Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Culture War 4.0

There's an excellent essay at The Federalist on the current state of the struggle on the part of progressives to "fundamentally transform" the culture and on the part of conservatives to try to preserve some vestiges of what it once was. Benjamin Domenech and Robert Tracinski offer an optimistic view of what they call the "culture war" and suggest that the pendulum of popular opinion is even now swinging back toward the side of sanity.

Well, perhaps. Here's their lede:
For those Americans who hoped the culture wars would finally end, the month of June reminded us they’re just getting started. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s resolution of the battle over same-sex marriage—the triumph of a generation of gay-rights activists—some were already calling for further steps to take tax exemptions away from churches, use anti-discrimination laws to target religious non-profits, and crack down on religious schools’ access to voucher programs.

We learned media entities would no longer publish the views of those opposed to gay marriage or treat it as an issue with two sides, and the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would no longer support bipartisan religious-freedom measures it once backed wholeheartedly. A reality TV star pushed the transgender rights movement into the center of the national dialogue even as Barack Obama’s administration used its interpretation of Title IX to push its genderless bathroom policies into public schools. And we learned that pulling Confederate merchandise off the shelves isn’t enough to mitigate the racism of the past—we must bring down statues and street signs, too, destroying reminders of history now deemed inconvenient and unsafe.

On college campuses and in the workplace, across mass media and social media, for American celebrities and private citizens, every comment, act, or joke can make you the next target for a ritual of daily attack by outraged Twitter mobs. It is now an unavoidable fact of life that giving money to the wrong cause, making a “clumsy attempt at humor,” or taking the wrong side on a celebrity, religious debate, or magazine cover can lead to threats of violent death, end your career in an instant, or make you the most hated person in America for 15 minutes—longer if you bungle the apology.

Whether you care about the culture war or not, it cares about you. How did we get here?
What follows is a brief history of the various stages of the "culture war" over the last fifty years. It makes for very interesting reading, and for those who find the current state of affairs alarming, it offers hope that things will not remain as they are.

The piece concludes with the claim that having gone through three iterations of kulturekampf we are now entering culture war version 4.0 which augurs to be the most "bloody":
History teaches us two clear lessons about the ebb and flow of the Culture War: first, that whichever side believes it is winning will tend to overreach, pushing too far, too fast, and in the process alienating the public. The second is that the American people tend to oppose whoever they see as the aggressor in the Culture Wars — whoever they see as trying to intrusively impose their values on other people and bullying everyone who disagrees.

Notice how a triumphalist Left can go from reasonable to totalitarian in what seems like five minutes. Should we take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse? You will get a lot of Republicans to agree, including Gov. Nikki Haley. So the Left immediately demands that every last vestige of the Confederacy be wiped from history, from public sculptures to “Gone With the Wind” to educational Civil War games in iTunes. From now on, apparently, only re-educational games will be permitted. Or the Supreme Court mandates gay marriage and #lovewins—followed by an immediate hatefest, with people spitting on priests and demanding we revoke the tax exemption for churches.

If history repeats itself, it is good news for traditional Americans and bad news for the Left, which has taken on the role of Grand Inquisitor so rapidly that overnight civil liberties have become a Republican issue. Slowly but surely, the American Right is adopting the role of the cultural insurgent standing up for the freedom of the little guy. They crowdfund the pizza shop, baker, and photographer; they rebel against the establishment in the gaming media and at sci-fi conventions; they buy their chicken sandwiches in droves. The latest acronym that came out of the Sad Puppies movement says it all. They describe their opponents as CHORFs: cliquish, holier-than-thou, obnoxious, reactionary, fascists. This is their description of the cultural Left.

There is significant potential for a new, diverse coalition that responds to this overreach. The religious Right, libertarians, and even the moderate Left are already being drawn together by their refusal to be cowed into conformity by social justice warriors. The comedians who rebel against an audience that calls every joke racist or sexist, the professors who refuse to be cowed by the threat of Title IX lawsuits, the religious believers who fight for their right to practice their beliefs outside the pew represent a coalition that will reject the neo-Puritanism of the Counterculture, rebel against its speech codes and safe spaces, and reassert the right to speak one’s mind in the public square. Atheists and believers alike can unite in this belief—as we, the authors of this piece, have.
The authors have much more to say that's worth reading, and I commend the entire article to you. I have just a couple of thoughts. As I wrote to the friend who sent me this column I hope Domenech and Tracinski are right, but I wonder if the inertia of the left, the institutional resources at their disposal, and the low state of public character and awareness make it a bit difficult to be optimistic. Even if the left's hostility and aggressiveness were to become unpopular and subside for a while, the proper metaphor for our circumstance is not the pendulum but the ratchet. Every success by the left becomes permanent. There's no undoing it. So even if the next battle is deferred until a decade down the road traditionalists keep losing ground which they never get back and the turf they seek to defend keeps shrinking. We've gone from being a shining city on a hill to being Sodom and Gomorrah in the brief span of two generations.

In any case, I really don't like the term "culture war." It creates the misleading image of two sides locked in mortal conflict when in fact only one side is really waging war. The other side is simply trying to get the leftist aggressors to stop their assault on the traditions and institutions of this country.

What's actually happening is more like serial arson than warfare. The arsonist goes from institution to institution trying to burn them down, and conservatives are like people running out of the buildings shouting at them to put down their torches and gasoline cans and stop what they're doing. The left is lighting the fires and the right is running around with water buckets trying to put them out and this is called a "war"?

Perhaps, if ever the right produces leaders who refuse to be content to fight rear-guard battles, who refuse to accept the status quo established at every turn of the ratchet, who set about educating the American people about the need to actually reverse course, and who have the courage to lead the way, perhaps then there'll be a genuine "clash" of visions of what the culture should be, but to call what has been going on for the last fifty years or so a "culture war" is, in my view, to misunderstand the nature of what's been happening.