The Trouble with the Culture Wars
Writing at the NYTimes, Ross Douthat tweaks the noses of liberals, who he says enjoy the culture wars after all.
“Can we officially retire the notion that liberals don’t like the culture war? That it’s something foisted on them by knuckle-dragging conservatives? That they would prefer to only talk about Very Serious Economic Policies, and that they hate the way the right wing keeps dragging the conversation around to sex and God and all the rest of it?
With Christine O’Donnell, as with Sarah Palin before her, American liberals have been confronted with a politician who’s vulnerable to all sorts of possible attacks, and whose record and qualifications and positions provide plenty of fodder for either a high-minded, issues-based critique, or a more no-holds-barred assault on her honesty and integrity. And what do liberals want to talk about? Why, her decade-old comments on masturbation, of course!”
The liberal response would be that the culture wars shouldn’t matter in theory; however, since conservatives hope to legislate morality, one is pressed into active service. Gossiping about Christine O’Donnell’s nutty views on masturbation is hence a defense of liberty, as she’d likely make it illegal if she could- bad news for the justice system since most of the public are repeat offenders.
I’ve never quite sympathized with those on the left who believe that cultural struggles are a “distraction” from the economic issues that “really matter”. Unlike the Marxists, I don’t understand culture as “epiphenomena”, deriving only from the material forces that shape our lives and history. Certainly, our material situation affects the course of our life, yet, so does the culture in which we find ourselves. Culture provides us a rough guide to how to live a meaningful life, and most of us will find that, in spite of our free will, numerous existential potentialities strike us either as realistic or off-limits due more to culture than our intrinsic nature.
The real problem with the culture war, then, is that the stakes are so low.*
Gun control? Liberals have mostly abandoned that impossible dream. Abortion laws? Nobody expects Roe V Wade to be overturned, nor should they. Controversial art? The art scene is the province of the super wealthy, effectively removing it from public discussion. Radical professors? Universities are already fazing out tenure, making academics, already some of the most boring people on earth, into timid functionaries. Gay rights? We’re one step away from enshrining them, ending the debate, and finally reducing the fluid vagaries of human sexuality to two boxes on a census form- the monosexuals won.
What’s left? Arguing about whether mall greeters should be made to say “Merry Christmas” or an Islamic center in New York shouldn’t move elsewhere in the interest of sensitivity. There’s same sex marriage, but again the question seems to be whether or not society as a whole will accept one subset of adult middle class couples. Between the right’s hurt feelings about elite condescension and the left’s yearning for widespread tolerance and celebration of diversity, one would think Americans are united in that insipid bourgeois dream of being liked by people that one doesn’t know. To dream the uninteresting dream…
None of these things is a debate about the terms of existence as much as the sorts of trivialities insecure suburbanites worry about. People say that the battles of the culture wars are symbolic of “larger struggles”, and really the largest struggle here is the fight against the collapse of cultural meaning as the last embers of a once dynamic society sizzle out and the inky night triumphs. It’s hard not to feel that there is no space of radical possibility- political or divine- remaining. Another world is no longer possible.
I mean think about it. In terms of love, Americans went from a radical discussion of potential relationships- saving patriarchy or doing away with it, whether open marriages or monogamous ones are more in keeping with our nature, whether divorce is liberating or purely destructive, if free love is even possible- to a tacit siding with conventionality and an argument about whether gays can call their square relationships “marriage” without hurting anyone’s feelings. In terms of faith, we went from an important discussion about the role of the divine within modernity- do we lose some aspect of our humanity within secularism, does a godless universe remove the possibility of free will, is a wealthy nation with no space for spirituality ultimately empty, and has God lost interest in us- to a debate about how not to hurt the feelings of knee-jerk Christians without hurting the feelings of knee-jerk atheists. In terms of labor, we now discuss whether avoiding Wal-Mart is solidarity or snobbery. As for the environment, we choose to shop at Green Incorporated. Feminism, once radical, now does little more than maintain the abortion status quo. Racial debates now involve “visibility” on television shows. It’s not that these things don’t matter. But none of this poses any questions how you, or I, live our lives. All of these debates are about whether our own particular version of the status quo will be flattered or not. It’s hard to be passionate about matters of decorum.
The mythos about the sixties culture wars is that they resulted inevitably from the conformist fifties culture, and yet it’s hard to see Eisenhower’s America as any more conformist than Obama’s. It’s hard to imagine that the generation that embraced television was somehow more stultified or less inspired than that which embraced the Internet. As then, the truly important questions are inappropriate for mixed company. To each his own “lifestyle”.
The problem with the culture wars is that they distract from the culture wars we could be having.
*[Postscript: Jason, I think, nailed what’s been bothering me about this post since I wrote it. Clearly, I’m talking about the objectives and aims of each side in the culture war; and instead expressing that as “the stakes are so low”, which is pretty glib. So, okay, what I’m trying to say here is more that the goals of each side are entirely too limited- more “aim higher” than “don’t worry about it”, if that makes sense. Since both sides already hate each other, I’d rather both the left and the right were more radical. Call into question the accepted terms of our collective existence. Prove that another world is possible. Really épater la bourgeoisie, which seems inevitable anyway, instead of behaving as if we’re all isolated and monadic pockets of identity.]