CONTENT, NOT CULTURE, SEPARATES AMERICANS
It has finally come to pass in America that armed bands of federal government thugs in camouflage gear are taking over parts of selected US cities to serve the interests of the country’s fearful “leader” and autocrat-in-chief. At the behest of Trump and his stooge Attorney General, unidentified Department of Homeland Security troops have swooped in to bring “law and order” to citizens hoping for some measure of police reform and racial justice. So, while the coronavirus pandemic rages out of control in the face of a chaotic response by the same federal government, Trump has decided to augment his failure by doubling down on leftists, socialists, anarchists and communists. This is real, it is an old playbook, and it should be very scary.
Armed and empowered federal government personnel with absolutely no training in dealing with citizen protests or protesters are being unleashed to confront largely peaceful protesters in America who are imploring their government to reduce police violence and address racial injustice. Local leaders and police commanders are confronted with an armed force that they have not asked for and that they do not want. This is American citizens being terrorized by American government personnel, ironically at the command of the federal Department of Homeland Security established to protect us from terrorists.
To be sure, this is largely theater. But it is theater that should shock anyone in America who smugly thought that the “land of the free” would never look like “other” despotic lands. It has been a very long time since America has come this close to rock bottom. As a nation, America is an international laughingstock, mocked by all those despots we bribed over the years to transform their way into our way, the American way. But guess what? We didn’t see it coming, but their way has now become our way.
Turn on the news anywhere in the world, and it will feature some daily tale of woe from America. Turn on the news in America, and it is all a tale of American woe. Yet despite the perception that America has found new lows, amid pandemic and social strife, there is a palpable disconnect between the depth of the problems and a serious consensus about the solutions. As is often the case in America, this situation is a big problem in search of a label that will ensure that not much changes anytime soon.
Every politician and pundit in the land seems to have settled on something called the “culture wars.” It seems so easy in the facile world in which we live to provide cover for complex problems by finding a meaningless catchy phrase that everyone can define for themselves instead of facing reality, particularly the reality of others.
Today, everywhere you turn in American politics, “culture wars” are trotted out to explain away all manner of dysfunction in government and society. I am not sure what that term means. “Culture war” has been defined as “a conflict or struggle for dominance between groups within a society or between societies, arising from their differing beliefs, practices, etc.”* The “etc” at the end of this definition should be a clue that "culture war" means essentially whatever you want it to mean. What kind of a definition is that?
Before there was the coronavirus pandemic, there was culture everywhere. Want to see a play, go for it. If art or anthropology is your interest, museums abound. Even a movie, particularly when called “cinema” or “film,” can qualify as a good solid cultural experience. Then there is the whole world of international and local cuisines, more cultural experience. Wines, beers, whiskeys, full of culture. When I think of culture, this is what I think of, along with the rich tapestry that defines some of who we are.
Somehow a war based on a film I like, what cuisine I choose to eat, or the sports team I choose to root for seems trivial and even unlikely. So a “culture war” must mean something deeper than that. It must mean, for example, that if you pay attention to public health experts in response to a pandemic you are on one team and if not, you are on the other team. What a clever way to gloss over stupidity and ignorance.
“Culture war” also implies something ingrained that cannot be altered or influenced by new ideas, new knowledge, or new experience. However, the paralyzing conflict that we are enduring in America is routinely influenced by new ideas and new experiences. It is a policy conflict, a conflict over how best to address real human problems with a policy response. And much of it is driven by an individual’s momentary perception of the role of government in meeting these human challenges.
I truly dislike Senator Mitch McConnell, but we are both old white men who drink quality bourbon** and could share a cigar now and again. What we disagree about is not culture, but content.
As another example of what I am trying to convey, the urge to own a gun in America surely does not reflect the group think at the core of the “culture war” definition. The reasons for arming oneself or choosing not to cross every demographic and social line – that rich white couple in Missouri armed and ready in their front yard as protesters walked by would share little of cultural significance with a poor white subsistence hunter or a young inner-city Latino gangbanger. It is highly unlikely that these disparate gun owners ever cross each other’s paths except as casual observers inspecting the oddities of each other’s cultural foundation.
I am sorry to take a dump on everyone’s latest label, but I am really tired of labels being used as a substitute for responsibility. It you choose to be ignorant, you can meet others like you at your church, your country club, your gym or your city council meeting. Willful ignorance is found in all cultures. It is a shame that it is so common and so misunderstood as the root of much of what separates us.
That is not a cultural statement. We are not engaged in a "culture war." We are engaged in a confrontation to define a better America and to find the policy solutions that will lead us there. This is America’s “war” for its future, not some wistful search for cultural reconciliation.