Tuesday, May 21

A field guide to the Culture Wars

Can you be a conscientious objector in the culture wars? Or are we in a time of resurgent Manicheanism, a battle of cosmic dualism, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness? In such a word view you can’t object and withdraw from the conflict, because we are all foot-soldiers in the war, in fact this battle is fought in our very being, in our soul.

There have been increasing discussions of our contemporary culture wars as new forms of religious conflict. There are the converts and true believers in what is termed ‘the religion of woke’, a type of post-modern Reformation; on the other, the forces of traditional belief and orthodoxy, often increasingly fundamentalist in their rearticulation of what they believe and stand for.

So we get Reformation and Counter-Reformation; contemporary versions of Luther’s 95 theses posted on social media opposed by the rise of pod-cast Jesuits; we see demands for daily confessions and penance – but little if any forgiveness. We find ourselves in a society where the Spanish Inquisition meets Calvin’s Geneva.

How might we begin to make sense of this? Or more so, how might we find a way between the warring factions, to be able to critique and call out the excesses of both sides? Thirty years ago, during the first culture wars, Robert Hughes attempted to do so.

Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was part of that brilliant generation of Australian public intellectuals who combined fierce intelligence, wit, bravado, chutzpah and a wonderful facility for words as they broke from the constraint of provincial antipodean life and took on the world. These ‘brilliant creatures’, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes – with many lesser others in their slipstream – cast a deeply sardonic eye over contemporary society, calling it to account in ways that made us think, question, laugh and gasp. They were ‘liberals’ in the best sense of the word, a way that it is almost impossible to be today as it is a position disparaged and dismissed from both the right and the left. Yet is this not why we should read them? For they offer a way through the middle, a deeply informed and informative way to be a conscientious objector in a Manichean war.

Thirty years ago, America was tearing itself apart in the first culture wars. Hughes, art critic of Time magazine and a foremost public intellectual, delivered a series of 3 lectures at the New York Public Library that were collected and published as Culture of Complaint. What attracted his attention was “the peculiarly exacerbated relations between culture and morality”. He begins by drawing on W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, quoting from the section on Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Hughes notes the prophetical nature of Auden’s text for he saw it describing his contemporary America:

“polity obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; sceptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism.” Such a regressively adolescent, anti-intellectual culture infantilizes everyone: “Since our new-found sensitivity decrees only the victims shall be the hero, the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”

We have the turn to what I term the society of affect, or as Hughes puts it: “the emphasis is on the subjective: how we feel about things, rather than what we think or can know.”

What collapsed was the aim for consensus, “for getting along by making up practical compromises to meet real social needs” and this failure occurred on both sides of the political spectrum. Left and Right politics retreated into the intensity of intolerance, “the right is as corroded by defunct ideology as the academic left. Propaganda-talk, euphemism, and evasion… cross all party lines and ideological divides.”

Marx famously labeled religion ‘the opiate of the masses’ and we can see, via Hughes how the culture wars are a new intensified opiate of the masses – left and right: “polarization is addictive. It is the crack of politics – a short intensive rush that the system craves again and again, until it begins to collapse. The exacerbated division between ‘right’ and “left’ in America comes from reality loss.”

As an aside, the culture critic Greil Marcus observed that “in the word of popular culture we are all imaginary Americans”; we can now say that in the world of resurgent culture wars we seem on the precipice of all becoming new forms of imaginary Americans, in part because of the new empire of social media.

No one, no thing, no institution, no party, no identity is spared Hughes’ critical eye: all are guilty of retraction, reduction, intensification, and anti-intellectualism – including the universities. Hughes shows one can take a conscientious objector position, but it has to be, it needs to be, it necessitates an even-handed critique of all excesses that demonstrates you are better informed than all your opponents.