Culture war — what is it good for?

By Tim Miller

In his dissenting opinion regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a Texas sodomy law, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that that body had, “taken sides in the culture war.” Wednesday’s New York Times reported that a judge sentencing a former Virginia Republican Party executive director to probation for eavesdropping on a Democratic Party conference call remarked, “The thing that concerned me is, I think of all the young Democrats and young Republicans forming on college campuses and getting ready to join the culture wars.” These quotes indicate that people in authority think that there is some sort of deep-seated societal conflict under way in the United States, but does anyone really know what this “culture war” is? When people talk about it, are they really describing the same well-understood conflict?

I am reminded of a comment Trent Lott made just before his ill-favored speech at the late Strom Thurmond’s birthday party. He stated something to the effect that politicians from the coasts are not in touch with the heartland of the country, or as he described it, the filling in the American sandwich. This seems to tie in with the idea that there are two diametrically opposed viewpoints of what American society is supposed to look like. To paint them broadly, in their most unflattering stereotypes, we might suggest that one view is the traditional portrait of rural life, with a high emphasis on faith and conservative social values regarding religion and family life, but a view which is traditional, not innovative, and out of touch with the modern world of the cities; the corresponding city slicker ethos of greed and the destruction of “old-fashioned” social mores for the sake of some poorly defined notion of progress and inclusiveness.

It is pretty clear that both of these views are just what I said they were: stereotypes, and not very convincing ones at that. Because of advances in communications, rural areas are increasingly economically tied to urban centers, and do not represent some sort of backwater away from the corruption of modern society. Likewise, people in urban areas often hold deeply to traditional family values. Except for a few silly extremists on either sides, rural and urban Americans by and large face no great disconnect in the sorts of values they have and their hopes for a more prosperous future.

If the above discussion seemed something like the setting up and demolition of a straw-man, it was, to some extent. But the straw-man is created by those who blather on and on about the culture war and how it threatens the well-being of the United States (note that usually these arguments are made by people on both sides who have some vested interest in encouraging this mentality, the religious right being one of the loudest examples). The framers of the Constitution intended for the United States to be a tolerant place, though historically this has not always been the case. To even suggest that there is some sort of culture war be fought, as opposed to people peaceably arguing legitimate differences on difficult issues, suggests that once again tolerance and debate have been thrown out in favor of knee-jerk radicalism and reaction.

People obviously have disagreements. Abortion, capital punishment, and the extent to which government can and should regulate private morality are difficult issues, ones that, in the words of President Bush, referring specifically to abortion, “a lot of good people disagree on.” Social conflicts such as these deserve thoughtful speculation, not the rants of extremists suggesting that they are so divisive that Americans cannot live together so long as they disagree with them. We’ve faced similar thorny issues in the past, and in some cases such as slavery and World War II Japanese internment, America has a society has permitted injustices to occur. If we try to close off debate and instead focus on pushy, partisan, bitter, and unyielding conflict, we virtually guarantee that similar injustices will occur. Let’s have more faith in ourselves than the self-styled culture warriors do.