site banner

Culture War Roundup for the week of December 12, 2022

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

American Mythology & Mount Rushmore

I recently visited Mount Rushmore for the first time. Previously, I did not know very much about the monument beyond the impression I had acquired through cultural osmosis. I visited in the off-season; the nearby tourist village was closed for the season and deserted, and the memorial was nearly as deserted except for a young Parisian couple I met on the trail. I would recommend visiting in the off-season if possible- the quiet and the cold are the best conditions to appreciate the monument.

I left the memorial with a greater appreciation for, and more tragic interpretation of, the monument.

What changed my interpretation of the monument was reading commentary by Gutzon Borglum on placards in the memorial center. Borglum was the lead sculptor who designed the work and oversaw its construction until his death in 1941. This was his vision. Obviously in a work like this, the intention of the artist is going to be completely overshadowed by the propaganda-form put forth by the government that has funded it and maintains it. But It was fascinating to learn how deeply, symbolically contrary Borglum's artistic intentions were in comparison to the political meaning to which it was immediately assigned and prevails to this day, essentially as a "shrine to Democracy." Borglum:

We believe the dimensions of national heartbeats are greater than village impulses, greater than state dreams or ambitions. Therefore, we believe a nation’s memorial should, like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, have a serenity, a nobility, a power that reflects the gods who inspired them and suggests the gods they have become.

As for sculptured mountains--Civilization, even its fine arts, is, most of it, quantity-produced stuff: education, law, government, wealth--each is enduring only as the day. Too little of it lasts into tomorrow and tomorrow is strangely the enemy of today, as today has already begun to forget buried yesterday. Each succeeding civilization forgets its predecessor, and out of its body builds its homes, its temples. Civilizations are ghouls. Egypt was pulled apart by its successor; Greece was divided among the Romans; Rome was pulled to pieces by bigotry and bitterness much of which was engendered in its own empire building.

I want, somewhere in America, on or near the Rockies, the backbone of the Continent, so far removed from succeeding, selfish, coveting civilizations, a few feet of stone that bears witness, carries the likeness, the dates, a word or two of the great things we accomplished as a Nation, placed so high it won’t pay to pull them down for lesser purposes.

Hence, let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

Borglum's quotation that "Civilizations are ghouls" should not be misinterpreted as a commentary on the rural/urban divide. This commentary is better understood with a Spenglerian reading:

'Mankind'… has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids. 'Mankind' is a zoological expression, or an empty word. … I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can only be kept up by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death.

Like Spengler, Borglum saw the Nation as a distinct entity with a finite lifespan, and he was obsessed in creating this monument as a testament to its spirit and accomplishments as a permanent record. This took the form of various ideas which never came to completion, like the idea to inscribe a brief history of the United States on the mountain in four different languages:

On one occasion when Mr. Borglum was in Washington urging the necessary appropriation to continue the work, he arranged with President Roosevelt for a meeting in the executive office, to which he invited all senators representing states carved from the Northwest Territory. Most of the senators attended. Borglum was the orator to make the speech to the president. He was a good orator. He was then stressing the importance of carving a short history of the United States on the mountainside. He said he intended to carve this history in four languages, English, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.

Senator Tom Connally, of Texas, thought it was time for a question. He blurted out, “What in the world do you want to cut it in Sanskrit for? Nobody reads that.”

Borglum turned on Tom with a withering look of scorn. Striking a dramatic pose, he said, as nearly as I can now recall: “Sir, Mount Rushmore is eternal. It will stand there until the end of time. This age will pass away and all its records will be destroyed; 10,000 years from now all our civilization will have passed without leaving a trace. A new race of people will come to inhabit the earth. They will come to Mount Rushmore and read there the record that we have made. If that record is written on that immortal mountain in four languages, those people will not have the difficulty in reading our record that we had in figuring out the hieroglyphics of Egypt.

Another quote on one of the placards, read "You might as well drop a letter into the world’s postal service without an address or signature, as to send that carved mountain into history without identification." These early designs were ultimately abandoned in favor of the idea to carve a shrine inside the mountain called the "Hall of Records." Work on this was started but abandoned when Borglum died in 1941 and funding was cut-off as part of budget-saving measures for WWII. The project was declared complete.

I learned that the Museum placed some inscribed ceramic tablets inside the partially carved Hall of Records to partially fulfill Borglum's vision, but that room is not open to tourists.

The memorial also has a ~10 minute video presentation in a theater, and the film featured some recordings of FDR's speech dedicating the monument in 1936:

This is the second dedication. There will be others by other Presidents in other years. When we get through, there will be something for the American people that will last not merely through generations but for thousands and thousands of years.

I think that we can perhaps meditate a little on those Americans 10,000 years from now, when the weathering on the faces of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln shall have proceeded to perhaps the depth of a tenth of an inch, and wonder what our descendants—and I think they will still be here will think about us.

Let us hope that at least they will give us the benefit of the doubt, that they will believe we have honestly striven every day and generation to preserve for our descendants a decent land to live in and a decent form of government to operate under.

Notice the inversion of the interpretation of the monument. FDR conceives of "our descendants" looking upon the memorial 10,000 years from now as it weathers away, whereas Borglum conceived the monument as outlasting the Nation; in 10,000 years, a "new race" looking upon a monument to a long-deceased Culture that conquered the continent and tamed the frontier.

I tried to look a little into Borglum's political associations and learned that he was associated with (although not a member of) the Ku Klux Klan. That increases my suspicion that works like Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918) or perhaps The Passing of the Great Race (1916) influenced Borglum's artistic inspiration.

The clash between a linear, progressive view of history, and Spengler's conception of Culture as a super-organism with its own birth, life, and death cycle, is well-embodied by these conflicting interpretations of the monument. Spengler conceived the prevailing Culture as "Faustian culture", which was born around the 10th century and spanned the globe by the 20th century. In this capacity, per Spengler, Faust represents "Western Man's limitless metaphysic, unrestricted thirst for knowledge, and constant confrontation with the Infinite."

Looking at Borglum's intended final design in comparison to the final product after funding was cut with the outbreak of WWII, Mount Rushmore becomes an almost too-perfect monument to Faustian Civilization- "In Spengler's depiction, Western Man was a proud but tragic figure because, while he strives and creates, he secretly knows the actual goal will never be reached."

I tried to look a little into Borglum's political associations and learned that he was associated with (although not a member of) the Ku Klux Klan.

According to Wikipedia, he was approached with the suggestion of him sculpting an ever greater monument, for Crazy Horse, and he didn't even respond. That alone doesn't mean he was a KKK sympathizer, but I assume he surely didn't sympathize with racial minorities that much.

On a different note, I'm somewhat surprised that no further work has been done on the monument since 1941.

Even if America exists in 10,000 years, it will be utterly unrecognizable to us today. I wonder if they will look back on us with admiration, disgust, or if they will think about us at all. Personally I think apathy is the likeliest. I rarely think about humans 10,000 years ago. Although the calculas may be different since our records will theoretically survive better than our own old ancestors.

Then again, if we actually get AGI and life extension, who knows? Maybe Americans who were alive during FDRs reign will still exist in 10,000 years. Immortality truly breaks down a lot of mankind's expectations of large time scales. I'd imagine it would lean our race towards a far more conservative outlook.

I wonder if this is a Fermi paradox solver in some way? Perhaps species advance enough to gain immortality, then cease expanding out of a low appetite for risk.

Thanks for a good post.