Culture Versus Commodities

A few months ago, Dan Carlin did a “Hardcore History” podcast on “The Celtic Holocaust” and Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. He observed that the Gauls weren’t just fighting for their families and property, but for the very existence of their culture. Defeat meant utter extirpation. Everything was on the line.

In passing, Carlin said this is something modern Americans can’t relate to because it’s something we would never face. What, after all, would our “culture” being eliminated mean? He lightly wondered whether that would mean no more blue jeans, or iPhones, or Christianity being outlawed.

Obviously, Carlin was making a tangential observation, not a serious philosophical or historical statement. Yet Carlin doesn’t need to wonder about cultural extirpation.

It’s already happened.

Do we have a “culture?” No, we have commodities. We have films, clothing, and corporate brands that are consumed the same way throughout the world. Is that a “culture” – blue jeans and iPhones? It’s more of a global consumer anticulture that everyone participates in equally.

We have fandoms. We have people who define themselves by their attachment to certain movies or television shows. It’s easy to laugh at soy boys who collect action figures or children’s toys. Yet how many men identify with “our” favorite sports team, filled with athletes that have no ties to the local community? The rise in “fantasy football” teams is a powerful indication that even franchise loyalty is fading because everyone knows that this is just a business, and players and coaches are interchangeable.

We have a country – or at least a passport. Yet does that country share a history, culture, heroes, or even a common language? Does everyone who holds citizenship feel it defines them? Perhaps it was that way once, but it’s hard to say it’s that way now.

We have religion. Yet switching faiths today is as easy as switching between Reebok and Nike. In some denominations, the clergy don’t even believe their own sacred teachings.

We have media – by far the most powerful force today. Media can tell people to believe almost everything, and though there is rising distrust of the press, most people will still believe whatever they are told.

Yet its power is brittle. It almost doesn’t matter what message is conveyed; media is so all-encompassing that people could be convinced of anything no matter how absurd. That doesn’t mean media is powerful, it just means most people are mentally and spiritually weak. If media preached different values, most people would instantly switch their “beliefs” without even noticing.

So who are we? What is our culture? How do we define ourselves? These aren’t questions for any particular group, they’re for everyone.

Recently, there was another tiresome debate about “cultural appropriation.” The specifics don’t matter, it’s just another example of people using a display of weakness to pursue power. Yet there’s a fundamental question at stake. Do certain practices, clothing, hairstyles, or whatever else belong inherently just to a certain group? And if so, does this apply to everyone?

Should I be outraged that people protesting “cultural appropriation” are speaking my language of English? Isn’t that cultural appropriation? Or is English not even my language?

After all, English itself contains Latin words that came into it following the Norman Conquest of 1066. To this day, people with Norman names in the United Kingdom (like “Percy”)  tend to be wealthier and live longer than those with common names (like “Smith”). If I’m not of Norman descent, am I internalizing oppression by speaking English? Some people thought so. There was an even an effort to get people to speak “Anglish,” a version of the language that eliminated all the borrowed Latin words. (The word “uranium” becomes “Ymirstuff”) for example.

If you want to wage war against “privilege,” you’re waging a pointless struggle because inequality is natural and inevitable under any system, even within a small group. Similarly, if you want to protest “cultural appropriation,” you’ll be reduced to tedious logic-chopping exercises about who can “authentically” claim a symbol.

Of course, those who protest “cultural appropriation” probably aren’t making a serious critique, but just want a financial payoff or Internet attention. They are using symbolic totems, not asserting something real. It’s a cargo-cult mentality.

This is also true of those who surround themselves with selected commodities to claim a certain label. It’s like proclaiming yourself a “redneck” because you listen to country music during your commute to an office job in a big city.

What we’re left with is the question of Identity. One’s Identity is defined by those things that can’t (or won’t) be reduced to a commodity. It’s a combination of those things you are born with (your background, family, birthplace) and those things you hold beyond monetary value. These are the things you would sacrifice for, work for, die for. These are the things with which you identify your Honor. The potential for danger and sacrifice is what separates LARPing from Identity.

There’s subjectivity here, because some might be willing to make almost everything in their life a commodity. They’ll sell out anything and everything for convenience, comfort, or media approval. Such people are not really people at all but simply commodities of another kind. “Free” social networking programs and apps have revealed a terrible truth – we aren’t buying a product, we are the product, and our behavior, interests, and data are bought and sold.

It’s not surprising that in this kind of climate we’re seeing new “communities” and “identities” multiply online with no end in sight. Much of it seems artificial, but the subconscious yearning expressed is all too real. People want something essential, something that isn’t a commodity.

Yet the only way most people can fulfill that yearning is by using the very means – the Internet, social networking, pop culture – that has stripped them of Identity and meaning. The only way most think they can create a community is by defending the same decrepit values – universalism, egalitarianism, victimhood – that have destroyed real communities.

What’s the answer? To return to basics. First, real community is not found online. If you have a Facebook group or a Discord, that’s not a “tribe,” that’s a computer game. You must step forward. You must build something real.

Second, study your Tradition. Look to your ancestry, your history, and your roots and find what is relevant to you. This isn’t a question of “picking” something like choosing one brand or another at a supermarket. Don’t try to be something you are not.

Finally, see what the Tradition means in this time, in this place, in this world. This can only be done through experience. Identity is not something that is entirely self-created but nor is it simply assigned or accepted. It is discovered through ritual, sacrifice, and tribe.

“Your” sacred symbols and traditions mean nothing until you have experienced them and made them your own. A living culture is connected from the beginning until now by shared symbols and traditions that embody eternal truths that are experienced differently by each generation. Without that experience, without that blood-and-flesh reality, you’re just dressing up in a costume.

Your culture isn’t blue jeans or iPhones made by Chinese slave labor. Your Identity isn’t by a passport or a jersey with some dude’s name on it. It’s defined by roots, community, and honor. What is that which you value beyond money? What do you have which can’t be reduced to a commodity?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you’ll know who you are. You’ll know what you must defend. And you’ll know what you must do next.