But just because the other side is losing doesn’t mean you’re winning. Donald Trump versus the left strikes me as the Iran-Iraq culture war, in the sense captured by Henry Kissinger’s famous quote about both sides losing (which is, in fact, possible). Ben Domenech once described this as a post-apocalyptic culture war, in which Trump has been embraced by “the increasingly large portion of evangelicals who believe the culture wars are over, and they lost.” So instead of looking for someone who will set a positive example, they’ll settle for an “unprincipled blowhard who promises he’s got your back on political correctness.”
This may be a foolish and shortsighted approach, but it does raise an interesting question: what would “winning” in the culture war actually look like? The Right’s embrace of Trump suggests they have lost sight of any such positive vision—but it’s hard to know whether you’re winning or losing if you have no idea what winning would mean.
This isn’t about everyone backing the particular political solutions I favor, because that’s not what the culture war is about. It’s a contest over broader and deeper issues that have, in many ways, a more direct effect on our happiness and wellbeing—and establish the conditions for any kind of wide-ranging political victory. As Andrew Breitbart used to remind us, “politics is downstream of culture.”
I’m not asking what it would mean to achieve a final victory in the culture war, because there is never a final victory. If we are no longer fighting a culture war over, say, gay marriage, I am sure we will be fighting over something else. But what would make us think that we were making progress?
I don’t know what your answer to this question would be, and I suspect it’s different from mine. As a secular pro-free-marketer, I come from a unique perspective. But none of us can achieve anything in the culture war unless we know the direction we want to head. So here are my modest suggestions for the main points that would constitute progress in the culture war.
1. A Renaissance of Great Books Education
By the “Great Books,” I don’t mean just a particular list of texts that convey important ideas. I mean the notion that education consists of serious encounters with great ideas from throughout human history.
When I headed off to college in the late 1980s, we were still hearing a lot from conservatives who warned about the loss of “cultural literacy” and “The Closing of the American Mind,” in the title of Allan Bloom’s famous book. That was the culture war that was lost in the universities long before we got where we are now. It was lost in the 1990s, when the old guard of great books intellectuals either died (Bloom passed away in 1992) or retired, and universities became dominated by “postmodern” and “multicultural” ideologues who reduced every issue to “race, class, and gender.”
Since then, everything the Great Books advocates warned about came true. When the idea of education as a serious encounter with big ideas was lost, we produced a generation of narrow-minded zealots ready to repeat the latest political buzzwords and unwilling to tolerate any form of dissent.
Camille Paglia recently summed it up:
I’ve been teaching now for 46 years as a classroom teacher, and I have felt the slow devolution of the quality of public school education in the classroom….
What has happened is these young people now getting to college have no sense of history—of any kind! No sense of history. No world geography. No sense of the violence and the barbarities of history. So, they think that the whole world has always been like this, a kind of nice, comfortable world where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk, and you can turn on the water and the hot water comes out. They have no sense whatever of the destruction, of the great civilizations that rose and fell, and so on—and how arrogant people get when they’re in a comfortable civilization. They now have been taught to look around them to see defects in America, which is the freest country in the history of the world, and to feel that somehow America is the source of all evil in the universe, and it’s because they’ve never been exposed to the actual evil of the history of humanity. They know nothing!
Today’s students are being inculcated with the idea that everything is about race, that the history and ideas of Western civilization are not worth discovering because they’re all about dead white European males, and that accusing your opponent of being a racist is a sufficient way to shut down any argument. We have today’s bitter culture war because young people never learned any other way of confronting ideas and discussing philosophical disagreements.
Donald Trump’s election is also a warning that increasing anti-intellectualism is affecting the Right. When I moderated a Tea Party-sponsored congressional primary debate back in 2010, I asked the candidates which thinkers had influenced them, and the first response I got was “Marcus Tullius Cicero”—an ancient Roman writer and an early defender of individual rights who was killed for opposing the rise of the Caesars. You would not get such a response in the era of Trump, a man seemingly untouched by any philosophical or ideological influences. As for young people, the mirror image of the race-obsessed left is the race-obsessed alt-right.
We will know we’re starting to win the culture war when there is a revival of the kind of great books education I got during its waning days at the University of Chicago. But more important than the specific books is a revival of the spirit of inquiry, debate, and serious analysis of big ideas.
2. The Rebirth of the Highbrow
There was a time when the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts drew a weekly audience of up to 15 million people, nearly 10 percent of the population at the time. Highbrow culture wasn’t just for a small elite but embraced by a wide swath of the aspirational middle class.
Today, middlebrow magazines—there’s hardly anything you would still call highbrow—obsess about the lowbrow ephemera of pop culture, publishing supposed “thinkpieces” about the latest Beyoncé album or the new “Wonder Woman” movie. Similarly, a friend recently posted a question about which decade’s music was the best, offering decades from the 1980s to the present. It simply went without saying that he meant popular music. Could anybody name a serious, Classical-style musical composition produced in that same period? Is there any such composition that has received widespread, mainstream notice? I can think of a very small number that deserve it, but they remain obscure.
I’m not saying that pop culture is always bad or is never worth talking about. The problem we have today is that it is virtually the entire culture.
In the Left’s imagination, a conservative culture warrior is a religious obscurantist in the mold of Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan, who figured prominently at the 1992 Republican convention, with the latter declaring a “religious war.” Yes, that was one strain of the culture war. But another strain was about defending great books and serious intellectual inquiry, and trying to reverse “the coarsening of the culture.”
Well, consider the culture thoroughly coarsened—on both sides of the political divide. And everybody has given up doing anything about it. When we lost highbrow art and music as an influence on mainstream culture, we lost a sense of high-minded idealism, of aspiration for something better. With that comes the culture of insults and putdowns that you can see any moment of the day on social media.
Perhaps more important, with the loss of high art, we lose a sense for the things that give life meaning and purpose, leaving only one thing to perform that function: politics.
3. The Personal Will No Longer Be the Political
If politics is the primary source of meaning in life, then everything else has to become about politics. Sports events have to be about fighting racism. Superhero movies have to be about smashing the patriarchy. Halloween has to be about “cultural appropriation.” Science fiction television shows have to be partisan political allegories. And so on.
We’ll be winning the culture war when it’s acceptable again for sports, entertainment, music, sex, and all the rest to be about sports, entertainment, music, and sex. It should be acceptable for the majority of life to be important and interesting in its own right and on its own terms, and for politics to take a back seat.
4. The Business of America Will Be Business
One particular aspect of life has value and importance that particularly needs to be embraced. Most of us will spend a large part of our lives working for a living, engaged in the creation of wealth, “wealth” being a collective term for the things we live in, drive, eat, wear, listen to, and travel on—all the things that contribute to the support and enjoyment of life. This is kind of important.
Yet in our current politicized environment, the pursuit of wealth is viewed with suspicion. Not that people stop doing it, mind you, but they feel the need to jump through hoops to whitewash—or greenwash—their success.
As I have argued elsewhere, idle minds are the culture war’s workshop. The belief that there is no larger meaning in work, production, and trade, combined with the fact that this is the activity that dominates most people’s lives, creates an even greater pressure to use artificially induced culture war skirmishes to establish a sense of meaning that cannot be enjoyed in one’s work.
This dilemma is particularly strong for young people entering college in these later stages of the higher education bubble. College tuition has inflated to the point where young people are pushed into majoring in subjects with immediate commercial value, because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to make enough money to pay back their student loans. Yet the actual content of their education, not to mention the entire political culture of the universities, denigrates the kind of work that the students will have to do for the rest of their lives to pay for it.
It used to be, as Calvin Coolidge put it, that “the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.” So we do, and we’ll know we’re making progress when this is considered at least as worthwhile an activity as the latest “social justice” fad.
5. The Culture War Will Be a Race to the Top
The culture war never ends, because there are always people who want to change the culture and always people who want to preserve it. The specific issues and philosophical fault lines change over time, and the good guys and bad guys switch places, but the Culture War is always there.
Historically, the culture war has been at its best when it is about trying to outdo the opposing side, not trying to outlaw or suppress it. It goes something like this: in Florence, the humanists build a cathedral with a giant dome bigger than anything built so far—so in Rome, the church had to build an even more magnificent cathedral with another spectacular dome, just to show that it could keep up.
I am an atheist, but I don’t want this list to be about pushing the specifics of my outlook. So to my religious friends, I’ll point out that a serious engagement with history, ideas, and art would include the Bible and the vast store of religious themes in literature and music. (And did I just mention architecture?) Rather than Christianity being some kind of alien territory, it would be considered normal to have some familiarity with its stories, teachings, and history. That would be one strain of the culture that is vying to entice us with its creations.
The best way to carry out the culture war is to create your own art, music, architecture, literature, customs, institutions, manners, etc. Feel free to criticize the other side and explain what’s wrong with the culture they created. But don’t create codes to ban their culture or organize oppressive tribunals meant to hound them out of existence. Compete on the superior appeal of your culture to people who are free to choose.
If history is any guide, no matter which side ultimately triumphs, we will at least leave behind some worthwhile and enduring creations, and our descendants won’t look back on us as just a bunch of squabbling scolds and prigs.
My vision for how the culture war ends is simple: culture wins.
If we started moving in this direction, I think good ideas would be more likely to get a hearing, and over the long run people would probably start voting the way I prefer. But long before that, it would make everyday life much more pleasant and interesting. It would make it easier to raise ours kids and live our lives and enjoy our weekends—and that would make the question of who won the latest election much less urgent.
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