Kulturkampf distracts from things we can DO something about

Writing the Declaration: One thing that I think 'defines us' more than, say, arguments over sex.

Writing the Declaration: One thing that I think ‘defines us’ more than, say, arguments over sex.

Since I started reading The New York Times again on a daily basis (because they offered a better deal than The Wall Street Journal), I’ve been enjoying Ross Douthat‘s columns.

But I really have a beef with the lede (although not the overall thrust) of his piece today:

The secret of culture war is that it is often a good and necessary thing. People don’t
like culture wars when they’re on the losing side, and while they’re losing they often
complain about how cultural concerns are distractions from the “real” issues, usually
meaning something to do with the deficit or education or where to peg the Medicare
growth rate or which terrorist haven the United States should be bombing next.

But in the sweep of American history, it’s the battles over cultural norms and socalled
social issues — over race and religion, intoxicants and sex, speech and
censorship, immigration and assimilation — that for better or worse have often made
us who we are.

First I’ll deal with the second graf. With the possible exception of race, I don’t think that litany of social issues “made us who we are.” Take immigration, for instance. We can’t speak of what current battles over the subject have meant to the country, because the fighting is still going on. But we can look at battles that are over — such as the waves of nativism and anti-Catholicism that greeted the Irish and Italians who came here in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Aside from revealing an ugly side to our national character that has once more come to the fore, I don’t think those battles over long-ago immigrants settled anything. Despite the opposition, those particular immigrants kept coming, and eventually (after two or three generations) were mostly accepted as fellow Americans.

Of course, those were European immigrants. The conversation gets more complicated when we’re talking about nonwhites. But what part of that defines us? Is it the shameful, racist Immigration Act of 1924, or the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which undid the 1924 legislation?

Or is it the wave of nativism that elected Donald Trump president? And how have we been defined? And how has that battle been constructive?

Personally, I’d say we were defined by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution — particularly the Bill of Rights — the Civil War, the 13th Amendment, the results of the Second World War and the Cold War.

That’s my beef with the second paragraph. But my real problem is with the first. To repeat:

People don’t like culture wars when they’re on the losing side, and while they’re losing they often complain about how cultural concerns are distractions from the “real” issues, usually
meaning something to do with the deficit or education or where to peg the Medicare
growth rate or which terrorist haven the United States should be bombing next….

I don’t like the Kulturkampf whether “my” side (to the extent I have one) is losing or not. And my problem with them is not that they distract from the “real issues” he describes, but that they distract from issues we can do something about.

Another way to put that is, issues on which we have a realistic chance of coming together and accomplishing something constructive for the country.

I find it easiest to explain this in terms of my experience on the editorial board. I had little interest in leading my team to address, say, abortion. Not that I didn’t regard such issues as significant — y’all know how strong my attitudes are on abortion. I just didn’t see an opportunity to do any good wading into those issues.

First, my fellow board members were all over the place on such issues. We would have to waste a lot of time internally arguing about such things and getting nowhere, except maybe for increasing acrimony on the team and damaging our ability to work together on other issues.

But far more importantly than that, I saw no possibility of anything we said on those subjects — even if we were able to agree — having a positive effect on the larger world. For pretty much all of my time on the editorial board, partisans brought up those issues for one purpose — to separate the sheep from the lambs. They were litmus tests to see which side you were on, ways of stirring up the base to give money in order to fund the battle against those other people who disagreed.

Over and over again, such issues have been used to push the American people apart, and keep them from agreeing on anything.

But I did see the possibility of saying something constructive, something that might contribute to a useful conversation, about our unworkable form of government in South Carolina, or whether to defund public schools through vouchers, or how to pay for needed road repairs, or other practical issues in the public sphere.

Now, someone is going to say, “Then why did you write so much about the Confederate flag?” Because in South Carolina, that was a significant issue that did define us. As long as it flew, we knew why it flew: So the majority (or rather the more extreme elements of the majority, the people GOP lawmakers live in fear of) could say to the minority, “We are the ones in control here, and the rest of you can go to hell.” A state that would pass its laws in a building with a statement like that flying on its lawn could not be expected to legislate in behalf of all its citizens. It was something we had to grow up, deal with and put behind us if we were to have any hope to move forward as a people.

It was something we needed to get out of the way so we could deal with other issues.

Anyway, the rest of Douthat’s column, in which he decried the kinds of culture wars that attract Trump’s attention, was fine…

25 thoughts on “Kulturkampf distracts from things we can DO something about

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Dang. I meant to throw that item up first thing, thinking I could deal with it in a couple of sentences and move on. And I seem to have gotten carried away.

    I think that’s because sometimes I look at something that in my own mind is easy to deal with… but then I realize I need to explain WHY I think that. Because my readers are not me, and don’t necessarily know how I got there.

    I go, “Douthat’s full of it here because X,” which seems simple enough. But when I write it, I have to explain X. Which often takes more words than I thought…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Douthat’s more of a Culture Warrior than I am — he’s particularly interested in the political arguments going on within the Catholic Church.

    I read what he has to say about those things with interest (when I can follow; he gets WAY esoteric), but on the whole, like native Columbian Cardinal Bernardin, I want us to get past those things and find Common Ground

  3. Mark Stewart

    It is, however, amusing to watch two parts of the executive branch battle in an appeals court over whether discrimination because of sex is meant to include or exclude homosexuality – with the Trumpian pols at the top of the DOJ deciding to assert that homosexuality ought to be the basis for discrimination.

    Trump’s biggest problem is that his campaign naturally early on attracted the looniest out there; and now he has to govern in spite of their actions. He’s a clown; but it’s like he is clowning around with his clown shoes tied together. This administration doesn’t even need an opponent to derail its efforts to stumble anywhere. It’s a freaking disaster – and not a culture war. It’s only a culture war if we say it is; at present it’s just the worst Presidency our nation has ever seen.

    The proper analogy is not a culture war; the right places to look for reference are the demise of Athens and Rome. We have history that can instruct us. It worked for the Founding Fathers. It’s available for reference and reflection by us all as well. Now.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “the right places to look for reference are the demise of Athens and Rome”

      As Omar would say (I’m rewatching “The Wire” during morning workouts), indeed…

      And the question is, can we reverse that process? If not, we’re doomed.

      The “Make America Great Again” Trumpistas are right about one thing: We are in decline, with basic assumptions melting before us. They just don’t understand that they are Exhibit A in proving that decline…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        In other words, I meant that “were you an American or South Vietnamese military commander, you might wish the North would do once a month” for about a minute, thinking purely in military terms. Then you’d realized the non-abstract reality was that you couldn’t afford that…

  4. Doug Ross

    There’s a big difference between immigration and illegal immigration. One is about how to allow people from other countries to assimilate into the U.S. The other is about how to rightfully enforce borders and deal with people who choose to break our laws. Big difference. It’s the difference between sending out invitations to a wedding reception and dealing with wedding crashers.

    There are certain culture issues that demand talking about because something actually CAN be done.. and done quickly with only positive impact for society. Gay marriage for example. It is only because of an ever decreasing number of closed minded people who still have a platform to rail against it that it hasn’t happened yet. But it will happen eventually across the country. Putting some effort into this culturekampf issue is very worthwhile.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “There’s a big difference between immigration and illegal immigration.”

      Yeah, right.

      Doug, this isn’t about you and what YOU believe. The fact is, Trump was elected by people (not all his voters, but enough that he couldn’t have won without them) who want to restrict legal immigration as well — from expanding travel bans to the move to cut legal immigration in half.

      We’re talking real nativism here. You can’t wish that away…

      1. Doug Ross

        “from expanding travel bans to the move to cut legal immigration in half.”

        I’m for the first part and think the second part demands further analysis – particularly when it comes to H1B visa applicants who are brought in not because they provide technical skills that can’t be found in the U.S. but because they will work for much less money and not complain when asked to work long hours.

        That’s not nativism – it’s national security and economic policy… both of which should favor American citizens.

        1. Doug Ross

          Would you impose any restrictions on immigration? No limits, no qualifications based on home country or criminal background?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yep. But I’d certainly loosen the restrictions on immigration from Mexico and probably Central America. We have far more jobs waiting for those people than our immigration practices seem to acknowledge. Ask a farmer with a crop about to rot in the field whether our legal processes are letting enough workers in fast enough.

            If you DON’T want to loosen legal immigration into Mexico, then what you’re saying is that you want the big, bad GOVERNMENT to try to override the natural workings of the labor marketplace…

            1. Claus2

              ” Ask a farmer with a crop about to rot in the field whether our legal processes are letting enough workers in fast enough.”

              Can we ask the school administrators and local hospitals as well? Because you take the farmer advice, you also have to take the school and medical facilities advice. Will these farm workers be self sufficient, or will they qualify for government subsidies… who pays for that? Big picture, you have to look at more than the lettuce farmer.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                I’m not following you. Are you trying to make the point, so popular with the folks Trump is appealing to, that these people who come here to do backbreaking labor to earn a living are actually here for some sort of welfare? Because that one has never made sense…

  5. Chuckie

    “It [the Confederate flag issue] was something we had to grow up, deal with and put behind us if we were to have any hope to move forward as a people.”

    The same could be said about any number of other so-called “culture war” issues. Debating and dealing with them is how we define ourselves, just like Douthat says. If you want to filter out all the ones you don’t think are worth YOUR time, that’s fine. Just don’t turn it into a sweeping judgment against everything others consider significant.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m not choosing arbitrarily, according to personal preference.

      Nothing looms larger in the South Carolina legend — nothing is more core to the SC story — than the narrative that includes slavery, secession, Jim Crow, white supremacy, etc. It is THE conflict that South Carolina, more than any other state, has to wrestle with and do everything it can to resolve.

      The flag, as long as it flew, was an enormous barrier to such resolution.

      I didn’t pick the flag issue. It picked me, because I am a South Carolinian….

      1. Doug Ross

        “The flag, as long as it flew, was an enormous barrier to such resolution”

        How we doing on racial equality and feelings of white supremacy since it came down? Did it have any impact? Doesn’t seem like it.

          1. Doug Ross

            Well, if it was an enormous barrier, things would be different then, wouldn’t they? The barrier’s gone. What are we waiting for to move forward? What are the next steps that don’t involve symbols?

      2. Chuckie

        “I’m not choosing arbitrarily, according to personal preference.”

        Progressive protest and dissent viewed in retrospect often is considered justified and productive. It’s different when you’re actually living through it.

      3. Chuckie

        “…the narrative that includes slavery, secession, Jim Crow, white supremacy, etc.”

        But you don’t see the debate over Confederate monuments and memorials as a worthwhile part of that narrative. Seems to me it’s an unfinished chapter in the same post-civil war, civil rights story – just like the flag was. It just took a while to get around to it. Heck, even slavery itself was in large part a culture war matter. If you don’t believe that then read a book by South Carolina’s own Lacy Ford, Origins of Southern Radicalism, which shows how the SC Upcountry, which wasn’t a big slaveholding area in Antebellum times, became culturally, emotionally and intellectually so wedded to the institution that it was a hotbed of pro-slavery fire-breathing.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Those monuments are dead. They commemorate the dead. They are made of cold metal and stone, and they just sit there and collect waste from pigeons.

          A flag flies. It is living. Throughout human history, flags have been about right now. They hold sway. They tell you who or what is in charge in the place where they fly. What’s the first thing a conquering army does when they take territory or a citadel from an enemy? They run up the flag.

          Everything that a flag is, everything that it stands for, made flying that thing intolerable…

          1. bud

            A flag flies. It is living. Throughout human history, flags have been about right now. They hold sway. They tell you who or what is in charge in the place where they fly.

            Seriously?? Were you on drugs when you wrote this nonsense? First and foremost a flag is most assuredly NOT living. Second, a flag doesn’t tell you anything because it doesn’t have a mouth. It’s an inanimate object that collects dust and pigeon poo just like a statue. And third, Doug is absolutely correct when he points out that if the flag really was an obstacle we should see some sort of progress by now. But really things are pretty much the same. Just go check out the disaster with the nuclear power plants, the ridiculous highway funding bill and the general lack of progress on anything tangible.

            I suggest if we get rid of anything symbolic let’s get rid of all the war memorials. After all they don’t do anything but glorify war, destruction and killing. I’d start with that ridiculous cannon from the Battleship Maine. A cannon really is nothing more than an instrument for killing and destruction. Why do we want to glorify that?

          2. Chuckie

            “Those monuments are dead.”

            Again, more selective reading – based on personal preferences.

            To a lot of folks, those monuments obviously aren’t dead at all – otherwise there wouldn’t be an uproar over them, on both sides.

  6. David L Carlton

    Brad, I think you give a lot away with your graf on the Flag. I’m not sure that my point would be the same as Douthat’s, but I do agree that the culture wars have gone far to shape our country. Take the “defining” Declaration of Independence. It sure wasn’t “definitive” at the time of the Civil War, when you had Lincoln focusing on the centrality of the proposition that All Men Are Created Equal, while the secessionists were focusing on the right to rewrite the social contract if they didn’t think it adequately protected their liberty to own people. *Both sides,* in other words, claimed the Declaration–and the consequences were disastrous. That Lincoln’s vision won was momentous, but it wasn’t a triumph of public policy–it was a literal war.

    As for the issues involved with immigration and assimilation, yes–they keep rising, zombie-like, to disturb the peace. But they’ve also worked to make our understanding of “Americanness” more capacious. Apart from a few remaining Southern Baptist nut cases (Robert Jeffress?) no one seriously considers your faith to be un-American–as many still did when I first became politically conscious around 1960 (Ross Douthat is, as you know, a Roman Catholic convert, and is well aware of that history). Similarly, American identity has long been vexed by the notion that it’s defined by racial heritage; “Anglo-Saxonism” ran rampant through the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. But while it’s come out of the woodwork yet again, it has nowhere near its former potency, in large part because it’s been countered over time by the argument that America is an idea, not a tribe–a society that embraces, rather than excludes. And that was, at bottom, a cultural argument.

    I suspect that what you’re really saying is that you wish to confine your (and our) attention to issues with public-policy solutions. But while one could do away with Jim Crow, liberalize immigration laws, or get the Flag down with public policy, you couldn’t do that before people were prepared to do these things. Efforts to change the southern racial order during Reconstruction were met with terrorism and the violent overthrow of governments like SC’s; civil rights laws and court decisions were met with a lot of rabid rhetoric followed, in the end, by sullen acquiescence. What changed? A lot of it was the economy; the Red Shirts of the 1870s weren’t worried about scaring corporate jobs away. But a lot of it was change in the culture. And the culture wouldn’t have changed without a culture war.

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