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Culture war? What culture war?

Guest Blogger

America is deep in the morass of an intractable culture war -- or so it may seem. But to Irene Taviss Thomson, the presumption is wrong. For her book “Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas,” Thomson analyzed hundreds of articles on controversial topics published over two decades in four magazines: National Review, Time, The New Republic, and The Nation. Her conclusion: the cultural divide is fuzzier than people might think. Differences on hot-button issues between people on the same side of the divide are at least as sharp as those between people on opposites sides. What’s more, the liberal and conservative writers in these magazines do not follow a single, unified view when outlining their respective positions on issues such as separation of church and state, homosexuality and abortion. The predictabilty of our biases is not so predictable, after all, says Thomson, professor emeritus of sociology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. In fact, the notion of a culture war may be more a weapon for those on either side wishing to further their own divisive agendas.

By Irene Taviss Thomson

The metaphor of a culture war has framed our discussion of a range of issues – from abortion, feminism, the family, and homosexuality to religion, education, popular culture, and the arts. Yet the division between those who believe in absolute moral truths and those who place moral authority in individual judgment is not so clear.

Most Americans support both duty and morality and individual rights and self-expression. They believe in the family, for example, while also accepting the rights of individuals to go against their families. Only small numbers of Americans are consistently for or against abortion or same-sex marriage. And even those arrayed on the same side of these issues may not agree on matters of school prayer or censorship of popular culture.

The culture may still be polarized, however, if the elites who seek to shape how we think espouse competing moral visions that effectively eclipse any middle ground. James Davison Hunter has argued, for example, that the very idea of “morality” has become a “right-wing” word and that progressives scoff at talk of religion and spirituality.

But this image, too, is false. Elite rhetoric on all sides employs moral language. If the Right sees itself as defending morality when it upholds the family and tradition and attacks popular culture, the Left sees the exclusion or inequality of gays and women as immoral. If the Right attacks the immorality of television talk shows, the Left finds it “morally repulsive” that the downtrodden guests are so exploited. Elite opinion in the United States, unlike elsewhere, confers respect on religion: liberals and conservatives alike support “faith-based initiatives” and accept religious discourse in the public sphere.

Contrary to stereotypes of progressives supporting individual rights while conservatives defer to larger communal purposes, both sides support individualism and the greater good of the community. They all criticize the excesses of individualism – seen as “selfishness” -- as well as of community -- seen as “conformity” earlier and as “tribalism” more recently. All support the ideal of pluralism within one culture (not multiculturalism); and everyone endorses moderation, as against the “extremism” of their opponents.

The image of two opposing camps is further belied by the strong internal dissensions within each camp. There are abortion rights supporters who nevertheless express concern about the immorality of abortion and anti-gay advocates who dispute whether homosexuality is a matter of morality. Someone on the Left dubs other liberals “Nazis” because they support “character education” in the schools. There is disagreement on the Right about whether homosexual acts not openly acknowledged are less of a threat to the common good.

If neither popular nor elite opinions support the idea of a culture war, why does the image persist? Perhaps the answer lies in its usefulness to politicians, advocates, and the media. What better way is there to mobilize people than to suggest that their very way of life is at stake? But it is precisely for this reason that we would be wise to abandon the culture war image -- with its implication that no compromise is possible and its risk of generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 18, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: culture wars; left vs. right; conservative vs. liberal; ideological battles  
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It is true that America has more middle ground outside the Washington Beltway than the pundits pretend. Perhaps we need new pundits.

Posted by: 1toughlady | June 18, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

The war metaphor is imperative in a war culture.

Posted by: JNelson4 | June 18, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Thomson (or Levingston?) would have us believe that the terms of debate have the same meaning to opponents. The debate itself is much more profound than the rote use of similar words. "Morality," for instance, means much more than "fairness" or "civil rights" for gays or those who condone abortion. It is an approach and a code developed over the millennia, striving for the spiritual transcendence of the individual and society. An authentic pole attracts; semantics is reason adrift on an arbitrary course.

Posted by: elgropo1 | June 18, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

You mean politicans and the media try to divide us, the American people? Hmmmmm, I'll have to think about that one . . .

Posted by: DPoniatowski | June 18, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Let's see -- 81% of voters want job outsourcing ended, they want trade tariffs brought back and raised until jobs that have been outsourced return. 58% want automatic citizenship for illegals ended. 70% approve of Arizona's immigration law. 50% want the health insurance fraud perpetuated on us repealed. 70% of voters say the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are bad ideas, worthless loss of life and money, ad want us out immediately. This is just a basic sampling of how most American's feel. It stands in stark contrast with Washington and New York, the Northeast in general. The cultural divide has become a chasm and it is growing wider by the day. The only reason the Post's writers don't understand that is because they are on the side of the elite, clueless greedy cockroaches that pay no attention to how the rest of the country feels and thinks. Maybe, when things completely during the looming depression, when we have a genuine war in this county that splits it apart, maybe then you will recognize what a real war is all about. The U.S. cannot serve the needs of the Northeastern establishment and hope to survive.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | June 18, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Right wing think-tank pundits busy demonizing Muslims in order to create a black/white-good guy/bad guy dichotomy suitable for our childlike political discourse in America are in the business of Josef Goebbels even though many of them lost family members due to his sucess. The pure vacuum where their ethical sensibility should reside, is fascinating.

Posted by: fd3200 | June 18, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

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