American Culture: An Irreversible Decline or a Coming Renaissance?

The other day I was reading n article by Mark Steyn that peaked my interest.  The article was entitled “A Tale of Two Declines”.  The theme of the article is basically the same as Laura Ingraham’s in her new book “Of Thee I Zing”: “Even if our economic and national security challenges disappeared overnight, we’d still have to climb out of the cultural abyss into which we’ve tumbled.”   The rest of the article goes on to site examples from the book that illustrates the depth of our cultural abyss.

If one is prompted to wonder whether there is a way out of the abyss, the article is of little help in addressing that question.  It was just such a question that led me to take a look at a book that the Hudson Institute put out in 2001 entitled “Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance”.  The book consists of a series of essays on the various aspects culture, its importance to a civilization and the possibilities for cultural renewal.

The first section of the book was entitled “The Imperative of Building a Healthy Culture”.  This section dealt with the cultural underpinnings of the American experiment in ordered liberty and the impact of culture on matters such as world affairs, social pathologies and politics.  It then when on the illustrate how we are not taking the issue of cultural decline any where near serous enough and made a case for advancing “cultural health”.

The second section examined historical models for cultural transformation.  Such models included Victorian England, the international movement to abolish the slave trade, the benevolence movement in 19th Century America, as well as several others.  The idea was to examine past models for cultural renewal so that the lessons learned can be applied to the cultural challenges of today.

Applying those lessons was what the third section was all about.  The title of this section was “Strategies for Cultural Renewal”.  The theme of this section was that good culture can drive out bad culture.  Instead of merely pointing out the corrosive effects modern culture has on the well being of our society, this idea is to engage in the cultural arena with positive and uplifting cultural fare.  Many of the writers in this section were actually involved in such efforts, so their perspective was more than mere speculation.

At a time when just about everyone is focused on jobs and the economy, very little attention is given to our cultural challenge.  As Steyn points out “Even if the economy were to fix itself overnight, we’d still face sincere cultural challenges”.  I would like to point out that any revival in the economy is not likely to be long lasting without a corresponding revival in the cultural norms.  It is all too easy to forget that a prosperous economy requires a morally healthy culture to be sustainable in the long run.  We should keep in mind that the father of free market economics, Adam Smith, was first and foremost a moral philosopher whose main work was entitled “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

For those readers who are not convinced that we are experiencing a crisis of culture, reading the article by Mark Steyn mentioned above may be an eye opener.  For those who are already convinced of the problem, but are looking for strategy of how to revive our culture, I recommend the book “Building A Healthy Culture”.  This book was written in 2001 and a whole decade has passed since then, so it may be time to update some of the efforts written about in the book.  One good resource is the Heritage Foundation’s Culture for Freedom site.  Another excellent resource is the Institute for American Values.