The Culture War explained
Thesis on the Culture Wars
Disputes informed by contrasting cultural values have a long history. However, as I note elsewhere it was during that 1950s that the unravelling of the prevailing political consensus in Western societies begun to open up the realm of values, lifestyle and personal life to conflicts that were hitherto conducted through the language of politics.These disputes, which were motivated by competing claims to moral authority initially assumed the polarised form of a clash between traditional and moral values. In the 1960s these conflicts were further politicised and gained definition through the growth of the Counter-Culture and the backlash that it precipitated by their traditionalist and conservative opponents.
At the time the main battlefield was the pre-political domain of private life. But throughout the 1970s disputes regarding family values, sexuality, inter-personal relations expanded and began to touch on attitudes to consumption and the environment. The politicisation of these values contained a powerful imperative towards intensifying the conflicts surrounding them. Because such conflicts touch on the fundamental principles that guide people’s conduct in their everyday life they have the potential to engage and mobilise people’s emotions. As Francis Fukuyama noted ‘conflicts over “values” are potentially much more deadly than conflicts over material possessions or wealth’It is always possible to come to a sensible compromise over the way that material resources are divided up or the way that political offices are distributed. Values express a person’s identity and beliefs to the point that if they are not affirmed an individual may experience it as a slight on their persona or as an existential crisis. That is why conflicts involving religion, value or moral claims are rarely resolved through compromise.
One of the first important study to draw attention to the significance of what would turn into the contemporary Culture Wars was Gabriel Kolko’s 1968 study The Politics of War. In this text he drew attention to what he perceived as the cultural realignment of public life in the United States. According to Kolko this ‘realignment in America’s public culture’ represented ’allegiances to different formulations and sources of moral authority’. He claimed that these contrasting sentiments were expressed through the 'institutionalization and politicization of two fundamentally different cultural systems’. Kolko pointed out that the battleground for the conduct of this conflict was now the pre-political domain of private life. And he warned that this conflict was not susceptible to the usual formulae of compromise because ‘each side of the cultural divide operate with a different conception of the sacred’ and the mere existence of the one represents a certain desecration of the other’.
By 1970 it was evident that traditionalist conservative opposition to the cultural transformation of the United States had more or less become a lost cause. Opponents of the 1960s counter-culture lacked the self-belief and the intellectual resources to effectively challenge their foes. A memo from Daniel Moynihan to President Richard Nixon in 1970 summed up the prevailing state of affairs. It stated
‘No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America’
Having taken over America’s media and institutions of culture, it was only a matter of time before what would be eventually called woke culture gained ascendancy
The introduction of cultural conflict into American politics occurred some time before it gained importance in other societies. But even in the 1970s it was evident that conflicts over culture would play an increasingly significant role in other societies. In Britain the tension between modernisers and traditionalists always lurked in the background. Samuel Beer’s study of this conflict, Britain Against Itself had as its main theme the decline of civic culture and of deference. Beer was aware that in this battle between modernity and tradition the former had prevailed and he sensed that result of this technocratic turn would be the erosion of the British way of life.[iv]
In the literature on the Culture Wars the conflict was generally perceived as a split between orthodox and progressive view of morality. Divisions over issues that are considered moral dominate the Culture War, particularly in the United States. But the conflict is by no means confined to disputes about the family, sex, abortion or the role of religion. These are key issues for social conservatives and for movements that are hostile to the influence of traditional values in the private sphere. But the wider cultural critique of capitalism were directed at issues that transcend the private or pre-political sphere. It targeted consumerism, materialism, the work ethic, technocratic ethos and numerous Enlightenment values such as individual autonomy, free speech, rationality and progress.
The politicisation of culture was directly connected to the exhaustion of ideological alternatives. By the early 1980s and certainly by the end of the Cold War it was evident that the emotional energies that were hitherto invested in political in political ideologies were increasingly channelled into moral and cultural issues. At the time, Christopher Lasch pointed out that;
‘Long –established distinctions between left and right, liberalism and conservatism, revolutionary politics and reformists politics, progressives and reactionaries are breaking down in the face of new questions about technology, consumption, women’s rights, environmental decay, and nuclear armaments, questions to which no one has any ready-made answers. New issues give rise to new political configurations. So does the growing importance of cultural issues’. [my emphasis.
Since the early 1980s the trends identified by Lasch have- if anything intensified and today issues such multiculturalism, immigration, sexuality as well as life-style matters dominate public debate.
The politicisation of culture contains the potential for expressing conflicts and problems in a form that are difficult to resolve. Cultural norms and values define communities, their way of life and their members’ identity. These sentiments are internalised and become constitutive elements of who we are. Conflict over the family, sexuality and the conduct of intimate relationship has rendered cultural conflicts a dramatically personal character. The phrase ‘personal is political’ expressed the shift towards the contestation of values prevailing in the private sphere. Conflict in the private and pre-political sphere resembles that which pertains to wider society in one very important respect. In both spheres the absence of consensus about fundamental norms and values creates the foundation for conflicts and divisions. Moreover the privatised manner in which these conflicts are experienced means that in some cases they can acquire an intensely personal and emotional character.
One reason why it is difficult to capture the dynamic of the culture war is that this conflict rarely assumes an explicit and systematic character. Numerous studies insist claims about the polarisation of culture are exaggerated and some even go so far as to deny its very existence.Conservative denunciations of political correctness have been continually met with angry denial and the assertion that such charges represent the desperate attempt by backward looking fundamentalists to justify their prejudices.
Frequently, media commentators insist that there is no such thing as a free speech crisis or that Cancel Culture is a myth or that the culture war is an invention of groups of bitter, out of touch white reactionaries who fear the loss of their privilege.
The principal premise of culture war denialism is that campaigns against what it calls heteronormativity, whiteness, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, cultural appropriation are merely expressions of an aspiration for social justice. They claim that even though they are violently targeting long established cultural norms they are not fighting a culture war. Under the banner of social justice their crusade against western culture is promoted through words like inclusion and diversity. In contrast, people who seek to preserve the values of their community and resist the attempt by woke campaigners to gain control of language are accused of weaponising the Culture War. They contend that if it had not been for Brexit or the election of Donald Trump there would be no need to talk about a Culture War.
Culture War denialism expresses the aspiration to normalise and legitimise the crusade against the historical norms and practices associated with Enlightenment and Western Culture. At the same time Culture War Denialism aims to frame the attempt to defend the norms and customs of an enlightened modern democratic society as a dangerous threat to the well-being and identity of the individuals and groups who justly seek to overthrow it.
Nine Thesis on the Culture War
1. Today’s Culture War has evolved slowly, sometimes hesitatingly from the 1940s onwards. Its target were the settled cultural boundaries that distinguished people, nations, families, communities, religions, in fact anything that distinguished people from one another. It sought to distance people from their cultural affiliations and previous way of life. To this day it attempts to both deterritorialise people and detach them from their past.
2. Animosity against cultural boundaries acquired a quasi-ideological quality in the 1940s. Opponents of western culture and civilisation were particularly hostile to the nation, an institution they held responsible for two world wars. They looked to international institutions – global governance to solve the problems facing humanity. The most forceful and coherent doctrinal expression of this standpoint can be found in Karl Popper’s book; The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper along with a significant section of western cosmopolitans regarded closed societies – especially nations as a source of conflict and destruction. Today, the hostility towards boundaries is most strikingly expressed through the ideology of transgenderism, where the historical distinction between the two biological sexes is denounced and denied.
3. The idea of open society was directly contrasted to closed ones. From their perspective, a closed society was one that possessed, what they perceived as a tribalist mentality, one that excluded other people from a group. What was at issue was not simply nationality but any form of private and non-political bonds between people – religion, family and community. These bonds were decried on the grounds that they were discriminatory. From the standpoint of the ideology of openness even citizenship was portrayed as discriminatory. Citizenship violated the principle of openness on the grounds that it was not open to all and provided citizens with rights that were not available to all the people who inhabit the earth.
4. Cutting pre-political bonds between generations and members of a so-called closed community was seen as the pre-requisite for the rise of a modern person. For Popper this modern individual was what he called an abstract person – someone detached from previous generations and other people as well as from the past.
5. In reality a human being cannot exist entirely as an abstraction. They need to possess an identity of their self and indeed for that reason become peculiarly concerned with their personal identity. So the ideology of openness and the detachment of people from their closed and so-called tribalist existence created an unprecedented demand for identity. The subsequent explosion of new identities from the 1960s onwards has seamlessly led to its politicisation. Inventing new identities or rendering previously unimportant identities relevant politically is one of the accomplishments of the imperative of openness.
6. Since the 1940s it has taken the socialisation of 4-5 generations into the values associated with the counter-culture to become ascendant. In recent years the terrain of the culture wars – which was for long confined to educational and cultural institutions – has expanded to the private sector. The ease with which companies and other private institutions have internalised formerly counter cultural norms shows that there are very few obstacles that stand in the way of the triumph of this ideology. The speed with which the war against the legacy of western culture has accelerated in recent years, illustrates this point.
7 It is only now that this ideology has finally acquired a recognisable form and a provisional name: Cancel Culture. We have had to wait around 80 years for this – in many ways confusing – term to emerge-. However, unlike the previous terms – counter-culture, adversarial culture – it draws attention to both its corrosive influence and its hegemonic role. Those in charge of Cancelling are not the contemporary equivalent of 1960s hippies and students radicals, they are the elites that run many of the key institutions of society.
One reason why a term like Cancel Culture could finally emerge is because in recent time the ideology that underpins it has become more explicit and clear about its objectives. For example, the 1619 project of The New York Times constitutes an ambitious programme of de-legitimating the so-called American Way of Life. It does not merely demand the change of a name of a pronoun but of how we think of a nation and its history. Through waging a war against the legacy of the founding of America and more widely of the legacy of human civilisation, opposition to western culture has acquired am unprecedented systematic ideological form.
8. Even now there is a reluctance to take the Culture War seriously. Supporters of Cancel Culture insist that they are not fighting a culture war. Like the Germans who when they invaded Poland argued that it was the Polish who started the conflict, advocates of woke ideology point the finger of blame at their opponents. They accuse their opponents of stoking up the fire of the Culture War and present themselves as the innocent victims of malicious right-wing culture warriors.
9, Despite their hegemonic status, proponents of the ideology are far from confident or secure. They do not understand why millions of people want to hold unto their cultural traditions and reject their globalist vision of an open world. The rise of populism in recent year has unnerved them, which is why they have stepped up efforts to cancel their opponents. They are determined to prevent a repetition of a setback like Brexit and as far as they are concerned the Culture War is only beginning.
Unfortunately, their determination to press on is not matched by those who oppose Cancel Culture. Typically their reaction to Cancel Culture is defensive and often assumes the form of after-event complaints. Whining about being cancelled only highlights the impotence of the targets of cancel culture. It is necessary not simply to respond and fight back but to take the initiative and go on the offensive. What is at stake in the intellectual and cultural legacy of human civilisation. Surely defending this precious legacy is well worth fighting for?
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See F. Furedi (2004) First World War – Still No End In Sight, Bloomsbury, p.161.
Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History And the Last Man, The Free Press : New York. p.214.
Kolko, G. (1968) The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy 1943-1945, (Vintage Books : New York).pp. 118,128, 131.
Lasch, C. (1984) The Minimal Self; Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, (W.W.Norton & Company : New York p.196.
Beer, Samuel (1982) Britain Against Itself: The Political Contradictions Of Collectivism, W.W. Norton & Company.