Back To Basics

Yesterday, I posted about Wang Huning, the behind-the-scenes Chinese public intellectual whose philosophy is evidently immensely influential in that country, and whose six-month visit to the U.S. triggered his disenchantment with Enlightenment rationalism/liberalism.

Wang reportedly came to believe that culture is a vital component of political stability–that  a society’s “software,” by which he means culture, values, and attitudes, shapes political destiny as much or more as the “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions) most of us consider far more influential.

Since I read only the article to which I linked, I don’t know whether Wang ever addressed the extent to which hardware–especially economic systems–influences and shapes or distorts culture. In the U.S., for example, sociological research tells us that capitalism has strengthened America’s cultural emphasis on individualism.

Be that as it may, Wang’s impressions of America, and the conclusions he drew from his observations, underscore one of the enduring questions of political philosophy: what is government for? What are the tasks that must be done collectively–through government–and what tasks are properly left to the private and voluntary sectors?

I don’t think it is an over-simplification to suggest that American Right-wingers agree with Wang in one crucial respect: the importance of culture and tradition. (In their case, the supreme importance of their culture and tradition.) The Right thus believes that it is government’s job to protect their culture–a culture which gives social dominance to White Christian males and facilitates a dog-eat-dog form of market capitalism.

The Left–which, in America these days, includes pretty much anything and anyone to the left of radical Right-wing Republicanism–sees the job of government very differently. For most of us, the ideal government is boring; it is (or should be) almost entirely concerned with building and maintaining the physical and social infrastructure that underlies and enables genuine human liberty–which we define as the ability to pursue one’s personal life goals. So we want government to attend to the public safety, build and maintain the structures that allow us to travel, communicate and collaborate, and–ideally–provide a social safety net sufficient to prevent poverty and a degree of inequality that endangers social stability.

What we label the American Left today includes a very wide a swath of opinion, so it is inevitable that there will be many “intra-Left” arguments about what that infrastructure should look like, how robust it should be, and how government should go about funding and maintaining it. But virtually everyone on the Left would define the role of government in terms that are utterly incompatible with those of the radical Right.

These incompatible views of what government is for have led to incommensurate demands on government.

In today’s America, the Left (pretty much across the broad spectrum of Left-of-Fascism opinion and despite disputes about how to achieve these goals) wants roads and bridges repaired, healthcare access expanded,   and voting rights protected. It also wants the wealthy to pay taxes at the higher rates that were historically imposed.  Today’s (far more unified) Right wants school history courses censored and trans students ostracized, women’s reproductive liberties curtailed, voting made more difficult for minorities, and White Christian privilege protected. it also wants taxes further reduced, especially on corporations and the rich.

The Bill of Rights, as I have repeatedly noted, is a list of things that government is forbidden to do;  the nation’s Founders did not believe that government’s job included protection of a particular worldview, religion or status.

Wang’s belief in the importance of culture isn’t wrong. But cultures develop over time; they are the result of numerous factors that interact to influence social mores, attitudes and values. In the U.S.,over time, the culture has been heavily influenced by the values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and by the other aspirations built into our constituent documents.

Most Americans have been “acculturated” to see government’s role as a provider of infrastructure (however narrowly or broadly defined)–not as a protector of privilege, which is what today’s Right demands in its breathtakingly radical effort to remake both American law and culture.

There’s a reason the Right wants to censor and distort the teaching of accurate history. Those who control the historical narrative control the culture–and the country.


  1. Winsome Sears – what a breath of fresh air for America. She speaks the truth that needs to be heard. You could learn a lot from her message – she’s going to turn the “racist” fake narrative upside down!
    Way to go Virginia!
    The red tsunami has only begun

  2. Since Reagan, the R’s and their media clones have been yelling that our government IS the problem. It is our enemy. There are now a couple of generations of R families that were brought up believing this crap. That is their foundation. I am not sure how we deal with that.

  3. The Oligarchy controls the narrative and shapes culture:

    “About 15 billionaires and six corporations own most of the U.S. media outlets. The biggest media conglomerates in America are AT&T, Comcast, The Walt Disney Company, National Amusements (which includes Viacom Inc. and CBS), News Corp, and Fox Corporation (which are both owned in part by the Murdochs), Sony, and Hearst Communications.”

  4. Dave Leonhardt’s column in today’s NYT is very compatible with this culture theory. As always, I believe that the opening of the mind through education is the ultimate answer, so current attempts to undermine the power of education are especially pernicious to me.

  5. “There’s a reason the Right wants to censor and distort the teaching of accurate history. Those who control the historical narrative control the culture–and the country.”

    Ah Virginia; the capitol of the Confederacy who cannot weed out their sovereignty roots, master and slave, dictator and subjects. And the reason Donald Trump was so enthralled with Vladimer Putin and in love with Kim Jong Un and believed he was the 3rd side of that trifecta of world leaders. “Back To Basics”; all the way to the founding fathers who were part of the pro-slavery era of our beginnings. The “culture” of master and slaves was evident in his revolving door administration; he sold out those who displeased him, keeping those whose “yes, Massa” cowering obedience pleased him.

    The racial history of this country IS the history of this country; the news article a few years ago regarding the state of Texas rewriting that history as being beneficial to Africans. That they willingly boarded those slave ships for the promise of jobs, homes, food, clothing and basic care waiting for them here. The right wing, White Nationalist, formerly White Supremacists based on KKK doctrine, are feeding the same promises to Trump’s Republicans and they are eating it up. Vote for them and keep those old white men in control. “The Right thus believes that it is government’s job to protect their culture–a culture which gives social dominance to White Christian males and facilitates a dog-eat-dog form of market capitalism.”

    Rewriting our racial history is connected to the Holocaust Deniers movement; which has become more active again in this country.

  6. History is based on facts. The good, the bad, the ugly. Why teach it? Hopefully to see decisions in the past and where the results landed. It could be any of the above three.

  7. “The racial history of this country IS the history of this country”. You got that right, JoAnn.

  8. I tried to find a copy of Wang’s book, which Sheila said was published in 1991, but it seems to be long out-of-print. Amazon doesn’t carry, so there appear to have been few to no editions beyond the first. I’ll have to try one of the big used book stores.

  9. For some reason I cannot access any comments from today’s blog list except Becky’s. My comments just disappeared after I clicked Post Comment; the list of commenters comes up but clicking on other names only brings up Becky’s. Have had no problem using this site all week; your new share list is somehow why the blog no longer appears on my AOL Desktop Gold Favorite Places. I tried to Restore my computer when could no longer get the blog on my Favorite Places. Have accessed the blog and comments from your E-mail this week with no problem. Thank you!

  10. Pascal, try your local public library. It is, after all, a big part of what these discussions have been about.

  11. I thnk it important to note just how far this oligarchic control goes back. This from ‘The People’s History of the United States’ by Howard Zinn (pages 253-262).

    “In 1893, Supreme Court Justice David J Brower, addressing the New York State Bar Association said:

    ‘It is the unvarying law that the wealth of the coummunity will be in the hands of the few . . . The great majority of men are unwilling to endure that long self-denial and saving which makes that accumulation possible . . . and hence it always has been, and until human nature is remodeled always will be true, that the Wealth of a nation is in the hand of a few, while the many subsist upon the proceeds of their Daily Toil’

    Patience indeed. A few pages earlier Zinn reveals the immense bribery of the congress that built the fortunes of Samuel Chase, Rockefeller, Edison, Daniel Drw, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, James Mellon. and many others.

    Zinn continues:

    This was not just a whim of the 1880s and the 1890s–It went back to the Founding Fathers, who had learned their law in the era of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which said:

    “So great is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the common good of the whole community.”

    Zinn’s writing makes it crystal clear that the oligarchs have been and continue to be in league with the government to keep Capital in charge of what is really happening in the United States. This is shown in our current times by the recently emerged report that AT&T has been providing the funding to start and maintain the OAN news organization, and Koch has been funding the anti CRT (really anti honest history) movement. We can only hope that the progressive movement doesn’t become somehow co-opted by the oligarchs.

  12. There is an infinite number of ways to consider the cultural groups that comprise our country today. One is by location. Urban (including suburban) and small town is one way, by wealth accumulation is another way.

    Traveling through Virginia the contrast by location is pretty stark. The urban/suburban areas are grand, but the small towns that haven’t been consumed by urban sprawl are stuck in time 100 years ago and obviously struggle economically as a result. Of course, people are split in terms of which they prefer.

    In the urban/suburban areas, the spectrum of accumulated wealth is also high contrast. Those living off of investments stand out as an aristocracy while those living off of their work are much more numerous but blend together in urban sprawl.

    Normally, in these times, you might expect that the most numerous of those populations would be urban/suburban workers by quite a bit, but this week’s elections don’t reveal that. Instead, they reveal our current political reality. Why? The urban/suburban people living off of wealth have effectively employed social/entertainment media to start and maintain and grow cultural warfare between the numerous rural folks and the liberal half of the urban/suburban workers, and that’s tilting the government towards favoring wealth.

    Is government run by wealth sustainable?

    It has been in the past but no longer has a future because humans have exceeded the capacity of the earth to support them.

    When and how will this correct itself?

  13. Wang, writing thirty years ago while American and other multinationals were beginning to change China’s communism into state capitalism (when the ownership of the means of production morphed into heavily-regulated state capitalism), emphasizes culture, values and attitudes as fashioners of political destiny as much or more so than economics and institutions. His thesis assumes differing cultures of the Mongol empires and the Han, for instance, that somehow meshed into a civilization from which he can base today’s political realities as opposed to a rapidly modernizing China’s embrace of Western economics and institutions. I think that however popular his ideas may be in present day China they are headed for the dustbin of Chinese history. With Chinese billionaires, trade unions and bullet trains, color me doubtful in re his thesis.

    Individualism yields only to tribalism and is otherwise fed by capitalism, which has been with us in long ago days since cave men fought over their shares of the mastadon. Today it’s I’ve got mine and the gummint ain’t gonna take it away from me via taxes, regulation and any of them other socialist machinations, by crackey! This from those who do not know what socialism is or can be blinded as they are by the individualism of personal gain, all while publicly declaring their Wang-like love for a Norman Rockwell past that never existed other than as a prop for continuation the status quo.

    Given the immutability of change, I’ll take mine on the Western platter. I consider history to be a guide but not a replicable command for both our economic and political stability, and with the enormous change in our immediate future with environmental crises and relentless improvements in AI with which to contend, Norman Rockwell will be of no help, and we will need new ideas and other means to manage such change(s). Hold on to your hat!

  14. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

    The above quote does not state send me your white Christians. The immigrants now come from all over the world to try and create a better life in our country. They have different faith traditions, cuisine, values. The challenge for our democracy now is to remain a country that welcomes immigrants and yet remains true to our democratic values.

    And so I ask myself, how is it that in Michigan a doctor was not convicted of any crime when she had performed FGM on girls in Michigan? I don’t think we should allow FGM even if it is a religous belief. It is simply horrific child abuse of girls. I wonder how many of those girls were girls of color?

    I welcome immigrants and yet feel we have to use discernment with our values and laws. As I stated in our last dialogue, it is a challenge to create a culture with cohesive values while celebrating lots of diversity. We can see that challenge throughout America’s history in segregated communities of Irish, Chinese, Eastern Europeans etc.

    Yes, our racist history is one of the central components of American history. We are still trying to put an end to racist systems and attitudes. The former president did not help us with ending racism. What he did do is expose how many white people still cling to racist bigotry. As a white person, I try to look within myself to see what if any racist attitudes I still have and to correct these as best as I can.

    I believe that the entrenched oligarchy does not hold true to the welcoming embrace of the Statue of Liberty. And our country has become fraught with obstacles that make it much harder for upward mobility. This makes it much harder for immigrants and the poor. We no longer want to lift up people.

    And with all due respect Becky, I want to see a tsunami of servant leaders voted into Congress and our the governments of our states. I want to see our government work for the greater good, not political power and wealth.

  15. It was a few days ago I saw this interview on TV with some Boomer Era voters in VA. Both were “hot and bothered” about Critical Race Theory being forced on the Schools by Democrats. The interviewer asked if they had any evidence of Critical Race Theory being forced down the children’s throats, i.e. facts, curriculum.

    They gave the typical Reactionary Right Wing response they did not know, that is no investigation, etc. – However they believed it was so it became a Fact to them.

  16. Your title Back to the Basics means that we will need to reprogram the right wing believers in America. They live their own reality. Right? Otherwise we’re toast.

    I mean, you know, hundreds showed up in Dallas yesterday for JFK Jr to show up! For a dead man! Those people have issues and they need to step out of the shadows and into the enlightenment.

  17. Perhaps Confucianism is a better match to human nature, long-term, than capitalism and personal greed. Tribalism is VERY important, as QAnon is proving.

  18. Everything connected to everything else. Culture and economy have a synergic relationship.
    I believe that Zinn had it right, that property and its benefits, if you will, were driving forces at the start of the country, and the “North” took property from the “South,” perhaps never to be forgiven. Along with the loss of that “property” was a loss of a sense of status, as in the perception of being “better” than those 3/5 humans, and their ilk, the Jews and the foreigners, aka: immigrants.
    The perspective of the “Left” would lead to more equality, to helping even those not of the “proper” type live better lives, and (God forbid) have some actual political clout! Have some actual say about the direction of the culture. Well, what can that be, if not…Communism?

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