From the very outset, the term ‘culture wars’ was misleading. Not that it wasn’t apropos — for, indeed, as all could see, there were different cultures contending over not just authority but power in America, many cultures in one manner but, in another, at rock bottom, only two. The Counterculture, that was one, and whatever the counterculture was against — possibly ‘the Establishment’, but that was a pointy-headed, square domain that essentially only ran the Culture, just as, in intimately related fashion, it ran the economy and the regime. The problem with the Establishment, despite the Dionysian thrust of the Counterculture at its height, wound up being one of mere access; let in The Marginalized, the logic revealed itself to say, and the kinks and cramps in the Establishment lifestyle would work themselves out. Given the right political inputs — a steadily expanding and deepening regime of equal rights — the cultural outputs could be trusted to emerge at an adequate speed, in an adequate way.

Andrew Sullivan has been prominent in advancing this kind of narrative. His latest reaffirmation comes in the form of an extended rebuttal of sorts to that old culture warrior Pat Buchanan. Buchanan, as is his wont, has penned an op-ed lately which points out that the dominant or regnant or primary American Culture — take your pick of terms — is going away, and that a large number of people — a majority — are unhappy about it. For Buchanan, to put two and two together is to be frank about the racial aspect of cultural change in America. To be blunt, he concludes, what’s still recognizably and memorably white American culture is being dismantled and swept away; but lots of white Americans aren’t simply going to let it roll over and die. It’s not a particularly new or subtle story, but it does call us to deal in something other than euphemisms when talking about the culture wars. (Glenn Beck, by contrast, refused to explain what he meant by ‘white culture’, ostensibly because the media would trap him into saying something that could be sliced, diced, decontextualized, and used against conservatives everywhere. I think that may be a risk someone in Beck’s position must steel himself to run.)

But in a decisive respect, when it comes to the culture wars, race is just a red herring.

Andrew himself eloquently testifies to what I’ve said elsewhere (I think back at Culture11) before: culturally speaking, no group is more American than black Americans. (Of course, that’s not to say every other group is less American!) And it’s easy to agree nowadays that the majority white culture in America, ‘the’ American culture, failed woefully to bring black America into the promised land. (Of course, that’s not to say many black Americans didn’t struggle to bring themselves there — and succeed.) Recall, however, that the ‘civil rights era’ — don’t call it the ‘race wars’ — culminated, and collapsed, with a profound divide among black Americans. Some wanted to take their rightful place in ‘the’ American culture. Others wanted out. Some were fighting for the culture, for its full realization. Others were fighting against it.

But even those fighting against it, fighting to break away or secede from ‘the’ American culture, were not fighting against culture . Think of the Nation of Islam. Then think of Lou Reed’s post-ironic usage [vileness alert] of America’s blackness, and of blacks themselves: not to mount a counterculture but an anti-culture.

Here we see the problem. The culture wars are the playing out of a fateful, momentous, confusing, and difficult argument in America: an argument over what culture is . Not a culture, not the culture, but culture itself — the foundational, necessary elements and structures of social order. Go back to James Madison and you see a certainty that American social order, including our political order, requires a religious culture. Even then, that certainty wasn’t so certain that it hadn’t to be spoken. Things have only gotten more explict and less certain since then. But one thing is clear. The anti-culture which the counterculture spawned or gave the opportunity of a lifetime used race/power as simply a weapon against the real foe of those against culture — religion/authority . And the foolish white racists of yesterday failed to realize that choosing to fight over the former meant choosing to lose the fight over the latter.

This is all the more unfortunate because the only way to completely eradicate institutional racism in the United States happened to be extraconstitutionally. Of course, it could in theory have been accomplished constitutionally. But it wasn’t. In part, this is because too many people had run out of patience. But in part, it was because of happenstance. Swedish sociology was in vogue; Earl Warren was Chief Justice; so a desegregation ruling was handed down that offered little more than a Just So story. Conservatives are still rightly distraught about the way the civil rights era taught us that being morally right licensed the dictatorial rule of poetry and discredited the institutional rule of law. The tragedy is that defending the rule of law and moral authority required American citizens to act on civil rights in a way too many Americans simply didn’t want to — even religious Americans.

So conservative claims about what culture is — what it must be in order to maintain social order — had to be issued out of an awkward and self-defeating race/power milieu. Conservatives were helped, however, by the patent brutality and nihilism of the anti-culture. You don’t need to go to church to reflexively avoid, or condemn, the revelry in sex/violence at the public heart of the anti-culture. Indeed, neoconservatism got its start precisely by offering a brilliant explanation about why the not-so-religious person in America had to defend culture , and therefore the American culture, root and branch. That term I’ve been using, religion/authority , was pried apart by the first-wave neocons ; the status and sticking power of that forward slash have been the bone of internecine contention on the right ever since.

This is not the place for the important but long detour into the roots and fate of the initial neoconservative severance of religion and authority. The crucial point is that the culture wars will not die because they are at last being revealed to be what they have been all along: a war over culture, with some in favor of culture and some against. For culture to be or for it not to be , that is the question; all else leads back to that question.

That fact is made all the more sobering by the rise of ‘cultural libertarianism’. Kerry Howley’s declaration that we’re all cultural libertarians now leads freedom-loving Americans down a primrose path: you think you’re headed for the ultimate in convenience, yes-saying to everything so long as it’s optional; but you wind up confronting the monstrously non-optional question of whether cultural libertarianism is itself a counterculture or an anti-culture, a merely different way of running a culture or a project dedicated to the assassination of culture. I have to close here by acknowledging that the all-too-clever and seemingly casual agnosticism of the good cultural libertarian on this question — who are you to tell me I ‘need’ to have an answer? — is in the interim much less monstrous than any fateful reckoning with the full implications, one way or the other, of the to-be-or-not-to-be question about culture. But, as Hamlet bade Horatio remind us, that the interim is ours is cold comfort, and nobody ever lived long or prospered mad but north-north-west. We promise ourselves we know hawk from handsaw in a southerly wind. But that’s a bourgeois, not a bohemian rhapsody — the ultimate in having your cake and eating it too, and a high-wire bit of theater with no more staying power than the Prince of Denmark.

Articles by James Poulos

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