St. Patrick’s Day & Liberal Culture
For a post with such seemingly low stakes, my recent musings on St. Patrick’s Day received an impassioned reaction. There are a lot of reasons for that. The most interesting, even if not the primary one, is that in our liberal society we don’t know quite what to do or say about culture.
Rod Dreher pointed out that most St. Patrick’s Day revelers aren’t too concerned with the holiday’s meaning:
…do most Americans out getting sozzled on green beer today really have the slightest idea about what the actual Irish people suffered? I don’t think so. I think most of us have this idea of the Irish as a fun-loving people who love to drink beer, tickle leprechauns, and listen to U2. And that’s about it.
Will highlighted the praiseworthy meaning of our odd little holiday:
A group that was once thought of as completely alien is now firmly established within the American mainstream. You can take several lessons from this experience, but the one that seems most relevant is that the United States has been astonishingly successful at assimilating disparate ethnic groups. This strikes me as something worth celebrating.
But can both Rod and Will be right? Can St. Patrick’s Day be a celebration of successful minority integration (a la Barack O’Bama) and be a holiday that no one actually thinks about? Well, yes. The essence of culture, and of ritual, is that it has the power to express and transmit an unselfconscious and implicit cultural memory.
Some people might be reluctant to acknowledge that any ritual has cultural substance. This is exactly the line of thinking that I want to oppose. Culture and ritual matter. They allow us to express and preserve truths that can’t be transmitted effectively in any other way.
There’s a fear, often a hope, that in liberal society ritual forms no longer have any meaning. Legal forms, holiday celebrations — many things that look very much like cultural practices and rituals — can be understood as merely contractual or diversionary, anything but elements of a real and describable culture. But if it’s possible for rituals to have meaning without anyone articulating that meaning explicitly, it’s also the case that we may not be able, by simple power of statement, to give it a new meaning (though of course that meaning might change in other ways). Sometimes we call this meaning religious instead of cultural. We punt on the question of culture and hope it lands on the far side of the wall of separation.