The chimera of culture
Dismantling the core of the nationalist argument
Nationalists (such as Brexiteers) often claim that different countries couldn’t possibly work together because they all have a different “culture.”
This argument can be proven wrong very easily. Countries are political entities whose boundaries have been shifting over the centuries. Therefore it is almost impossible to determine a coherently defined “national culture”. One can always identify national sub-segments that divert from the presumed “national” culture, opening up endless possibilities of manipulation and abuse.
Henceforth, “culture” is not a useful concept when discussing political entities and decision. Any politician who uses “culture” as a basis for rationalising a political or economic decision has immediately exposed himself as a charlatan.
Recently, 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. As a next step, we will perform a reductio ad absurdum by examining a set of political entities and their cultures:
- Germany, a national state 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 national state with a pop of 8.7m
When asking about “authentic German culture” around the world, responses will most likely include references to beer, the Oktoberfest event, Neuschwanstein castle, Lederhosen trousers, and FC Bayern München. What all of those have in common is that they are mostly 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 homogenous 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 the rest of Germany:
- Architecture: Munich with its baroque era buildings and Habsburg style Vienna are a lot different from Bauhaus-dominated Berlin or Northern Germany
- Clothing: Bavarian “Trachten” and “Dirndl” closely resemble Austrian equivalents but aren’t worn at all anywhere else in Germany (outside of carnival)
- 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 Northern Germany. Bavaria also allied with Austria against Prussia (Berlin) as recently as 1866
- Music: Bavarian “Volksmusik” with its accordion and tuba arrangements are not popular 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 national state (like Austria) or to align more closely with Austria than 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 and the like. Lets say that after one lengthy search you identified one Alois Obermayr, who strikes you as an “original” Bavarian by means of his appearance. Ask Alois them what he thinks about people from Nuernberg, a city about two hundred miles in the north that has been part of Bavaria for centuries.
Alois will tell you that they are “Franken” (Frankonians) and nowhere near the “real” Bavarians. Most Nuernbergers would be happy to confirm that Frankonians have nothing to do with the Bavarians around Munich. They might even inform you about the crucial distinctions between “Oberfranken,” “Mittelfranken” and “Unterfranken,” the regions Western, Southern and Eastern subdivisions. And the good people of Nuernberg will point out how different they are from their Mittelfranken cousins in the countryside.
We have now 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 Germany. 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 thinking. Might it not be relevant elsewhere in the world?
And while it is plain to see for everyone 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 while the rural northern part of Catalonia could secede. When asked about the cultural differences, urban Barcelonese refer to their 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. It is doubly harmful because it prevents political entities from capturing economies of scale, from becoming more effective by jointly pursuing common interests. “Cultural” arguments are utterly self-defeating.
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.”