”We found that they wanted to sing songs that told the truth about life, about who we are and how we live. The relationship continues, and they continue to make music that people the world over love because they hear themselves, and see themselves in the poetry of songs like “You Found Me,” which a year ago was the most down-loaded song on iTunes for months. Theirs is a story that is still being told.

We still care about politics. But we have come to understand that politics, like all callings, is one among many. Even more so we have come to see that the political realm is a reflection of the wider world, even as it too shapes the wider world. It is both/and, not either/or.

And so while chimney sweep reform is no longer of primary concern, human trafficking is-and the way that we understand both issues is primarily a reflection on what we believe about human nature and our responsibility for the common good. The same is true for questions about economic life (what is a sustainable economy?), about education (what is good education?), and the environment (what is our responsibility to future generations?), and on and on. The habits of heart that sustain healthy societies are dependent upon sufficient agreement on who we are and how we will live, and those questions are not easily answered by legislation. There is a deeper level of conversation that is more cultural than political, though in the end there are of course political implications. Yes, it is both “the making of songs” and”the making of laws.”Both matter, but we should not confuse which one is more foundational.

A couple of years ago I was asked to give a lecture to the graduate students and faculty of the Beijing Film Academy. For many reasons this was an important invitation; perhaps most significantly because ten years earlier I spent an evening with the leaders of the Tiananmen Square Protests, the students who escaped the slaughter and suffering of their peers in June 1989. When I met them they were chastened, but still eager to understand how their deep love for China could meaningfully become a continuing responsibility for China. We talked late into the night, and I will never forget them, their questions, or their longing.

I accepted the invitation and chose to speak on”Good Stories, Good Societies,” acknowledging that China’s political leaders set the vision of a “harmonious society”before the people. And so I asked them, “What kind of stories are required to become that kind of nation?”

Reflecting on many of their best filmmakers and films, I drew in the insight about bad books and the truth of the human condition, as well as the argument of the Czech playwright and politician Vaclav Havel, who has written extensively that”the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.”s In the end my address was a plea for them to become filmmakers who would tell good stories–stories that tell the truth of the human condition, stories that remember that the secret of man is his responsibility-and to understand the integral relationship between good stories and good societies.

Like the Tiananrnen leaders, I loved these students, their questions and their longing. They care about China and its future, and they want their work to matter to history-and it will, because for everyone everywhere, culture is upstream from politics.

Dr. Steven Garber is the Director of the Washington Institute and author ofThe Fabric of Faithfulness.

ENDNOTES

1 The phrase-great object”is taken from Wilberforce’s journals. In 1787 he Wrote “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of manners … ”

2 T. de Zengotita, Mediated: How the media shapes your world and the way you live (NewYork: Bloomsbury, 2005).

3 The phrase “further up and further in”is taken from C. s. Lewis, The Last Battle (Newlbrk Harper Collins, 1956) chapter 15.

4 W. Percy,”Another Message in a Bottle”in Signposts in a Strange Land: Essays (USA: Picador, 1991) 364

5 V. Havel, Letters to Olga (NewYork: Henry Holt, 1989), 145.

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