The Digitized Culture Wars


“I believe that a desirable future depends on our deliberately choosing a life of action over a life of consumption, on our engendering a lifestyle which will enable us to be spontaneous, independent, yet related to each other, rather than maintaining a lifestyle which only allows to make and unmake, produce and consume – a style of life which is merely a way station on the road to the depletion and pollution of the environment. The future depends more upon our choice of institutions which support a life of action than on our developing new ideologies and technologies.”

— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

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It’s been just about thirty years since sociologist James Hunter published Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. The titular phrase has since become a staple of the public’s discourse about itself, although, as all such phrases tend to do, it has floated free of its native context in Hunter’s argument about the then-novel rifts in American public life.

Lately, I’ve found myself taking recourse to the phrase more than I ordinarily would. I’ve typically avoided it because the phrase itself seemed to encourage what it sought merely to describe. In other words, as an analytical frame, the phrase conditions us to think of cultural dynamics as warfare and thus locks us into the dysfunctions such a view entails. “Metaphors we live by” and what not. Despite my misgivings, however, the phrase is undoubtedly useful shorthand for much of what transpires in the public sphere. So, for example, when someone asks about the face mask fiasco here in the U.S., I’ve simply suggested, perhaps too glibly, that face coverings were regrettably enlisted into the culture wars. But here is another problem to consider. Precisely because it is so useful as shorthand, it may be deterring us from the work of thinking more carefully and more deeply about our situation. Concepts, after all, can both clarify and obscure.

But I’ve also been thinking about the “culture wars” frame because, whatever else we might say about such conflicts, they have not remained static during the nearly three decades since Hunter wrote his book. One key development, of course, is that those thirty years overlap almost exactly with the emergence of the digital public sphere. In fact, several weeks ago what seemed like a useful analogy occurred to me: The advent of digital media has been to the culture wars what the advent of industrialized weaponry was to conventional warfare.

With that thesis in mind, I thought it might be useful to revisit Hunter’s work to see if it can still shed some light on our present situation and, specifically, to explore what difference digital media has made to the conduct of the “culture wars.” For brevity and clarity’s sake, although I’m not sure I’ve succeeded on either front, I’ve chosen to outline a few key points for our consideration. So here we go.

1. The culture wars predate the rise of digital media

This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s worth emphasizing at the outset. One consequence of our immersion in the flow of digital media tends to be a heightened experience of presentism, involving both a foreshortening of our temporal horizons and the presumption that what we are experiencing must be novel or unprecedented. The danger in this case is that we mistake the culture wars for an effect of social media rather than understanding them as a longstanding feature of American public life with a complex, multi-faceted relationship to social media.

In 1991, Hunter, surveying familiar terrain—for example: the family, free speech, the arts, education, the supreme court, and electoral politics—amply documented most if not all of the features we tend to lament about the state of public discourse today: the polarization, the intractable and bitter nature of the debates, the underlying animosities, the absence of civility, the characterization of ideological opponents as enemies to be eradicated, and, notably given present debates, what Hunter called the “specter of intolerance” and the supposed “totalitarian ‘threat’” posed by political opponents.

Describing what he calls the “eclipse of the middle,” he also notes how a need to be “stirred and titillated” means that “public debate that is sensational is more likely to arouse and capture the attention of ordinary people than are methodical and reflective arguments.” “The net effect of loud, sensational clamor,” he adds, “is to mute more quiet and temperate voices.”

Hunter also commented on the high level of suspicion in public discourse: “In today’s climate of apprehension and distrust,” he wrote, “opinions that attempt to be distinctive and ameliorating tend to be classified with all others that do not affirm a loyalty to one’s own cause.” Hunter also offered an incisive analysis of the role media technology played in creating these conditions, but we’ll get to that in another point below.

Finally, while Hunter’s work popularized “culture war” talk, he did not coin the phrase, which, as he notes, dates back to the 1870s. The culture war concept has its origins in the German word Kulturkampf, or “cultural struggle,” which specifically designated a fight between Protestant and Catholic factions for control of the cultural and educational institutions of the newly unified German state.

As Hunter goes on to show, the origins of the American culture wars were also rooted in similar struggles between Protestants and Catholics and later between Christians and Jews in the 19th century. From our perspective, of course, these appear chiefly as intramural squabbles within a larger and decidedly western religious frame of reference. By the late 1980s, however, Hunter perceived an important shift in the nature of these conflicts running through American society and politics. Culture Wars was Hunter’s effort to better understand these developments and map their consequences.

It’s important to remind ourselves that culture war dynamics precede the emergence of social media because we should not fool ourselves into thinking that if only we managed to somehow reign in social media, a temperate and civil public sphere would emerge. Although, as I’ll discuss below, social media is obviously not helping matters.

2. The culture wars are rooted in competing sources of moral authority

It’s useful to recall, as Hunter insists, that the culture wars encompass deep and genuine disagreements about what is good, what is just, and what is beautiful. After opening with a series of dispatches from the front, as it were, Hunter invites us to consider the following: “What if these events are not just flashes of political madness but reveal honest concerns of different communities engaged in a deeply rooted cultural conflict?”

Hunter believed that such was indeed the case. “America,” he claimed, “is in the midst of a culture war that has had and will continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere.” This has undoubtedly proven to be the case, even as the nature of the culture wars has shifted once again.

Presently, however, we tend to speak of the “culture wars” in a more pejorative or dismissive sense and with more than a little exasperation. I understand the temptation to do so. In fact, I’ve used the term in this way on more than one occasion of late. And, in fact, there’s good reason to do so. Contemporary manifestations of the cultural wars are often characterized by seemingly trivial grievances, regarding, for example, what constitutes an appropriate Christmas/holiday greeting. But even in their mannerist manifestations, they still betray something of the underlying moral concerns. It is also the case—and this is I think the more relevant consideration—that the culture wars are now often driven by what we might think of as mercenary grifters, who inflame and exploit whatever sincerely held moral principles initially animated the concerns of ordinary citizens.

So, while one consequence of the digitization of cultural warfare is a generalized presumption of bad faith, we should bear in mind that the culture wars are at some level still rooted in deeply held moral beliefs grounded in competing and irreconcilable sources of moral authority. This is not to say, of course, that all participants and positions are morally equivalent. This is obviously not the case. But, if with any given culture war skirmish we fail to see what all the fuss is about, that is likely because we inhabit a different moral order than those whose opinions we find so baffling or distasteful.

The key point here is simply this: we will misunderstand our cultural situation if we reduce culture war issues, especially those we care little about, to cases of mere posturing, bad faith politicization, or sincere rubes being duped by nihilist operators.

3. Digital media has transformed the conduct of the culture wars

So if we can’t blame the culture wars on digital media, how exactly should we understand the relationship between the two?

As I suggested above, I think it’s useful to think of the relationship by analogy to the transformation of warfare by the introduction of industrialized warfare.

I’ll begin by noting that media technology plays an important role in Hunter’s analysis. “The media technology that makes public speech possible,” Hunter noted, “gives public discourse a life and logic of its own.” Here is how he put the matter in a lengthy statement that is italicized for emphasis in the text:

The polarization of contemporary public discussion is in fact intensified by and institutionalized through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves ‘somewhere in the middle’ of these debates.

Now, here comes the surprising bit. In a chapter titled Technology and Public Discourse, Hunter devotes the bulk of his discussion to … direct mail, you know, the countless postcards and fliers that arrive in your mailbox around election time. Hunter also talked about television and radio, but he argued that direct mail was the relatively novel media technology that was really stoking the culture wars. I don’t mean to belittle his discussion, far from it. It can be instructive to understand the effects of old media when they were new. And, what’s more, the choice of direct mail makes a striking point of comparison with the conditions of the digitized culture wars in which direct mail finds its closest analog in targeted email messages and social media ads. The relative sophistication, personalization, frequency, and scale of the latter nicely illustrate the consequences of digitization for the culture wars.

So, let’s come back to my analogy to industrialized warfare. While historians tend to locate the origins of industrialized warfare in the late stages of the American Civil War, it is not until World War I that we see the full effects of industrial technology on the conduct of war. Notable features of industrialization applied to warfare include significant advances in weaponry (the machine gun, long distance artillery, exploding shells, etc.), the development of steam powered iron-clad naval vessels, the deployment of armies by rail, instantaneous communication by telegraph, and, later, the advent of tanks, aircraft, and poison gas.

In short, the industrialization of warfare massively augmented the destructive capacity of modern armies by enhancing their speed, scale, and power. Additionally, industrialized war became total war, encompassing the whole of society and blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants. Finally, as all forms of mechanization tend to do, it further depersonalized the experience of battle by making it possible kill effectively at great distances. As a consequences of these developments, the norms, tactics, strategies, psychology, and consequences of modern war changed markedly.

The logic of the analogy is, of course, straightforward. Digital media has dramatically enhanced the speed, scale, and power of the tools by which the culture wars are waged and thus transformed their norms, tactics, strategies, psychology, and consequences.

Culture war skirmishes now unfold at a moments notice. The lines of battle form quickly on social media platforms. Tens of thousands of participants, not all of them human, are mobilized and deployed to the front. They work at scale, often in coordinated actions against certain individuals, working chiefly to discredit and discomfit, but also to confuse, incite, exhaust, demoralize. The older, perhaps always idealistic aims of persuasion and refutation are no longer adequate to the new situation. Moreover, skirmishes that become pitched battles spill out indefinitely, becoming black holes of attention, which become massive drains of resources and energy.

Along these lines we can see that the power of digital media lies in their immediacy and scale, but also in their ability to widen the war. Direct mail may have targeted you, but social media involves you directly in the action. Take up your memes, comrades. We are no longer mere spectators of battles waged for our allegiance by elite warriors of the political and intellectual classes. In the digitized front, we are all armed and urged to join the fray. The elites themselves quickly become the victims of the very cultural warfare they had once stoked to their advantage.

Digitization also yields total culture war. No aspect of our experience goes untouched. This is a consequence of both the wide-scale distribution of the weapons of cultural warfare but also of how these same tools erode the older, always tenuous divide between public and private life. Now, the culture wars are total in the sense that they are all-encompassing and unrelenting. It’s not so much that we’re always on the front lines, it’s that the front lines are always with us. And while it is true that the culture wars have always involved public debate of private matters, the digitized culture wars swallow up even more aspects of private life.

One way of thinking about this is along the lines of sociologist Erving Goffman’s old dramaturgical distinction between front stage social life and back stage private life. In the culture war setting, we might frame that distinction as social life on the frontlines and private life that unfolds in the relative safety of the rear. To the same degree that digital media has blurred the front stage/back stage distinction and involved us in the work of perpetual impression management, so, too, has digital media blurred the distinction between the frontline and the rear in the cultural wars and made all aspects of our experience potential fodder. This also explains the frivolity of some of our culture war skirmishes. The logic of escalation precipitated by digital tools demands that more and more of civilian life be drawn into the fray, regardless of how seemingly trivial it may be.

This is also a useful way of framing the so-called “cancel culture” debate. The debate is spurred precisely by the digitization of the culture wars, which has made it necessary to negotiate a new understanding of how the wars ought to be conducted. Who is a legitimate target? What is a proportionate response? What actions and opinions ought to be legitimately drawn in to fight? The old analog rules no longer work, and we have not arrived at a new consensus.

So while it would be a mistake to believe that digital media has generated the culture wars, it would be equally mistaken to believe that we are now merely experiencing the same old culture wars. It is clear that the new digital battlefield has radically altered the nature of cultural conflict.

It should be clear, too, that the digitized culture wars give every indication of being interminable by nature and design. Given that the culture wars are rooted in longstanding moral and ideological conflicts stemming from fundamentally irreconcilable sources of moral authority, they will not simply peter out. There is little incentive for deescalation (other than mere exhaustion), and it is hard to imagine what exactly a truce might look like, much less a genuine peace or reconciliation. Given that the platforms that sustain the digitized culture war stand to profit from its proliferation and that the culture wars arise from and, however inordinately, answer the basic human need to take meaningful and morally consequential action, especially in a media-political regime that would otherwise render us morally anesthetized producers and consumers—then to that same degree they will tend to persist unabated.

4. Digital media has realigned the culture war

While it’s important to understand how digital media has transformed the way the culture wars are conducted, what I tend to find most interesting and significant is how the lines of the culture war are being redrawn and alliances reconfigured. Again, Hunter’s work was especially useful thirty years ago in explaining how the culture wars were redrawing the lines of culture conflict. We need a similar effort to understand why our old categories no longer work as a guide to the current socio-political field. But, while I think this is the more interesting and important terrain, I’m afraid that what I’ve got to offer definitely feels far more tentative and speculative. That said, here are a few things to consider.

First, by way of background, Hunter recognized that the increasingly acrimonious cultural wars of the late 20th century differed from earlier instances because American society had witnessed both a proliferation of sources of moral authority and, consequently, a realignment of the traditional actors into new configurations. He recognized that the old lines separating Protestants from Catholics and varieties of Protestant denominations from each other no longer held firm. The new distribution of moral authority cut across the old institutional lines. Hunter identified two key groupings which he labeled the small-o orthodox and the small-p progressive. They were characterized chiefly by whether they located moral authority in external and traditional sources, as in the case of the orthodox, or in the determinations of the self or the deliverances of scientific rationalism, as in the case of the progressives. (It’s important to note that Hunter was using the terms orthodox and progressive in an idiosyncratic manner that overlaps with but is not equivalent to how the words were used then or now.) In the then-emerging culture war Hunter was mapping, orthodox Catholics, for example, were more likely to find common cause with orthodox Baptists and orthodox Jews than they were with their ostensible co-religionists, progressive Catholics. It is striking to recall that in the mid-1990s a well-known Catholic moral philosopher wrote a book titled Ecumenical Jihad urging those Hunter would call orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims to join forces on the culture war front. It’s hard to think of a better example of the kind of realignment Hunter was analyzing.

Second, while Hunter focused on the way that media technology was deployed to further the existing causes of the new culture war coalitions, I think it’s important to understand how the digitization of the culture wars is itself generating new configurations. Direct mailers, for example, targeted existing mailing lists. In some sense, direct email works the same way even if has enhanced capabilities. Targeted social media ads seems like an almost qualitatively different technique; at least it is less reliant on an existing mailing list. Critically, however, digital media itself generates new identities and groups in a way that postal technology did not. This latter consequences of digital media itself engenders profound changes in the configuration of the culture wars, scrambling what had been the traditional Left/Right spectrum in American politics and generating what would have seemed like bizarre partnerships and affinities across those old lines.

Third, in Hunter’s analysis, the orthodox/progressive divide arose when the dominance of the old religious/theological consensus was challenged by a new locus of moral-cultural authority in subjective experience and scientific rationality. I would suggest that one of the transmutations we are witnessing can be attributed to the splintering of the old new locus of authority into its constituent parts: subjective experience now to some degree set against a modernist version of scientific rationality. So, New Atheist types who in another age bore the mantle of progressive resistance to traditional authority are now cast as conservative defenders of a traditional and oppressive morality.

In fact, to the degree that the older individualist spirit of scientific rationalism can be understood as the foundation of the modern moral order, what we are witnessing is precisely its displacement by a new, still-emerging moral order. But again, I would argue that its decline was not simply a function of an intellectual victory on the old terms. It was rather a product of the tacit challenge posed by the experience of digital media to both the primacy of the modern ideal of individualism and to the rules of rationalist discourse in the public sphere.

Fourth, while digital media facilitates the emergence of virtually constituted small scale groups of affinity, it tends to have a disintegrating effect on the cohesion of diverse, large scale bodies such as a nation state. Consequently, another flash point around which the lines of the culture war are redrawn may be understood in terms of the diminishing plausibility of the nation state as the product of a shared history and shared ideals and, thus, as a locus of identity. Once this shared history is contested and the shared ideals lose their hold on the public imagination, one might either seek to reground national identity along ethno-racial lines or else abandon or demote the ideal of national identity and patriotism.

Finally, another aspect of the emerging terrain may be described as the difference between those committed to technocratic modes of governance directed at the perpetuation of patterns of production and consumption, on the one hand, and, on the other, those animated by explicitly moral concerns about justice and equality, between those, in other words, who are determined to exercise authority without responsibility and those who desire the satisfactions of meaningful action toward the realization of justice and goodness as they understand it.

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

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News and Resources

  • Sean McDonald on what he has termed “technology theater”: “There’s a well-documented history of the tendency to hype distracting, potentially problematic technology during disaster response, so it’s concerning, if not surprising, to see governments turning again to new technologies as a policy response to crisis. Expert public debates about the nuances of technologies, for example, provide serious political cover; they are a form of theatre — ‘technology theatre.’ The term builds on security expert Bruce Schneier’s ‘security theatre,’ which refers to security measures that make people feel secure, without doing anything to protect their security.”

    And: “The ultimate vulnerability for democracy isn’t a specific technology, it’s when we stop governing together. The technological responses to the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t technologically remarkable. They are notable because they shed light on the power grabs by governments, technology companies and law enforcement. Even in the best of circumstances, very few digitally focused government interventions have transparently defined validation requirements, performed necessity analyses or coordinated policy protections to address predictable harms.”

  • Jackson Lears on “Quantifying Vitality: The Progressive Paradox”: “Our days became numbered long before the rise of Big Data and algorithmic governance. Indeed, the creation of statistical selves in the service of state and corporate bureaucracies was well underway by the early twentieth century, in the midst of what US historians still call the Progressive Era (in deference to the self-description of the reformers who dominated it). Eli Cook, Sarah Igo, Dan Bouk, and other gifted young historians have begun to explore sorting and categorizing institutions that branched out from their nineteenth-century predecessors, which had focused mainly on criminals and deviants. The new sorters were more catholic in their scope—life insurance actuaries quantifying the risks of insuring individual policyholders, pollsters using survey data in an attempt to construct a ‘majority man’ or ‘average American’—with their efforts culminating in the most ambitious tabulating scheme of all, the Social Security system, in 1935 …. The difference between Progressive Era biopolitics and contemporary biopolitics involves the intensification and acceleration of tendencies underway for more than a century—more powerful technology, but similar strategies for management and surveillance of the population.”

    This essay appeared in the latest issue of the Hedgehog Review given over to questioning the quantified life.

  • “The Atlas of Surveillance is a database of the surveillance technologies deployed by law enforcement in communities across the United States. This includes drones, body-worn camera, automated license plate readers, facial recognition, and more.”

  • July 16th was the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test, otherwise known as the first successful detonation of a nuclear weapon. Here are two pieces on the subject: “What If the Trinity Test Had Failed?” / “A Bomb In the Desert.”

  • Nick Paumgarten writes a compelling essay (2008) about elevators with the story of Nicholas White, who in 1999 was trapped in one for nearly two days, as the frame: “Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment.”

  • Zito Madu, drawing on film and literature, reflects on the question of justice and race: “Each time I engage in these recurring protests, I think about how absurd they are. Not the protests in themselves, but the fact that they have to exist. The demand seems so simple, like Souleiman asking for his wages, that needing to make it is degrading. It is begging for something that already belongs to you.”

  • Swiss police automated crime predictions but has little to show for it.

  • “I Am a Model and I Know That Artificial Intelligence Will Eventually Take My Job”

  • Call for papers from the International Journal of Illich Studies for their next issue: Conviviality for the Day After “Normal.”


— “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” writes Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981). “Information devours its own content,” he adds, “It devours communication and the social.” More:

Rather than creating communication, [information] exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. A gigantic process of simulation that is very familiar. The nondirective interview, speech, listeners who call in, participation at every level, blackmail through speech: ‘You are concerned, you are the event, etc.’ More and more information is invaded by this kind of phantom content, this homeopathic grafting, this awakening dream of communication. A circular arrangement through which one stages the desire of the audience, the antitheater of communication, which, as one knows, is never anything but the recycling in the negative of the traditional institution, the integrated circuit of the negative. Immense energies are deployed to hold this simulacrum at bay, to avoid the brutal desimulation that would confront us in the face of the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning.

— Mark Boyle writes about the “not so simple life,” that is a life without most modern technologies. “As Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in Human Scale,” Boyle explained, “my wish became ‘to complexify, not simplify.’” He’s made choices the majority of us will not and probably cannot make. But we may still learn something from his experience. There were several passages I could have excerpted. Here is one of them:

As I have no clock, my relationship with time has changed dramatically. Things do take longer. There is no electric kettle to make my tea in three minutes, no supermarket to pop into for bread and pizza. But here’s the odd bit: I find myself with more time. Writing with a pencil, I can’t get distracted by clickbait or advertising. Life has a more relaxed pace, with less stress. I feel in tune not only with seasonal rhythms but also with my own body’s rhythm. Instead of an alarm clock, I wake up to the sounds of birds, and I’ve never slept better. If I want to drop everything and go hiking, I can. I am finally learning to “be here now.” There’s more diversity, less repetition. Mindfulness is no longer a spiritual luxury, but an economic necessity. While this may not be the most profitable career path, it’s good for my own bottom line: happiness.

The Conversation

Folks, this was long and it took me a bit longer to compose. I hope you found the effort and delay worthwhile. As always, your feedback is welcome. Feel free to reply to this email. And, naturally, feel free and encouraged to share this newsletter as you see fit.

I hope you and yours are well.

Take care,