American Culture is an Anti-Culture

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 11: Lady Gaga attends Glamour's 23rd annual Women of the Year awards on November 11, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Glamour)

As a child in Sunday school, I learned a song that went:

“Be careful, little hands what you do.

Be careful, little ears what you hear.

Be careful, little eyes what you see.”

The goal, I assume, was to give children a catchy way of reminding themselves of the importance of self-discipline, of keeping oneself free from bad influences.

The message is still relevant. We have reached a point where American culture actively works to undermine any efforts to cultivate self-discipline or any other virtue for that matter. People who give themselves unreflectively to American culture give themselves over to destruction. That is rough sentence containing a sad sentiment. Yet, it’s true.

Those who follow the culturally approved path are almost certain to find themselves beset by all sorts of calamity: spiritual, emotional, relational and financial. The only prudent approach now to the mainstream narrative of the good life is vigorous skepticism.

Without this vigorous skepticism, one cannot flourish. Imagine a man who comes to his doctor and complains of not feeling well. His doctor asks him if he’s changed his habits at all recently. The patient says no except that, for the last three months, he’s gotten up every morning and drunk a thimble full of poison.

Just as the doctor would rightly tell that man to stop drinking poison if he wants to return to health, so the conscientious commentator must now encourage his readers to leave American culture behind. Getting up each day and imbibing it will only ruin you.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say America no longer has a culture. We have an anti-culture. A culture is a set of institutions and practices that inculcate a shared worldview and set of values. When a human being is exposed to a functional, viable culture he comes into contact with the best his group has to offer. The effects of this exposure can’t help but be salutary. While every culture has aspects that aren’t ideal, the thrust of a working culture uplifts the human soul and improves human character.

None of this is the case in contemporary America. Instead, regular exposure to American institutions and culture, especially American popular culture, leads to despair and corruption. The masses don’t see this. Someone is watching those ”Real Housewives” shows. Someone, a lot of someones apparently, is buying music by Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.

Every hour spent sucking up this material is an hour spent in a kind of school. Above all, culture teaches. Sustainable cultures teach people to defer gratification, to cultivate fidelity, to view themselves as a part of a larger community. When a culture teaches indulgence, chaos, and narcissism it has ceased to behave in a way that secures itself a future.  When a culture ceases to secure a future for itself, it has become an anti-culture.

The only reasonable response to an anti-culture is to withdraw from it. This bothers some people. It smacks of defeatism, of giving up. But, a plan to withdraw from our anti-culture isn’t about surrender. It is about survival and long-term victory.

Just as ceasing to start one’s day by chugging a cup of poison is not surrender, but a means of strengthening oneself, so too is withdrawing from a poisonous culture a means of strengthening one’s soul, one’s family and ultimately, one’s civilization.

The question is what this withdrawal should look like.  The answer is necessarily squishy. The contours of cultural withdrawal will vary from individual to individual. The principle that we must cease submitting to the anti-culture is ironclad. How that is carried out will depend on many factors including personality, financial resources, religious background, level of commitment and many others.

For our family, for example, this withdrawal looks like homeschooling and not having cable. It doesn’t mean going full-on Amish. Mostly, it means having a clear idea of what our values are, and of where those values conflict with the dominant narrative. When our values conflict with those advocated by the anti-culture, we do what we can to separate from it. I suppose this is what Rod Dreher has been calling the Benedict Option.

There is too much at stake not to resist. What kind of adults our children will become is on the line. Whatever contentment and peace we have managed to find are put in danger by the values the anti-culture promotes. The cost of protecting these things is that we are rarely among the “cool” people. We are estranged from the mainstream, aliens in our native land. And, it is when we are surrounded by such dangers,that we see it is critical to remember our Sunday school lessons and to be careful what we see, hear and do.

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