Monday, October 5, 2009

Well, La, Ti, Da! Or, On The Importance of Culture

When I was a child in West Virginia, if someone used a highfalutin’ word, someone else would inevitably respond, “well, la, ti da!”
It was an insult, and often a devastating one. Roughly translated, it meant, “Something is seriously wrong with you for using that word. A refined vocabulary puts the rest of us down and makes us feel bad. Lower the level of your conversation if you want us to like you.”

Sometimes it was deserved. There are those who deliberately use obscure words to put others down through feelings of inadequacy.

However, “la, ti da,” can also be used to resist refinement.

The establishment or continuation of culture can be undermined by such things.

I think that the ‘la, ti, da response’ is a great and present danger to the future of Western Civilization, which is the accumulated culture of six thousand years.

My definition of “culture” is “nature colonized by intelligence.”

The most basic form of culture, I submit, is agriculture: the purposeful management of soil and plants to maximize food production.

Even in their natural state, soil and plant life provide food. However, in that state, food must be sought and gathered from large tracks of ground. This requires most of the waking hours of anyone who wants to eat.

Agriculture makes it possible for a few people to feed many people. That, in turn, allows the many people to build material things and to create the kinds of immaterial things that make human life meaningful and joyful.

Agriculture moves human life beyond mere survival. It allows people to congregate in large numbers, where they can create cities. The cities can then form networks that can become civilizations.

This is what culture in all its aspects does for human life: it keeps us moving from mere survival and toward meaning and enrichment. It turns isolated brutes into cooperative citizens.

For example, education cultivates natural human intelligence. When we educate a child, we are maturing his or her raw intelligence. It moves from a preoccupation with mere survival into a focus upon artistic, spiritual, economic, and social concerns.

This is the way all kinds of culture work.

Culture develops individuals.

In turn, cultured individuals develop culture.

Therefore, we may say, culture tends to create a self-perpetuating cycle of development.
This cycle will continue unless and until individuals within a particular culture begin to resist it and to prefer a state of raw nature. It is at this time that culture begins to disappear.

This occurs when a substantial percentage of a people within a given culture adopt a “know-nothing” attitude. They begin to take pride in being unlettered, uneducated, or uncultured.
Religious people may express this attitude by disdaining their own scholars who study their own scriptures. They may begin to view ignorance as a form of piety.

Politically minded people do this when they seek their information only from those sources in agreement with their own political ideology.

These choices disrupt the cycle of cultural development. Culture begins to unravel. Things begin to head toward the state of raw nature: barbarism.

This is a serious trend. Unless reversed, it suggests the approaching fall of a culture because civilization is too frail to survive the state of barbarism.

A man or woman in a state of nature cannot do arithmetic.

For that matter, a man or woman in a state of nature cannot decide when and where to empty his or bladder. When the urge strikes, it must be obeyed. That is “what is natural.” One must belch when he wants or shout when he pleases.

Both arithmetic and toilet training are fruits of culture. They are behaviors we deliberately produce through the willful colonization of our natural human drives. They develop when we invite the collective intelligence of human society to influence and challenge our natural ideas and mental states.

Learning to navigate within and to make meaningful contributions to human society never comes naturally. It requires deliberate training. Those who ignore this cultural training, resist it, or disdain it, remain locked in the lower levels of intelligence and skill available to those who prefer states of nature. There are many ways we can do this.

One of the most disturbing trends of our times is the acceptance (and even celebration of) states of barbarism. The uncouth, the uncivil, the rude and the rash, are everywhere celebrated for their courage and forthrightness. Meanwhile, the measured and the cautious, the moderate and the considerate, the polite and the gracious are often taken as cowards and compromisers; unworthy of respect.

I have lived in a state of nature with Stone Age people. I have learned from them that civilization is fragile, that culture is precious. I know how raging fools, spilling out venom and vitriol, can stir up a mob that will develop the courage to kill. A blood lust can develop in the soul of a people that propels those people into states of insanity and mass hysteria. This can occur even to ordinarily gracious and generous people, if they adopt a know-nothing philosophy of life.

It happened once in Europe. A highly educated population began to tolerate the shouts of angry, hurling insults against Jews. The mob soon arose and carried Jews to ovens, where they baked and turned into smoke as their countrymen cheered.

It happened once here. A populist president drove an entire race of people across the continent as old people and babies died by the thousands. The path those people marched is a mere five miles from our church. Our culture –through our highest court -- said “don’t do it.” But the mob said “go ahead” and the deed was done. Our nation sinned against God and against an entire race of people. We then covered up the deed in the history books and our political speeches.

Art and Science, Athletics and Spirituality, Agriculture and Medicine; all require stability, civility, moderation, manners, discussions that honor difference and definitions of terms. Such things do not arise from states of nature. They are the deliberate fruit of intentional cultivation.

Their continued existence is dependent upon our steadfast resistance of any romanticizing or celebration of states of barbarism.

La, ti, da is not an innocent jingle. It is an insidious call to return to the jungle.


Bill Whites said...


I find that saying la, ti da as somewhat of a defense mechanism. I have been made fun of my whole life by so called cultured people because I talk a little slower than they do or have a little bit of a drawl in my speech. It wasn't because I actually had less knowledge than they did it was because of the way I expressed it. It felt good to have a come back.

While I understand that knowledge is good and we need to continue to grow and learn as to not become stagnant, I also believe that we need to be careful and not get into a state where we are worshiping knowledge, or propping up a person because they seem to be the one who knows what's best.

Studying culture as historical context and learning from it in order to move forward and not repeat our mistakes is a good thing, which we rarely seem to do. Instead we define somebody as cultured because they can walk across a room with a book balanced on their head or talk without actually moving their mouth. In the art world we see things that are akin to crap in a bucket and are told this is art, the person who did this is a much deeper thinker than you are, that is why you don't understand it. No, it is crap in a bucket, there is nothing deep about that. It is some self important jerk who is trying to show why they are important.

Personally, I prefer to appear uncultured. I am not uneducated, but I find that the more education I receive, the more satisfaction I get from the common sense that I learned from my "simple" ancestry.

My family has been farming land in this country since the mid to late 1700's. Many of them were of great intelligence, though not real well educated. I find that many of the little colloquialisms that they used have given me much greater knowledge for living life than any book by some self important deep thinker.

There is a huge difference between intelligence and being educated or cultured. While we should continue to learn and grow in our knowledge of culture, I don't think we should try to imitate somebody and do things in a certain way simply for the sake of appearing cultured.

Anonymous said...

"La, Ti, Da." Isn't that French? Hmm, maybe not.

Definitely, a light-hearted title to a noticeably significant message: "to continue moving towards [deeper] meaning and [extended] enrichment."

stacy beam said...

Your blogs always resonate with the wisdom and insight of a man who carefully absorbs his environment and does his utmost to contribute greatly to his culture. Thank you!