Decline but do not mourn

June 21, 1996

When Bernard Wasserstein abandons the sociological mask of objectivity, he also seems to abandon some of his reasoning power (THES, May 3).

He says it is axiomatic that all forms of cultural distinctiveness deserve to survive. It does not seem at all axiomatic to me. Do cultures whose distinctiveness includes support for slavery, or the attitude that women are inferior to men, deserve to survive?

Wasserstein then confuses the right of minority cultures to survive with the value of that survival. He claims that Jonathan Miller would probably defend the right of Brazilian Indians to maintain their own culture, even though Miller does not seem to value the survival of the Jewish culture of his ancestors. We can maintain the right of a group to maintain a culture without valuing the survival of that culture. I maintain the right of my students to play football, even though I see no value in it.

Furthermore, we can value a culture for its past achievements, even though we do not value the present or future survival of that culture. And why should the fact that the culture in question is that of Jonathan Miller's ancestors be relevant? To value a culture because it is that of one's ancestors seems to be merely a form of ancestor worship.

The decline of a culture may well be a loss, but nothing lasts forever. If a culture loses its vitality and disappears, what would we gain by attempting to hold on to it?

Robin Harwood

University of Reading

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