So you’re saying you want a culture war
Culture is something that needs to be valued and exchanged, not attacked or beaten. However, in America today we have no choice.
The term “culture war” is most commonly associated with Pat Buchanan, the magazine’s founder, who referred to it during his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. But it was actually coined a year earlier by a sociologist named James Davison Hunter who published a book called Cultural Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Jäger’s neologism was intended to capture arguments on social issues such as abortion and sex education, which he saw as part of a larger conflict between religious traditionalism and secular progressivism.
“Culture War” was appropriated by Hunter from the Bismarckian KulturkampfThis means “cultural struggle” and then becomes a “war” in recognition of how visceral the struggle felt to the activists involved. It’s a term that is both redundant and flashy. It is superfluous because almost every war is a culture war. Mass violence, literal or figurative, is seldom exercised between people who share the same vision of the world. And it’s noticeable because culture, properly practiced, shouldn’t beat anyone. In a healthy society culture is valued, preserved, exchanged, studied. Waging an internecine war over culture seems distorted, even confused.
Unfortunately we are here today. America is currently in the midst of its frenzied culture war since at least the 1960s. And in the past month, it seemed hardly a day had passed without a depressing skirmish breaking out: Ron DeSantis was smeared 60 minutes ostensibly for its vaccine rollout but really for its success in fighting back COVID without draconian lockdowns; James O’Keefe, who posts a video allegedly exposing CNN’s prejudices only to be banned from Twitter; the Derek Chauvin Trial and Maxine Waters’ call for confrontation. This war has become almost complete, sucking in everything from pandemic health interventions to children’s toys. Even America’s pastime, Major League Baseball, has joined the fray, pulling its all-star game out of Atlanta over allegedly punitive Georgia voter law.
The battlefields in this culture war seem endless, due to both our consumer capitalism and the ubiquitous media presence. America’s numerous brands have provided a long list of targets for the belligerent sides, by Dr. Seuss to Disney Plus. Grizzled Twitter veterans raise trembling cigarettes to their lips as they tell stories of the 2021 Battle for the Great Potato Head war of stars got caught in the crossfire. While in Buchanan’s time the culture war was mostly fought over issues – gay marriage, school prayer – today the battles are over products and personalities. The former has been subjected to a relentless reform campaign by the left aimed at revamping our culture and erasing anything that is deemed inappropriate. The latter are canceled in accordance with this revolution, which does not tolerate contradiction to its larger project.
Hunter viewed the American culture war as a struggle between traditionalists, who view truth as “rooted in an authority outside of self,” and progressives for whom “freedom prevails,” especially freedom from tradition. The biggest difference now is that the latter has given up much of the freedom it once claimed to cherish. The traditionalists tend to be religious, or at least respect religion, but the real theocrats are on the left these days. Their goal is not to liberate marginalized groups, but to leverage these groups in a hierarchy. Think of this as some sort of unofficial social credit system: the more preferred identity subsets you are, the better your rating and the more qualified you are to comment and participate in society.
That makes this particular fight unique. America has seen many culture wars throughout its history, including the Prohibition, which included clashes between Protestants and Catholics, rural America, and the city. Yet that was ultimately still a debate about what the country should look like, dry or wet, Carrie Nation or Lois Long, all of which are firmly rooted in the American experience. While in the current culture war one side is no longer trying to shape America, but rather to transcend it. The melting pot, the freedom of speech, the content of the character – all of this is sacrificed on the altar of a totalizing identity politics. And since the same side is stubbornly imperialist too, it tries to stretch its agenda even beyond that monopoly Brett in your closet, good old-fashioned pluralism has been effectively eliminated. The two cultures cannot coexist as one insists on completely reshaping the other.
It’s a bizarre and often absurd state. Personally, I’d much rather talk about the Stimulus Bill or the Chevron Doctrine than the gender of the mustached, googly-eyed, potato-shaped piece of plastic in the toy box. It’s a complaint you hear often: Politics should be about economic issues; Let the cultural stuff out. And it’s an understandable feeling, maybe even an ambitious one. But neither is it the reality of the moment. How 60 minutes and the MLB have shown that politics cannot be so cleanly cut off from culture. And these sports games and television shows have a far greater impact on our imaginations than any choice or law. The stickiest bonds in our society are not political but cultural.
Culture is important; it is immensely important. And while you may not be interested in Kulturkrieg, Kulturkrieg is … okay, I’d rather get into traffic than finish this sentence. But here we are. Will this arbitrary, bullying and authoritarian march continue? Or will ill-awakened institutions use enough power to fend them off? Unfortunately, these questions will determine our policy in the years to come.