You may remember that Andrew O’Hehir took a bit of a drubbing over his “death of film culture” screed last month, especially because of the undisguised elitism permeating it. This last weekend, he wrote a sterling post reflecting upon, in part, that elitism and the cultural divide it perpetuates in the United States. But he goes even beyond that, assessing (pretty accurately, I think) that the so-called “culture war” is something that is being waged almost subconsciously; that the dynamics informing the ebb and flow of one side or the other’s cultural dominance has deep, deep roots, and that most people are not necessarily aware of it, especially when doing things like voting for political candidates.
But the American division is not essentially about partisan politics or ideological labels, and it can only sometimes be reduced to questions of economic policy. It is sometimes but not always about racial resentment, sometimes but not always about the contested public role of Christianity, and often but not always about big words that are inherently squashy and subjective, like “patriotism” and “freedom.” One of the key concepts, to my mind, is what sociologists call the loss of “relative privilege.” Many white men perceive, correctly, that they have lost social status relative to women and minorities, especially when they compare themselves to their fathers and grandfathers, who benefited from white supremacy and male supremacy (whether or not they personally held racist or sexist views). But is that really the central issue or just the one that my own cultural and educational backgrounds point me toward? We have to be careful about forming conclusions when the evidence is so deeply buried.
There appear to be two aims of this post. One is to warn liberals not to get too cocky, lest the the right wing ambush them; the other is to take seriously the thought that perhaps this cultural divide is better discussed openly and thoughtfully rather than fought over. I’ll take it a step further. O’Hehir doesn’t really endorse a binary division, per se, but it’s convenient to talk about the divide in such terms. I am not chiding him for doing so, because it wasn’t really the point of his post, but I’d like to make it explicit that there must be more than two sides to this culture war, and that’s part of what makes it so confusing and troublesome: it’s a war with multiple groups and multiple fronts that keeps getting commandeered by the two biggest armies. When discrete groups with their own interests are pressganged into fighting for a side that isn’t really theirs, ideological confusion is sure to take root. The entire discourse basically hinges upon a binary construct, yet as Jubilare recently ranted, it’s not actually a dichotomy. Framing it as such only cracks the frame and skews the debate.
The other important aspect to consider is the fact that this cultural divide is framed as a war. Wars have winners and losers, and wars are usually won by aggression and martial superiority. In many ways, it’s an apt term. Competition is a fact of nature; it’s everywhere, it guides the evolution of species, it’s built into our DNA. We can’t ignore it or excise it, even though we wish we could. War is the nightmarish, logical extreme of this natural impulse. But it isn’t the only outlet for it. I do believe that we can work around the exigency of war by other means, if a majority of people are committed to it — both literally and metaphorically.
The day after the election, I was disgusted with the bitterness and intransigence on display by partisans. Earlier this year, I ruminated on what it means to be conservative and the ways in which Americans of various political persuasions relate to each other. I ended by suggesting that we acknowledge that, divided as it is, our culture is still our culture; we share it, and by that virtue we are still fellow Americans. We needn’t behave as it this were a second Civil War. One of the responses I got was from another self-identified conservative who had this to say:
America certainly has a recognizable culture and that is what the Liberals – and some who call themselves Conservatives – are, amongst other things, assailing. Their’s is an attempt to remake the nation into something unrecognizable.
Hence, this is not a game. It is a war, though one that has not reached the point of large scale violence as of yet.
And no, insofar as I can see the Liberals are not part of American culture since they’re deliberately and willfully antagonistic too it more often than not.
But then I’m one of those who you describe as a hateful, hostile warriors that will rip the throat out of anyone in my way. That’s because I take this serious, not as some useless competition where you meet your enemy for a friendly dinner, though I’ll certainly drink a beer standing on their grave – then piss on it.
I found this response to be both disappointing and disturbing, but not very surprising. My attempt to engage fruitfully with the commenter was a bust, unfortunately. But it shook me up a bit. I read plenty of blogs from across the ideological spectrum that espouse attitudes similar to this. They anger me, but they don’t shock me. They mostly preach to the choir or vent hateful prejudices that are unlikely ever to be overcome. They aren’t specifically directed at people who are likely to engage them in any meaningful way. What upset me about the comments on my blog was that they were a direct response to me and to what I had said. And the comments weren’t simply insulting; they conveyed an explicit hatred toward others and a profound refusal to consider a more productive — dare I say “Christian”? — dialogue. What’s worse, they came from someone who ostensibly hails from “my side” (even though it’s obvious that he considers me to be a “fake” conservative).
The problem is that I didn’t ask for everyone to alter their beliefs or aims; I didn’t suggest that this wasn’t some sort of competition. I didn’t even debase myself by suggesting that “we’re all winners” or somesuch cockamamie thing. Instead, I simply suggested that this competition not be regarded as a war. Then I got that response.
Obviously, not everyone agrees with that view. But it’s fairly prevalent. I have talked to both Romney and Obama supporters who have said in no uncertain terms that they expected their opponents’ champion to bring the vengeance of the gods down upon them and to destroy America. I can’t even say that these people are stupid. Most of them may be, but I know plenty of them that I consider to be intelligent, reasonably well-informed adults — and they still felt this way. Is it any wonder that they treat this as a war?
There are a couple of reasons I wanted to highlight O’Hehir’s post. First, to commend it for being mature, for apparently seeking a constructive dialogue on culture. I don’t know that he would be interested in bridging the divide, but perhaps substituting the slings and arrows on each side of the chasm with bullhorns and semaphores. Second, because I think he’s right about the deep roots of the cultural divide — however you want to define it. If I’m right in that there aren’t just two sides, and if O’Hehir is right in that nobody is really aware of how deep the trench goes, then this is a war in which nobody actually knows which side they’re on, who they’re fighting, or why. In a way, George Orwell’s prediction of perpetual war in 1984 has come to fruition; just as his book was an allegory, so is his war. Instead of literal battle, it’s metaphorical. But it’s total and unceasing. As a culture, the only thing bridging the divide seems to be the acceptance of the terms of total war. By allowing war to frame the cultural debate, there’s only one peaceful solution tolerable to any side. Our culture has adopted an ideology that demands unconditional surrender. As history shows, the cost of those terms is horrendous. At the moment, it is my belief that nobody truly understands what terms of unconditional surrender would mean for the conquered or the conquerors. Maybe there are some of us willing to tear the throat out of our opponents, carpet bomb Berlin, or drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — metaphorically speaking, of course. You know who you are. What you need to understand is that, metaphorically speaking, you are behaving like war criminals.
Framing cultural differences in terms of war does not lead to a unified culture; it does not lead to progress; it does not lead to a lasting peace. It does not bridge a divide; it fills it with spent uranium, then forces the defeated to walk across in bare feet. To me, this is untenable. I don’t want to pretend that I don’t have these warlike impulses. I do, and they sicken me. I challenge them in my culture because I wrestle with them in myself. At the core of who I am is a struggle not to be the kind of person who delights in warfare, but the kind of person who disdains it. Some days — maybe most — I fail to be the latter. I’m a war criminal, too.
I don’t say this because I think everyone should simply emulate me or necessarily share my subjectivity. I say this to illustrate that I understand struggling with the kind of choices we must make culturally in order to be a better people. What I can’t do is hate myself, just because a large part of me is something antithetical to my values; if I believe that I have been forgiven out of love, then my struggle within myself must be done on those terms. Culturally, the same applies. Instead of building cultural struggle on unconditional surrender, perhaps it might be based on unconditional love. Loving someone does not preclude them from being wrong; it doesn’t preclude challenging or wrestling them. It does require not going for the kill, and it does require accepting them in cultural fellowship. I’m not sure if this frame is any better than the one currently dominating our discourse, but it’s one that I would find much easier to live with, and I’m glad that there appear to be others out there who feel the same way. ☕