High culture, low culture – it’s all one in America. Our sense of culture can be roughly subsumed into the category of pop culture, where Madonna, Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise are about as close as we get to a unifying notion of what is culturally important. Even new films, such as “The DaVinci Code,” are treated with the kind of serious coverage which should be reserved for something worthwhile. The church gets involved, and the church gets political. Such is the state of affairs nowadays. Church, politics, culture – it becomes impossible to separate them out.

In a review of a new book, “The Seduction of Culture in German History”, by Wolf Lepenies, Andreas Huyssen outlines how German notions of “Kultur” became the de facto unifying principle for a nation otherwise lacking in a central state organization (The Nation, May 29). Although the influence of American rock and roll, pop, jazz, and Hollywood movies have made huge inroads into the German concept of Kultur as a unifying force, it is still possible at least to have a working understanding of the difference between nonsense and serious cultural issues in Germany, and entirely possible to conduct science without catering to fringe religious beliefs. If “Kultur” is what unifies a country in the absence of real political organization, at least let it be the real thing, and not some low-brow melodrama which purports to be culture.

Ultimately, Lepenies sees this substitution of Kultur for politics as a real problem for Germans, and chronicles the results in his book. In America, where our consensus on what constitutes culture is weak at best, we have an even more serious problem: frivolous debate on “cultural” issues trumps serious debate on political issues. Huyssen finishes his review with this quote, which points up important political lessons for us:

“The intense focus on cultural issues like sex in the movies, evolution and creationism, even academic curriculums, distracts from the hollowing out of constitutional checks and balances, the dismantling of international law and domestic threats to civil rights. Even more ominous, the “war on terror” and the “march of democracy” have increasingly taken on shadings of a war of cultures. As German historian Heinrich von Treitschke argued more than a century ago, once war becomes war of cultures, there is no end to it.”

I am reminded here of one of Pynchon’s proverbs for paranoids: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” The political shell game that is being perpetrated on the American public is symptomatic of a process that has successfully substituted “culture” for politics.


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