Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Is it necessary to end the culture wars?

An interesting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic poses a simple solution for the culture war: let it be fought on the state level rather than the federal. This proposal got me thinking about a few different ideas. The proposal itself is not without its merits, although I would probably come down on the side of not agreeing with Jonathan Rauch, the author. I’ll address my main disagreement later.

I would ask whether or not it is even necessary to end the culture wars. A democratic republic is a system that involves (putting it in my own words, but more than likely borrowing from Habermas or secondary literature on Habermas) some kind of public debate that works toward defining a national identity or shaping a policy. As Schudson (1997) writes, “if democratic talk is talk among people of different values and different backgrounds, it is also profoundly uncomfortable” (p. 299).

Isn’t the rancor and disagreement part of the process and an inherent quality of the system? I suppose I would go right to the heart of Rauch’s column and say that ending the culture wars may not even be a necessary, desirable or even attainable goal.

The real problem with the culture wars is that, from my above definition, they are more focused on “defining a national identity” as opposed to “shaping a policy.” Rauch argues that “even moral absolutists …should grudgingly support pluralism, because it makes the world safe for their moral activism by keeping the cultural peace” (para. 16). There are a few problems with this argument.

First, I would argue that pluralism is inherently not “cultural peace.” Andrew Fiala provides a useful definition here, stating that, “according to pluralism, each of the variety of ways in which we might pursue the good can still be described as good without radically changing the meaning of the term ‘good.’ Or, as Rawls says, each of the ways in which reasonable persons disagree can still be called reasonable” (p. 108).

There is the rub; the word “reasonable.” How do you define it and who gets to make that decision? That is where the culture wars really take place. For example, most liberals (whatever that word means) support the ideal of government neutrality on religion. That is part of their definition of “America” (whatever that word means). Many Evangelical Christians see Christianity as an essential part of the defining of America. To the latter group the very idea of being neutral on religion is not, as Rawls says, reasonable, and is certainly not American. To quote Jerry Falwell: “the idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country” (Goodman). We can give the devil his due, but I think Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine contributed at least a little to Falwell’s problems.

That is the second problem with the Rauch quote. Absolutists see pluralism as an attack on their absolutism. For the absolutist there are only two possibilities: their viewpoint (e.g. the correct one) and every other viewpoint (e.g. the wrong one). There is no pluralism possible. There is only a world where their viewpoint is dominant over all others or a world where their viewpoint is oppressed. You can find an example of this thinking in a short blurb Robert Bork wrote for the National Review about a year ago. Bork (2005) actually made the argument that censorship created more freedom because, “people forced to live in an increasingly brutalized culture are, in a very real sense, not wholly free.” Bork may be close to making a point, but in the article he includes the Rolling Stones as part of that “brutalized culture.” Not to mention the cliché that “one man’s pornography is another man’s art.”

For the Borkistas the presence of those who want to live life in a different manner or even simply disagree with conservatism is an affront. This brings me to my final argument for liberalism, or maybe more appropriately, libertarianism. It’s a very simple philosophy of governance on so called culture war issues. A more liberal society is a better society because conservative individuals are still free to lead a conservative life. They don’t even have to like homosexuals, they just aren’t allowed to attempt to impose upon or interfere with a homosexual person’s life. Equally, it would be unacceptable for someone living a more liberal lifestyle to attempt to impose that upon more conservative individuals.

In other words, so long as someone causes you no harm in body or property they are free to live their life as they see fit. This is an idea that is a few centuries old, yet it is actually under attack today. The conservative argument against it amounts to saying “your existence offends me and doesn’t fit my definition of what our national identity should be; therefore I want some government action to make your life harder.”

So with pluralism you end up continuing to have multiple viewpoints struggling to define what it means to be American. If all of these ideologies continue to exist they will continue to fight with one another. The photograph that accompanies the Rauch article speaks volumes to this fact. On one side you have a group of people holding pro-choice signs, on the other a group of people holding signs supporting the confirmation of now Chief Justice John Roberts. Oddly enough the blue v. red color scheme has been reversed in the photo. Two of the sign holders standing closest to the dividing line between the two groups stare across at one another. The pro-choice person looking with a condescending smile that seems to signal pity and disdain for those poor, hateful fools standing across from her; fitting perfectly with the stereotype of the liberal elitist Rush Limbaugh rails against every day. On the other side a man with a haircut and glasses that scream “I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible,” stares down his political opponents with a glair of hatred that would make the vengeful, “Tim LaHaye” version of Jesus proud. The photograph sums up perfectly the “profoundly uncomfortable” feeling that Schudson describes in the quote above.

The photo is the culture war summed up in one picture. Or, maybe more accurately, it is the over simplified, didactic representation of the culture war that is presented by the media and the most extreme soldiers on both sides of that war. I can’t help but think of the pro-life atheists who don’t fit into that picture (yes, there are a few of them out there).

At the meeting place of the stares of the two unnamed individuals in the photo is not just the culture war but, in some ways, the degradation of the Habermasian ideal of the public sphere. Habermas (1989) envisioned a sphere of debate “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state” (p. 176). One essential element of articulating of the society’s needs was rational thought. There is more than likely no rational thought in those angry eyes.

This is exactly the point of why the culture war will never be brought to an end. If the debate were over policy questions you could still possibly have rationality. One could present evidence to support a policy, his opponent could counter and they could politely disagree on the best course of action, or one could possibly persuade the other to change positions. In the culture wars we are dealing with something entirely different. We are having a debate about identity.

In this debate it doesn’t matter if you say to someone that it is only fair that two gay men be allowed to enter into a union with one another, that is recognized by the state and that this union should carry with it the same legal rights as a heterosexual marriage. You can cite studies that show these unions will have social benefits. It won’t matter because you’re really having a debate about how we define what it means to be an American, and two men kissing is definitely not part of that definition for some people. Not just that, but for some people actively working to prevent those two men from kissing is an essential part of what it means to be an American.

Arguments over identity do not happen in the rational realm of the Habermasian public sphere. They are filled with emotionally charged verbal and visual imagery. Take for example prayer in school as part of the American identity. To make the emotionally charged argument the conservative will of course cite Abbington v Schempp (1963), and by extension the entire decade of the 1960’s, as an attack on their beliefs.

This is a perfect example of the “identity debate” and how it is more of an emotional discussion than a rational policy discussion. First, the sixties evoke a certain visceral reaction from conservatives. It carries images of debauchery, anti-Americanism and a general rejection of “Christian values,” as they perceive it. Abbington v Schempp is a big part of all of that.

I would argue that the proper location to place the origins of prayer in school as a legal issue (not to mention political liberalism) is not the sixties but the forties. In the two cases Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) and West Virginia State Board of Ed. v. Barnette (1943) we find the real rationale for the prohibition of school coercion in praying.

From the perspective conservative Christians it is rhetorically less effective to cite those two cases in your fight against the secular onslaught. The 1940s don’t exactly evoke the same emotional imagery as the 1960s, it’s easier to rail against hippies spitting on the troops as opposed to Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson.

Rauch’s proposal doesn’t really end the culture wars. All it is does is create 51 separate battle fields on which these identity defining wars are being fought. Instead of just having to worry about “activist judges” on the federal bench, suddenly we’re having long, drawn out fights of Borkian proportions in every state and at the federal level. Because, let’s be honest, even if the Court said tomorrow that all of these decisions should be made at the state level, all sides of every issue would still be spending resources trying to influence the federal government to make legal changes agreeable to their political viewpoint.

So, is it necessary to end the culture wars? I would say no. It shouldn’t bother us that our nation is divided over certain issues. What should be scary is the prospect of the discord ending.

Bork, Robert. (2005). How to increase liberty in America: Ten suggestions. National Review, 19 December.

Fiala, Andrew. (2002). Toleration and pragmatism. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 16(2).

Goodman, Ellen. (2007). The atheist: Religion and politics. Intelligencer Journal, 23 March. (also available here).

Habermas, Jurgen. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Rauch, Jonathan. (2007). A separate peace. Retrieved from 19 March 2007.

Schudson, Michael. (1997). Why Conversation is Not the Soul of Democracy. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 14, 297-309.

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