The World Keeps Turning by Columnist Allen Woods: Is anyone winning the culture wars?

  • Allen Woods

Published: 5/20/2022 7:32:48 PM

A real military war is happening in Ukraine right now, with all the deaths, disabling injuries, and destruction of property, livelihood, homes, and hopes for the future that are a guaranteed outcome of war. Any other use of the word “war” (so common in our everyday discourse) is clearly a metaphor that can’t be compared to the bombs, artillery shells, bullets, and land mines in use there.

But today, an important question faces us: Are our current culture wars setting the stage for another civil, military war? In 1991, the young sociologist, James Davison Hunter published a book that popularized the term “culture wars,” defined as “cultural flashpoints with political ramifications.”

I remember the “culture wars” of the 1960s and 70s vividly illustrated by the “counterculture” which reflexively opposed most social norms. Ronald Reagan followed with the introduction of a fictional “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac and living the good life on government “handouts.”

In a recent online interview, Hunter suggests that culture wars have “colonized” American politics through the complete absence of compromise and the rise of a winner-take-all mentality in debates about abortion, gay rights, religion in schools and government, race, and immigration. He says previous debates were generally based on religion, but they have now expanded and are driven by “fear of extinction” and economic class.

I see examples of these forces everywhere. LGBTQ groups have seen increased personal, physical attacks and orchestrated attempts erase them from public consciousness (banning school discussions, transgender athletes, and helpful medical procedures). One reaction to these threats can be seen in the strong push towards enforcing proper pronoun usage in the business and social world. It is a strategy a recent St. Louis Dispatch article suggests may backfire on Democrats if voters care more about bread-and-butter issues like inflation and health care than about the rights of a small minority (about 7% self-identified as something other than heterosexual in 2021) fighting for their right to exist.

I also see “class culture” divisions on both sides: on the left, the “99%” movement and “Occupy Wall Street” focused on the inequities of the growing distance between the upper-upper economic class and all others. On the right, righteous anger remains at the loss of blue-collar factory jobs that were a bedrock for middle class workers, but finds its misguided expression in resentment at affirmative action programs and immigrants they see as taking their place in the long and slow-moving line up the economic hill.

Both sides see an American way of life nearing extinction: a government that looks out for all its people coupled with a chance to climb the economic ladder through hard work and fair opportunities. Joining the middle class or beyond has been a shining goal for Americans for decades.

Although abortion may become a primary issue in coming elections (with a steady 60% of Americans since 1990 feeling it should be legal in all or most cases), Hunter saw race as the primary issue in the culture wars. Right-wing TV and social media have worked effectively to heighten fears, especially among young white men, of the “great replacement” conspiracy in which white people are being systematically replaced around the world by Jews and “multiculturalists.” What could be a more direct statement of the “fear of extinction?”

Hunter’s most serious worry is that culture wars have always preceded shooting wars (although not every culture war results in one) and provide a justification for the violence. He points to Nazi Germany’s culture war against Jews before they invaded neighboring countries. Vladimir Putin prepared his country for the Ukraine invasion with false stories of Ukrainian Nazis and persecuted Russians.

Culture wars promoted and supported car attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters in Charlottesville in 2017 and at least 139 other times just between May and September of 2021, with only 65 resulting in charges (apps.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2021/10/vehicle-rammings-against-protesters/tulsa/). 

The violent January 6 insurrection was justified by the disproved claims of voter fraud. And now, in Buffalo, another in a long line of racially motivated mass shootings where a young white man hoped to spark a “race war” and avoid the dangers of the “great replacement.”

I don’t think anyone really wins in the culture wars any more than they do in military wars. But I hope we can return to an original bargain fully violated only once since 1776: Hunter says “Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences.”

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era crime novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at awoods2846@gmail.com. 


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