Winning America’s Real Culture War
The radical right has consolidated its grip on the Republican Party, this much is clear. The corporate economic conservatives behind John McCain’s curtain are happy to be the more or less silent partners of the theocrats and racist thugs in the dangerous enterprise that is today’s GOP.
It is also the case that McCain and Sarah Palin have decided to reignite the hate-filled domestic conflicts of the 20th century. They are deliberately lighting the fuses of racist anger and misplaced economic resentment. The rhetorical violence is just a shade more subtle than the ugly grunts of George Wallace or the sweaty, paranoid demon-hunts of Richard Nixon. But the violence is there.
These are the radical, divisive and dangerous tactics of an extremist political movement that cannot win unless we are first divided one against the other, black against white, fundamentalist against moderate Christian and every other faith as well, small towns against inner cities.
This they call the Culture War. And I am goddamned finished with it.
The fate of freedom will be the same for me and my own as it is for the hardworking oil field roughneck and honky-tonk cowboy McCain wants to arm with a torch and pitchfork to march against me.
Who is free while that fight goes on?
It is McCain’s war of terror. It was Joe McCarthy’s and Richard Nixon’s. And the refusal of a cowed and timid media to call it by its true name and nature is an unforgivable disgrace.
But if the extremist right wants to fight a culture war, let’s fight the real one, the one that has marked the American grain with light and dark from the time of the first colonies.
This is the contest between democrat and monarchist, between egalitarian and authoritarian, between the responsibilities of freedom and the securities of docile enslavement, between compassion for others and callous, isolated self-love.
It is a war between the robber barons and the robbed, the swells and the proles, first class and steerage, yes. But, it’s also deeper than that, for this war also takes place not just between us and them, but between us and…us.
Some of the war’s battles take place within our hearts, because most of us carry some mix of egalitarian and authoritarian spirits inside us. It would be easier to engage politically if it was a matter of a simplified and essentialize-able humanity whose motivations and aspirations could be represented by the color of our jerseys, democrats in blue and monarchists in red. But we are more complicated than that.
Surely, you ask, progressives have always carried the banner of equality, and that means we believe that all have equal access to moral insight and self-determination?
Well, to our everlasting shame, it was our movement’s predecessors who fought for Prohibition. Yes, we demanded the right to tell everyone else what to drink, or what not to drink. Look, drunk drivers and SUV owners are irresponsible. But do we always have to climb upon our sanctimonious ponies and demand that others receive their instructions from us, their moral superiors? Some of us do, because of the little Napoleon who lives in our hearts and minds. Don’t despair, there’s a Thomas Jefferson in there, too. And, in most progressives as in life, he stands much taller.
But our mistakes, the consequences of this internal complexity, have cost us the support of a good number of pro-democratic, anti-authoritarian Americans. It is also how we unintentionally help delay the ultimate contest that must be won if real democracy is to be achieved.
This is a war of world views. Some see equal potential and grace in every human being. Others believe we are born corrupt, that we are saved only through obedience to authority (their authority, it turns out always and magically). Some believe in natural hierarchy. Others see a horizontal plane of existence. Some seek strong authority. Others are always suspicious of it.
The egalitarians create government to do for them collectively what can’t be done individually. I can’t build my own roads or defeat an invading army by myself. Government is there to protect and empower individuals. The authoritarians create government (it can be big or small, so long as they control it) to enforce discipline and order.
How endemic is this war, the war of authority, hierarchy and soulless discipline versus equality and recognition of shared responsibilities and freedoms?
Consider, "A Model of Christian Charity," John Winthrop’s famous sermon to his colonists aboard the ship Arbella in 1630. The Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, in the first and second paragraphs of that sermon, spoke of the natural order of beneficent rich and grateful poor, of God’s natural hierarchy, of the benefits of authority and obedience.
But in the third paragraph, Winthrop, like a modern communitarian, hopes to create a New World where "every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creature, man."
There, in the mind and heart of one man, is the true American Culture War. It was present in the arguments of the Federalists. Jefferson and John Adams, each searching for resolution of their own inner conflicts with it, fought one another, too.
How do we engage – and win – the real American culture war?
We first demand an end to the destructive, distracting and divisive social conflicts ignited and exploited by authoritarian oppressors. We demand that the media quit treating race-baiting, for instance, as nothing but a political tactic morally equivalent to the placement of yard signs. Racism is real and alive inside some Americans. We can’t make it disappear overnight. We can diminish its political relevance.
Also, we have to describe the real American culture war out loud. To do so with credibility we have to recognize the conflicts within ourselves. We can’t win the fight against anti-democratic authoritarians if we are willing to use their means to ends we consider morally superior.
Isn’t it galling that the right wing wins its victories by convincing a significant number of Americans that they are protecting them from us, whom they call the real authoritarians?
The rulers who gassed the journalists, lawyers and activists in St. Paul, the rulers who have suspended habeas corpus, established official torture chambers around the world, declared themselves above all international law – these are the rulers who have convinced the small business owner in Wyoming that they are saving her from authoritarian government.
They are able to do so because we have helped make the real American culture war invisible.
As linguist George Lakoff, pschologist Drew Weston and many others have told us, we must speak our values out loud. Too often we think that means something like, "We want to raise teacher pay," or, "We think everyone should have access to quality health care."
I’m for both those policies. But that is not what is meant by speaking truth to power, to use a phrase that gets used more, I’m afraid, than the actual speaking of truth to power.
"We will no longer tolerate your lies and destructive and divisive tactics. We will not be suckered by your efforts to turn Americans against one another while you steal our money, practice de facto euthanasia by denying us health care, destroy the institutions of democracy, kill our children in an immoral war, and make some of us believe that the deaths and thievery are the fault of our innocent next door neighbors." That’s more like it.
Progressives should be the ones arguing for limited government. Not limited in the sense that poisoners of the environment or common corporate thieves can escape punishment
Rather, government should be limited in the sense that our bonds of affection between one another, as James Madison once put it, our trust in ourselves, should always take precedence over today’s authority, which will most likely be corrupt tomorrow if is not already corrupt today. Which is why we have elections.