In 2013, can we call off the Culture Wars?

This year, there was a decisive shift in the Culture Wars in favour of the ‘illiberal liberals’. The wrong side is winning, in the wrong war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

2012 could be characterised as the year when the wrong side, the illiberal liberals, were victorious in the wrong war, the Culture War. In America and much of Western Europe, the cultural values of the so-called ‘left’ came firmly to the fore in this war of attitudes that has been waged for 30-odd years. This is a big problem as we head into 2013 – not only because the ascendant values are elitist, censorious and profoundly cavalier about the traditions and belief systems through which many people live their lives, but also because the Culture War itself is not a useful way to understand the clash of interests and moral divisions in twenty-first-century society.

On numerous fronts, from gay marriage to tabloid culture to gun control, the side in the Culture War that disingenuously defines itself as progressive scored big hits in 2012. President Obama’s ‘coming out’ in support of gay marriage, or his ‘evolution’ as his cheerleaders tellingly put it, signalled a shift not only in one man’s attitude towards homosexuals getting hitched but in the Democratic Party leadership’s attitude towards its support base. The upper echelons of the party were really confirming that the constituency they care most about these days is not the traditionalist or rural blue-collar world, but the apparently more enlightened urban and creative cliques of the new cultural elite. In Britain, too, gay marriage was used as a tool for redrawing the political map, being fervently promoted by Tory PM David Cameron as a means of purging his party of its ‘nasty’ image, and its nasty people, and making real his claims to represent New Conservatism. In Britain, the rise of gay marriage explicitly signals the acceptance by the right of the values of their one-time opponents in the Culture War.

Meanwhile, through the Leveson report in Britain and the earlier Finkelstein report in Australia, the cultural left’s view that tabloid culture is a poisonous phenomenon that must be controlled pretty much became official policy. The sight last year of Rupert Murdoch, one-time doyen of the right-wing side of the Culture War, shutting down his cash cow News of the World, as right-wing Tory ministers largely cheered an official inquiry into his and other rabbling newspapers, summed up the defensiveness of the right and the corresponding cockiness of the ‘liberals’ in the current Culture War set-up. The year ends with a new debate about guns, following the shootings at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut, with a widespread, unchallenged demonisation of gun-owning communities in the US as ‘fundamentalists’ whose ‘reasoning process’ has been destroyed. The Culture War’s so-called liberals (yet not so liberal that they aren’t determined to have the state disarm the populace) now believe strict gun control in the US is a real possibility.

The year’s shift in the Culture Wars is best summed up by the existential disarray of the US Republican Party. Despite not losing the presidential election too dramatically in terms of the popular vote – Mitt Romney got 60.8million votes to Obama’s 65million – Republicans have responded to their loss with an historic outburst of hair-tearing. They’re having tortured debates about the purpose of their Grand Old Party. They seem instinctively to recognise that they didn’t only lose the White House in 2012, but something bigger: a clash, a war, the three-decade wrestle between ‘two cultures’.

Many people, spiked included, will not lose much sleep over the fact that the increasingly ridiculous Republican Party, and other right-wingers, are isolated, at a loss, unsure what to do with themselves. But that doesn’t mean we should cheer what’s happened in the Culture Wars this year. There are two very striking things about each of the new fronts in this so-called war. The first is how each clash is not really a substantial debate about palpable issues of principle, but rather is a theatrical setpiece, pitting one, apparently civilised section of society (‘Us’) against an apparently backward, borderline Neanderthal section of society (‘Them’). From gay marriage, whose opponents are branded ‘bigots’ and even ‘knuckle-draggers’, to gun control, whose opponents are labelled ‘paranoid’, these are clearly not deep debates about the institution of marriage or a citizen’s right to arm himself, but rather are pieces of moral theatre whose aim is to demonstrate the superiority of the newly ascendant creative classes over whacked-out traditionalist communities. They are preening sideshows which somehow have taken centre stage in twenty-first-century politics.

And the second striking thing is how the ascendant side disingenuously depicts itself as a beleaguered bunch of progressives fighting tooth-and-catapult to overturn the rule of monolithic right-wing entities. On gay marriage, campaigners claim to be the ‘new Suffragettes’ fighting against entrenched religious and political backwardness – but in truth pretty much everyone, including the Tory Party and The Times, is agitating for gay marriage. On tabloid culture, the censorious liberals claim to be waging war against an almighty Murdochian corporate-cum-political machine – but in fact everyone, including the ‘Murdoch Empire’ actually, accepts that the tabloids must be rapped on their knuckles and tamed. On gun control, so-called progressives say they are taking on a vast gun-toting right-wing conspiracy – but in reality, as evidenced by the Republicans’ abandonment of the National Rifle Association and the NRA’s own historic defensiveness post-Sandy Hook, here, too, being in favour of gun control is the new normal and being against it, at least outspokenly, is rare.

The skewed depiction of the ascendant side in the Culture Wars as a brave group of radicals taking on scary traditional authority cuts to the heart of why the Culture War is not a useful tool for making sense of society today: because it obfuscates reality and history. In the very act of depicting these clashes as a ‘war’, allegedly between white-haired old homophobic farts with guns and gay-loving secularists with no guns, the Culture War rhetoric obscures the real dynamic taking place today – which is the collapse of, rather than conscious defeat of, traditional forms of authority. Over the past three decades, and more in fact, longstanding Western morals and norms have fallen into disrepute and have been abandoned wholesale by those who once defined and defended them, whether it was the church or the political set. What the Culture War flim-flam does is doll up this crisis of Western values, and the political and moral vacuum it has nurtured, as a conscious product of the brave efforts of the warriors for ‘progress’. In truth, these illiberal liberals are better understood as having crept, pretty easily and largely unchallenged, into the vacuum left by the old moral guardians’ abandonment of their posts.

Moreover, the depiction of the ascendant side as outsiders, kicking down the doors of the gun-owning, God-bothering insiders, obscures the fact that its illiberal liberal values are actually becoming conventional, and are in essence the ruling ideas of our time. We are seeing the emergence of a new authoritarianism, though it presents itself as ‘progress’ hard won by those who depict themselves as being external to mainstream sources of authority. In short, a new elite is forming, one which defines itself as cosmopolitan in contrast to the backward masses and which desires both to tame freedom of the press and to concentrate arms in the hands of the state. Yet this new elite presents itself as a non-elite, even an anti-elite, which apparently is overturning authority rather than fashioning new, stringent forms of authority.

The Culture Wars distort reality. They present traditionalism as strong, when in truth it is weak, and the ‘progressive’ side as embattled, when in fact it’s shaping the modern moral outlook. They use the language of left and right to define a shallow clash that was actually largely brought about by the demise of the serious left and the serious right. Worse, they politicise people’s personal preferences, on everything from marriage to whether they visit shooting ranges, which can lead to a new form of politics that is more concerned with ostentatiously demonising entire ‘bad’ communities than with rethinking society or the future. And even worse than that, they warp what it traditionally meant to be left-wing. If being left-wing now means empowering the state to limit press freedom, disarm citizens and dictate which communal values are acceptable and which are not, then all I know for certain as we enter 2013 is that I am not left-wing.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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