How immigration is transforming our society.
The definition of terrorist has drifted far from ground zero.
The return of the culture wars.
The Angolan wars connection to suburban Arizona.
Market Magic's Empty Shell
Days of infamy and memory.
Let's review the tape.
The liberal media strike again.
Israels gravest danger is not the Palestinians.
Bush unilaterally junks the ABM accord.
Washington gives Indians the runaroundagain.
Mumia's death sentence is overturned, for now.
Massey Energy, Inc. targeted by labor and greens.
Phil Radford: Last Call, Save the Ales.
BOOKS: Empires new clothes.
The Empty Theater
BOOKS: Joan Didion vs. the political class.
BOOKS: The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.
FILM: The Devils Backbone of the Spanish Civil War.
January 4, 2002
Operation Infinite Jest
The return of the culture wars.
ne hundred and fifteen people have vanished, and Im trying to figure
out why. The bodies in question had appeared by name in a report bearing the
near-operatic title Defending Our Civilization: How Our Universities Are
Failing America And What Can Be Done About It. The report is the handiwork
of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a group co-founded in
1995 by Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman to raise periodic alarums over
the state of higher learning in America. Previously the ACTA had issued reports
that denounced the atrophy of history requirements on American campuses and
the PC excesses of todays scholarship in Shakespeare studies.
This time, however, the group was seeking to document a more pressing threat:
that Americas college and university faculty have been the weak
link in the countrys mobilization against terrorism. As the authors
of the report, Anne Neal and Jerry Martin, put it in a much quoted passage from
the introduction: The message of much of academe was clear: BLAME AMERICA
The report puts this dismaying reflex down largely to a pedagogical failure:
Expressions of pervasive moral relativism are a staple of academic life
in this country and an apparent symptom of an educational system that has increasingly
suggested that Western civilization is the primary source of the worlds
illseven though it gave us the ideals of democracy, human rights, individual
liberty, and mutual tolerance. To drive this impression home in a dramatic
fashion, the bulk of Defending Civilization is devoted to an exhaustive-looking
appendix, much longer than the main text, in which 115 utterances of various
alleged Blame America First sentiments were presented to elicit
shock and outrage.
By early December, however, the names attached to these statements had disappearedyanked
off the ACTA Web site and excised from the final versions that would be sent
out to the groups members. Rumors began to circulate among professors
and campus activists that the names had been pulled out because far-right thugs
were already seizing upon the report as a hit list, in much the same fashion
that anti-choice zealots used Internet directories listing the names and addresses
of abortion providers as assassination manuals.
When I put this question to Anne Neal, she grows indignant. Im
amazed at the hyperbolic, imaginary claims being made by professors. Are they
saying they cant be criticized? Yet Neal supplies only the most
elliptical explanation of this odd vanishing act: We are interested in
whats being said, and the fact that its being said by faculty and
not students. Who the particular speakers are is not important.
I go through a litany of obvious objections: The groups report claims
that the whole campus debate over the war is one-sided, yet the ACTA wont
even permit those whom theyve accusednot always accuratelyto
answer. And excising the identities of the speakers and writers seems downright
perverse for a group championing higher academic standards. Would the ACTA accept
anonymous quotes in academic papersor, for that matter, in this article?
The names can be traced through the citations, Neal says, referring
to the footnotes at the end of the report. The focus of the report for
the trustees and alumni who will get the report eventually is this striking
cleavage between the intellectual elite and the rest of the country.
But doesnt a single block of unsourced type amount to a willful distortion
of what actual people said in specific situations? Isnt the ACTA concerned
about its credibility? Im saying the sources are identifiable to
the audience, Neal replies. Were talking about the atmosphere.
The atmosphere is whats important.
The atmosphere on my end of the conversation is starting to billow with fog.
I ring off with Nealwho in spite of her unyielding determination to remain
on message (and contrary to the standard Punch-and-Judy scripting of American
culture warfare) is neither unreasonable nor noticeably Manichean in temperament.
I feel, nevertheless, like Ive clambered out of a rabbit hole.
aybe some math will help. I return to the appendix of Defending Our
Civilization, which I had printed out before the disappearance. As I pore
over the appendix, it gradually dawns on me that there werent really 115
speakers in the first place: Several of the quotes are multiple entries attributed
to the same person. William Blum, identified only as a journalist at a
University of North Carolina teach-in rates three entries, with walk-on
lines such as there are few if any nations in the world that have harbored
more terrorists than the United States.
Stan Goff, a panelist at the same UNC event, appears twice, with
gnomic prophecies like: We will tumble from chauvinism into the abyss
of recession and tribalism. And slogans from demonstration placards are
quoted repeatedly (mainly old standbys like an eye for an eye leaves everybody
blind)even though we have no way of knowing whether the placard-brandishers
in question are even members of a university community. Still other entries
describe genuinely bone-headed bids by one or another university administration
to tamp down expressionreprimanding student editorial cartoonists and
blocking faculty Web sites that support the U.S. war efforton grounds
that they would somehow injure the sensibilities of minority and foreign students.
(Each of these oafish actions, in addition, appears to have been reversed after
formal protests were lodged.)
I decide to tally up the list again, taking care to set aside the utterances
by students, journalists and panelists, the unsourced protest slogans and the
actions by administrators. The report, after all, has stipulated faculty to
be the weak link hereand it is, by the lights of the ACTA,
professors who are charged with transmitting the ideals of our civilization
on to the next generation. My count yields 63 utterances by non-professors (or
by sources too vaguely characterized to be presumed to be anything)leaving
54 faculty members on the list. (At least four of these remarks, in addition,
came from faculty who are on record supporting the warTodd Gitlin, Richard
Falk, Strobe Talbott and Paul Kennedy. The first three of these, moreover, were
prominent figures in the 60s anti-war moment, so their endorsement of
a U.S. military action seems far more noteworthy than any qualifications they
may have attached to it.)
Still, hewing to the most generous interpretation of things, the ACTA turned
up 54 faculty members who said something in public that could be construed as
critical of American foreign policy. There are probably more university faculty
who are practicing Wiccans or Freemasonsand certainly more who are creationists.
In other words, one might safely conclude that the fifth column of the ACTAs
feverish imaginings resembles something more like a toothpick; for the nonce,
at least, our civilization seems to be spared organized betrayal at the hands
of inside agitators.
The point of all this is not, per the usual strictures of our culture wars,
to demonize the ACTA as the real threat to our civilization, to dismiss them
as overheated propagandists or lackeys of right-wing foundations. It is, rather,
to begin to circle around a bigger question: Where has such rhetoric come from?
Why do so many of the most dubious assumptions of culture warfarethat
culture is principally an instrument of social control; that the tics of cultural
selection are proper materials for bitter, protracted public argumentreceive
such ready assent on either side of the battle? And why, especially at the height
of a clear and pressing threat to Americas global interests and domestic
security, do the partisans insist that such questions matter now more than ever?
Why is a war against terrorism, of all things, so often portrayed as culture
war by other means?
est you think I exaggerate, or lay the brunt of the indictment too squarely
on the culture warriors of the right, consider what is emerging as a common
theme of left-liberal commentary on the war against the Taliban: Having routed
a deranged, fundamentalist foreign government on the field of battle, we should
now dial the Kulturkampf up another notch at home. The struggle of democratic
secularism, religious tolerance, individual freedom and feminism against authoritarian
patriarchal religion, culture and morality is going on all over the world,
Ellen Willis announced in a recent Nation article, echoing sentiments already
aired by Christopher Hitchens and Michael Lind. The culture war has been
a centerpiece of American politics for 30 years or more, shaping our debates
and our policies on everything from abortion, censorship and crime to race,
education and social welfare. ... Yet we shrink from seeing the relation between
our own cultural conflicts and the logic of jihad.
This tight identification of religious crusades, East and West, flows, naturally
enough, from a single, pleasure-hating psychic structure. If exposure
to forbidden freedoms aroused in Osama bin Laden and his confrères unconscious
rage at their own repression, Willis writes, what better way to
ward off the devil than to redirect that rage against it? And if the World Trade
Center represented global capitalism ... wasnt there yet another, more
primal brand of symbolism embodied in those twin phalluses?
Going the epic civilizational theses of Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama
one better, Willis pleads that culture conflict should form a central plank
in U.S. foreign policy from now on. There are many things to be learned
from the shock of September 11, she writes. Surely one of the most
important is that culture is not only a political matter, but a matter of life
and death. ... To recognize that the enemy is fundamentalism itselfnot
the evil anti-American fundamentalists, as opposed to the allegedly
friendly kindis also to make a statement about American cultural politics.
And taking a final swipe at center and left efforts to downplay cultural struggles
in deference to more conventional economic and political ones, Willis delivers
a solemn envoi: It remains to be seen whether fear of terrorism trumps
fear of facing our own cultural contradictions.
There are many immediate objections to raise to such rhetoric. First, theres
the tacit moral equation of al-Qaeda, which targets thousands of innocent civilians
for death, with American Protestants who overwhelmingly practice peaceful (if
lavishly funded) political persuasion. As appealing as such analogies may sound
to the arch-secularist ear, there remains a great difference between church-pamphleteering
or campaigning for school board slates and blowing up embassies and skyscrapers.
Or consider that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have been in the worst possible
political odor ever since their joint announcement on the September 13 broadcast
of the 700 Club that the World Trade Center attacks bespoke the judgment of
an angry god on a decadent, fetus-aborting, gay-tolerant nation. To the extent
there has been an explicit linkage of domestic fundamentalism with the al-Qaeda
brand, in other words, it has been vigorously and all but universally repudiated.
Finally, a less tendentious acquaintance with Freud might have led Willis to
conclude that the very function of culture is largely to sustain and express
cultural contradictionsthe clash of instinct and civilization,
reason and desire, the universal and the particularnot to deliver them
before warring camps for resolution, on the world-historical stage of foreign
policy, no less.
illis eager demonization of the fundamentalists poses a more central
problem, which oddly enough brings to mind the ACTAs own lamentations
on the abysmal state of historical knowledge in the United States. Hard as it
may be to imagine today, American fundamentalists were a political nullity through
much of their early career. Early fundies read with exceptionally literal rigor
the Bibles various admonitions to leave the arrangements of worldly power
and property to those on their own likely course to perdition; such matters
were no concern of the solemn believer.
What changed all this was an exceptionally bitter culture war. As America prepared
to enter World War I, American fundamentalists were targeted in various propaganda
outlets for their official stance of otherworldly neutrality. Ardent academic
propagandists whipped up the perception that fundamentalists were in the thrall
of German biblical scholarship and hence covert sympathizers with the enemy
Huns (a particularly bizarre claim, since Germany was also home to the new modernist
brand of historical biblical scholarship that fundamentalism initially arose
After enduring such slanders, American fundamentalists resolved that they could
no longer afford to remain aloof from political affairs. Resolutions were passed
at regional conferences, candidates endorsed, and a doctrinal hue and cry went
forth to demonstrate once and for all the rock-solid Americanism of the fundamentalist
faith. And so the path was cleared for full fundamentalist participation in
the great Kulturkampfs of the 1920s, such as the crusades for Prohibition and
the Americanization of immigrants, and the battle over teaching
evolution in the schools.
Much the same dynamic holds for the political prominence of fundamentalism
in todays politics. Paul Weyrich, the mailing-list baron of the religious
right, reports that it was neither the Roe v. Wade decision nor the vast godless
agora of mass entertainment that produced the great upsurge in conservative
Protestant political activism in the 80s. Rather, the religious rights
great organizing putsch was sparked by a fairly obscure 1978 directive from
the Internal Revenue Service that religious private schools were to be denied
tax-exempt status if they did not meet racial quotas.
In other words, American fundamentalists felt (with some justification) that
their religious schoolsthemselves a hallmark of believers will to
separate from mainstream civic lifewere being singled out for discriminatory
treatment from a hostile state. And so commenced the successive fundraising,
voter-registration and school-board election drives that turned the Christian
right into one of the bedrocks of modern American conservatism. (The order itself
generated 100,000 letters of protest and was reversed by Congress the following
year.) It is up to future historians of liberal decline to decide whether the
zealous pursuit of racial quotas in already conservative religious educational
institutions was really worth the enormous, rightward transformation of American
politics that ensued. But such historical set pieces do suggest, at the very
least, that we think twice before we open up a new rolling domestic front of
our war against terrorism that targets biblical literalists for vague and unappeasable
evertheless, the current, reigning vision of Americas war on terror
as a pitched battle of towering, intractable civilizational premises seems certain
to guarantee that the culture warriors on the left and right alike will continue
exploiting the conflict for their pet domestic agendas. It seems all the more
likely to proceed further down this course, indeed, now that the military phase
of the Afghan war has yielded such unexpected, immediate results. In this setting,
the egghead-baiting of the right and the fundie-baiting of the left are two
sides of the same well-worn coin: The selective vetting of an extreme minority
body of opinion is made, via the curious alchemy of culture determinism, to
stand in for an entire sensibility imagined to be gaining covert command of
the culture at large.
On the right, a think tank produces a harum-scarum collection of decontextualizedand,
finally, unattributedutterances and anecdotes, seeking to conjure up a
monolithic, America-hating professariat out of thin air (or, more precisely,
out of a misleading assemblage of administrative actions, recycled news items,
teach-in sloganeers and demonstration placards). On the left, never-specified
Christian authoritarians, wracked by weird patriarchal libidinal demons, morph
blurrily into stealth global terrorists for whom no sacrifice of civilians is
too great and no military engagement is too bloody.
And on it goes. No sooner had John Walker Sidh, the 20-year-old Taliban warrior
from Marin County, California, stumbled out of a Mazzar-e-Sharif prison compound
than a fresh round of pundit-flak from culture alarmists commenced. It turns
out that, as a troubled teen, Walker had posed on Internet listserv as a street-tough
rap music connoisseur. Hed converted to Islam after reading The Autobiography
of Malcolm X, was named for John Lennon and enjoyed the full doting attentions
of divorced parents who encouraged their son to sample the teachings of other
religious traditions. Presto, English professor Shelby Steele announced on the
Wall Street Journals op-ed page: A certain cultural liberalism cleared
the way for [Walkers] strange odyssey of belief.
Walker was prepared for his seduction by Islam, Steele opines, by a post-60s
cultural liberalism (more than political liberalism) that gave every step toward
treason a feel of authenticity and authority. And sure enough, Steele
summons up, in the next breath, the same wayward vectors of lapsed American
cultural authority so prominently demonized by the ACTA: This liberalism
thrives as a subversive, winking, countercultural hipness. We saw it in the
stream of hip academics and intellectuals whono sooner than
the planes had struckbegan to slash at their own country as if to keep
it from gaining any victims authority of its own.
Steele appears to have given the rights culture front an ugly new methodological
twist: Where the ACTA was content to eradicate named human subjects in its quest
after a convenient monolith of opinion, Steele opportunistically overstuffs
an already prominent adolescent psyche with his own didactic script of culture
warfare. It seems quite plain, however, that if John Walker had not existed,
conservative culture warriors would have had to invent himas indeed they
have, in spite of knowing next to nothing about his actual existence. One awaits
with a weary heart the arrival of the first leftish op-ed depicting Walker as
the wholesale product of a divorced couple wrestling with the intolerable contradictions
of a Catholic morality.
There should be some exit point from such giddy invocations of the iron determinism
of culture, especially since they spring from a little-noted paradox: Our generation
of high-culture warfare invests the products of American culture with this sort
of world-historical import at the very time when its chosen content is so resolutely
trivial. One of the early bits of popular soothsaying in the immediate aftermath
of September 11 was that we would soon find ourselves awash in a New Seriousnessthat
the childish things of 90s boom culture and Bill Clintons America
would wither away, and America would be briskly reprogrammed to adhere to the
reveries of our sober anchorman-propagandists for the Greatest Generation. Moreover,
the argument went, the very virtues that had made the United States target of
first resort for the medieval reprisals of al-Qaedaethnic pluralism, gender
equality, religious toleranceshould bring a long-overdue renaissance of
American civic culture.
Oddly, however, we are using the materials of our culture to jury-rig a domestic
politics that consistently denies the free play of these virtues. Tolerance,
for Shelby Steele, segues briskly into moral relativism and treason; for Ellen
Willis, it cannot be imagined to extend to the warped phallocrats of American
fundamentalism. The ACTA defends free speech on campus, but reserves its own
right to conceal the identities of speakers. And all of these partisans militate
on behalf of the broad mandate to continue waging the culture wars with redoubled
force here at home. If we really want our culture to bear the sort of meaning
we imagine it has, we should try approaching it as the outcome of something
like reasoned debate rather than as a spoil of war.
Chris Lehmann, former culture and managing editor of In These Times,
is a senior editor for the Washington Post Book World.