Could I get some mayonnaise with these fries?” I asked the garçon in my broken French, imagining I was being a bit chic in eschewing ketchup. “Impossible!” he replied. I tried to rephrase the question in the certain knowledge that I am among the world’s best speakers of broken French. “Non,” he said and added another “Impossible!” Then, seeing my surprise at his first reply turn into confusion at his second, he explained that the fries were meant to be eaten au jus—with what was a gravy, really—or else the taste would be, and here he switched to English, “destroyed by the invasion of condiments.”
That was nine years ago. My family was visiting the beaches that my father’s father had stormed on D-Day as a young officer of the Big Red One, part of the avant-garde. My insistence on mayonnaise, and particularly my irritation at not getting what I wanted, was, if I am honest, fueled by a sense of entitlement. I felt as if “we” owned the place simply because our ancestors had defended it, and today’s residents should respond to our desires with unrefined gratitude. More important, I was as of yet insensitive to the overriding significance of what is “impossible!”
Culture, in one important sense, is the space of everyday habits. These customs or conventions of life are not personal preferences, for we feel them as obligatory—not, perhaps, in a high moral sense, but as binding nevertheless. Nor are they political positions, for they transcend the sorts of things we debate in public life. Nor are they conventions of commerce or exigencies of economic life in a modern capitalist system.
The necessity that fries be eaten au jus reflects a loyalty to norms both more permanent than the political and more important than the economic. Such habits create a shared space of common life. They flow from expectations imposed and obeyed without being deliberated or legislated. They serve no partisan cause, nor do they conduce to profit or utility. Under normal circumstances, our cultural habits provide the pleasant universal background for all of those and more. They mark out what is impossible and guide a great deal of what is permissible toward common, shared agreement. Proper use of mayonnaise may seem trivial, and in a certain sense it is. But taken as a whole, our cultural habits go a long way in forming social and personal life and, as a consequence, identity.
A simple mental experiment in subtraction gets at what I mean here by culture. Think of yourself, just yourself. Now subtract your work, your political convictions, your merely personal concerns, and the theological particularities of your religion (not the belief in God, which no sane human doubts for long, but belief in double predestination or the Immaculate Conception). What remains? Are there things that are, in principle, impossible for you, not because they violate self-evident moral principles, but because they’re, well, gauche? Are there things you would never sell or buy? Things that should never be consumed? Or never even touched? Never honored? Always shamed? Regarding the permissible, do you eat or greet in a particular way? Speak or refrain from speaking for social propriety? Your list could include everything from not spitting in public to paternal piety, from always offering guests food to hugging a grieving friend, from shaking hands when parting to silently tolerating an enemy, from matching colors just so to driving manners.
As you think through what remains after subtracting the political and the private, the commercial and the religious, you are identifying your culture—we have no better name for it. There is an American culture, of course, with everything from noble patriotic feeling, to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to white socks worn with sneakers (which is why Europeans can spot us from five hundred yards, ahem, meters off). There are also local cultures within the United States, though less so now than was the case a generation ago. But beginning with my trip to Normandy years ago, I’ve come to see that Europeans often have a thicker, stronger culture—more remains after the subtraction.
I cannot prove it, but I believe the strength of cultural prejudices, such as the horror at “the invasion of condiments,” sustains Europe. It gives Europeans a solidity that may end up compensating for the European technocratic apparatus’s weaknesses in the face of the invasions of actual peoples from Syria and elsewhere. We hear the worst of it in America, but minarets are kept out of Switzerland, credit cards are still frowned upon in the Netherlands, and every single Belgian student known to man goes home to be with family every single weekend. (Okay, it is a small country, but still.) European politics may be going off the rails, but there are remarkably stable national, regional, and local cultures throughout the Continent and in Britain. Americans shouldn’t underestimate their significance in generating social trust—and resilience.
Nor should the function of cultural habits as a basis for liberty be ignored. It explains why there is a great deal of freedom in Europe. Wherever indigenous European cultures remain dominant, individuals need not worry that a political fad—or one high court—will sweep in and restructure their daily lives. Life has not yet become overly politicized (nor overly individualized, for that matter), as it seems to have become in the United States. It still operates on its own terms to great effect. And the effect: Culture, as the space that exists between certain impossibles, allows the enculturated person to be set at liberty to cultivate innumerable permissibles.
When manners unite within a culture, greater social trust develops, and with it comes the freedom to attend to one’s affairs on one’s own terms. Recently, on a Dutch train headed toward the northerly city of Groningen, I kept my eyes fixed on my suitcases, which were perched on a common luggage rack. After a time, the man next to me said, “Don’t worry, no one here is a thief.” Now, there are plenty of thieves in Holland, but his finely tuned cultural knowledge of the sorts of people in the rail car told him not to worry about them now. He was welcoming me into a cultural space of great social trust, a space in which I was at liberty to read my book without troubling myself about the safety of my belongings. A greater example of social trust exists in Denmark, where mothers leave their babies outside of shops in strollers to sleep—not just one or two, lots of them, and in the freezing cold. When in 1997 a Danish mother tried this in New York City, she was arrested and carted off to jail.
What about the looming unification of the European Union? How might that affect culture? From afar, Americans can see that the European Union has sapped national sovereignty through semi-democratic means. But it has not yet been able to get everyone speaking the same political language, much less the same actual language. (Linguistic diversity is another cultural saving grace against politicization.) A persistent persnicketiness about one’s culture preserves local and national identities against Leviathan, allowing individuals to live their lives in places where they actually feel at home. (The recent rise in populist parties in nearly every European land should be seen as part of what Roger Scruton calls an “oikophilic” or “home-loving” movement, not merely a reactionary one.) Yet even the EU regulatory monster sometimes serves good causes. It ensures that cheeses are sold under their proper names, so that nobody is hoodwinked by, say, a Belgian “Roquefort” or Swedish “Champagne.” The god of commerce is not permitted to lord over the natural human desire that a place name refer to an actual place rather than become just another kind of product.
That in Europe the customer is not always right is one part of a larger deliverance from the tyranny of the marketplace and the dictatorship of money. A haberdasher in Edinburgh refused to sell a particular tie to a prominent European friend of mine because “it did not suit him.” In much of Europe, stores close at decent hours and rarely open on Sundays. For the expat, it can be inconvenient at first. But it allows store workers a normal routine, and it prevents us customers from believing that everything should be available when we want it.
Let us not underestimate these benefits. Culture imposes the unenforceable that is nevertheless obeyed. Without a thick culture and the social intelligence it develops in us, more of life must be legislated and policed. The conceit that procedural liberalism is enough to govern public life may provide us with room for the “experiments in living” championed by John Stuart Mill, but a thin culture creates a social vacuum. Conflicts can easily arise when, for example, one man’s “experiment in living” is received as one woman’s sexual harassment. Law begins seeping into all the nooks and crannies of human life. Spaces once regulated informally, that is, culturally, get invaded by regulatory bureaucrats. Is it surprising that the only society in which laws are introduced to limit fatty foods and sugary drinks—America—is the same one in which there are no strong cultural norms about food? Without strong cultural habits, our freedom descends into either an administered liberty or a feckless free-for-all.
Besides the societal, there is a personal dimension to culture. A Polish friend once said, “I have always wondered why Americans talk so much about themselves.” A charitable answer is that Americans are open, gregarious people. There is a darker possible answer, however. Having been deprived of a strong cultural identity that unites us, lacking what Edmund Burke called the “decent drapery of life,” the naked self is all that remains. Seeking to connect, we have nothing to share but our private concerns. No wonder we invented social media.
On that Norman restaurant terrace, not far from the English Channel, we took our time and enjoyed a wonderful dinner. Au jus was, well, oh-so-good. The summer breeze was warm and welcoming. The owner eventually approached us. Perhaps he was attracted by the Americans who lingered at a table like Frenchmen. He asked about our reason for visiting, chatted, and asked to join us. At his insistence, the garçon poured the local calvados into six copious snifters. To “your ancestral sacrifices for my people and my land,” he toasted, welcoming us into his world of rigorous yet capacious cultural habits.
Europe faces great challenges, with greater still to come. But there is life yet here on the Old Continent, an infinity of small habits handed on with gratitude, and cultural reserves that are being tended. Count me a guarded optimist about Europe’s ability to endure.
Jonathan Price is editor of the new scholarly journal Politics & Poetics and founding editor of the Clarion Review.