A Culturist

As you may know, the word libertarian fairly describes my thinking on most broadly political, economic and even social matters; there should be a word that captures how I, and others like me, think about culture. I propose the word culturist. I think – and clutch your pearls now if you are one of the perpetually offended – that some cultures are better than others.

By better, I mean both that such cultures are – in broad terms – fairer and that they encourage behaviors that result in the creation of vastly more wealth and knowledge. They help mankind not lead lives that are, in Hobbes’s immortal phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Over time the vast majority of people who have ever lived have done so in Hobbesian conditions; we do not. For the most part, I attribute the much-improved circumstances in which we find ourselves to the emergence over the last four or five centuries of what might most simply, and with some accuracy, be described as Western Civilization although, importantly, much of its cultural DNA has been incorporated into many previously, and both ethnically and geographically, non-Western societies.

Note that actual DNA has nothing to do with culture; the various sub-groups within our species have the same ranges of innate potential. Consequently culturism has exactly nothing to do with racism, although the two are often conflated by so-called multi-culturalists, who pretend that all cultures are of equal merit (though few of them would dream of moving to a place that embodies, and enforces, another culture like, say, Iran or North Korea).

So what is it about Western Civilization – at least as I use that phrase – that I think makes it superior? This diamond has many facets, but the most fundamental of these are 1) Respect for individual rights and liberties, grounded in an Enlightenment-inspired worldview that assigns equal moral weight to every person (“We hold these truths…”), 2) Democratic governance, which flows from #1, and doesn’t seem to be able to hold without it, 3) respect for the rule of law and finally 4) genuine tolerance of those who hold different opinions on all sorts of political, religious and social matters.

The fourth point needs further clarification because there are different kinds of tolerance. Truly Western tolerance, if you will, is mutual. If, on the other hand, people come to our land believing, or come to believe while here, that an anti-democratic system – Communism, say, or Sharia – should be imposed on everybody, by force if necessary (and practical), they are not truly participants in Western Civilization as I mean that phrase.

We should not trust that we have everything (important) in common with the latter group, because we don’t. They are here, rather, as representatives of fundamentally different cultures. Their tolerance isn’t either mutual or genuine – it will last only until they can suppress others’ rights, if ever they can. (I might add that this distinction between genuinely mutual tolerance and a grudging, temporary appearance of tolerance has a lot of explanatory power with regard to concerns about immigration from predominantly Muslim lands).

Once all four of the fundamental principles of Western Civilization are held (nearly) universally within a given society, the resulting bond of social trust enables everybody to pursue their own interests in a manner that fosters creativity and productivity. The systems that grow out of these principles encourage behaviors that are ultimately beneficial to all.

So, yes, I prefer Western Civilization to others, which, I suppose, makes me a culturist. I’m guessing you’re one, too.


M.H. Johnston

7 comments to A Culturist

  • Anonymous  says:

    …am I the last one yet?

    • M Johnston  says:

      Don’t expect to lose more subscribers with this post – it contains no mention of the T word. But then, if you look really closely…

  • Aaron  says:

    Die-hard subscriber here. Good term and useful concept. I think most conservatives are culturalists, in that we explicitly recognize that some cultures are better than others and are therefore worth (wait for it…) conserving and defending. For example, the culture that has arisen in most English-speaking countries is pretty darn good, in my view. I’m fortunate that my ancestors had the good sense and the moxie to pull up stakes from their restricted part of a non-English-speaking, viciously autocratic country–a place that could fairly be described as a sh*thole–and emigrate to one of them at the turn of the last century.

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    (See below).

    • Vivian Wadlin  says:

      Culturists unite.
      Sending this to my liberal friends, some of whom can actually read.

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    Culturalist: What an interesting complement to my current reading! Having just returned from 3 months in Avignon, France I am working though a backlog of material…Victor Davis Hanson, Andrew McCarthy, Mark Johnson and two books I bought just before leaving, Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” and John Boles’ “Jefferson, Architect of American Liberty.” These two books, concurrently, present a fascinating portrait of one of our most important culturalists. And it seems more than a coincidence that this post of yours, the life of Jefferson, and even antiquities he revered such as the Maison Carree and Pont du Gard have come together like this.
    Thank you for a great post, Mark!

    • M Johnston  says:

      As a matter of interest, since writing this post (originally using the word culturalism, simplified to culturism in response to one of the first comments) I stumbled across the introduction of the same word/concept in the book Sapiens by Yuval Harari (p. 304). Harari seems to take a dim view of culturism, though, rather than to acknowledge its explanatory power.

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