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retread| Cultured Brutes 12 August 2006

Posted by EDITOR in Culture, Philosophy, VARANGALI.
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Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by VARANGALI on 22 Feb 2006.

We are taught culture through tradition: clap politely in golf, scream in rock concerts, and stand silent at eulogies. This is necessary, for we are unable to question each one of our actions, and so rely on the collected experience of our forebearers to guide us. It becomes insidious, however, when we confuse culture for a moral compass.

Allan Bloom has noted that tradition begins to die the moment it is realized as such – when the original meaning behind the action dissipates, so does our adherence to it. Yet this collected wisdom suffers a surprisingly long decline: swords were last effectively used in war in the 1700’s, but new ones were being introduced in the British Army as late as 1908. Even today, students of Pakistan’s prestigious Aitcheson College are trained in equestrianism, as if preparing to lead the Queen’s next cavalry charge.

Just as Islam was introduced as the antidote to tradition-based jahiliyyah, Bloom reminds us that what matters is the original meaning of an action or behavior. The adoption of culture as a moral compass – i.e. accepting the permanence of tradition – erases our responsibility to examine each of our actions according to our faith and conscience.

“As now taught, accepted and carried out, are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of supercilious infidels, who believe in nothing? Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp’d away, like the bordering of box in a garden?” (Walt Whitman)

There is something elementally good inside all of us – Allah (swt) created us so – cultivating it is our responsibility. Perhaps culture can keep us from straying – help us stay modest, polite, and respectful. But it also makes us refined, and refinement is the currency of elitist, spineless brutes. Let us be wild-eyed, hungry, and always moved by the ordinary. Again, Whitman:

“You can cultivate corn and roses and orchards – but who shall cultivate the mountain peaks, the ocean, and the tumbling gorgeousness of the clouds?”

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