The Culture Did It

A semantic innovation gets us all off the hook.

Illustration by Greg Clarke



THE indefinite articles "a" and "an" and the definite article "the" account for almost 10 percent of all the words we use, and in most cases they are no more obtrusive than a heartbeat. But leave one out, or put one in an unexpected place, and the effect can be substantial.

Slavic languages are famous for their lack of articles. The trait carries over into how some Slavs speak English, and this has long been a target of parody. (Here's the cosmonaut Lev, in the movie Armageddon: "I hear rumor on radio. My country broke. No steaks in freezer.") Adding an article before a noun that usually lacks one can bring about a variety of shifts in tone. Learning calculus and Greek was tough -- how much more romantic to have been able to study "the calculus" or "the Greek," as the Victorians did. Sometimes the definite article adds a pretentious note. I know of a socially ambitious commercial building where signs above the escalators direct visitors to THE SHOPS and THE OFFICES. Last year's Ryder Cup tournament was held near Boston at an establishment called simply The Country Club (and don't forget the annual Harvard-Yale gridiron encounter, The Game). In Celtic lands the definite article before a proper name designates a clan leader: Michael Joseph O'Rahilly, one of the martyrs of Ireland's Easter Rebellion, in 1916, is known in Irish history textbooks as "The O'Rahilly." A similar acknowledgment of singularity was bestowed by Sherlock Holmes on Irene Adler, the only person ever to outwit him; according to Dr. Watson, Holmes referred to her afterward as "the woman." The comedian Lenny Bruce once pointed out that there were a lot of churches and denominations in the world, but Catholicism was the only "the" religion -- there was only one "the Church."

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These attributes of the definite article come to mind because, judging from the evidence on the airwaves and the printed page, the word "the" has begun to flourish in a new semantic niche: in front of the word "culture." We all know what culture without an article is. It can refer to any product of human fabrication (stone tools, the Venus de Milo, Rhapsody in Blue, paintings on velvet) or to the folkways of a localized anthropological milieu (Samoa, the San Fernando Valley, Microsoft). But the term "the culture" connotes something bigger and broader than all these others. "The culture" is imposing and autonomous, and implicated in just about everything.

The moderator of the National Public Radio program On the Media not long ago began by matter-of-factly lamenting a "coarsening of the culture." A headline on an article in WebMD Medical News declares, "Teen Binge Drinking Starts Early, With Help From the Culture." The actor and writer Eric Bogosian comments, "I think the level of irony and aggression has become just so absorbed in the culture that me throwing myself around out there doesn't rub people as wrong as it used to." A Detroit columnist describes guns as "embedded in the culture, like strip malls and cheeseburgers." A vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention speaks of the need for members of his denomination to remain engaged "in the debates that are going on in the culture." The publisher Victor Navasky, recalling his education in a politically radical experimental school in the 1940s, declares, "We were outsiders in the culture."

The references sometimes get a little confusing, because "the culture" that different writers cite isn't always the same one. William McGurn, of The Wall Street Journal, is conjuring something elitist, leftist, modernist, and in control of all news, entertainment, and advertising when he spells it "the Kultur" and writes, "The Kultur's painting of Southern evangelicals as closet Klansmen is a vicious caricature." Brent Staples, writing in The New York Times earlier this year about a rampage of sexual harassment that occurred in Central Park, had a different, retrograde "the culture" in mind when he subtitled his editorial-page commentary "How the culture normalizes sexual harassment and abuse."

Whatever the perspective, "the culture" is invoked as if it were a powerful, uniform, enveloping medium -- as vast and impersonal as the galaxy, as inescapable as the laws of thermodynamics. Some references make "the culture" seem like a pervasive global ectoplasm. Others recall the "ether" of the ancients. The imagery of atmospheric swirl is commonplace. We hear about the cultural "climate." We hear about being "flooded" or "saturated" with cultural by-products, of foundering in a "rising tide" of violence, permissiveness, vulgarity, banality, incivility, and insensitivity. The Republican pollster Whit Ayres has long been tracking the influence of what he calls the "cultural winds," and writers in almost every major newspaper have remarked the onset of what they call "cultural storms." (Behind all this one prominent media critic has discerned the hand of "cultural gods.") We can, of course, take steps to safeguard ourselves against "the culture," as we can against the weather, but the elements are likely to seep in anyway. Even government, the columnist George F. Will has warned, "cannot be hermetically sealed against the culture."

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In some ways our thinking about nature on the one hand and "the culture" on the other has undergone a reversal within a matter of decades. It used to be that the cultural aspect of ordinary reality was, by definition, the part most amenable to human transformation, whereas the natural aspect was seen as having a dynamic of its own, which was largely out of our hands. In his book (1989) the environmental writer Bill McKibben offered a revised assessment of the natural world. In his view, nature as a sovereign power has given way to nature as a dependent ward of human custodians. Befouled and denuded, gutted and gouged, the natural world has become a thing of frailty. Even the most trivial of human interventions can spell catastrophe. McKibben writes of nature,

Having lost its separateness, it loses its special power. Instead of being a category like God -- something beyond our control -- it is now a category like the defense budget or the minimum wage, a problem we must work out.

"The culture" is today the more fearsome realm, or at any rate the more convenient scapegoat, and the notion that we have only limited influence over it appears to be widespread. The rhetoric of resignation turns up in surprising precincts. Last summer Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the representative-designate to the United Nations from Afghanistan's Taliban government, spoke with a reporter about his country's problematic reputation in the West. The subject of oppressive measures against women came up, but Mujahid brushed criticism aside. The problem hasn't been the Afghan government, he said, adding, "I blame the culture."

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His most recent book is (1998).

Illustration by Greg Clarke.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; The Culture Did It - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 16-18.