Culture Wars

'Under the dictatorship of relativism, culture has often been debased to mean almost anything'

My variation on the game Scissors, Paper, Stone (US: Rock, Paper, Scissors) is State, Religion, Culture. The terms derive from the theory of the three Potenzen (“powers”), which we owe to the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97). In my game, state trumps religion, religion trumps culture, and culture trumps state. The idea that politics should take precedence over faith is the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”), established at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 to put an end to religious conflict: subjects must follow the faith of their ruler. The separation of church and state, with the former legally protected but subordinate to the latter, gradually prevailed right across the West. Hitherto, religion has similarly dominated culture-viz. almost any museum-though even the sceptical Burckhardt could not have foreseen the iconoclasm of our 21st-century secularists.

What interests me here is the third Potenz: culture, which generally trumps the state. In America, the realisation of this has dawned among the shrewdest authors of post mortems on the presidential election. In National Review, Mark Steyn commented: “Culture trumps politics. Culture trumps economics. On November 6, culture trumped reality.” Voters are influenced, he wrote, not by policies, but by their “identifiers”—race, gender, sexuality or profession. “The Left understands where the real victories are won,” he observed. “Politics is a battle, but culture is the war.” 

In an interview for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Harvey Mansfielda lone voice of common sense among the learned Laputans of Harvardalso invoked culture as the key to a conservative comeback: “Democrats have their cultural argument, which is the attack on the rich and the uncaring. So Republicans need their cultural arguments to oppose the Democrats’, to say that goodness or justice in our country is not merely the transfer of resources to the poor and vulnerable.” He suggested that the poor should be taught “to prize independence and not just live for a government cheque. That means self-government within each self, and where are you going to get that except with morality, responsibility and religion?”

Under the dictatorship of relativism, however, culture has often been debased to mean almost anything. In German, as Mara Delius notes in her column, Kultur has a deeper, more metaphysical resonance. For that reason the word was perverted beyond recognition by the Nazis, and still has sinister connotations for their victims.

For the Nazis, the opposite of culture was not anarchy, but civilisation. Kultur was authentic, pure and German, whereas Zivilisation was cosmopolitan, urban and Jewish. Nazi pseudo-intellectuals churned out bestsellers devoted to the supposed evils of civilisation. Viewing the world through the prism of this viciously anti-Semitic Kultur, Himmler and other senior Nazis indulged a bizarre taste for the occult: not only astrology and spiritualism, but “cosmic ice theory”, ancestor worship and much else besides. But these foul fantasies, brilliantly investigated by the late Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, served a purpose: to defile and ultimately obliterate the achievements of millennia of Judaeo-Christian civilisation. Even before they launched the most terrible war in history, the Nazis mounted a culture war. Had they not been defeated, Europe would have entered a darker age by far than that which followed the Roman Empire.

It was a previous incumbent of Hitler’s office, the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, who launched the first Kulturkampf (literally “culture struggle”) against the Catholic Church in Prussia. It failed, but today many Western governments follow his example by discriminating against those who uphold Judaeo-Christian values. As Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali writes in this month’s Standpoint, in England the churches must all prepare for exile. In Germany and elsewhere, Jews are threatened by attempts to ban circumcision and kosher slaughter. In the US, Allan Bloom’s warning against “spiritual entropy” as a consequence of the “decay of culture” has been amply borne out over the quarter-century since The Closing of the American Mind achieved notoriety. Bloom lamented that his “select students [at Chicago] know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition”. How much more aghast he would be at today’s prospect of a world in which any notion of “the tradition” or “Western canon” is shot to pieces by the very profession that ought to be its guardian: the academy.

The place where state, religion and culture converge is the Bible. Thanks to a privately-funded initiative of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, all 24,000 state schools in England have received a copy of the King James Bible. But its majestic prose is almost as much of a mystery to most of today’s students as the Hebrew, Greek or Latin originals. Yet the King James Bible is a product of the first modern era of biblical scholarship. We have a fine new example by Geza Vermes this month. In New York’s Jewish Museum, an exhibition of manuscripts from the Bodleian Library, Oxford includes one of the earliest Hebrew codices extant, the splendidly illuminated Kennicott Bible, and one of only two Gospels from the period of St Augustine’s conversion of England. We are fortunate that such treasures have survived. Each generation should truly make the Bible its own. Let us start by teaching our children and grandchildren to read it.  

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