What are the signs of a culture coming unglued? Can American culture deconstruct and reconstitute itself with a different, healthier national personality? Are President Trump, #MeToo and the Woman’s March this year and last, along with our climate catastrophe economy and the American pollution industrial complex, signs of an impending cultural breakdown — at once enormously hopeful and absurdly dangerous — not unlike a nervous breakdown triggered by stress and anxiety in vulnerable personalities that could lead to a healing or to a point of no return? Is the opposition to the degenerate status quo capable of generating new ideas, and the political clout to drive them home, or is it merely another contrarian eruption with no aim and no prospects?
In a time like ours, we need a more comprehensive perspective than social media, the news cycle or the ups and downs of the economy can give us. That’s why I’m invoking another old hero, the American cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who might give us a way to refocus and see this horrid mess we’re living through in a more structural and evolutionary way.
Cultures change, come apart, evolve, morph into their potentials or just wear out. What’s important to know about culture, as Benedict pointed out more than 80 years ago in her famous 1934 book “Patterns of Culture,” is not only that it is malleable, but that it is the matrix from which all politics, personalities and economies draw their limits and characteristics. President Trump, for instance, is an extreme version, a caricature, of that quintessential American personality type described by Sinclair Lewis in 1922 by the name of Babbitt, the unhinged defender of the business class and its status quo. #MeToo seems to embody another dominant sort of American character type that arises from the matrix of culture, that of the reformer, champion of the oppressed, the opponent of prejudice that I would call the Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, Rachael Carson, Russell Means, Cesar Chavez American.
If, for instance, Babbitt, the troubled bully businessman, seller of crap and jingles, is the American personality type whose values have the byproduct of greenhouse gases, then Rachael Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” is the embodiment of an American personality type characterized by a radical and reformist conscience who opposes disrespectful and destructive forces. #MeToo also arises from the matrix of American culture, embodying egalitarian principles and conscience that forms themselves in response to the abuses of Trumpian patriarchy and Babbittonian consumerism that is pushing the ruling class of the moment into a state of ingrown degeneracy, ripe for alteration.
Ruth Benedict was a reforming American herself, a breaker of misogynistic barriers and one of the founders of American cultural anthropology. An outsider who became a powerful presence moving a traditional hidebound social science into a conceptually new direction, she is said to be “the first woman to be recognized as a prominent leader of a learned profession.”
Benedict was at the heart of American anthropology’s early florescence. A student of Elsie Clews Parsons (“Pueblo Religion”) and Franz Boas (“Anthropology and Modern Life”) and a colleague of Margaret Mead (“Coming of Age in Samoa”), Benedict earned her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1923. She was also a feminist philosopher, writing on the life and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft before settling on anthropology as her focus.
In her foreword to “Patterns of Culture,” Mead wrote that Benedict viewed human culture “as personality writ large.” A culture, Benedict wrote, is “a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.” Every culture evolves from some point on “the great arc of human potentialities.” Benedict saw anthropology as “the science of custom” and the “study of human beings as the creatures of society.” She wrote, “No man ever looks at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking.” She emphasized the “paramount importance of learned behavior in human existence.” Each culture was relative to itself, with moral imperatives that were generated out of the synergy of the culture as a whole.
When one looks at American life and politics from this perspective, we see that it is polarized into at least two contending sub cultures, or competing collective personalities. Donald Trump as the quintessential Babbitt capitalism gone mad with power and wealth would not exist without a set of cultural patterns that he could embody. Of course, all cultures have greedy and power-hungry members of their populations. But they manifest themselves distinctly in culturally determined patterns of behavior.
In American life in the 21st century, applying Benedict’s ideas, allows one to see a countervailing response to Trumpian Babbittism. At the moment, it is embodying itself in the Woman’s March and #MeToo, which are, as the saying goes, also as American as apple pie. In America’s polarized culture, gender prejudice is the model for all other kinds of bigotry. With the creation of woman’s suffrage in the 19th Amendment in 1920, though, an impenetrable dungeon of misogyny was cracked open in our country. Babbittarian disenfranchisement of women, a cultural pattern centuries old, was successfully challenged. And a momentum has been growing in power and success to demolish it completely ever since.
Benedict’s anthropological perspective allows us to see that our problems, while certainly as human as fingers and teeth, are specifically adapted to the patterns and conflicts in the personality of our culture. And as such they are not unchangeable realities to which we, as Americans, are doomed. They can change from better to worse and visa versa. Cultures are living things that not only impact those populations they inhabit, but are changed and evolved by those people who express the contrarian patterns that their cultures provide to keep expressions of rampant human nastiness in check.
Benedict’s view of human values and behavior, when extended into the 21st century, shows us that no effort, no matter how small, to defend and promote fundamental human rights, is useless. There is a cultural tipping point, so to speak, when the dominant values of the patterns change and reflect new ideals and aims, for better or worse.
The worst could well be happening in American culture at this very moment. But the better is on the way, as long as each of us pursues it. The 19th Amendment proves it, as does the 13th Amendment of 1879 abolishing slavery. Those revolutions in the deep patterns of the American mindset seemed like cultural impossibilities. But imbedded in their depths were the potentials for change that “only” required the will to struggle, seemingly endlessly, to be activated and evolved into the patterns of prominence they hold today.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image of fragmented flag from Doug Connell.)