Are culture wars really a distraction? | Olufemi O Taiwo
a month ago
Are culture wars really a distraction? | Olufemi O Taiwo
In the United States, fights are raging over cultural issues: constant coverage of “cancel culture”, pitched battles over teaching “critical race theory” (CRT) in classrooms or the definition of the term “woman”. For years, many on the left have argued that such battles were “distractions” from the real fight over class and economic issues. They are only half right.
These supposed sham battles are simply the most recent moments in a loosely organized cultural rightwing insurgency. The Federalist Society has been incubating rightwing legal careers since the 1980s. The fight against critical race theory continues a longstanding rightwing offensive against public education, whose roots go back as far as the backlash to racially integrated schooling.
It’s right to note, as detractors of the “culture wars” have, that something is dishonest about these battles. The details have always been squishy in the particulars: defending constitutional analysis of the “original intent” of the slaveowners of yesteryear has long been difficult to take seriously on the intellectual merits. The standard bearers of the opposition to critical race theory have had a tough time saying what it even is that they oppose, and Florida textbook reviewers assigned with rooting out CRT from math textbooks didn’t fare much better.
But this vagueness on the side of justification is paired with a frightening clarity of tactical purpose on the side of action. Florida legislators may have a problem articulating the reasons for banning the books, but they have banned 40% of math books anyway.
Meanwhile, Alabama and Texas have criminalized care for trans youth. Perhaps most dramatically, the recent leak from the supreme court suggests that the court may strike down Roe v Wade, a critical blow against the bodily autonomy of women, trans men and non-binary people with uteruses (even more legislation aiming at uncomplicating this sentence will surely be forthcoming).
It couldn’t be clearer, then, that the view of “culture wars” as purely distractions from “real”political struggle is seriously mistaken. The idea that concrete, “material” issues ought to mean a narrow focus on jobs and the economy – and not, say, uteruses – seems hard to justify.
Even the most hard-nosed materialist, ought to notice that decisions about school curricula determine whose values are listened to, and whose aren’t. That is, in even the most realpolitik of terms, the struggle being waged has real-world effects on redistribution of social and political power. And that redistribution is shifting power in the direction of the least honest, most bigoted and most authoritarian social forces on the political right.
In one sense, the reduction of politics to “culture wars” has never made less sense. The material stakes of the climate crisis is that it threatens regular heatwaves like the one that south Asia is still reeling from. Meanwhile, state conflict is taking a worrying turn: Russia and Ukraine are fighting a great power war between states, the Ethiopia and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front navigate an uneasy ceasefire in a civil war, and Mozambique is contending with a wave of Islamic State militants. These aren’t problems that can be solved by clarifying the content of math textbooks or being clear about who uses which bathrooms.
But from another vantage point, focusing on “culture” makes perfect sense. After all, it’s not simply that global ruling class lacks answers in the United States and elsewhere. The situation is even more dire: the ruling class lacks questions.
The dramatic shift in state response to the Covid-19 pandemic after mass vaccination evidences that elites believe their interests are so far removed from living conditions for the rest of us that they simply lose interest as soon as they feel their own security is assured. This also makes sense of policymakers’ tepid action on the climate crisis, the national and global housing crisis, and selective empathy for refugees and immigrants in general. You’re cordially invited to participate vigorously in the project of harassing school board officials, but leave the big war and climate stuff to the idle experts.
Addressing these crises would involve redistributing political and economic power away from the present powers that be, and offering people concrete solutions rather than outlets for rage and self-expression. The answer from on high is clear: no redistribution, just fighting over culture and “vibes”.
That’s why an entire cottage industry spanning from YouTube to outrage radio to legacy media has arisen to play off our most legitimate grievances with others, our most petty jealousies and bigotries, and everything in between. Many of these are suspiciously well resourced and funded, and few of them pose any serious challenge to the profit, property and social position of the people who actually hold most of the cards in our political contests. These astroturfed political battles are simply the latest page of the oldest playbook, where the 1% attempts to divide the rest in pursuit of private profit and social domination.
We shouldn’t abandon the culture wars, but we shouldn’t take the bait either.
Instead, we should build a political culture built around mutual goals that address concrete problems head on – a constructive politics organized around what we want to build for ourselves and our children instead of who we resent. Many such campaigns are alive and well. Across the country, groups are fighting to guarantee reproductive justice. Tenants’ organizations in Kansas City and Los Angeles are making their presence and power felt at eviction hearings and state legislatures, and campaigners for reparations for African American descendants of the enslaved have moved millions of dollars in Evanston. And a wave of unionizations at Starbucks and Amazon may signal a resurgence of organized labor.
As demonstrated by unions in Illinois, West Virginia and Minnesota, these organizations have the power to advance not only wages and working conditions for their members, but also the common good of entire communities. And, unlike the vibes offered in the culture war, those are things you can eat.
Olufemi Taiwo is assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and author of Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)