Tuesday, October 30, 2007

‘Culture Wars’

Before I started my own Internet blog, I would occasionally leave liberal responses on a conservative blog titled “Another Man’s Meat” (it sounds like the title of a gay website, I think, but it’s really conservative) written by one Mr. Phil Dillon of Emporia, Kansas. Although I disagree with Mr. Dillon’s politics, I would respond to his posts because he expressed his right-wing opinions so well and without the belligerent bombast that is typical of conservative punditry. I tried to keep my feedback respectful in tone. I didn’t want to pick any verbal fights — after all, I was a guest on his blog, and guests shouldn’t be rude.

Back in 2005, in one of his posts, Mr. Dillon made a casual aside about “culture wars” – too casual, I thought, for such a violent turn of phrase — so I left a comment taking issue with the term. Although I signed the comment “Rob in L.A.,” Mr. Dillon thought that I was submitting it anonymously. To my surprise, he titled his next post “Letter to Anonymous,” which was addressed to me and defended his use of the phrase “culture wars.” In turn, I posted another reply, and it remains my longest articulation of my thoughts on the state of contemporary politics, and I thought I’d repost it here:

Dear Phil:

I’m surprised you thought my post was worth responding to, but thank you for doing so. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to read every single post on your extensive website, and my impressions about both you and your writings are probably not as complete as would be ideal. So, I appreciate your comments on the issue of compromise. However, there are some views on your blog that I don’t agree with, and I’ve posted responses to them when appropriate. I do not write on this site to stir up acrimony — there are enough trolls out there — and I hope that no one thinks I have.

In fact, the reason that I post on this site in the first place is because your own writings are so thoughtful. As I’ve said before, I have no illusions of converting opponents to my way of thinking. I post here because your writing inspires me to clarify my own thoughts. I mean that as a compliment. I also post here just to remind certain readers — in a non-confrontational way, I hope — that other points of view exist.

First, I don’t mean to hide behind the nom du lâche “Anonymous.” It must have escaped notice, but I sign all of my postings “Rob in L.A.” For those reading who wonder why I do this, it’s because my name is Rob and I live as an East Coast transplant in a certain southern California city. I’m a writer in my 40s recovering from major surgery — in other words, with way too much time on my hands. While trying to figure out how to get my career back on track (or at least pretending to), I lollygag the hours away surfing the ’Net....

On the subject of “culture wars,” I understand that the term has been hyped by the media as an exaggerated way to describe social disagreements within America. However, the term has taken on a disturbing ring of reality. Where I think that our republic (do we still say “democracy” after the 2000 election?) thrives on reasoned and considered discussion, the political media thrive on hyping arguments to the extreme. Why watch a level-headed debate on TV when more people will tune into a shouting match? Why put readers to sleep with a lucid argument when you can boil their blood with bombast? Heat sells; light doesn’t. (Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to your own website.) I think this has had an adverse effect on public discourse. As a result, most media-savvy politicians and pundits speak in absolute terms which don’t allow much room for compromise, terms repeated by their audiences. By positioning uncompromising audiences as far apart as possible, modern political speech leaves little space to come together, and this is what gives the phrase “culture wars” a meaning beyond the metaphorical.

Consider this statement by Bush political advisor Karl Rove to the New York state Conservative Party earlier this summer [2005]:

“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. In the wake of 9/11, conservatives believed it was time to unleash the might of the United States militarily against the Taliban; in the wake of 9/11, liberals believed it was time to submit a petition.... Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said, ‘We will defeat our enemies.’ Liberals saw what happened to us and said, ‘We must understand our enemies.’”

Putting aside Rove’s apparent disbelief in the old adage “Know thine enemy” for the moment, this is appalling talk for someone so high up in the administration. For starters, it’s untrue: Most liberals — including myself — were horrified by the 9/11 attacks, put aside petty partisanship, and supported President Bush and Prime Minister Blair in their call to hold the Taliban in Afghanistan accountable – by military force, if necessary. True, not everyone wanted to rush into a shooting war, but most agreed that some kind of tough, judicious action was required. Hey, if the Taliban (however uncharacteristic it would have been of them) had voluntarily turned over the al-Qaeda leaders to the U.S., a shooting war wouldn’t have been needed. Rove suggests that anything less than a shooting war would have been wimpy.

Secondly, Rove’s speech is extremely divisive in ways that are different, I believe, from pre-9/11 partisan rhetoric. Now, I realize that all political parties have had their “red meat” speeches to true believers that exaggerate differences between themselves and other political organizations, but Rove’s pronouncement went further. Rove basically said that “liberals” (e.g., Democrats) countenanced a murderous attack on our own soil that left [almost] 3,000 people dead. He basically said that we liberal Americans are unwilling to do what it takes to defend our own country. He basically said that to be liberal was to be disloyal.

I believe that if Bush and Rove really regarded this country as being at “war,” they would recognize the need for bipartisanship on issues of national security, and they would be doing more to bring this country together. Instead, they are hyping 9/11 for short-term Republican Party gain. This doesn’t look like leadership in a time of war; it looks like crass partisan politics.

This kind of fiery rhetoric, fanned by much of the media, is hurting this country. Every time I hear the phrase “culture wars,” I’m reminded of the bellicose tone of political discourse. It seems to me that this war-like posturing could turn into the real thing if we’re not careful. If we could think of our cultural disagreements in terms other than “wars,” it would go a long way towards positioning those disagreements as reconcilable, as something other than an all-or-nothing confrontation.


Regarding George W. Bush’s rhetoric about bringing freedom to the Middle East, his words don’t resonate with me. His strained and convoluted oratory (if that’s not too generous a word) about Arab democracy sounds to me like a fall-back position. As I’ve said on this site before, we went into Iraq militarily because we needed to “disarm” Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction [WMD], which he was going to use against us at any moment — or so we were told. Throughout 2003, I gave Bush the benefit of the doubt whenever he asserted that Hussein had weapons. Now that no WMD have turned up after more than a year of looking for them, now that Bush’s rationale for going to war has proven untrue, now that we know we were egregiously unprepared for the aftermath of the invasion, Bush is changing the subject. All of his talk about bringing democracy to a troubled region sounds to me like Bush is making the best of a bad situation — a situation made bad in the first place because, I believe, Bush thought that a shooting war with Iraq would be quick, easy, and good for him politically in the 2004 election.

As I said before on this site, if the U.S. had some kind of moral obligation to remove Hussein from power as its primary causus belli, Bush should have just made that argument from the very beginning and tried to convince the American people to go to war with Iraq for that reason. The fact that he hyped WMD at the start suggests that a majority of the American people needed another reason for removing Hussein militarily. In other words, Bush’s new rhetoric about democracy in the Middle East after dire warnings about Hussein’s (non-existent) WMD comes off as bait and switch. Today, I’m astounded that so many Americans are giving Bush a pass on how wrong he was about WMD and how badly he’s mismanaged the war. I guess that some Americans (present company excluded?) were just so eager for revenge after 9/11 that they are willing to forgive Bush anything as long as the U.S. got to show some muscle in Iraq.

This post is already pretty long, and I haven’t addressed all of the topics that you mentioned in your blog post. Pornography especially is a complicated topic that doesn’t lend itself to short discussions. Suffice it to say: While I’m sure there is plenty of pornography out there that I would find distasteful, I don’t think that the genre — be it Playboy magazine or something stronger — is a 100% bad thing. Also, while the First Amendment, like pre-war intelligence, can be abused, I’d rather have it abused than not have it at all. Erotic entertainment has always been with us, though it was more carefully closeted before the 1960s. Its new availability via the Internet and other electronic delivery systems presents new problems regarding parents controlling what their children consume — problems that I expect will eventually be solved. But in this new availability of pornography, I do not see the fall of Western civilization.

To conclude, my bottom line is this: The more that we talk about cultural differences as “wars” and the more we present them as an either/or choice between two polar extremes, the more we lose sight of our ability to negotiate and compromise. Inflaming passions needlessly may boost ratings or rouse a partisan audience, but it also frays social civility and our need to live together. Some may think that I’m obsessing too much over a trivial and harmless catch-phrase like “culture wars,” and they may be right. But I have never seen this country so polarized, both politically and culturally. Call me over-imaginative, but I can picture this metaphorical war turning into a non-metaphorical one if we continue not to listen to each other. In the years to come, I hope that we Americans can stop talking about “culture wars” and start talking about “culture peace.”

Sincerely and respectfully,
Rob in L.A. (a.k.a. Anonymous)


I haven’t left comments on “Another Man’s Meat” for quite some time — in part, because Mr. Dillon did not turn out to be the reasonable conservative that I thought he was. All the more reason to start my own blog, I suppose.

No comments: