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? By so many measures, there has never been a better time to be anything other than a straight white male in America. Women are thriving in higher education and the workforce. The Supreme Court just declared gay Americans can now marry anyone they please. We have elected and re-elected the nation’s first black president, and there is a good chance he might be followed by the first female president. The polls indicate social liberalism and libertarianism is triumphant in every arena; even acceptance of polygamy has doubled in the past 15 years, according to Gallup.
How can it be that just as these big issues about how we live together have been settled fairly decisively, the culture war seems more vicious than ever?
Understanding why we are here requires understanding where we came from, and why Culture War 4.0 just might be the worst and most destructive stage of the conflict over culture, values, and the American public square.
Culture War 1.0
As with so many terrible things, it started with the Baby Boomers.
The first modern American culture war was initiated by the Left in the sixties. It was called the Counterculture, and consisted of a combination of two things: a promise of “liberation” from restrictions that seemed overly Puritanical and outmoded, combined with an ideological goal of the destruction of existing social institutions such as church, family, and capitalism.
The first aim had a broad appeal, promising freedom from blue-nosed moral scolds and a liberating revolution in human behavior. But the second was a more aggressive and provocative attack on institutions that had endured since before the country existed. By the late 1970s, the effects of the Counterculture were hitting with full force, and people didn’t like what they saw.
Culture War 2.0
That leads us to Culture War 2.0, which stretched through the 1980s and into the 1990s, when more conservative Boomers, including an expanding number of politically active evangelical Christians, banded together with the World War II generation to effectively reassert itself in directing American culture. The “silent majority” decided they were the Moral Majority, rallying around political movements to promote traditional values. Reagan Democrats partnered with Republicans to pursue a law-and-order agenda. Overwhelming bipartisan majorities passed religious freedom laws, which Bill Clinton dutifully signed. Political wives started a crusade against violent and sexually explicit television, movies, and popular music.
This was an era that saw Dee Snider of Twisted Sister taking on Al and Tipper Gore in Senate hearings. In it, you see the seeds of rebellion—at that stage a value invoked against conservative traditionalism. The video for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (one of the “Filthy Fifteen” songs Democrats and Republicans targeted) is all about a bunch of Counterculture freaks rebelling against traditional society, as represented by an overbearing father figure.
But the wheel turns, and today, on the basis of the lyrics alone, that song could probably be co-opted as a libertarianish populist anthem for whoever runs against Hillary Clinton.
Culture War 3.0
The iron law of the culture wars is that the public hates overreach—and each side will always overreach. Culture War 2.0 started to wind down with the Clinton impeachment, which was presented (fairly or not) as an intrusive inquisition into the personal sex life of the president, an indictment of something that, while tawdry, was no longer viewed as rendering a president unfit for office. The televangelists, many of whom had projected an image of being holier than thou before proving to be less holy than thou (remember Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and the rest) were in decline. Pair that with the infidelities of Republican leaders in Congress, and the country seemed to say: Who were they to judge Clinton for his actions—or the rest of us, for that matter?
Add one other big factor. The Counterculture kids from the 1960s and 70s were now ensconced in positions of power. They had taken over the universities in the 1990s and began to assert a campus culture of conformity on issues involving religion and sex. They had established themselves as the leaders in entertainment and popular culture. The nostalgic and implicitly conservative pop culture of the 1980s and 1990s, where villains were Nazis, Communists, feckless bureaucrats, and irresponsible reporters—gave way to influential depictions designed to press a change in social norms. 1998 brought Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but it also brought “Will & Grace” and a push for greater tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. The crusade for gay marriage—a key change in goals for the gay-rights movement—threw religious conservatives into a defensive posture, causing them to fight to maintain their mores as public policy via gay-marriage bans.
The 2004 effort to push state measures designed to stop gay marriage in tandem with George W. Bush’s re-election effort was a Pyrrhic victory, one which contributed to the Great Sort that eliminated the last of the Reagan Democrats. The efforts of religious leaders and traditionalists to win the argument at the ballot box won temporarily, but could not last in a country where they no longer controlled the culture or the courts, and where these non-traditional relationships were depicted as healthy and normal on a daily basis in mass media and social media. The eventual triumph of the Counterculture was ensured.
Culture War 4.0
Today we live in the early stages of that triumph, and as a small number of public intellectuals and media commentators predicted, it is a bloody triumph indeed. Culture War 4.0 brings the Counterculture full circle: now they have become the blue-nosed, Puritanical establishment. Once they began to achieve their goals and saw the culture moving their way, they moved from making a plea for tolerance and freedom to demanding persecution of anyone who dissents against the new orthodoxy in even the smallest way.
In just the past two years, the Counterculture’s neo-Puritanical reign has made things political that were never thought to be: Shirtstorms and Gamergate, Chik-fil-A and Brandon Eich, Indiana and Sad Puppies, and don’t you dare say Caitlyn Jenner isn’t a hero.
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 culture war will always be with us. There are always people who want to change the culture and an establishment that wants to ward off these insurgents. The Sad Puppies are just the Salon des Refusés with different players—and what were the Renaissance and Enlightenment, if not one giant culture war? But there is some good that comes of it, as well.
The culture wars of the past produced great achievements in art, architecture, literature, and science as the opposing parties strove to demonstrate that they had more to offer and deserved the people’s admiration and loyalty. Those culture wars gave us Michelangelo’s David, Galileo’s science, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment, and the movement for the abolition of slavery.
Culture wars are at their best when both sides have to rely on persuasion to win people’s hearts and minds. Culture wars are at their worst when they turn into an excuse for censorship and conformity. So maybe it’s time to divert less of our energy into outrage at the backward values of the other guy and more of it into making the case for our own values, competing over who can provide the most appealing, inspirational, and profound cultural vision—who can best serve humanity’s deepest spiritual needs. Instead of having a culture war, let’s turn it into a culture competition. At the very least, we might produce some enduring cultural achievements, and this era might be remembered for more than just the acrimony of its divisions.
This is the hopeful side of the culture wars—a call for engagement, not retreat. Religious believers weighing the option of withdrawing from a culture increasingly hostile to their values should redouble their efforts to cultivate their ideas within active subcultures that influence the nation and the next generation of Americans. Those who share a commitment to the freedom to think, speak, associate, publish, and express their beliefs may not have the American Civil Liberties Union in our corner any more—but that just means that we get to take up the noble cause, and the moral authority, they have abandoned.
Yes, this can be a dangerous time to be active in the culture. But it’s very hard to make speech codes, safe spaces, and other anti-thoughtcrime measures work in the long term. Sometimes all it takes for the whole apparatus to come crashing down is a handful of people brave enough to speak their minds without fear.
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