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Monday, August 30, 2010

Winning the Culture Wars, Losing the Country?

BooMan directs his readers to this post of mine from yesterday. About it, he writes that "there is some good advice in" it (thanks!) then goes on to disagree, which is much more interesting. He writes
The "idea that we've won the Culture War is premature and inappropriate at the moment."

I have elaborated the chestnut "We Already Won the Culture Wars" many times here and there, most recently here, and I think it is important for the left to grasp what it means that we won the culture wars because too many of us mischaracterize a lot of what is going on across the right because so much of that energy and incoherence responds quite legibly and functionally to their own sense of having lost the culture wars. I think we misdiagnose the weaknesses as well as the strengths and threats of much of what they do because of our mystification on this score.

BooMan writes, "I haven't seen a poll in six months that would indicate that we're winning the Culture War or anything else." But of course he has -- he need only take a look at polls on nationwide and generational attitudes toward gays serving openly in the military or about gay marriage, about inter-racial relationships, about smoking marijuana, about regular church attendance, about our wars, about basic fairness, about whether getting rich is more important than having fulfilling relationships, about pollution...

In a post about the Culture Wars a couple of weeks ago in the midst of the unspeakable idiocy and ugliness (still, of course, ongoing) around the community center at Park51 I wrote:
I think it pays to contemplate the actual ritual work that is being accomplished in these brief brou-ha-has that barnacle non-issues like the “Ground Zero Mosque” that isn’t -- And for whom this work is being done -- And in the context of what larger structural realities this work seems so needful for those few to whom it is filling a need... Look, the pleasures of buttsex are weaving the affection of two gay men into a long-term loving bond in your town right now. A pissed off anti-war activist is seriously contemplating burning a goddamn American flag. Tax paying Americans who happen to be Muslim are praying in a mosque and others are building a new one. A prosperous inter-racial couple are drinking coffee in a sunlit kitchen in a television commercial to the envy of millions of everyday citizens. A young woman is getting an abortion because she wants to have a life. Teenagers in a public bus are laughing about the cluelessness of an obtrusively evangelical classmate and the hypocrisy of his parents... It isn’t going to stop. Ever. No law will be passed to stop it... The Constitution is not going to be amended to re-write America in the image of Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. That train has left the station. It went to Hogwarts. They’re witches, you know... The culture wars happened. We won. They lost... All these crazily expansive fireballs of deranged emotional energy that fill our discursive field for a time and then vanish without a trace when the alcohol has burned away, the flag-burning crisis, the duct-tape craze, the swift-boat liars, the mass hysterical blindness in the face of a Presidential birth certificate, the death-panel conspiracy, and on and on and on, each one gloms on to a non-issue because real issues can be dealt with through deliberation, they attach to a non-problem because real problems are susceptible to collective solutions or resolutions through compromise.

BooMan writes:
He doesn't deny the real civilizational threat we're facing, but he downplays it. We have a two-party system. When one of those parties becomes captured by neo-fascists, you have to take it as seriously as a heart attack.

Obviously, I don't expect BooMan or his commentators to have read my odd little nook in the blogosphere, but had he and they done so they would never think I downplay the threat of Republicanism -- especially in this particularly debased consummation of Movement Republicanism -- or think the lesson of the left's victory in the Culture Wars is a triumphalist complacency of all things.

That we won the Culture Wars shifts the terrain on which both parties go on to frame their place in America and the ways in which they try to educate, agitate, and organize their respective bases and refigure the prevailing debates over issues. The point isn't to declare pre-emptive political victory due to our victory in the Culture Wars but to secure political victories by reading the terrain produced by our victory in the Culture Wars for what it actually is.

Certainly we Democrats can fail to mobilize the strengths of our position as the victors of the Culture Wars. Certainly the right can still turn things around over the longer term to the disastrous cost of all, and win short-term opportunistic skirmishes despite (indeed, often precisely because of anxieties provoked by) the wholesome ongoing demographic browning and multicultural secularization of the country. Certainly political outcomes don't map seamlessly onto culture and so liberalizing attitudes on racial, sexual, gender, freethinking, the importance of fairness, the ugliness of bullying, the silliness of living for money, the appropriateness of harm-reduction as the emphasis of drug or sex education policy, and so on don't inevitably translate to Democratic as against Republican election victories.

For example, moneyed-elites can still fancy themselves defensive embattled minorities fighting to the death for survival in a secular multiculture like ours even if it is completely irrational for them to feel such an existential threat, and liberals in a secular multiculture like ours often can't bring themselves to feel that elections matter as much as they actually do, especially when they want to carp and quibble about specific policies and candidates for whom they feel a personal distaste or even disinterest that seems to outweigh the importance of the threat of out of touch right-wing weirdos, even though objectively speaking Republican policy can impact their lives materially in countless devastating ways in fact.

Winning the Culture Wars has sometimes made the Democratic left complacent and fractious when we shouldn't have been, and losing has given the dread armies of the Republican right the energy and monolithic discipline of the last desperate battle for survival, over and over and over again.

Often the left has failed to fight from the strengths inhering in our position of victory -- perhaps because we still can't entirely believe in the reality of it -- taking the desperate defensiveness of the right's incredibly symptomatic self-denominations as "The Silent Majority," "The Moral Majority," "The Values Voters," "The Real Americans" as if they were literal truths rather than exposures of traumatic wounds, testaments to defeat. The left is the silenced majority, ours are the morals of the majority, our values of equity-in-diversity drive our votes and our country (why else would Bush the Father have peddled his "kinder, gentler" PR and the killer clown administration nominally helmed by his son lie its way close enough to steal the White House promising "Compassionate Conservatism"?), we are the real Americans in the real America -- and the right knows all this perfectly well, even if we seem endlessly incapable of accepting this truth and acting on it.

I do not agree that it is triumphalist to recognize that we won the culture wars (maybe it could be, but that would be a foolish response to this victory in my view, and I hope it is not my own). Rather, this recognition seems to me to be the first step in taking responsibility on realistic terms for this secular multiculture we won and we are. It is also the first step in reading accurately and so responding properly to the noisy non-argumentative utterly non-rational spectacles of the losers in their heartbreak and menace the better to protect ourselves from the damage they are capable of and holding out a helping hand to those for whom it is still not too late to join in the democratic work of progress toward ever greater equity-in-diversity.


jimf said...

Dale wrote:

> BooMan writes, "I haven't seen a poll in six months that would indicate
> that we're winning the Culture War or anything else." But of course he has --
> he need only take a look at polls on nationwide and generational attitudes
> toward gays serving openly in the military or about gay marriage,
> about inter-racial relationships, about smoking marijuana, about regular church attendance,
> about our wars, about basic fairness, about whether getting rich is more important
> than having fulfilling relationships, about pollution...

Like this one, for instance:

In the shorter run, though -- well, I'm afraid it may get darker
before it gets lighter.

BTW, I was browsing in an interesting new book this past weekend
at Barnes & Noble:

_Rich, Free, and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America_
by John Brueggemann

The author claims that gays, for example, are convenient scapegoats
for other social forces that are tearing apart family and civic life --
primarily, according to the author, the triumph of market values
uber alles (something that's not likely to get better any time soon,
short, of course, of the collapse of civilization -- or the coming
of the Singularity, I suppose ;-> ).

There are some amusing quotes in the book from the Christian Right.
The best one is from Pat Robertson (p. 20):

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about
a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave
their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism
and become lesbians."

I wonder if I've ever met any lesbian witches. I once met a pair of
lesbians who were dressed alike (and very stylishly) in silver
and black.

jimf said...

Dale wrote:
More from Brueggemann:

p. 21, "The Homosexual Assault on Family"

"'Moms and dads, are you listening? This movement is THE greatest threat
to your children,' James Dobson warns. Another moral scapegoat for
society's problems revolves around gays and lesbians, and especially
the goal of legalized same-sex marriage. Gays and lesbians are often
lumped together with feminists as the offenders responsible for everything
from moral decay to God's wrath. Two days after September 11, Jerry
Falwell exclaimed, 'God continues to lift the curtain and allow the
enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.' Why?
'I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the
feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to
make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American
Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point
the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

More recently, John Hagee declared that, 'All hurricanes are acts
of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans
had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients
of the judgment of God for that . . . there was to be a homosexual
parade there on the Monday that Katrina came. And the promise of
that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never
demonstrated before in any of the other gay pride parades.'

Such preposterous claims could be dismissed if they were not spoken
by influential people who command the attention of tens of millions
of conservative Christians as well as important and mainstream
conservative leaders like George Bush, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum,
and John McCain. In April of 2008, the Religion News Service
released a list of the ten most influential GOP "King Makers" who
had influence on the Republican campaign. It included Dobson,
Tony Perkins, Rod Parsley, and others who proclaim militant
antihomosexual stances.

By 1980, one estimate suggests, some 61 million people were tuning
in to evangelical television and radio programs. While the likes
of Falwell and Robertson speak for many fundamentalist Christians,
they are some of the most reviled figures in public life and do
not speak for more sophisticated conservatives. However, there
are other more nuanced but nevertheless problematic assertions about
the role of gays and lesbians in the decline of moral order in
America. 'Gay marriage is not some sideline issue,' the columnist
Maggie Gallagher recently declared, 'it **is** the marriage debate.'
Once the third-ranking Republican leader of the Senate, Rick
Santorum wrote that advocacy for gay marriage represents just 'the
latest liberal assault' on the 'natural family.' The result of
this 'dangerous social experiment,' Zell Miller suggested of 'same
sex marriage,' will be disastrous. 'Over time, if not stopped, this
practice will destroy the traditional family. It will affect our
children in a terrible, harmful, and lasting way for generations
to come.' America will lose a common set of values if same-sex
marriage is legalized. In that event, 'Losing this battle means
losing the idea that children need mothers and fathers. It means
losing the marriage debate. It means losing limited government.
It means losing American civilization. It means losing, period.'
Expanding the rights and amplifying voices of gays and lesbians in
our society would no doubt be enormously significant. But
civilization does not rest on this single issue. Regardless, this
kind of hyperbole detracts from the most serious threats to the
family, and it is strident enough to make some wonder whether there
is at least some truth in it."

Dale Carrico said...

This is not about denying the existence or the threat of right-wing crazy, but recognizing the secularizing convivializing context in which the crazy is rendered desperate and dangerous in the specific ways that it is -- the better to diagnose and respond to it.

One of the points I made in earlier posts on this topic, by the way, emphasized that part of the immediate context for the latest wave of anti-Muslim hysteria was the role of Republican activists in gay marriage fights, signaling the loss of the "gay" in the old "god, guns, gays" formula supplementing the white-racist southern strategy. The other part of that story is the dawning recognition that anti-latin immigrant hysteria is a long-term loser for the GOP.

We are mis-reading things, missing opportunities. We should have kept pressure on the Arizona story -- they sense they were in danger of looking crazy to independents, even the ones who were mildly crazy on race but sensed which way the wind is blowing. Obama should realize that he is out of touch on DOMA and that DADT will energize the left base without costing him with the right in the way he fears.