The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 13: The advent of digital media has been to the culture wars what the advent of industrialized weaponry was to conventional warfare.
The parenthetical "metaphors we live by" gateway helps the thesis cohere for me. Without it, I might have missed the urgency that lies too far below the surface, namely, that the figurative signifier "war" might actually turn out to generate a war (Federal troops in Portland) in ways we all have cause to fear, and moreover, that the cultural obliteration and malaise that followed (say) WWI will now be digitally replicable, spread faster, and drive us away from our souls and each other.
In other words, it's great to see the work of a public intellectual doing thinking about the stuff we are all also thinking about; and as we are all also going to bed and waking up with a general sense that conflict is looming, I finished looking for actionable consequence.
Should I decline to follow Instagram? Should I strive to speak to people committed to categorical judgment, in order to draw them toward an Aristotelian center?
This is only my second read here, but I'm about to dive into more. I'm a high school teacher in a private school in the South, where we taught all spring online. So I feel very much like a daily foot soldier in the trenches of Kulturkampf. I expect that struggle to continue, but I like peace. So I'm looking for tools that evolve from the ideas.
Grateful for the audio! My commute just became more stimulating!
This post is challenging to me, for reasons that I think have to do with a tension in the post itself. Which is to say, there are no comfortable answers here, which I appreciate.
Bad faith and exploitation are to me the most salient features of the culture wars, in both the contemporary social media-powered versions and the 1990s broadcast media versions. "Sincere rubes being duped by nihilist operators" is a good summary of my default evaluation of the culture wars. I have no patience for "mercenary grifters" who exploit human sentiment for power or money.
(An aside: "These Truths", by Jill Lepore, is unique among histories of the United States that I have read in that it gives serious attention to the development of super-powered political technique in the early and mid 20th century, focusing on figures like Walter Lippman and Edward Bernays. I feel this should be a much more common way of teaching our common history.)
But you're not giving us this critique for free here — we can't dismiss the desire for meaningful action or the sincere moral commitments that underlie or enable these manipulations, nor can we pretend that there is some way of turning back the clock to a time before technique dominated political life. Where does that leave us?
Are you agreeing with some version of Hunter's orthodox/progressive split? Somethign about it seems too simple and superficial, somehow wrong.
I see it as something like Presby fundamentalists versus modernists played out in many different cultural blocs as they wrestle for control of the institutions, like Princeton, in the former example. I would agree that this has been the dominant split in some form in every part of the western world since the French revolution — between people locating moral authority in an idea of the past with a preference for backward compatibility and people locating it more in the needs of the present and future with a preference for breaking things now so as not to have a completely dysfunctional legacy later. Neither is ever "right." Both are often "wrong." What is needed or adequate in the moment is unlikely to be supplied by either in times of high polarization. So I wonder if it is not too superficial a distinction.
Take the "orthodox" — Carl F. H. Henry's contributions to the culture wars in the 1940s-50s echo people like Peter Kreeft (whom you've alluded to) and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s and indeed even Vladimir Putin since the mid-2000s. Kreeft understood Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity not unlike his own. Buchanan was praising Putin at the beginning of the second Obama administration for embracing the Orthodox church and promoting the old European and Russian anti-Bolshevik traditions of the counter-revolutionary right in the 00s. Berdyaev and Dostoevsky are never far among modernity's party-poopers who fear the worst sort of anarchy will unfold if "God is dead." You can even wedge Berry in here, but not Illich, who does not fit on the other side either. (What to do with him?)
The conservative/traditionalist/counter-revolutionary/reactionary "orthodox" side better understands (though not on the popular level) it is a political theology and accuses left/liberal/scientific rationalities of being one as well, but they are not nearly so uniform or united, nor have they ever been disconnected from orthodox religious traditions themselves. The very idea that this split is a religious versus irreligious one doesn't really hold up. It is orthodoxy on each side, with each side seeing the other as the heretics when things get inflamed, but the "orthodox" win that label through grand gestures and performances. Theirs is always a cry from the heart, a Crisis! over the "soul" of institutions, nations, churches, and nations with the souls of churches.
In the multiparty politics of parliamentary systems, it gets a little more nuanced — Christian Democrats fall out of coalition with centrist Liberals when National Conservatives gain power for the usual reasons. Will Merkel's CDU continue to crumble with Bavarian Catholics going with nationalism and xenophobia much as the Weimar Republic fell apart? "Sources of Moral Authority" tend to include pipelines, supply lines, alliances, and lots of material "who benefits" questions too. If Poland decides to recreate something like Salazar's Portugal it may do it as a node in a Chinese trade network. "Moral Authority" is a very domestic, inward, social imaginary not exercised on the international stage by countries other than the US, which may have reached the end of the line for many exceptionalist dreams and myths. The people who take sides in culture wars in their own countries have been ever increasingly internationally conscious about it, but this hardly stops them from making pragmatic deals — etsi Deus non daretur.
I would suggest the real fissure is moral and theo-political but deeper down in the reception of Greek philosophy into European Christianity; it is about the right ordering of loves, as I think Illich would say. The culture wars are a storm over this abyss and never penetrate to it in the slightest. In the culture wars one side says it can and must impose the right ordering of loves by political power and domination from the family to the nation. The other treats love as a supply, demand, and distribution problem. Both reduce love to sexuality; both respect and use domination, which is another word for violent coercion and abuse. Both take Machiavelli's truth (or the Grand Inquisitor's) that political power that compels fear is greater than love, and we cannot have both. Institutions and empires at scale become corrupted then in ways that can only be made worse on the one-dimensional left-right axis of post-revolutionary politics.
There is a Freudian or sexual core to all this concern with sex and domination that someone like Illich is not much help with. Two other figures come to mind.
Louis Menand pointed out once that "[t]he sex in [T. S.] Eliot's poetry is almost always bad sex, either libidinally limp or morally vicious. But that's because for Eliot bad sex was the symptom of a failure of civilization, and it is a fallacy to conclude that, because sex in his poems is disgusting, Eliot was disgusted by sex. Eliot was disgusted by modern life, period. That he found a way to express that disgust through lurid sexual characterization was one of the reasons his poetry seemed, in its time, so compelling."
And from James Baldwin: “The question of sexual dominance can exist only in the nightmare of that soul which has armed itself, totally, against the possibility of the changing motion of conquest and surrender, which is love.”
Eliot was clearly of the "orthodox" party and Baldwin the "progressive," but I think they struck on a common truth here: "Love alone is credible."
The culture wars have ever-increasingly reduced to a question of sexual dominance — a naked power struggle in which both sides are fundamentally alike and become more so as the conflict intensifies. If either was to win, it would lose — not just a convivial, amicable society but its whole ego and reason for being.
And with that, I think I am affirming your conclusions.