wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Roger Sandall

The Culture Cult

Open society or closed culture? Individuality or collectivism? Universalism or ethnic particularity? Cosmopolitanism or nationalism? Economic liberalism or socialism? Atomism or organicism? Knowledge as independently-arrived-at truth, to be experimentally confirmed or falsified, or knowledge as communally authorized belief forever beyond appraisal as true or false? Freely adaptable modern mobility, interest in change and ability to handle it, openness to science and innovation—or roots fixed forever in unrelinquishable blood-soaked tribal soil? In Austria, with the transformation of Herder's cultural nationalism into nationalism per se, writes Ernest Gellner, 'The opposition between individualism and communalism, between the appeal of Gesellschaft (society) and of Gemeinschaft (community), a tension which pervades and torments most societies disrupted by modernization, became closely linked to the hurly burly of daily political life and pervaded the sensibility of everyone.' In the terms employed in this book, for Gesellschaft read modern universal civilization and market economies; for Gemeinschaft read the emotional complexes and intimidating coercive ties associated with the waning communal world.

The decline of the communal is saturated in pathos. As Gellner writes, 'community is sung and praised by those who have lost it.' On this view its bards and celebrants nostalgically call to mind an ideal that has gone, an innocence which is destroyed, and an idyll which may in fact never have been. When it is alive, community is imperceptible, is hardly noticed, and provides a taken-for-granted matrix for events: 'It is lived, it is danced, it is performed in ritual and celebrated in legend, but it is hardly articulated in theory.' When it is about to die the communal culture which has been unconsciously accepted as an all-embracing umwelt now becomes consciously dwelt on, theorized, idealized, mythicized, and may, in some cases, proceed swiftly from the pathos of decline to the bathos of Disneyfication. But as Gellner says, the central argument concerning cultural identity, vitality, and authenticity, everywhere makes similar claims: 'Roots are everything. Rootlessness is not just wicked but deeply pathological and pathogenic.' Rootless cosmopolitanism is evil.

Along the path Gellner delineates lies the ominous marriage of cultural nationalism and political madness which, alas, anthropological enthusiasm for the glories of human collectives has never been willing to confront: 'The relatively gentle Herderian insistence on the life-enhancing quality of a local communal culture was in due course strengthened by a less benign element: Darwin mediated by Nietzsche. The vitality-conferring roots were to be not merely territorial-cultural, but also genetic. The legitimating community was not merely language-transmitting but also a gene-transmitting one....The line of development towards extreme and racist nationalism was clear and plausible.'