“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and no female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” — Gal 3
I read, this morning, a very interesting post entitled, “Are Ukrainians Russian?” which was written by a passionate man whose background I can’t decipher. This author of this article believes we choose our cultural identity — to me, this sounds a bit like the Leftist mantra that we can choose our gender or even race.
“To ‘be Russian’ means, in my opinion, that you have made a deliberate choice to identify with, and become part of, the Russian civilizational realm,” he writes.
Obviously, this rankles me to my marrow. I’m not up to tackling the issue of defining culture qua culture so will ask a seemingly smaller question, “What does it mean to be culturally French?”
How malleable is the French culture, anyway? Is it so plastic that an American, such as myself, can simply choose to be French? I don’t think so. People who combine many cultural backgrounds — who are born to parents and grandparents from wildly different cultures — may feel they have to choose a cultural identity, or combine a few identities into a unique, individualized cultural mishmash, but this is NOT something that happens universally and surely it is not ideal. I’m not even sure it’s real.
Personally, I’ve never felt a compulsion to choose any cultural identity and, quite frankly, don’t know many people who have. Most people have AN identity that overrides lesser identities. Of course this identity is foggy … it has indeterminate boundaries, but is not so shaky that it produces a lot of angst. Most people don’t struggle with the culture question because they inherited the answer.
The author writes:
“French history books used to begin with the sentence, ‘ … our ancestors the Gauls.‘ … how much continuity, if any, is there between Vercingetorix and Macron or the people from ancient Gallic tribes to the modern French?”
Good question, one well framed. I’m going to give an answer he thinks is wrong for there could be quite a bit of cultural continuity between contemporary French culture and it’s ancient Gallic tribal forebears. Non-French immigration as well as French emigration have not destroyed this core culture of France. Yet. It is true that if immigration continues at it’s present rate, those who represent “real” French culture will silo into”real” French subcultures. This is happening now, in fact. Creating strong subcultures of self-identified French is not, of course, the goal of the hard Left who are ensconced in France’s bureaucracy. The bureaucrats, Macron and their EU overlords are eager to create cultural mishmash. They hate France’s national culture. They hate regional culture, too. They strongly believe in the destructive myth of multiculturalism.
French people don’t need to choose a culture because their culture chose them. They are what they are because of who they were. Outsiders, even those holding French passports, are merely politically French. It’s quite possible to love the French culture, as I do, without being enculturated or part of it.
Why is this the case? Because “deep calls to deep,” as is written in the 42nd Psalm.
How do we intuit cultural commonality … how does “deep call to deep”? A small part of what we intuit as cultural affinity is based on a shared geographical identity. When two people are “from the same place” there’s a perceived cultural identity that softly binds.
Too, speaking the same language with a similar accent and vocabulary binds people into a culture. Note that culture isn’t just one thing. It’s multilayered. There are subcultures on top of subcultures. A mature person has figured out what subculture is most authentic to him or her … an immature person tries on cultures like clothing to see what could fit.
My cultural identity is Californian even though I spent my early childhood in “socal” (Santa Barbara), my school years in “nocal” (Los Altos), and my later university years on the East Coast, specifically Connecticut. I’ve lived in dozens of places but still consider myself Californian. That’s the deepest layer of geographic identity I “claim” for myself.
Could I choose another layer? Sure. But it would be disingenuous. My cultural identity is the one MOST TRUE to who I am at core. The layer at which I identify myself must be accurate — for me to say that being from Santa Barbara is my primary cultural identifier would be too specific, for example. My ties to that town are weak. My ties to the state of California, however, are strong.
Part of this involves language. There’s a certain lingo, “uptalk” and vocab that’s indigenous to California, particularly to it’s beach culture. I used to speak this (though safely buried it long, long ago!) It’s called “Valley Girl Talk.” As a teen, after my parent’s moved to the east coast, I was repeatedly asked by my new friends if I were American. The kids at the new school were expressing (without self-awareness) their own cultural identity. To them, I was a cultural outsider. I didn’t belong.
Linguists (and those who have the talent to learn spoken languages) could study Valley Talk as a foreign language. It’s even possible for an outsider to be fluent in it. A New Yorker could superficially look and act Californian — learn to surf well, get a great tan, mime our blasé attitudinal gestures, wear our clothing, make a lot of money, learn to code, drive a ragtop, develop a wicked backhand, eat avocadoes off a tree, etc. — but not be culturally Californian. A New Yorker could live in one of the beach suburbs of Los Angeles, speak Valley Talk and act the part … and not be Californian. He’ll always be a New Yorker. Our cultural identities are not that fungible. They’re baked into our essence, whatever that means.
I could live the rest of my life among the French in Paris and never be Parisian. I could adopt all the wonderful cultural habits of the French and not be French. I could speak perfect Parisian French and not be French. I could get a French passport and become a citizen of France … and not be French.
I’ll never be French. I’m a cultural American who happens to love the culture of France. That’s it.
The older I get, the more I believe that religion is the foundation of the edifice called “culture.” Among the religious, there are subcultures, of course. For me, right now, it goes something like this:
Christian < Protestant < conservative-salient or evangelical < Anglican < St. Michael’s Paris < small group < trusted close friends/family.
Christians may perceive of themselves at any of these layers as culturally different than other Christians. For me, the continuity breaks at the conservative-salient point. I can worship with any Christian in any denomination as long as they take the Bible seriously, pray “without ceasing” and uphold a conservative moral life. I know many people who break at the Christian level– for them, any Christian would be culturally sympatico. I’m not in this crowd. Too strongly do I feel the progressive-conservative tension. I simply don’t have a like-mindedness with liberal Protestants. In fact, I feel more connected to conservative/evangelical Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox than liberal Anglicans!
To continue, I would NOT feel as culturally compatible with an English speaking neighbor who is a liberal Anglican (and most likely a political socialist) than an French speaking neighbor who is a salient Eastern Orthodox (and likely a political conservative.)
This means that faith — religious belief — is a stronger factor in determining cultural affinity than language or customs.
As adults, we choose to believe in that something “deep” that calls to us. That “something” is God. We choose to believe the faith of our fathers or choose to believe another faith. The point is that as adults we choose our religious culture by assenting to the faith of whatever religious group/culture with which we identify. Religion is one of the few culturally determinative things that some of us actually choose, not inherit.
I have chosen to believe at the layer of conservative, evangelical Protestant. The rest I did not choose. I was given my geographical background at the layer of California. I mostly was given my social class heritage at the lower end of upper class. I was taught to speak in such a way that it matched my class heritage. Most of these cultural determinants were inherited.
I can pretend to be something I’m not, but this usually catches up with me. The price of self-denial, I’ve learned the hard way, is very high.
Culture, then, may seem like something we try on or choose, but in reality, it’s stuck in our souls.
So, what does it mean to be culturally French?
The answer must include having several generations of family reared on France’s lands. Enculturation takes time. The old rule of thumb was that it took four generations to make an American. I assume this is similar in France … though the time would probably stretch to six-plus generations. The point is that culture isn’t instantly adoptable, but inherent in who you are and how you were raised — I’m sorry but can’t explain it better than this. Give me time …
To be culturally French you would be Christian. I’m sure someone will point out that Druids or whatever were on France’s land first. Fine. In my opinion, that goes too far back, but I can’t defend this. Furthermore, someone could say that Secularism has been the religion of France for more than a century, so to be culturally French, one would have to be a Secularist. I get this and would answer that this is too recent … this is the opposite answer I’d give to the Druid-worshipper. Consistency is the hobgoblin of wee minds, right??
Back to the article referenced above. Comments were fascinating. They drew from a worldwide audience of different faiths, cultures and locales. Permit me to share a few of these comments with you in closing.
One of the commenter’s on the article I referenced above is a Welch (Cymraeg) woman who well summarized what I’m trying to articulate. She wrote: “We say, ‘We have been a nation since 500 AD. We have always been of the same group of people who share physical characteristics, a Mother tongue and shared beliefs of how to live life and behave … You cannot just dump some alien migrant down in our ancient land and then say he is one of us. We find the roots and beginnings of our identity in this knowledge. … it’s how we do. And the feeling is very strong, very positive.“
Another commenter wrote: “Russian is not ethnicity, it is a way of life.“
A man from Finland described his own struggle to figure out what layer of subculture actually fit him well. He wrote: “I … as a Finn, have always identified myself as a part of Mother Russia, Russian civilization. Tragedy of Finland lies there, that most of my dear compatriots doesn´t dare to admit that we have much more in common with Russia than degenerate West – in other words, we belong to Russian civilization.“
A Mexican man living in the Baltics wrote: “I still retain a Roman Catholic identity (even though I left the RCC and converted to Orthodoxy). Roman Catholicism is still a strong part of my identity and it is for my Mother too who left the Church 50 years or more ago. A Catholic identity is hard to shake.“