Confessions Of A Reluctant Culture Warrior
Robert Tracinski
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I’ve recently been working on a review of the top stories of 2014, which gives me a chance to look back at everything I’ve written and get a sense of what was really important this year, and also of how good a job I did of responding to those big stories.

What surprised me this year was seeing what took one of the top spots—right in there between the ugly return of racial politics and the rise of the Islamic State (amidst the collapse of President Obama’s foreign policy). It was: the “culture wars,” the running battles over issues like abortion, religious freedom, and radical feminism.

For most of my career as a writer, I have been reluctant to join in the “culture wars,” mostly because I don’t fit into either of the two opposing camps. As an atheist, I’m not longing for a return to traditional religious morality, but as an individualist, I’ve never supported the weird victim-group crusades of the left.

I have mostly dedicated myself to making the case for smaller government, pointing out the failure of the welfare state, and keeping the environmentalists from shutting down industrial civilization—little things like that. Oh, and also war—not the “culture war,” but war war, the kind where people are actually trying to kill us.

So for the most part, my position on an issue like gay marriage could be summed up as: “Can we please talk about something else now?”

Partly, this comes from my small-government outlook, which holds that some things—indeed, most things, and virtually all of the really important things—should be outside the realm of politics. That definitely includes other people’s sex lives, about which I would like to know a good deal less than is fashionable at the moment.

But this year, I discovered that while I might not be interested in the culture war, the culture war is interested in me. It’s interested in all of us.

This is the year when we were served noticed that we won’t be allowed to stand on the sidelines, because we will not be allowed to think differently from the left.

How did we find this out? First, they came for the Christians, in legal cases meant to force conservative believers to provide funding for abortifacient contraceptives and to participate in gay marriage ceremonies.

I laid out the argument for why an atheist would fight to the death for the religious freedom of Christians.

History shows that the only way to fight for freedom of thought is to defend it early, when it comes under threat for others—even people you strongly disagree with, even people you despise. So I’m willing to fight for it for people who are much worse, by my standards, than your average Christian.

It’s like the old poem from Pastor Niemoller, except this time it’s: “First they came for the Christians.” I don’t see the threat of coercion as something being done to those backward Christians over there. I see it as something that could just as easily be done to me.

And it will be, judging from the principles that have been laid down in the campaign against Arizona’s religious liberty law and in the Supreme Court hearings in the Hobby Lobby case.

In the one real comment I had been prevailed upon to make about gay marriage in the past—so long ago that I can’t even give you a Web link for it—I explained my ambivalence by citing my concern that the left was using the issue to secure the imprimatur of the state for homosexual relationships so they could then use anti-discrimination laws as a bludgeon against religious holdouts.

That is exactly what has happened this year with the launch of a new secular inquisition that would even require conservative Christian ministers to officiate gay weddings.

It may be hard to remember now, but not very long ago there were compromise proposals for same-sex “civil unions” that were legally equivalent to marriage but under a different name. Gay rights activists consciously rejected these unions in order to specifically demand the use of the term “marriage,” insisting that the state legally recognize and enforce the equality of these marriages with old-fashioned, outmoded heterosexual ones….

The theory behind gay marriage, in short, was the theory behind the entire secular left: society and the state are the all-powerful forces on which the life of the individual depends, and the most important political task—indeed, the most important task in life—is getting this irresistible power on your side. Once you gain social and political power, you hold on to it by making your preferred views mandatory, a catechism everyone must affirm, while suppressing all heretical views. In this case, to gain social acceptance of homosexuality, you make the affirmation of gay marriages mandatory while officially suppressing any dissenting religious views.

The basic problem with the left’s conception of freedom is that it doesn’t really have one.

The left’s operational concept of freedom is that you are allowed to do and say what you like—so long as you stay within a certain proscribed window of socially acceptable deviation. The purpose of the gay marriage campaign is simply to change the parameters of that window, extending it to include the gay, the queer, the transgendered—and to exclude anyone who thinks that homosexuality is a sin or who wants to preserve the traditional concept of marriage. Those people are declared outside the protection of the law and in fact will have the full weight of the law bear down upon them until they recant their socially unacceptable views.

The point is not whether you agree about which views are or should be socially acceptable. The point is that this is not a concept of freedom. It’s a regime of state-controlled ideas, softened by an amorphous zone of official tolerance.

That’s the only reason I’m interested in this controversy. My own stance on gay marriage can be summed as: “whatever.” I would feel no need to say anything about it, if not for the insistence on the part of gay marriage advocates that any dissenters must be forced to submit.

It turns out we were right to be concerned. This year saw the launch of a whole new wave of “political correctness,” heralded by a bizarre little incident known as “ShirtStorm.” This was the brief controversy over a British scientist who was harangued for his “misogyny” because he supervised the landing of a space probe on a comet—a huge scientific achievement—while wearing a shirt that was considered offensive to feminists.

I drew a few important lessons from this case, including the fact that “They’re not just going after the frat boys.”

To be targeted by accusations of misogyny, you don’t have to be a beer-chugging “bro” who spends his Spring break judging wet T-shirt contests. Now they’re coming after the geeks and yes, even the hipsters.

So first they came for the Christians, then they came for the geeks, then for the hipsters. Moreover, “The new orthodoxy is total.”

This is “political correctness” in its purest, original form: “the personal is the political.” There is no area of life where proper behavior and even esthetic taste cannot be dictated by political concerns. You need to be told what you can wear, what songs you can listen to, what video games you can play (which, so far as I can tell, is one of the issues in GamerGate), what you are allowed to say to a woman as she walks down the street (if you are allowed to say anything at all), and so on.

GamerGate, by the way, is one story I have not commented on this year, since I am not a “gamer” and haven’t been since the days when you downloaded “Doom” from a 3.5-inch floppy disc, so I’ve been looking in as an outsider, trying to get a handle on what’s going on in the subculture of video games. From what I’ve been able to piece together, GamerGate is a consumer revolt against game journalists and reviewers who keep trying to foist the agenda of “social justice warriors” onto their readers.

I suppose I had better familiarize myself with the finer points, because next up we have “MetalGate“—an attempt to domesticate Heavy Metal music under the politically correct yoke.

And they’re going after your kids, too, complaining about “gendered toys.” Which brings us to the crazy new frontier of modern feminism, including a prudish new code of sexual conduct for University of California campuses which seems “as if it were drafted by celibate monks,” as I wrote.

It all smacks of a prudish neo-Victorianism, in which sexual desire is viewed as suspect and dangerous—but with a modern feminist twist: male sexual desire is suspect and dangerous.

The Sexual Revolution has turned out to be a weird reverse image of Puritanism. The counterculture retained all the same basic premises—that sex is dirty, disgusting, a purely materialistic act with no psychological or spiritual meaning—except that they were for it. So they swept away the old-fashioned codes of chivalry, eliminated the role of the university as a chaperone in loco parentis, and created a campus culture of drunken one-night stands. Now they have discovered that this culture has a dangerous dark side, particularly for young women, and they’re scrambling to create a new, modernized system of prudery.

It’s not just me who has noticed the trend this year. Feminists are hailing this as “the year women got even,” which gives you a sense for the kind of power-play going on here.

If this was also the year that journalism was completely overtaken by the mania to preserve a “narrative” at the expense of the facts—most notoriously, in the University of Virginia rape hoax—feminism often provided the narrative they were trying to preserve.

So this was the year when we learned that we can’t sit out the “culture war,” because they’re bringing it to us, and every niggling little aspect of our lives will now be redesigned to make us more tractable.

But it’s also the year that I realized there is a good reason to jump into the culture war with both feet. The very thing that makes many of us reluctant to join the battle—the fact that we don’t fit in neatly with either side—is the reason we’re desperately needed.

In laying out the ideas that I would most like readers on the right to learn from Ayn Rand, I realized one of the most important items was “a third alternative in the culture wars.”

The biggest thing that prevents people from giving a fair reading to Ayn Rand’s books is the fact that she doesn’t cooperate with a lot of the standard categories we’re usually offered… Probably the most important category she defied is captured in the expression, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.” Which means: if there is no religious basis for morality, then everything is subjective.

The cultural left basically accepts this alternative and sides with subjectivism (when they’re not overcompensating by careening back toward their own neo-Puritan code of political correctness). Then the religious right responds by saying that the only way to stem the tide of “anything goes” is to return to that old time religion.

This leaves a lot of people looking for a third alternative. As an advocate of a secular morality, that’s precisely what Ayn Rand offered.

This is why I have focused a lot of effort specifically on trying to reclaim the cultural high ground of science, which has been thoroughly and undeservedly claimed by the left. Hence my contributions to The Federalist‘s campaign to expose Neil deGrasse Tyson, the shallow guru of fake geek culture who has a habit of playing fast and loose with the facts.

To talk loudly about fidelity to facts, while borrowing the journalists’ mantra of “fake but accurate,” sends the message that facts don’t really matter. What matters is the theater of being pro-evidence and pro-science and of looking down on your opponents as ignorant, anti-science dolts.

If Tyson seems bemused about criticism of his fabrications and doesn’t take it seriously, he’s telling us that he sees himself as a showman. We’re not supposed to ask whether the events he talks about are real, fictional, or embellished, we’re just supposed to enjoy the show.

It’s that crucial scientific principle of suspension of disbelief.

The goal here is to reclaim science and the code of rationality on behalf of freedom and individualism, which is the only true creed of the “geeks.”

Geeks—the real ones, not the hipster wannabes—have spent a lot of their lives marginalized and ignored. They don’t fit in. They like different things, they think and talk in different ways, they look at the world differently. And precisely because of this, they come up with new ideas that nobody else comes up with.

The eccentric inventor and offbeat thinker is one of the archetypes of American individualism. We’re outsiders, we don’t follow the usual rules, and we aim to misbehave. So why shouldn’t we be skeptical of a paternalistic state?

Many of us are, of course. Given my own interests, at least half of my friends with solid geek credentials are also Objectivists. After all, Atlas Shrugged is another book that appeals to intelligent young nonconformists. But we’re hoping for the day when the rest of our friends finally realize where they really belong.

This is why I’ve written far more about the culture war this year than I ever expected (and the excerpts above are just a sampling). It has become an urgent necessity to push back against the resurgence of totalizing political correctness, to carve out room for the freedom to disagree—and to lay down the outlines of what a third alternative in the culture war looks like.

Because after 2014, nobody gets to sit this one out.

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