Culture, power and society

July 27, 2007

The Culture Struggle

By Michael Parenti

Seven Stories Press, 2006

143 pages, US$12.95 (pb)


Michael Parenti's latest book is a study of culture's place as "a key battleground in the sociopolitical struggles of this world". As Parenti himself points out, the book is not a social-science monograph constructing a rigorous theory of culture, but rather "a set of discursive commentaries linked by underlying themes, filled with illustrative examples". The book consists of 14 separate, brief but interrelated essays dealing with topics such as mass-market culture, cultural conceptions of mental illness, marriage, rape, slavery, racism, and "new age" culture.

Parenti writes with limpid clarity and razor-sharp precision, stripping away the myths surrounding cultural practices and explaining their relationship to the various sorts of power struggles raging within and between societies. He has a gift for providing succinct and elegant statements of complex cultural-political facts, facts that other writers can spill oceans of ink attempting to elucidate.

For example, Parenti summarises the relation between politico-economic imperialism and cultural imperialism in four ringing sentences: "Imperialism is the process of empire. It occurs when the dominant interests of one nation bring to bear their military and economic power upon another nation or region in order to expropriate its land, labor, capital, natural resources, and markets. During the course of conquest, the colonizers trample underfoot much of the indigenous people's social fabric. The people lose not only their land but their way of life, their mores, historic lore, healing arts, music, gods, shamans, and eventually even their language."

There is a similarly taut discussion of the issue of same-sex marriage. To the bigots who oppose it, Parenti fires a broadside: "Here are some of the things that straight-sex marriage has wrought through the ages: polygamy, child-brides, loveless arrangements, trafficked women, battered wives, raped wives, sexual slavery, child abuse and abandonment, racist miscegenation laws, and astronomical divorce rates. If gays are unqualified for marriage, what can we say about straights?" Picking up on a phrase coined by arch-bigot US President George Bush, he concludes: "the homophobic Jesus worshippers who want to defend this 'most fundamental institution of civilization' might begin by taking an honest look at the ugly condition of so many heterosexual unions in this country and throughout the world".

The jewel of the book, and a peerless specimen of conceptual clarity, is Parenti's discussion of cultural imperialism and cultural relativism. Cultural relativists claim that it is illegitimate to essay any criticisms of practices in cultures other than our own, while cultural imperialists take their own culture as the ultimate and only authority of what is and is not of value. Both are equally unpalatable: cultural relativism leaves us unable to criticise despicable practices such as female genital mutilation, while cultural imperialism serves to convince the poor and weak of the legitimacy of their domination by the rich and strong. Often, they are presented by their protagonists as exhaustive alternatives: according to relativists, any criticism of another culture makes for imperialism, while imperialists argue that resistance to the domination of one culture by another can only result in relativism.

Parenti demonstrates that this is a false dilemma. One can criticise another culture, not simply because it is different from one's own, but on the basis of facts and values that transcend particular human cultures: "A starving child is a starving child whatever the cultural rationale proffered. A tortured prisoner is a tortured prisoner in whatever country, so with a jailed journalist, a raped woman, an enslaved worker, a youngster forced into prostitution, and a murdered innocent. And a chemically toxified environment undermines our global ecology regardless of the particular cultural attitudes about such things." One can sail past the Scylla of cultural imperialism whilst avoiding the Charybdis of cultural relativism.

This short volume packs a mightier punch than its slender proportions might lead you to believe. Students of culture, power and society will find it stimulating and enlightening.

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