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By John Wilson, Managing Editor
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Culture of Culture
In a memorable segment of the public television series based on his book "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," Randall Balmer, as if addressing a delegation of curious Martians, described what he called "the evangelical subculture." He seemed to be talking about a group like the Amish--a larger group, of course, and not quite so distinctive in their folkways. Still, it would be interesting to visit an evangelical village.
Talk about culture and cultures is ubiquitous in America today. We are said by many to be in the midst of a "culture war." In response to the advocates of multiculturalism, many universities have added to their curriculum a "cultural diversity" requirement. We've had Oscar Lewis on the culture of poverty, Christopher Lasch on the culture of narcissism, Robert Hughes on the culture of complaint, and Stephen Carter on the culture of disbelief. In a recently published book, "The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation," Tom Engelhardt offers "an autopsy of a once vital American myth: the cherished belief that triumph over a less-than-human enemy was in the American grain, a birthright and a national destiny." And in an interview in this issue of, yes, BOOKS & CULTURE, Dinesh D'Souza argues that African Americans must overcome "cultural pathologies" that arose as adaptations to oppression but that are now dysfunctional.
What all these invocations of culture share is a common origin in anthropology, in the once-dominant paradigm of "culture," founded on the study of small, discrete, and largely preliterate societies. This is a rather static view of culture: each society has its own, and the job of anthropologists is to travel around doing fieldwork and comparing their findings, creating a kind of grand taxonomy of human living arrangements and customs and world-views. It was a tidy model, best expressed in kinship diagrams. Now the tribe is likely to be gathered around Baywatch.
Does it matter where current talk about culture ...