We Have Been Here Before (in fact we never left)
The culture wars are all the rage. It seems that everywhere you look you can see evidence of people tearing each other apart. One side is a bunch of “deplorables”, clinging to their guns and bibles, while the other side is advancing some radical agenda to destroy all that is decent and good in the world.
All this cultural rage apparently knows no bounds. It affects the leisure industry via Disney’s scrap with Florida over their so-called “don’t say gay” law. It impacts the beer people drink as witnessed by Bud Light’s declining sales after positioning the product as trans friendly. It has polluted political discourse with Nikki Haley’s unhinged idea to ban anonymous posting online. She has since walked back this idea in the face of criticism that among other anonymous writings were the Federalist Papers-oops! I have commented on this phenomenon before, as it related to the politicization of pants pockets. It seems you cannot get away from the politicization of everything and the raging culture wars that are seemingly endless.
Most who comment on these issues take the position that what is going on is new and especially dangerous. They blame it on social media, or technology, or that some foreign nogoodnik owns an app or platform. This “analysis” is bipartisan”. Most of the political spectrum is of a mind that the nation faces some unique threat, and this is especially dangerous to our young. The unifying theme of all of this commentary is to advocate for more governmental control of society. To crush “disinformation”, to purify the dialogue and to remove this uniquely modern threat. There is some differences as to what the right or left would do with this increased power (and quite a bit of agreement), but always they want to expand the power of the state.
The problem is, besides the immoral expansion of government violence, is that the “analysis” is ahistorical nonsense. None of this is new. I could go a far back as 300BC and discuss the fact that Socrates was executed because he was perceived as a threat to the young, and go forward from there. I won’t because there are not enough terabytes to house all this history.
Instead I will point out some of the more egregious example from US history. You think that the discourse is polluted today? Ha! In the 1790s the various political factions were tearing each other up with all manner of invective. To wit:
Alexander Hamilton – writing under the pseudonym of “Phocion” – submitted an opinion letter in Fenno’s Gazette. He accused Thomas Jefferson of having an extra-marital affair with one of his slaves, called him a coward in battle during the American Revolution, and dismissed members of the Democratic-Republican Party as “cut-throats who walk in rags and sleep amid filth and vermin.” Conversely, the Democratic-Republican supporters of Thomas Jefferson’s campaign levied their own series of criticisms and personal attacks toward John Adams. The many talking points circulated in the pro-Jefferson National Gazette included accusations of Adams thirsting for political power, being a “godless, overweight shill” for the British Empire, and assumptions that he sought to transform the presidency into a hereditary dictatorship.
Charges of atheism, marital infidelity, questionable parentage and the honor of one’s wife were common, and printed in public papers. Of course there was a reaction to all this, a reaction that makes today’s proposals seem modest. Congress passed four acts that together are known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. In short this more than doubled the requirements for citizenship, and made criticism of the government a crime.
All that was just the beginning. Such charges ripped through US culture from then on. Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel was accused of being a harlot. Abraham Lincoln was accused of being in favor of “race mixing”. Even more awfully, Mary Todd Lincoln was accused of being an “improper” woman because of her public grief at the assassination of her husband. As for political partisanship the caning of Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts by Preston Brooks a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina stands out.
The twentieth century was not much better, what with charges of communist sympathies and disloyalty to America a normal part of the scene.
Then there is the various moral panics that beset the nation, outside of partisan politics. The Salem witch trials, to the ridiculous Reefer Madness nonsense, to the still current drug war, and we can throw in the 1980s version of today’s sex trafficking exaggeration, the McMartin preschool trial. That takes us right up to the current drag show freak out and the cries of fascism on the left to the charges of “wokeism” on the right.
This brief tour shows that there is nothing new in the type of charges. We have never gotten away from any of this. The age-old response to this (and a host of other zombie bad ideas) is that “this time is different”tm. But no this time is not different. It may be true that the technology spreads information (and disinformation) around faster, but that also means corrective information can be offered up sooner. In any event information used to get around quickly, even back in the day. I remember hearing an off-color joke about why Pope John Paul II got shot the same day it happened. Point is there really is nothing new under the sun. Sadly there is nothing new about the authoritarian response to all of this.
Cutting This Gordian Knot
If none of this cultural warfare and rancid discourse is new, how do we navigate it. More importantly how do we deflect the authoritarian responses that are on offer. In short, how do we remain free, and sane? First, we need to remember that most of us are not massively online. In fact, the Pew Research Center studied Twitter (now X) users and concluded that the top 25% of users are responsible for 97% of all tweets. Additionally, only 23% of US adults even use Twitter, and given the previous statistic, not very often. The same phenomenon is exhibited on other platforms. Many of these platforms are losing users, as are the political talk shows on cable news as well as the mainstream newspapers and networks. It is easy to “doom scroll” and get caught up thinking that everything is going to hell, when in fact this is not the way most people live their life.
Once we realize that the overly politicized culture warriors are in the minority, we can better respond to those relatively few who are. We can remember that most of us live in the world of the double thank you, where we don’t care about someone’s lifestyle or political ideology. The greatest joy in life is found in those relationships that hold the most meaning for us, God, family, friends.
Speaking of God, what is the proper response for us as people of faith? First, it is to always treat others the way we want to be treated. Don’t follow the minority down the road of cultural warfare and the politics of personal destruction. Discourse, and disagreement are fine, if done graciously. Be tolerant of anyone’s nonviolent lifestyle, even if you personally disagree with it. Talk to others the way you would want to be talked to and remember that the Golden Rule isn’t just for Sundays anymore.
We should strive to build up the nonpolitical world where we find most of our joy, and meaning. Politics has a place in the (fallen) world, just not a dominant place. Focus on God, and what He has called us to. That should disabuse us of the notion that we should denigrate our neighbors. Then go out and live that joy and bear the good witness to God’s merciful love and redemption that truly matters in this world (and the next).
The other thing I would suggest is that we should, when discussing (graciously) with others, point out that these cultural wars are a sideshow. To the extent that politics does matter , this is not it. All of this misses and ignores the real issues facing the country. One of the first essays I ever wrote on this site was one exploring the phenomenon that so many were taken in by personalities that they ignored “the weightier matters of the law”. When someone confronts you with excitement over a drag show, ask them if that drag show is more important than the $33 trillion in debt the US is carrying and what that means for the future. When one party accuses the other of being “undemocratic”, and “anti-American” ask them is that more important than the fact that the entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare will be broke within a decade. When someone is accused of being too “woke” or a “fascist” ask them is an undefined label more important that the multiple wars the US is waging all over the globe. Bring the discussion back to what really matters, to real people, suffering real consequences.
In doing this we may be just tilting at windmills. However, all we can do is the best we can in response to God’s gifts of grace upon grace. Go live a life of deep meaning, and profound joy. Share the Good News, as best you can, in thought, word, and deed. Jettison the culture wars and the moral panics that have marked so much of history, Instead wage a war of love, peace, and tolerance for all of God’s children. That is a war that sees our belief turned into obedience.
Praise Be to God