Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why is this blog called "Thick Culture"

Avid readers of this blog, which I'm sure numbers in the tens of thousands, might wonder where the term "thickculture" comes from. Orignially the term was used by political theorist Michael Walzer in a book called Thick and Thin, Moral Argument at Home and Abroad. I'm sure I won't do his argument justice, but in it, he distinguishes between an abstract, baseline common morality which we all purportedly share (basic human rights, self-determination) that he calls "thin" morality and a more contextual, particularistic morality that he calls "thick" morality. What's so valuable about Walzer is his view that "thin" principles must be realized within "thick" cultural contexts and not externally imposed. One quote from Walzer that has always stuck with me is this:

"the left has never understood the tribes."


As Walzer explained here:

Tribalism... is the commitment of individuals and groups to their own history, culture, and identity, and this commitment (though not any particular version of it) is a permanent feature of human social life.


This passage has reverberated with me as I've observed the newfound Republican success in the presidential election. The right has been effective and exploiting this blind-spot in the thinking of progressives. For example, the rapid-response to the Palin VP selection denigrating her for being a "mayor of a town of 9,000" people was a perfect indication of the bias on the left towards "thinness." The implication of the critique is that a town of 9,000 is too provincial, too disconnected from the universal to be of any real consequence to the development of a world leader.

Barack Obama's unfortunate "bitter" comment followed this same track of opposition to the particular, the provincial, as an impediment to realizing universal moral principles. Walzer's great insight is that the abstract and universal has to be realized through the particular and the provincial. It could be that what Obama meant to say is that people "cling" to thickness in the face of global change. But he hasn't really done an effective job of articulating that if it's what he meant.

Today's Gallup tracking poll has a 3 point McCain lead, a lead which will probably grow tomorrow..the first set of polls during which all three days of interviewing were conducted after McCain's Thursday acceptance speech. I think the reason that the Republican convention was so successful is because it tapped into the existing meme on the part of the Democrats that they simply "don't get tribes."

The problem is that "thin" principles matter. While Republicans understand that culture and identity matter as much, if not more, than material gain, they haven't necessarily put in place policies that lead to universal principles of individual self determination and autonomy. They subscribe to a "thin" version of freedom that ignores the role of government in providing individuals with the tools to help people realize their full selves. If people were ok with being allowed to practice their cultural norms undisturbed, we wouldn't have 80% of Americans saying we're headed on the "wrong track."

If Obama is truly to be the transcendent political figure he aspires to be, he needs to realize that the abstract (thin) principles he aspires to needs to be connected to the norms, values, and experiences (thickness) of everyday existence. This is his big mission for the next 60 days, to convince people in small town and suburban America that the "thin" abstract principles he espouses are rooted in "thick" small town norms and values.

3 comments:

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kimberly said...

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