Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Culture: Not Life or Death

With the issues surrounding the Terry Schiavo case (and the unnecessary intrusion of the Congress therein-more on that later), there has been talk that we live in a "culture of death." This culture is supposedly composed of violent television and crimes, abortion, right-to-die, assisted suicide and a general disrespect for life. We, according to these people, need to embrace a "culture of life" where life is held sacred and dear to all (except for the death penalty; those people are evil and deserve to die, right?)

This sort of polarization makes me ill at almost a cellular level.

We cannot live in a culture of life or death. Both are inevidable conditions: we do not ask to be born and we are all destined to die. If we really lived in a culture who's focus lie on death, we wouldn't have a culture for very long. If, on the other hand, we lived in a culture of life, we would be engaging in dangerous self-delusion over the inevidability of death.

Where does that leave our culture? It cannot be said for sure and that is the whole point. It would be difficult to come up with a single guiding principle that can describe the whole of American culture at the start of the twentieth century. As a historian, this is a difficulty that plagues all who study the past. How can you generalize? Well, through research and careful observation. We do not have the benefit of the historian's distance with regards to our culture today, nor will "we" ever really have it. That will be for future generations to decide.

Where does that leave us? We would be well to avoid blanket generalizations about the direction of American culture. As the famous historian of 19th century Britain E.P. Thompson said "people are present at the creation of culture." Culture is what we make it; it dosen't need to be about life OR death. We should live and die and follow our own paths and not worry about the judgement of history. No one really takes us academic historians seriously anyway.

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