On Defending the Status Quo Against the Culture Warriors
Advance apologies for the length of this comment. But I’m genuinely puzzled by this post by Rufus on a number of levels. For starters, I find the basic assumption doesn’t match my own lived experience.
Rufus wrote: 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 a female who was a child of the 50s in the Heart-of-America (TM), I can assure you that, by comparison with Eisenhower’s America, Obama’s America is in a different universe when it comes to conformity. That’s not to say that today’s Americans, who may pride themselves on their non-conformity, may not actually be super-conformists to the fashions and mores of their preferred sub-cultures. But the sheer number of lifestyles and sub-cultures available to both (all?) sexes and all age, racial, ethnic and religious groups to pick-and-choose from, and adopt with mix-and-match ecleticism, would have been both astonishing and, perhaps more important, terrifying to a large portion of American adults in the 1950s.
Rufus continues: As then, the truly important questions are inappropriate for mixed company. To each his own “lifestyle”.
But that’s the point about the Culture Wars. It wasn’t like that, “as then,” in a mythical Golden Age. The reason why politics, religion and sex weren’t appropriate topics for “mixed company” [please note btw the imposition of gender-conformity in the very term “mixed company”] wasn’t that the topics might produce disagreement that exposed fissures in the cultural consensus or body politic. It’s that the subjects might produce some social embarassment, threaten surface social conformity.
For the Right, it’s definitely not and never was “to each his own ‘lifestyle’.” In the Golden Age of the 50s, choosing a personal “lifestyle” wasn’t an option on the menu except for insignificantly small and ostentatiously different groups. “Beatniks” or bohemians or jazzmen might have out-sized influence in fields like literature or performing arts, but their influence derived, in part, from their very status as outsiders or aliens.
The initial politico-cultural explosions in the 60s were from groups who had been forced to be invisible as real, distinctive human beings to the community at large, most notably African-Americans and women. The other more generation-based explosion was from a sizeable portion of us damned boomers who asked why in the world we should trust the same “very serious competent adults” who had gotten the US into a bunch of messes (not exclusively Vietnam) to get us out of those messes. What these disparate and sometimes overlapping groups had in common was being tired of being “stultifed”. So they got “inspired” in various ways to do something about it. To assert themselves. To insist that they weren’t invisible and had aspirations and talents and, yes, moral responsibility every bit as valuable as the dominant culture’s.
It was in response to those self-assertive manifestations by the marginalized and invisible that the US saw the hyper-politicization of the Culture Wars, which seems to get reinvigorated and further radicalized on the Right as the mythical Golden Age recedes further and further into the mists of (mis)memory. In a decade of assassinations, riots, an unpopular and bloody quagmire of a war, successful challenges to entrenched political elites, major economic dislocations, and a sexual revolution, the GOP exploited the economic fears, military embarassments, cultural anxieties, andressentiment of the culturally conservative and the less-well-off of the nationalistic white majority by explicitly defining those who didn’t go along with the dominant culture as unAmerican — first with Agnew’s Silent Majority and then Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which was further legitimized and validated by Saint Ronaldus Magnus.
For most of my professional life I’ve been a pretty button-downed corporate lawyer and banker-type with a non-confrontational lifestyle. My political, economic and foreign policy preferences would probably put me somewhere on the moderate center-right of any European political system. My closest relatives, who share many of my opinions, have made military careers which I honor and respect. Yet, thanks to the Culture Wars, for my entire adult life, my opinions and choices have, in the eyes of the American Right, made me a Dirty F**ing Hippie. An enemy of the people. UnAmerican.
And believe you me, no matter how idiotic and tedious ideological fantasies like the War on Christmas and Liberal Fascism and Feminazis and “the blame America first crowd” may be, it’s psychologically wearing to be on the receiving end of all that non-stop hate-mongering. The Culture Warriors have been “catapulting the propaganda” for more than four decades.Their agitprop has finally so intimidated the so-called “liberal media” that the MSM has turned into the Movement’s favored distribution channel (see,”enhanced interrogations”, GWOT, Ground Zero Mosque, Breibart/O’Keefe). And the “respectable” leaders of the GOP deliberately, and with malice aforethought, egg on the insanity by sending out a non-stop stream of dog-whistles heard clearly only by the Culture Warriors and their targets — a technique, btw, of which Reagan was a master. The only difference since Obama was elected is that the GOP “leaders” are now so obsessed with regaining power, and their “base” has gone so bonkers, that they don’t have the decency to bother with dogwhistles.
So Ross Douhat should be just a tad more understanding as to why the Performance Artist Known As Christine O’Donnell has been embraced with such glee by so many of her would-be targets.
Rufus acknowledged to @ThatPirateGuy that: Yeah, it’s more reactionary than conservative, isn’t it? Maybe the right is simply more radical now and the left is forced to defend the status quo.
As trite as it sounds today, the Beatles and Martin Luther King and Woodstock Nation won, on the ground, not just in legal ways, but through countless changes in cultural expectations and behavior. And the Right has been fighting an increasingly hysterical rear-guard action, becoming increasingly reactionary as there’s less and less of the (mythical) Golden Age left to conserve.
I strongly agree with ThatPirateGuy that the status quo needs and deserves ongoing defense from the Culture Warriors. The “status quo” sounds so lame. But it is in so many positive ways different from the pre-Culture Wars era.
There’s always some bad that comes with the good, and we’ve been doing a lot of “digesting” those enormous changes — coming to terms with, and adjusting our expectations and behavior to those more-positive-than-not cultural earthquakes. But the achievements that the status quo represents deserve our virgorous defense. And we need to keep moving forward so that we include as recognized and valued members of our community more of those who are still excluded — the folks, like our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, whose humanity the Culture Warriors want to deny and who, they insist, must remain invisible if the excluded want to avoid being shunned and persecuted.
I have what I believe are modest goals when it comes to defending the status quo against the Culture Warriors. I don’t care what church they do or don’t go to, whether they believe the tenets of their religion, or whether their behavior comports with those tenets. I don’t care whether they think it’s important to say Merry Christmas or say grace at meals. But nor do I think certain religious beliefs or behavior should be a political test, or that anyone should be persecuted or socially shunned for not wanting to “get with the program”.
I don’t care whether their daughters get knocked up when they don’t know about or use contraception, although I do believe the same daughters should have a legally available choice as to whether to bear a child. I certainly don’t care whether their kids take chastity vows that include masturbation on theverboten list. But I also don’t believe information about reproduction and health should be denied to those who don’t share the Culture Warriors’ belief systems. Nor should they be permitted to impose their notions of sexuality (moral and cultural) on others (especially not with taxpayer dollars). I don’t care what they think personally about IVF, but I do believe it should be an available reproductive method, and that embryos which (like a large portion of those implanted naturally in wombs) are going to be rejected at an early stage should be made available for scientific research which could eventually improve the length and quality of life of millions of people for centuries to come. I don’t care if they personally reject divorce as a mortal sin, but I also believe that more flexible divorce laws have made countless parents and children healthier and happier and more secure and have reduced the incidence of domestic violence.
I don’t care whether their sons get stoned on alcohol or drugs, although I do believe that if we continue to pursue the insanity known as the War on Drugs that there shouldn’t be one set of punishments for “good kids” from the suburbs and another for kids from the inner cities. I don’t care whether they insist on teaching their kids at home, though I do think that there are such things as facts about history that should be relatively immune from theological dispute about their facticity (if not their meaning), and that there are certain things that all kids should be required to be at least exposed to in good faith, like the scientific method, and creationism or “intelligent design” doesn’t count. I don’t care if they stuff their faces with processed junk food or they eat only home-grown fruits and vegetables, but I do care that the enormous taxpayer-financed subsidies we pour into our agro-industrial system make healthy eating much more expensive than consuming the foods that are contributing to an apparent epidemic of obesity.
In fact, I truly don’t care whether in their heart-of-hearts they love all God’s children or whether they are scared of young black men, resent uppity working women, guard their houses against invading Mexican assassins, think the government’s going to confiscate their guns, are convinced that the Muslims are about to impose Sharia, or find the very thought of gay men disgusting. Just as long as they don’t engage in violent, discriminatory or abusive practices (and I’m not talking “hate crimes” legislation which I find more pernicious than not).
I encourage the Culture Warriors to openly and proudly express their beliefs and prejudices on their favorite cable channels. And I don’t think they’re unAmerican for doing so, though I would obviously prefer they not confuse their beliefs, prejudices and fantasies with facts. But they should have the simple grace to recognize that I and my ilk are also Real Americans, and it’s just as legitimate for our side to win elections and exercise political power as for their side. That’s why we call it a free country, after all.
In short, I freely admit I’m biased against Culture Warriors and hope their influence in the public sphere will lessen over time as our society more fully accommodates itself to the huge cultural changes it’s experienced over the past 50 years. I also admit that my defense of the status quo would leave them in a society that has features that make them extremely uncomfortable if not out-and-out fearful. But you know what? They have for decades made, and continue to make me extremely uncomfortable. But I’m not trying to interfere with or delegitimize the exercise of any lawfully acquired political authority by their preferred candidates. Nor do I have any desire to outlaw or demonize their private behavior. Unlike them, I don’t have a political agenda that would impose my cultural preferences on their personal lives or deny them the opporutnities to flourish personally according to their own values and standards. So all I require is that their own prejudices not be used to justify limiting the political and economic opportunities of people in groups they find anxiety-producing or foreclosing lifestyle choices of which they don’t approve.
Rufus continued: And [defending the status quo] is certainly a valid goal. I just think that the status quo ain’t that great, so moving the goalposts wouldn’t be so bad.
Here’s where I am well-and-truly lost. “Moving the goalposts” to where? In what direction? For what end? To épater la bourgeoisie? Why?
I want to defend and make more inclusive the bourgeoisie, in part because I’ve seen up-close societies around the world where bourgeois virtues aren’t embraced. The bourgeoisie and their virtues are under assault from multiple sources on the Right. Culture Warrior ressentiment, and know-nothingism, and smug self-righteousness aren’t bourgeois virtues. But neither are the values of the Masters of the Universe whose arrogance almost blew up the global economy and has produced untolled misery for not only the poor but the bourgeoisie. Nor are the values of the narcissistic Randians, who disdain anything so déclassé as the bourgeoisie. Nor are the values of a Supreme Court that thinks that corporations have “human rights” that trump the interests of citizens in the communal health of their representative bourgeois democracy.
That’s what’s so ironic about the Culture Warrior non-stop assault on the DFHs. For the great majority of us — even the bloody post-modernists and post-structuralists and post-Marxists and post-colonialists and post-whatevers who are banished to the part of the political spectrum misnamed “the Far Left” — it’s actually those old bourgeois virtues that are quietly (and often unconsciously) embraced. Because as Adam Smith pointed out in hisTheory of Moral Sentiments, it’s those virtues that make it possible to rub along together in an uncertain, complex, disagreeable and competitive world, with a modicum of civility, integrity, mutual respect, cooperation and justice. I just want to make the opportunities to participate in such a public sphere available to more of our fellow citizens in ways that allow them to flourish. That’s, in case you haven’t noticed, precisely the core of the case in favor of gay marriage. And that seems to scare the living beejezus out of the Right’s Culture Warriors.
Sorry to produce such a monstrously long rant. But I’m really taken aback by Rufus’ strange note of apparent nostalgia, though nostalgia for what I’m unclear. And I’m wondering what I’m missing, or whether there’s an age-gender-culture gap here of which I’m totally ignorant. Our current “post-whatevers” era is, I agree, singularly uninspiring in terms of a new project to remake the world, whereas the past few years have certainly shown our system of globalized sort-of-liberal sort-of-capitalism to have some severe flaws and our elites to have feet of clay. In lieu of a new world-making project, defending the bourgeois virtues may not seem as romantic or “inspirational” as manning the barricades in an “authentic” high-stakes culture war. But it seems to me it’s where the real work remains to be done and where I think the goalposts belong.