It's time to break up with the culture wars

It’s time to break up with the culture wars

It’s time to break up with the culture wars

If you read Nickolas Kristof’s opinion pieces in the New York Times, you know he’s a strong progressive. But this past weekend he warned that “those who often like my columns” might not like his most recent piece: “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance.” Kristof’s argument, which is well worth reading in

If you read Nickolas Kristof’s opinion pieces in the New York Times, you know he’s a strong progressive. But this past weekend he warned that “those who often like my columns” might not like his most recent piece: “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance.”

Kristof’s argument, which is well worth reading in its entirety, is a scathing critique of political allies in academia and the media—calling out their “arrogance,” “blind spots,” “discrimination,” and “liberal privilege.”

He’s not alone in coming to this realization.

Democrat Kirsten Powers, contributor to USA Today and Fox News, expertly exposes this kind of bias in her book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. NYU’s Jonathan Haidt, a well-known liberal social psychologist, has even created a whole website devoted to the problem of “viewpoint diversity” at colleges and universities.

Haidt in particular has been a public leader trying to expose how socially and institutionally isolated many professors, media members, politicians, and other thought leaders are in their daily lives, and how this leads not only to confirmation of one’s uncritical biases, but moral disgust and revulsion with respect to “others” with a different view.

Most of us are aware of how this works with conservatives.  Who hasn’t heard the critique of “my crazy uncle” who “only watches Fox News and listens to Rush Limbaugh,” and who forwards e-mails with “racist critiques of Obama,” etc.?

But we may be less aware with how it works on the left. For instance, the progressive website Vox.com recently critiqued what it called the “smug elite” of the left which has its biases confirmed by NPR, MSNBC, and “The Daily Show.”

These are extraordinary developments. The lazy binary narrative of the culture wars persists because entrenched, non self-critical camps spend their time taking political and cultural flamethrowers to the “other” camps they’ve simplistically reduced to a cartoonish “enemy.”

But if leaders in these camps are beginning to turn their critical eye on themselves—if they can admit that the positions of their perceived opponents are worth taking seriously—then perhaps we are in the process of breaking up with the culture wars.

As anyone who has tried to break off a long-term relationship knows, it takes time. Jerry Seinfeld hilariously compared it to knocking over a soda machine: “You can’t do it all in one push. You have to rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.”

Our forty-year relationship with the culture wars has stubborn momentum. Consider what Mark Tushnet, a chaired professor at Harvard Law school, recently said about them:

“The culture wars are over; they lost, we won….For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (‘You lost, live with it’) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)”

 It’s bad enough that Tushnet so badly misconceives the current political culture as some kind of 1970s-style left/right struggle, but even worse that he directs his utter contempt for his perceived enemies using metaphors of war and violence. It is precisely this kind of “camp” or “bunker” mentality which lead to political postures so disconnected from our current reality.

If you need anything beyond the campaign of Donald Trump to be convinced that a right/left binary is totally inadequate for describing U.S. political discourse, consider this.

A record 43 percent of Americans now identify as independent. For millennials, that number rises to 50 percent. Latinos, while generally economically liberal, are also generally socially conservative. These two demographics will dominate our coming political realignment, and they have utterly rejected Tushnet’s 1970’s-style politics.

Indeed, if Tushnet and others continue along these lines, they risk being compared to Japanese soldiers continuing to fight in Sumatra and New Guinea in the 1950’s.

But he did get one thing right: the culture wars are over. Not because one side lost and the other won, but because that way of seeing the world is in the process of being replaced by something else.

It may be nothing less than providential that our national political, demographic, and cultural shift is taking place just as Francis fully seeps into our public consciousness. This is a pope who insists capitalism kills and climate change is a crisis, but who also compares contemporary gender ideology to nuclear war and abortion to a Mafia hit.

The left/right culture wars persist today in much the same way a long-term relationship persists, long after it has actually ended.

Courageous people such as Kristof, Powers, and Haidt have got the soda machine rocking. Now it’s time for Pope Francis Catholics to give it a collective shove, and complete the break-up.

Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.

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