Dé Luain, Meán Fómhair 13, 2010

Thoughts on Eternal Culture War

Even as we make progress on specific issues, however, the broader culture war seems to get uglier and uglier. The underlying sentiment that has fueled this conflict from the start --that only certain Americans are "real Americans" who deserve rights and respect -- has not gone away.-Ann Friedman

"The main thing I want to say on this is that every time anyone ever predicted that the end of the culture war was just around the corner, I rolled my eyes. I get that people are sick and tired of it, and that’s why they invest in ideas like, “Electing Barack Obama will bring an end to the culture wars”, which is what Ann quotes Andrew Sullivan basically saying. But too bad. Politics isn’t your entertainment. The culture wars aren’t some movie that you’ve seen so many times that it’s lost its entertainment value, and so you can just change the channel. The culture wars are going to drag out for a long ass time for a number of reasons"- Amanda Marcotte

I'm afraid that this is all so. One of the most depressing things about human bigotry is its intractability. There will always be a number of people in every society who are unable to accept any legitimate source of self-esteem except superiority to others. They cannot be 'cured' of pernicious beliefs because they are convinced that hating others is the only possible alternative to hating themselves. Gripes against 'special minority rights', 'political correctness' and 'blaming America first' are usually based on precisely this attitude.

The best we can do is to try to keep the die-hard bigots from handling the reins of power. But this is very difficult since those who believe that they are nothing without power over others will obviously be more strongly motivated to gain it than those of us who do not. And they also have a big tactical advantage; because to believe that power and virtue are the same thing is necessarily to believe that cheating does not exist.

Their biggest advantage though is actually the modernity they reject. Because one of the central tenets of modernity is that societies should accept their own artificiality. It is deeply unsettling for most people to realize that we could have been anyone anywhere at any time*, and so we take great comfort in believing our social identities to be tangible and true. To accept social identity as imaginary is difficult in the best of times, and becomes nearly impossible when society faces some sort of existential stress such as outside attack or economic collapse.

(* Or no one at all, if mom and dad had only bought Ginger Ale instead of Shiraz for New Years 76.)

Yet at the same time the falsity of identity can be discerned easily enough by any average person blessed with the leisure time of modern life. So in times of stress we come to hate the modernity that gives our minds time to wonder into such painful territory. And it is in these times that the general population embraces the gospel of the bigots and raises them to the power they obsess over. When the illusion of tangible social identity is lost it can be restored only by having tangible enemies to pound it against, and once enemies begin to provide this sort of emotional security there must be a never-ending supply of them.

When the USA or some other self-declared egalitarian society suffers the sort of tribalistic spasm we are going through now it obviously appears rancidly hypocritical or at least confounding. But when fascism is understood as civilizations' willful suicide it becomes much easier to understand in general.
Things were so much easier in the days when we lived short sickly lives waiting to be cut down in the next battle with the folk across the river.

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