Monday, September 15, 2008

"culture" and today's politics

From an interesting essay by Lee Siegel in the WSJ...

...the idea of a resurrected culture war is all sound bites and flurry, and not much else.

A war requires two sides to fight it. Yet the Republicans are clamoring about the culture while the Democrats insist on sticking to the political "issues." It's not war but two parallel monologues. The Republicans are frictionlessly pursuing the same successful strategy that they developed over 25 years ago.

That was when the Reaganites pronounced government irrelevant, even obstructive, to the improvement of social life, thereby shifting the Republicans' center of operations from politics to culture. In short order, the Reagan revolutionaries invited into their cause the Christian right, who set their self-contained cultural universe against secular cultural values that the liberals had never dreamed would be under explicit siege.

Still, the Christian perspective had to be tempered and made more inclusive. Enter Allan Bloom. In 1987, Mr. Bloom published his bestselling "The Closing of the American Mind," an attack on what he perceived as coarse popular culture and a destructive political correctness at the universities. Taking up the Christian right's banner in his cosmopolitan intellectual's hands, Mr. Bloom married the religious right to the mostly secular neo-conservatives. He began the work completed by William Bennett in the latter's sensationally popular "The Book of Virtues." Mr. Bloom redefined culture as "values."...

As a result of all this intellectual tumult, one stark distinction stands out among the differences between contemporary liberals and conservatives (the real differences, not the manufactured ones). Liberals always think that there is something broken in politics. Conservatives always think that there is something wrong with the culture.

These conflicting urgencies have given the conservatives mostly the upper hand for over a quarter of a century. Since culture is more immediate to us than the abstract policies and principles of politics -- and seemingly more dependable than politics' often fluid expediencies -- a politics of culture is going to be more successful than mere politics. For many people, the idea that Republican politics are wholly responsible for the country's ills is hard to accept. You can't feel politics. Rather, such people blame a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility for the deepening malaise...You experience selfishness and irresponsibility in the flesh every day.

Let me clarify what the word "culture" means in this context, a la the Christian right and Mr. Bloom's descendants. If hearing the word "culture" makes you think of Rossini, the latest translation of "Anna Karenina," the Guggenheim Museum or "The Wire," then you're probably a liberal -- or, at least, an unreconstructed "cosmopolitan" conservative. But if the word culture means for you forms of courtship, or sexual preference, or the relationship between parents and children, or the set of rituals that revolve around the ownership and use of a gun, or, most passionately of all, ways of living, and believing, and rejoicing, and suffering, and dying that are hallowed by the religion you practice and embodied in the church you belong to -- if for you, culture does not primarily signify opera or HBO, then you are probably celebrating Sarah Palin's ragged, real-seeming life. In that case, you are what might be called either a heartland or a Bloomian conservative.

Broadly speaking, liberals segregate culture from ordinary existence. They will "do" culture and then "do" the rest of life -- gaze at a Vermeer, say, and then work on finding the perfect daycare center. But for conservatives, raising children, using the discipline of faith to endure illness or setback, cherishing life at its conception are cultural tasks and values inseparable from the challenges of everyday living. The liberal idea of culture as edification or diversion implies abundant leisure time. The conservative idea of culture as the practice of getting through life (like the anthropologist's idea of culture) implies time under siege by work and adversity; this is culture defined as the meaningful beliefs and activities that are the response to necessity and adversity. Culture in this sense is as familiar as the eight-hour day, and as intimate as biological function. It is a matter of life and death. Call it organic, as opposed to fabricated, culture.


Then, an interesting discussion of Thomas Frank's book...

This is why Thomas Frank's greatly influential 2004 critique of the Republicans' cultural strategy, "What's the Matter with Kansas?", has had such a negative effect on the Democrats' fortunes, for the simple reason that Mr. Frank assured Democrats that they didn't have to respond to the way the Republicans were manipulating organic culture. Mr. Frank cogently argued that the Republicans used cultural issues to distract their constituents from Republican economic policies which, ironically, were harming the very people who were voting for them. Mr. Frank believed that what Democrats had to do to win back the White House was to keep hammering away at Republican-induced economic disparities. Barack Obama's campaign is doing precisely that....


Then, returning to his thesis, this punchline...

No, there is no culture war. There is only the Republicans' unilateral mastery of the cultural strategy. The Democrats consider any attention to the practices and prejudices of everyday living a mendacious diversion from the "issues," while the GOP, the party of the status quo, has proven itself astoundingly skillful at using its cultural antennae to adapt to new times. Who knew? The Republicans may or may not be the party that will effect change. But they are certainly the party that knows how to ride it.

2 Comments:

At September 15, 2008 at 5:41 PM , Blogger kartographer said...

No Culture War, sorry but there is and it seems to be heating up again, but let's not forget who fired the first shot in this round:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Just the open and understanding kind of dialogue needed to get us past our differences. Can you tell me one thing though, why didn't he say that to the Pennsylvanians instead of behind their backs?

 
At September 15, 2008 at 9:57 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Or one could take Obama's odd comment as another piece of evidence for Siegel's thesis: that the left doesn't get it-- and talks past the right (and many of the common folk).

 

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