Jul 28, 2022
“There was more cultural overlap between the Confederate States and the United States in 1860 than there is today between Red States and Blue.”
Recently, I reached out to family and friends for help with a problem. I needed to come up with a story that everyone would be familiar with, that would be accessible to all (regardless of age, education, etc.) and offensive to none, not overly juvenile, not overtly religious, and, of course, free of the tinge of any ‘ism’ – racism, sexism, etc.
There must be hundreds of such stories, right? I mean, a common library of shared narratives in regular circulation, is a major part of what defines a ‘culture’.
A popular Roman Catholic hymn includes the refrain, “We come to share our story. We come to break the bread.” A common repertoire of shared narrative, culminating in a communal meal, is a widespread engine of identity among social groups.
Consider the feast of Passover: the shared story of the Exodus culminates in a meal shared by all members of the community. Now consider the importance of the Passover in fostering Jewish, and later Christian, identity.
So, easy-peasy, right? Well, not so fast! The problem turned out to be much more difficult than it might have seemed at first. Although I received many helpful suggestions, I’m still not sure I have ‘’the one”. (I’ve given up on ‘hundreds’; I’ll gladly settle for just one!) At this point, I’m not sure there even is such a “one”.
Someone who responded to my SOS (above) called my attention to the difficulty of the assignment and attributed that difficulty to the fact that “broad cultural literacy just doesn’t exist anymore.”
Thinking back to when I grew up (in the 1950s), we were all about ‘broad cultural literacy’. We shared narratives: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Columbus, Washington, Lincoln. Even if these ‘collective experiences’ didn’t resonate with every sub-cultural group, we ‘shared’ them anyway. They became who we were, whether we were or not!
Not so today! Now, even searching for a common identity is considered suspect. Were Kant alive today, he might write, a “Critique of Pure Humanism.” After decades of “It’s a Small World After All” and “ We are the World,” our world has never been larger, more diverse, or more conflicted.
It is popular today to talk about the cultural differences between the ante-bellum South and the industrial North. But I would submit that there was more cultural overlap between the Confederate States and the United States in 1860 than there is today between the Red states and the Blue.
Our intellectual resources are focused on what distinguishes us, not on what unites us: secular vs. religious, proletariat vs. bourgeoisie, capitalist vs. socialist, black vs. white, male vs. female, young vs. old, native vs. immigrant, etc.
What does this mean for the future of our culture? Are we evolving toward ‘one world’ as our commentators have led us to believe or are we on the cusp of a ‘Many Worlds Interpretation’ of Social Dynamics?
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