Culturism is a new word

John Press doesn’t like multiculturalism. He’s not a racist, mind you, he’s a culturist. Racism is wrong; culturism is okay.

After getting his PhD from NYU in history, he wrote a book called Culturalism: a Word, a Value, a Future. As stated on the book’s official website, the basic premise is that “culturism is the opposite of multiculturalism” and “the West does have a core traditional culture to guide, protect, and promote.” Culturists hold that multiculturalists don’t take diversity seriously enough, glossing over the differences in cultures that make them incompatible.

Basically, culturism is discrimination based on culture rather than race or gender or sexuality. In fact, on his blog, Press encourages his readers to refer to themselves as “culturists” when others call them racist. And in a way, this word “culturist” has its place; as Press points out in his post on a Muslim army private’s request for conscientious objector status, not all Muslims are Middle Eastern — some Muslims are white and share the Islamic culture with those who are not. Those white Muslims are being discriminated not on the basis of race but on the culture of their religion. Consider the discrimination against hippies in previous decades, not based on race at all but on lifestyle. Press has provided us with a word could be useful, if not for the bigotry he has attached to it. I mean, in the case of the Muslim conscientious objector, he takes one man’s story of personal faith and moral obligation and turns it into a case for the American military to discriminate based on religion.

But what I find interesting about this guy is the way his ethos is constructed. As a man spearheading a new intellectual worldview (as he sees it), he has to establish his credentials as an intellectual. He rarely separates himself from his PhD identity, usually referring to himself as “Culturist John, aka Dr. John Press.” But then, to establish credentials as a conservative, he also frequently mentions his position as the president of his local tea party. The figure of the concern citizen-academic is best illustrated in his post entitled “Progressives and Tea Party Activists Should Join Together.” Press summarizes his dissertation research on the Progressive Era, arguing that the vanguard against big government is local civic participation. He criticizes Glen Beck for jumping to conclusions concerning progressive government without considering the original concerns of the early progressives. He is using his academic persona to separate himself from political shock-jocks like Beck while making a fairly moderate argument for the importance of local participation for the well-being of a democracy.

However, Press’s YouTube videos take on a strange carnivalesque feel, not unlike the commercials of the guy with the suit with dollar signs trying to sell some book about how to get money from the government. The crazy hand gestures, the funny voices, and the inflammatory statements add up shock-jock-ery not unlike Beck’s, if only less high tech. And the academic facade is still there; consider the stack of books in the background.

Blogger “Weiner,” a history PhD candidate at NYU who studied briefly alongside Press, worries about two things: either (a) Press’s PhD will lend undeserved credibility to his ideas, or (b) Press’s antics will degrade the value of Weiner’s own future PhD. I don’t know that these concerns are necessarily worth losing sleep over, but I do think that Press’s case reveals an interesting distinction between self-presentation in text and in video, one that can be seen in bigger names such as Beck himself. The political “thinkers” are evaluating the differences between those who read and those who view and choosing different strategies. We are all familiar with Glen Beck’s chalkboards and head-shaking, but when he writes, he doesn’t sound nearly as ridiculous (and I say this as someone who read almost half of The Overton Window). So is TV really making us passive sheep?

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4 Responses to Culturism is a new word

  1. Jim Porter says:

    A great essay, Stephanie! This does a nice job of using rhetoric tools to engage in critique of contemporary happenings — in this case, of an emergent position (and person) trying to acquire intellectual respectability for the cause of bigotry.

  2. Pingback: Rhetoric on the Road | RhetHistoria

  3. mojoofrhet says:

    So – I really enjoyed reading this – mostly because I have been thinking a lot about Beck lately and how evangelical his rhetoric has become. (I say become as a person who has also read Beck – a good part of his Nanny State book – which was just so much more scholarly than his website, radio, and cable rhetoric). I also was JUST discussing the correlative act of naming in relationship to the surnames and academic letters we use to change our ethos, identity, understanding of our social roles. I loved Youtube Press (who I know little of), too.

    But the best part is your final question – and I think in asking it as I read, I answered it with the importance of thinking through media in the classroom – teaching our students how to be savvy consumers of television. More importantly I think the ideas of bell hooks (in Feminism if for Everyone) on the white academic woman bringing the theoretical feminisms of the university to the practical feminisms of communities of color can apply here. According to hooks, white feminists can help empower already powerful women in project communities by giving them the tools and language to understand themselves and their acts (of motherhood, working out side the home, resisting domestic violence, over coming sexual assault,etc.) as empowered. Similarly, academic ways of understanding Youtube videos, cable t.v. and radio rants (hi Rush, I didn’t want to leave you out, old boy) and evangelical public addresses need to be a practice and skill – a way of thinking – that is accessible to more than just the most educated and therefore privileged of Americans. Sheep don’t think – and unfortunately neither do many, many (particularly working poor) Americans, because no one has ever asked them to. The American worker (like the person of color, and historically the woman who associated thinking with white men) rejects intellectualism as a push back against the strata that looks down on her. In doing this, she becomes much more easy to manipulate. How do we democratize thinking? How do we do this in communities like the one I am from (immigrant, rural, and blue collar) in order to make them (us) less vulnerable, less “sheep”?

  4. Ben says:

    I’m graphing this in my head: I think it’s interesting how each specific discriminatory practice seems to slide down a long tube over the years, beginning somewhere (where exactly? I don’t claim to know) at the high end of general acceptedness and then down, though not without erratic moments of acclivity and declivity both, toward general unacceptedness as popular ideology morphs and the commonplaces of bigotry slowly get elbowed out. (Look at this optimism!) Though it pisses me off as much as anyone when people suggest that “racism is over in America,” I do think we’ve finally hit a point where racism is at least generally unaccepted in a broad, shallow, sense. I believe homophobia (wow, we heed a better term than that – how about “gay-hating”?) is headed down the same tube, and that things will be drastically better for LGBT individuals and couples fifty years from now. Sad, though, that by coining “culturism,” these silly people may have bought themselves some rhetorical elbow room—how long will it take before this is identified as just another form of irrational, arrogant bigotry?

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