Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Politics and Culture in a Democratic Society

Most people consider politics to be the most vital avenue of influence in democratic society today. Politicians make the rules which societies live by. Politicians can make actions legal and illegal. Politicians can direct funding toward whatever causes they choose. Politicians are hounded by people seeking influence, power, and wealth.
The common assumption is that politicians are the most powerful people in the world – the masters of democratic society.
And they would be wrong.
Politicians are indeed important – and indeed, skillful politicians are necessary in democratic society. But in a very real sense, the politics of any society is predetermined by that society’s culture.  
The masters of culture control the direction of a democratic society more completely than any politician could. It is true that politicians make the laws that govern how people live their daily lives. But politicians in democratic society are forced to work within the confines of public opinion, because they are elected by people they represent. A politician without public favor is essentially powerless.
The makers of culture alter the very fabric of society. Admittedly, they do not do so immediately. Rapid, enduring change very rarely happens overnight, because humans as a people are resistant to rapid change.
But over time, measurable change does occur in humans. These changes are brought about in very large part due to the influence of cultural icons – influence which very few, if any, politicians possess (unless they become cultural icons in their own right).
The artisans of culture come in many forms – artists, writers, singers, designers, athletes. But they all have in common the ability to influence masses of people – what they think, what they wear, how they act, how they view the world.
Politicians can pass laws – but no law cannot stand if 90% of the population opposes it. A cultural icon with a great deal of influence, however, can promote causes through a major mass medium – and win over the hearts and minds of people through advocacy.
In other words, politicians can pass laws, but cultural icons can get people to agitate for laws based on their advocacy of causes.
A television show that features a sympathetic gay couple happily living together, in the long term, is more helpful to the cause of homosexuality in the long term than an openly gay representative in politics could ever be. A lone representative will be dismissed as a crank and shunned and ignored by his peers. An oddity on television, however, will eventually become normal in the minds of viewers (if portrayed as that way by writers). And normalcy becomes acceptance very quickly. 
This is not to say that politics is unimportant. After all, just and unjust laws can and do alter the direction of a society. But the power of politics is transitory and based largely on illusion in a way that the power of culture is not.
(It should be noted that some charismatic politicians manage to become cultural icons, and gain a great deal of influence over popular opinion by using their ability to connect with and persuade people through skilled usage of mass media. But that merely underscores the power of culture - politicians must become culturally attuned to gain that type of power.)
An analogy will serve to illustrate the relative importance of politics and culture. Politics can be likened the tactics with which an army fights. The daily battle to shape the governing laws of a nation is fought in the political realm. Important, yes. But wars are rarely won by individual battles alone. Culture can be compared to strategy in military parlance. The slow, long term battle for the soul of a people is fought and won in the cultural arena.
And the current state of American culture illustrates this truth perfectly. The American population, which was built upon the values of honesty, rugged individualism, and honor, is facing a crisis of moral character. An ever-increasing dependency on government, a population and a nation unable to control its compulsive spending on frivolous matters, and the disintegration of the family as a societal unit – all these reflect a dearth of virtue in the American populace.
The moral decline in America has reshaped the political landscape, so that a $14 trillion dollar debt and gay marriage – unthinkable 30 years ago – have been accepted by large segments of the general population as normal and even desirable.  
The rapid decay of American culture is in very large part due to the direct attacks on traditional values waged by many in the major cultural industries – chief among them music, film, and television.
But the same mediums that currently destroy moral values can also promote them – if people with moral values enter the industry. Writers and filmmakers can entertain people with shows that celebrate moral values rather than mock them. Designers can make clothes encouraging Christian modesty. The list could go on and on.
Celebrities and cultural icons who live active and joyful Christian lives (Tim Tebow comes to mind) are signs of contradiction to a world that hates itself and are inspirations to masses of people.
The world needs good people in every profession. Business, farming, manufacturing – and yes, politics too – these professions need people who are willing to live the Catholic life to the fullest within their respective callings.
But culture, because of its inherent power, needs solid, grounded Christians who joyfully live out their faith most of all.

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