Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Shifting Culture War

Not that long ago, when one spoke of an American "culture war," one was often referring primarily to conflicts connected with religious and moral issues (mostly sex and gender-related). Such conflicts certainly still exist, of course, and still energize zealous combatants on both sides. But there seems to be a growing consensus that one side has largely won if not the whole war than most of the major battles. Meanwhile, the energy and zealotry associated with "culture war" conflict has shifted from its previously predominant preoccupation with religious and moral matters to intensified fights over national and group identities and the primordial and perennial American conflict about race.

Notwithstanding the Alabama electoral win of a candidate who is ostentatiously pro-10 Commandments, the leading culture warriors on the right now - the President himself and his sometime advisor and theoretician of disruption, Steve Bannon - seem to be people with starkly different priorities from the previously contested religious and moral divisions. (Regarding the rise of the "post-religious right," see, for example, Damon Linker, "The Dangers of the Great American Unchurching," The Week, September 8, 2017 -

For example, the ongoing fracas about standing or not standing for the National Anthem at NFL games - an emotionally charged issue which the Vice President highlighted by showing up at a game in his home state in order to walk out of it - is obviously not about the primarily sex and gender-related moral and cultural issues traditionally associated with the "culture war." Rather (as the Vice President's stunt suggested), it has become a symbolic struggle between two different American identities and their use of shared national symbols, like the National Anthem, by both sides, not to unify the nation but to signify those different identities and so separate one identity group from the other. 

Given the makeup of the NFL and the original (now almost forgotten) issue that motivated the initial National Anthem protests, the dispute also highlights our continuing racial divide. That racial divide and the broader cultural divisions in our society about what kind of people we are or want to be are not identical, but neither are they unconnected. It was not completely accidental that the current fever on the political right was in part ignited by the traumatic experience of the election in 2008 of a non-white President and that the present President rose to prominence in part largely thanks to his claim that the non-white President was constitutionally illegitimate.

Competing claims to exclusive ownership of the National Anthem, competing visions of the society which that anthem should celebrate, and, above all, the repetitive focus of each side on a politics of  group identities rooted in grievance and articulated in ever increasing anger  are the conflicted terrain of today's and tomorrow's shifting "culture war," in which less and less prominence will likely be given to previously salient religious and moral controversies.

No comments:

Post a Comment