The chimera of culture
Dismantling the core of the nationalist argument
Nationalists often claim that different countries couldn’t possibly work together because they all have a different “culture.”
This can be proven wrong easily. Countries are political entities whose boundaries have been shifting over the centuries. Therefore it is almost impossible to determine a coherent “national culture”. One can always identify sub-segments that divert from the presumed “national” culture. Manipulators could split a society into smaller and smaller segments ad infinitum, opening up endless possibilities of manipulation and abuse, all based on their definition of “culture.”
Henceforth, “culture” is not a useful concept when discussing political entities. Any politician who uses “culture” to rationalise a political or economic decision has immediately exposed himself as a charlatan.
In 2015, German nationalist leader Alexander Gauland scolded social democrat Aydan Ozoguz for claiming that “a specific German culture, beyond language, is simply not identifiable.” Gauland even suggested “disposing of” Ozoguz in Anatolia, even though her statement is unfalsifiable by any rational argument.
Let’s pretend for a moment that Gauland was right and there was indeed a clearly identifiable “national culture” of Germany. We will disprove this through reductio ad absurdum by examining a related set of political entities and their respective cultures:
- Germany, a nation with a population of 82.7m
- Berlin, its capital with a pop of 3.6m and also a regional state in its own right
- Bavaria, Germany’s geographically largest regional state with a pop of 12.9m
- Austria, a neighbouring nation with a pop of 8.7m
When asking about “authentic German culture”, non-Germans will most likely refer to beer, the Oktoberfest event, Neuschwanstein castle, Lederhosen trousers, and FC Bayern München. What all of those have in common is that they are largely confined to a one hundred mile radius around Munich.
Henceforth one might assume Bavaria to carry some significance with regard to German culture. But here’s the rub: neither is Bavaria a homogeneous cultural entity in itself, nor is it aligned with the remainder of Germany in terms of culture. In fact, Bavaria enjoys a closer cultural relationship with Austria rather than with Berlin or Northern Germany:
- Architecture: Munich with its baroque era buildings and Habsburg-style Vienna are a lot different from Bauhaus-dominated Berlin or the red brick buildings of Hamburg
- Clothing: Bavarian “Trachten” and “Dirndl” closely resemble Austrian equivalents but are hardly worn anywhere else in Germany
- Food & drink: Bavarian “Weisswurst”, “Sauerkraut” and “Weissbier” are only a minority pursuit in the remainder of Germany (but have some prevalence in Austria)
- History: for centuries, Bavaria allied with France against Prussia and other Northern German states. Bavaria also allied with Austria against the remainer of Germany as recently as 1866
- Music: Bavarian “Volksmusik” with its accordion and tuba arrangements are not a mass pursuit in other parts of Germany, but closely resemble Austrian country music
- Religion: 55% of Bavarians identify as Roman Catholic (as do 64% of Austrians) while only 28% of Germans are Catholics (and just 9% of Berliners!)
- Wealth: At EUR44k GDP per capita, Bavaria is on exactly the same level as Austria, far ahead of Germany at 38k and Berlin at 36k
Henceforth, a cultural perspective would suggest Bavaria to become an independent nation (like Austria) or at least to align more closely with Austria than with Germany. And in fact there is a minority party (“Bayernpartei”) supporting Bavarian independence.
But wait a moment: if we can’t say that Germany has a consistent national culture (at least not without excluding culturally rich Bavaria), maybe at least Bavaria has one! However, if you walk around the streets of Munich, you will find people from a variety of backgrounds—Americans, Arabs, Italians, Russians etc. Let’s say that after lengthy search you identified one Alois Obermayr, who strikes you as an “original” Bavarian by means of his appearance. Try asking Alois what he thinks about Nuernberg, a city about two hundred miles in the north that has been part of Bavaria for centuries.
Alois might tell you that they are “Franken” (Frankonians) and not at all comparable to “real” Bavarians. Conversely, many Nuernbergers would be happy to confirm that Frankonians have nothing to do with the Bavarians who live around Munich. They might even inform you about the crucial distinction between “Oberfranken,” “Mittelfranken” and “Unterfranken,” the region’s Western, Southern and Eastern subdivisions. And the good people of Nuernberg might point out how different they are from their “Mittelfranken” cousins in the countryside.
We have proven that
(1) a coherently defined “original German national culture” does not exist, and
(2) an “authentic Bavarian culture”, even if it existed, would not cover the entire political entity of Bavaria.
This is because cultural segmentation can be continued ad infinitum. As a result, it cannot be a basis for an argument about a political entity such as a nation state. So instead of disposing of Aydan Ozoguz in Anatolia, one might rather dispose of Alexander Gauland and his “national culture” argument.
Some might argue that we picked a rather special case for our refutation of nationalist cultural thinking. Might it not be relevant elsewhere in the world?
And while it is plain to see that Boston, Massachusetts has an entirely different culture from West Texas despite both being part of the United States of America for centuries, one may point to more regionally confined examples. Surely, Scotland has a different culture from England, doesn’t it? Catalonia even has a distinct language from the rest of Spain, supporting its claim to form an independent republic.
Both the Scottish and the Catalan arguments can be refuted in the same manner. Even within Catalonia’s population of 7.5m there is no consensus about cultural identity. Barcelona and Tarragona, comprising 5.5m pop, even contemplate secession from Catalonia itself. “Tabarnia,” their proposed coastal autonomous region, would remain a part of Spain when the rural northern part of Catalonia secedes. When asked about cultural differences, urban Barcelonese sometimes refer to their upstate neighbours as “Tractorlonia.”
The conclusion remains: there is no justification for making political decisions on anything else but political and economic logic. Bringing “culture” into the political debate only leads to division and resentment. The cultural argument is doubly harmful because it prevents political entities from capturing economies of scale, from becoming more effective by jointly pursuing common interests. “Culture” is utterly self-defeating in political debate.
Wherever you look, obvious cultural distinctions emerge on the regional and local level, and even between streets of the same districts. Segmentation doesn’t even stop within a street or a house. When asked about his neighbours on the second floor of his white sandstone building in Munich’s posh district of Schwabing, Alois Obermayr argued that they couldn’t possibly be “real” Bavarians.
And why not?
“Because they’re gay.”