Monday, July 28, 2008

The Culture Wars

I've written here before about the so-called Culture Wars. In fact, that is one of the reasons I started this blog. However, I am no longer comfortable with the language of war used to describe political, cultural, religious and ideological division within America. Such language, is, alas, far too apt.

I'm struggling for words at the moment. This morning, in the waiting room at my doctor's office, I read about a gunman opening fire in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Tennessee, killing two people and wounding at least five others. While the first news reports did not note a motive for this horrific act of violence, by this afternoon the motive was clear: the killer, Jim D. Adkisson, targeted his victims because they were "liberals."

This afternoon I read a featured "hate mail of the day" on Daily Kos:

I can only hope that Obama is elected president. Then maybe he and his liberal friends (including you assholes) will let in enough terrorists who will blow some shit up. They won't go after middle America (in which I live in) because we're not a large enough target. No, they will want more dead bodies. That's where you come in. I spent a few minutes on your site and realized that you're all fucked in the head brainless pussies. I'd like to personally kick the shit out of you. But since you're probably in New York or Los Angeles, that's not going to happen. I've been to Los Angeles. What a shithole. I'd like to get some good pizza in NY, but not at the risk of running across assholes like anyone on the New York Times, Madonna, David Letterman, or any other cocksucking liberal.

One day, I'll pick up the newspaper and it will say, Muslim terrorists blow up Manhattan, Boston, Detroit, Los Angles, and Washington, D.C. As sad as it will be that those stinky ragheads will have spilled precious American blood on our soil, at least most of you liberal assholes will be burnt to a cinder. Just keep up your liberal ways, letting all the illegal aliens in, handcuffing our military and police, and you'll see what happens. I'll have a box of tissues for my tears, mourning the lost lives, and also a nice bottle of wine knowing that most your you asshole libs are now feeding the worms six feet under. And in closing, fuck you!

We are increasingly willing to believe the worst about each other. In doing so, we are increasingly willing to create of our ideological opponents some morally defective "other," a group on which to place the blame for all of our own suffering, who must then be punished, even exterminated.

In this respect, the Culture Wars are beginning to look more and more like John Howard Yoder's description of a "holy" war. Here are 3 of the 5 characteristics of a "holy" war he identified in his When War is Unjust. I've picked them because they speak into my reading of the Culture Wars, especially in light of the shootings in Tennessee and the hate mail posted at Daily Kos:

a) The cause has a transcendent validation. What is at stake is not a finite political value that needs to be weighed over against other political values, so that the clash of interest of the various parties in the social mechanism can be subjected to a careful calculus of proportionality. The commander and the warriors are freed from such political calculations by the overarching value of the holy cause...

c) The adversary has no rights, or at least no vested rights that must be respected. Some Crusaders made exceptions and did not kill women and children, but often in holy war genocide is the norm. In the Iberian invasion of South America this dimension surfaced in the claim of some that the natives had no human souls, or that even if they were human they had no rights. Often this attitude correlates with racist or ethnic deprecation of the enemy ("the only good Indian [or Viet Cong, or whatever] is a dead one"). Restraint is no virtue; excess is proof of devotion...

d) The criterion of last resort does not apply. Other ways of working toward the same goal... are dishonorable in the face of the transcendent duty to destroy.

While this is not a perfect description of the Culture Wars - which are not military clashes between competing armies, but rather clashes of words that occasionally turn into outright physical violence - parts of this description hit too close to home. If, for instance, any phrase captures the malice of intent and action that is invading the sanctuary of a church and firing on a crowd (that included children!) it is: "the transcendent duty to destroy."

When people like Ann Coulter write bestsellers that fantasize about the destruction not only of liberalism (whatever she thinks she means by that) as an ideology but even the very destruction of liberals as persons, you know that it is open season on "liberals" in print. When blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage have the two highest rate radio talk shows, you know that hate-speech against "liberals" can be a lucrative industry indeed. And now, thanks to Mr. Adkisson, we see that, at least in some warped minds, it is in fact open season on liberals.

I'm at a loss as to how to combat this. My only strategy seems ineffectual, weak, but I'll offer it here, anyway. It is all I have, even if it is ultimately founded perhaps on naive optimism, unwarranted faith in our collective desire to live happily in peace. My strategy is this: regardless of our respective ideologies, we here in America need to live together, be together. Drink together, eat together. Simply breathe together.

This strategy does not help address some serious moral problems. It is, for instance, almost impossible and almost certainly unhealthy, to share a table with someone who denies your basic humanity, your fundamental right to exist. To ask gays and lesbians to come to the proverbial table with homophobes is a mark of the privilege of one who is not hated for having the audacity to exist. To ask racial and ethnic minorities to come to that same proverbial table with racists and white supremacists is a mark of that same privilege. In fact, to ask any victim of hate to sit at the table with their potential and actual abusers carries with it the real possibility of the perpetuation of abuse.


It is my conviction that we cannot ultimately create a demonic "other" out of those with whom we share fellowship (or, perhaps a better, less patriarchal word would be "community").

So a conservative friend of mine (who identifies himself as a fundamentalist) meets me for time to time to share beer and pizza. We talk about our families, our work, our hobbies. We talk about our food and drink. We talk about our fears and our hopes, our anxieties and our deepest longings. We confess our sins and declare the triumphs of our best selves. And we just sit together. We agree on very little, almost nothing if the conversation turns to theology (which it often does) or politics (a little more rare). But we sit together in our favorite pub, sharing space in peace.

We don't do this as often as we'd like to. We don't do this as often as we should. But still we do it. And it helps. We may never agree on the nature of God, or the way in which each of us respectively says that Jesus reveals God to us. We may never agree on what an appropriate political or economic system should look like. But, by virtue of simply being together at the table, we are unable to reduce each other to "others," enemies in the great Culture Wars. At the table we share a truce.

That truce may well be an uneasy one. We find ourselves on opposite sides of issue that we each are passionate about, and we honestly believe that the other's position has serious moral and ethical flaws. But we share a truce anyway, as we sit at the table together, eating and drinking in each other's company, sharing whatever respective loves we can share.

Perhaps we should invite others to that table, in the vain hope that sharing space will curtail violence.


Liam said...

Sandalstraps -- it's great to see you posting more.

I think you did find a couple more extreme examples of hatred, but yes, there's a lot of it. And while I think the far right is exceptionally good at spewing hatred (especially since a lot of their politics -- racism, sexism, classism -- is based on hatred), if you read the comments on sites like DailyKos you see a lot of hatred on the other side as well -- often expressed as snide comments about religious beliefs or fly-over states. So yes, we all need to calm down a bit.

Your voice adds a lot to the discussion.

Sandalstraps said...


To that end, I recently moderated this comment from one of my posts:

Wow. Kinda like watching people talk about Santa's workshop in the North Pole, or detailing daily life on Alpha Centauri's 3rd planet. It's mind blowing to realize that there are actually adults who believe this fantasy story.

How can you distinguish between reality and fantasy if your only basis for believing any cock-and-bull story is that someone wrote it down in a book once upon a time?

PamBG said...

I'm at a loss as to how to combat this. My only strategy seems ineffectual, weak,

Kinda reminds me of the crucifixion.

To this Girardian, there is a lot of truth in what you've said in this post. I believe that 'them and us' has been and will be with us until the Kingdom comes. And yes, we need to learn to be able to sit down and talk to each other.

Renee said...

It is not often that I am rendered speechless but this post struck me on so many different levels. I wish I could offer more than thank you for writing this but at this time I need to digest it more. I will be back to offer a deeper content but I had to at least tell you how moves I was by what you have written.