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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 is distantly rooted? Yes, because much of that talk reflects the same static notion of culture that once prevailed in anthropology. This shows up with great clarity in talk about cultural purity, whether from Afrocentrists or from those who fear that "our" pure American culture will be diluted or polluted by immigrants. The reality is much different. Culturally we are all mulattos.

What this means for B&C is suggested in part by two forthcoming essay-reviews. Franklin Ng will write about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in the larger context of the Japanese American experience, while Timothy Tseng will consider the Chinese American struggle against exclusion laws and other discriminatory legislation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the light of current immigration debates. Both pieces will treat Asian American subjects not as exotica, nor with multicultural drums beating, but as part of our common history.

At B&C we won't be dodging the contentious issues of our time--as a look at this issue will attest--but our notion of culture isn't dictated by the agenda of the culture warriors. Thus we'll continue to run pieces like last issue's profiles of Annie Dillard and John Gardner alongside articles such as Robert Wuthnow's "Can Christians Be Trusted?" (in the current issue). We hope to surprise and delight you with every issue.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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