“Culture does not exist autonomously,” wrote Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community; “it is set always in the context of social relationships.” The implications of Nisbet’s statement should be obvious, but in the age of “social” media, when we speak of “long-distance relationships” with “friends” we have never met, the obvious too often gets lost in a cloud of abstraction.
For there to be a “context of social relationships,” there must be at least two people. And those people must be part of a society, because that is what social, as an adjective, not only implies but demands, the fantasy worlds constructed by Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams notwithstanding. And a society is a community, and a particular type thereof: not simply a random collection of people thrown together in time and bound by geography, but one ordered to the common good, and sharing a common history and customs. Those customs, deriving from and informed by that history, form the barest skeleton of what we call culture.
Culture, then, is built from the ground up, and from the basic human community—the family—outward. A culture is resilient to the extent that the society which gave rise to it is healthy, and that health implies a certain stability. Too much mobility, in the form of either immigration or emigration, disrupts the social relationships that make it possible to order a community to the common good. Shared history is lost; shared customs break down. The common culture collapses.
Culture develops organically; it cannot be imposed from the top down. Anything that we call a culture that does not arise “in the context of social relationships” is at best an ideology. It takes years, even generations, of social stability to develop the common history and customs that make a true culture possible.
Thus, a true culture has an upper limit as well as a lower one. Just as an individual cannot a culture make, so too a mass of men among whom any social relationships are tenuous at best cannot truly share a common culture. Most people would probably recognize that to speak of a “global culture” is abstraction at its worst; but to speak of, say, “Christian culture” is not much better. There are cultures that are Christian, but each arises from a shared faith in Christ among a people who share a common history and customs within a true community bound by space and time. Two Christians from different Christian cultures obviously share much; but a single common culture is not one of the things that they share.
I once wrote in these pages that,
The subtitle of this magazine notwithstanding, there can be no single, deep, and lasting “American culture,” but there have been and still are many American cultures, local and regional, and the stronger they are, the more likely it is that the country as a whole will manage to survive.
Furthermore, in a country that spans a continent, there can be no single nation, since a nation is bound together not only by common descent and geography but by a common culture. That does not mean that there cannot be a governmental confederation (or, more strictly speaking, an empire) that extends over such a large span of territory, nor that the many American cultures do not have more in common with one another than they do with other cultures beyond the physical boundaries of the North American continent. But unless the word culture is to become the kind of abstraction that Robert Nisbet abhorred, it must always be bound by the limits of a true society—limits imposed by geography, shared history and customs, and social relationships.
In our continental empire, anything that pretends to the title of a national culture is by its very nature a threat to the real cultures that continue to exist (and sometimes even to thrive) in such places as Spring Lake, Michigan; Rockford, Illinois; Huntington, Indiana; and thousands of other villages, towns, and small-to-medium-sized cities across the United States, as well as in neighborhoods within cities that are too large to sustain a true culture of their own. Such cultures are dismissed as backward and parochial not only by liberals, for whom culture must give way to abstract universalism, but by putative conservatives whose nationalist abhorrence of cultural patriotism is less universal but no less abstract.
America, such conservatives say, is not a “proposition nation”—except when the proposition in question is not that “All men are created equal” but that a culture does not need a specific soil and a particular people to give it birth. But this, too, is a type of abstract equality that denies the importance of the actual social relationships that give rise to and sustain true cultures. The person—a word that always implies a relationship to another—is replaced by the individual, whose only relationship (tenuous as it is) is to the mass known as the nation.
And thus does culture die, at the hands of those who should be its protectors.
Scott P. Richert is editor at large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and Publisher for Our Sunday Visitor. He holds an M.A. in political theory from the Catholic University of America. He has been published in, among others, The Family in America, This World, and Humanitas. He is the Catholicism Expert for About.com.