In recent decades we have heard much of the so-called “culture wars.” For many, the idiom of war has come to dominate their thinking in all things cultural and this, of course, spills readily into the political sphere, which is merely one aspect of culture. Indeed, this controlling metaphor shapes our minds, our discourse, and our actions in ways we often fail to recognize by virtue of its ubiquity.

The language of war is no longer simply a military term. In the past fifty years, we have waged wars on poverty, drugs, illiteracy, smoking, drunk driving, and most recently, on terror. In fact, the rhetoric is so common that if you want to motivate people, you do well to frame your pitch in terms of warfare: “We need to fight for American values.” Or when running for president, make sure to promise that your administration will fight for the American people. Everyone’s a fighter or at least needs to be perceived as such. By comparison, a simple appeal to prudential judgment and the likely benefits of a proposed policy seems rather tepid. Much better to wage a campaign (the very thing our politicians do whenever seeking an office), to describe the threat in terms of life and death, and to seek, at least in rhetorical terms, to destroy the opposition.

But does this metaphor of war produce consequences beyond what we might anticipate? I think so.

1) It is a truism that war tends to consolidate and centralize power. Tyrants have always known that the best way to grab power is to either wage a war or create the impression that war is imminent. The threat of an enemy, real or manufactured, induces the population to acquiesce to the centralization of power as a means of staving off the danger. Should we be surprised that the rhetoric of war has grown along with the scope and power of the federal government? While one is not the complete cause of the other, they certainly complement each other and the rhetoric of war paves the way for the reality of the centralized state.

2. If the language of war tends to centralize power, does the rhetoric of “culture war” tend in some way to deform or even centralize culture? Modern warfare is a winner-take-all, unconditional surrender affair and when a society thinks about culture and a “culture war” in that fashion, it would seem nearly impossible for the culture itself to remain untainted. Local nuances and idiosyncrasies would tend to be obliterated by the perceived need to circle the wagons and defeat the enemy. Nuance has no place in all-out war, and it is surely a casualty of the culture wars where the “enemy” is depicted in the worst possible light and absolute loyalty is the litmus test of the faithful. A bland, homogeneous, lowest-common denominator pseudo-culture is the result of forcing culture into the idiom of war.

3. Furthermore, “culture war” suggests two or more competing cultures. But this doesn’t quite get matters right, for if there is a war it is between the beleaguered forces of culture and the aggressive forces of anti-culture. Of course, “culture” is a notoriously difficult concept to define, but it is nonetheless true that the recent main-streaming of thuggery in some forms of music, dress and speech represents not a culture but something that seeks to destroy culture. Today significant groups in our society despise liberal education. They are anti-nomian and take a perverse delight in offending standards of decency, courtesy, and basic good manners. There are many who seek to overturn the basic structures upon which our civilization was built. This does not represent the rise of an alternative culture but a rabidly vicious anti-culture that offers nothing but the occasional vague platitudes about freedom and equality as an alternative.

Culture war suggests a battle to the death. But the metaphor is wrong and therefore fosters poor thinking. A culture is not something with which to do battle, either as an offensive weapon or an object of attack. A culture is a living thing, an inheritance, passed on from generation to generation. It is preserved by loving care not militant brow-beating. It cannot survive as a merely negative opposition to something perceived as its opposite. It is a creative, developing expression of a people’s view of the world that reaches ultimately to the highest things: to the good, the true, and the beautiful. To weaponize culture is, therefore, to destroy the very thing for which the battle is ostensibly waged.

The task before those who would preserve culture is one of creation. It is to build, to steward, and to show by example the possibilities for living well. Of course, as with the poor, the enemies of culture will always be with us. However, they cannot be defeated by tactics of their own choosing. The tactics of culture are persuasive, they are rooted in practices born of love, commitment, and hard work. There is much to be done.

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  1. Dr. Mitchell,

    I am curious. With organizations such as the ACLU and ACLJ, Planned Parenthood and National Right to Life, isn’t it correct to say that we are engaged in philosophical wars in this country? For instance, the Catholic church is defending itself against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. While the term “fight” or “war” may or may not be proper, aren’t we fighting, or call it standing up, for our values?

  2. Wasn’t it Owen Barfield, in Poetic Diction, who demonstrated that all language is, fundamentally and necessarily, metaphor? (It has been a long time since I read that book, and maybe I am just retrofitting my own notions.)

    If language is metaphor, then it seems to me that our choices of metaphor become crucial. (And while on this topic: I have noticed, reading Supreme Court decisions, how the justices carefully choose their metaphors when they want to clarify, or justify, their concurrences and their dissents.)

    And if language is metaphor, then your identification of the problem — where the labor of developing culture is wrongly perceived in the hostile and deathly metaphor of war — is spot on.

    I recall Jimmy Carter’s attempt to rally the American people to his energy policy by invoking the “moral equivalent of war.” We understand why he did it: it would, he hoped, resonate with the people, it would evoke the appropriate emotions of urgency, crisis, self-sacrifice, etc.

    But really: what is the “moral equivalent” of war? Theft? Conquest? Honor? Treachery? Destruction? Sacrifice? Immolation? Justice? Injustice? Death? Stench? Perfume? Chaos? Order? Hubris? Peace?

    For those of us who, as teachers or writers, think of ourselves as “influencers” who have honestly renounced coercion (rather than “demanders” who require it), and who seek to use language as a tool, not a weapon, the choice of metaphors becomes important.

    The decision of “culture warriors” to think of themselves as “culture warriors” is most unfortunate. They are in danger of becoming what they imagine themselves to be — self-congratulating destroyers of the Other.

    I am embarrassed to think how many years I could be content to suppose that a “culture warrior” mentality was a good thing.

    Thank you for pointing out a central point of the problem in our cultural insanity.

  3. Dr. Mitchell, would it be correct to trace the first use of “culture war” terminology to Otto Von Bismarck’s 1870s _Kulturkampf_? If so, that would support your point, since Bismarck conceived it to consolidate Prussian power in the German Empire.

  4. Once or twice in a hundred posts, Front Porch articulates the situation we are in. They’re sad and suggest the Work and imply Hope. This is one.

  5. Had we assembled forces under some name other than war, would the conflict we know as World War II have been anything other than war? Conflict needn’t always escalate into war, yet it may.

    Neville Chamberlain returned from Germany declaring “Peace for our time” … though war was already in motion. Language then had the unfortunate effect of framing inaccurately and, indeed, almost suicidally, the actual state of things.

    When two sides which represent radically opposed aims collide it is helpful to maintain a sense of proportion. Is the conflict one with little consequence? May we simply agree to disagree? Or, is the nature of the conflict more consequential, defining and determinative? Threats to the general welfare vis-à-vis outcomes may require a metaphorical call to arms.

    Churchill suffered the indignities hurled his way by those “enlightened” souls who could only see in him a warmonger, rather than a man whose insight yielded remarkable foresight. Yet, his critics seemed so reasonable, so erudite … so urbane and “above-it-all”.

    But they weren’t. They were not merely shortsighted, they were feckless and self righteous. A damning combination to be sure.

    I have risen to the challenge of our times and offered a full throated defense of those principles which safeguard a culture and society. Am I a warrior? Well, given the ferocity and determination of the other side … let’s hope so.

  6. Dr. Mitchell, I asked in the first posting if we are not fighting to protect our values. What other name would you give it?

  7. I understand your point, Mark … at least I think I do. I’m just not certain that “weaponizing culture” is an accurate description of efforts which labor to push pack against a tide which threatens to extinguish both the beliefs and practices which have defined Western Culture for generations. .

    If culture is a product (or consequence) of beliefs and their attendant values, then efforts to marginalize or even criminalize them are, in themselves, not merely competitive but destructive … warlike. Such has been the efforts of the Left for many decades.

    Long before Western culture began it’s rather rapid atrophy and decline, efforts to subvert the concepts and beliefs which yielded that culture had long been at work. Not benignly or innocently, but insidiously and relentlessly. A sort of guerrilla warfare whose aims were not merely the creation of a counterculture, but the extinction and replacement of all others.

    The Left has proactively imposed their ideas by acquiring control, often dishonestly, of influential institutions which have served, traditionally, to inculcate emerging generations with the ethos necessary to assure the perpetuity of our unique and defining culture. This was not coincidental … it was, in fact, part and parcel of an overarching strategy to conquer and recast Western culture.

    Consequently, any effort to resist that effort is both and at once, one which seeks to cultivate a rich, vibrantly aesthetic, inspiring and noble culture as well as one engaged in beating back efforts the efforts of cultural revolutionists (or cultural terrorist) and the ignorant masses they leave in their wake.

    We may not wish it to be a war, but if war is thrust upon us what choice do have but to fight? Or shall we simply melt into our ghettos and wish for a better day? Solschenizyn might warn us differently.

    Great Britain and most of Europe didn’t seek to conquer Nazi Germany for the purposes of plundering it, but rather to beat back the Germany’s efforts to conquer and dominate Europe. They didn’t ask for war, it was found, quite unwanted on their doorstep. Thye had no choice but to fight.

    It is neither helpful nor useful to characterize the efforts of the Left today as anything other than warlike. They are engaged in an all out effort reconstitute Western culture … and they are employing the language, tools and tactics of war to achieve it. To ignore or diminish that reality only diminishes the urgency and will to resist their efforts effectively or uniformly.

    Additionally, I do not think we are “weaponizing culture” when we choose to actively resist their efforts, but rather we are acknowledging the extraordinary power of ideas, especially of their power to shape perspectives and, consequently, outcomes.

    The collision of ideas we witness today is more an effect of the Left’s effort to force change now (it seemed for a moment that they held the reigns of power absolutely) coupled with an even more extreme agenda. It rather reminds me of Aragorn’s words to Theoden … “It is an army bred for a single purpose: to destroy the world of men. They will be here by nightfall”.

    Which lends itself, in closing, to Aragorn’s further warning … “Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not”.

  8. “The Left” is not co-terminous with “anti-culture.”. To what part of “The Left” do the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, NewsCorp and its founder, the advertising industry and pro wrestling belong? Do we find the tattooed and pierced spouting Marx or being good consumers (of bad things)?

  9. Mr. Blum, I’m of the opinion that much, though not all, of the cultural decline we now witness can be largely attributed to the Left’s ideology and efforts. At every turn they dismiss God from the public square. When He is welcomed, He’s not quite Himself. That is, He’s been refashioned to comport with the sensibilities and agendas of the Left. A sort of neutered and lobotomized version.

    Fallen man declines in such direction as a rule. Western culture has tended to (most imperfectly to be sure) permit God to more or less speak for Himself (to the degree that our theology allows). We adopted something approaching a biblical worldview rather than a more or less humanistic one.

    Perhaps that’s what inspired Tocqueville to write “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity? ”

    Or, likewise, John Adams to announce that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    In the absence of the moral virtue a robust faith, fully tethered to scripture affords, liberty becomes license, and tyranny, restrained by negative rights is loosed as men, unrestrained by some higher law, seek the freedom to do what ever they wish rather than what they ought.

    No, I would agree that “the Left” is not coterminous with anti-culture. Indeed, it offers culture in its own right … a culture of decline and death.

  10. Since the “collapse of communism” and Fukuyama’s famous “end of history,” it seems less appropriate to fear the “Left,” or even “collectivism” in the general older meaning of those terms: even if fundamentals do not change, or change slowly, generations replace each other, and even agendas can mutate.

    I suggest our cultural enemy might be more clearly identified as “mammonistic corporatism.”

    We build, or maintain, or transform, our true and worthwhile culture in the shadow of a growing and darkening tower

    “And the shadow of that hyddeous strength,
    sax myle and more it is of length”

    I think that Tower respects neither Left nor Right.

  11. Since the object is not making war but making converts – perhaps cultural evangelism or cultural activism might be better constructs.

    • wkg in bham: I think you are on the right track. Much more thought needs to go into this, but “culture making” is another possibility. The emphasis, I think, needs to be on creativity and stewardship rather than war.

  12. Hmmmn. Culture and anti-culture. I’ll have to think on it. Thanks for stimulating a new thought.

    I am increasingly intrigued by the idea that culture as we know it is inextricably linked with agriculture. Cult, Culture, Cultivation!, as Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker put it. No farming, no culture. Read E. Michael Jones (ironically of the perhaps misnamed Culture Wars magazine) on how Capitalism grew up as a form of looting: think the Vandals (no, not the punk band) and Henry VIII. See Kurosawa’s the Seven Samurai: one class farms in a state of cultural bliss, the other class, the outsider, plots how to loot, kill, rape, and live off the farming community as a parasite. And produces no culture because it is itinerant.

  13. No Emmett, I think Culture Wars Magazine is aptly named as, yet again, the Left demonstrates its willingness to employ violence against history, logic, facts, the truth and finally and ultimately … those who stand in the way of their utopian (concluding always in Orwellian dystopias) designs.

    Your remarks also underscore my thesis … use whatever language we might, while a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, war by any other name retains the same aims, tactics and dangers. And the Left long ago declared war on the West.

    In the the end you do not mitigate its threats by resisting its urgency or ignoring its nature. Indeed, you only permit it to gather strength and claim more victims than vigilance would have allowed.

  14. From a historical point of view, war is where the whole thing got started. The fifty year period in which the original thirteen colonies were first populated was also the period leading up to the English Civil War. Certain factions in that war, which was cultural, regional and religious as well as being the usual struggle for supremacy between rival elites, were associated with certain colonies. Thus, the issues being fought out in that war were built into the character of this country and are alive in our politics to this day, most obviously in the form of this much-discussed “Culture War”. David Hackett Fischer’s wonderful book, Albion’s Seed, lays out the particulars in minute detail. Given that it’s been with us ever since, with only brief cease-fires such as the fifteen-year breather we took in the aftermath of the Second World War, I’m not expecting it to go away any time soon.

    At the same time, it does seem an act of hyperbole to call the present exchange of hostilities in the media and the corridors of power a war, as if the power of the police to keep order had completely broken down and we were taking pot shots at each other in the ruins. There are real wars going on in a variety of places in the world right now, with American lives particularly at risk in Afghanistan.

  15. Full disclosure: I did my PhD under Hunter so please take my self-interest into consideration.

    One source that some in this discussion might find helpful is Culture Wars by James Davison Hunter.

    A second source: Uecker and I interact with the various academic criticisms of the culture wars thesis (some of these criticisms are present in the above blog post) and then we subject part of the thesis to empirical test. This article can be found here:

  16. I find I have something to disagree with : “the recent main-streaming of thuggery in some forms of music, dress and speech represents not a culture but something that seeks to destroy culture.” It’s easy to mistake defiance for intent to destroy, but sometimes something much less ambitious is intended.

    The 1970s were a particularly hard time for Britain’s industrial sector. Whole working class neighborhoods were turned into slums, where men might be on the dole for a decade, where the children of those men might turn twenty-five without ever finding regular employment. Out of those slums came a subculture that horrified the wider public every bit as much as the gangsta rappers of today: punk. It was a look that said “This better life we’re promised? It’s a lie, and I refuse to believe it anymore. I refuse to maintain an employable personal appearance in a society that doesn’t want to employ me. Instead, I and those like me are turning our backs on the culture of the employed, creating a new culture that will express our rage and frustration and bitterness in the clearest possible terms. You reject me, Job Market? Well, I reject you, too.” Except that a real punk would have used more, ah, pungent language. In those early years, there was only one place in the U.S. that punk gained any following: the Rust Belt.

    Simultaneously with the spasm of affront with which respectable society responded, the cool-hunters of retail capitalism descended on punk culture, looking for something they could exploit into a lucrative fad. By now, they’ve succeeded well enough that the elements of punk style have been tamed into just another flavor of mild middle-class youth rebellion. It didn’t hurt that the Reagan/Thatcher years were lucrative ones, muting the resentfulness that fueled the original movement. Now, unhappy days are here again. There’s a new generation of never-employeds, who have had to develop their own subculture of defiance. To the extent that we mistake this defiance for an actual attack and call for its suppression, we are doing something akin to shooting the messenger.

  17. wkg in bham, the mixing and matching of sacred and secular terms is disconcerting to certain Protestants of an older variety. Instead of war, and instead of language that still suggests cultural take over, why not the more inviting language of maintenance, participation, and preservation?

  18. If the culture that is sought to be passed on to the next generation values virtue — generosity, charity, compassion, loving-kindness, patience, wisdom — then a war fought for those values is a war lost before it is begun.

    Thank you for these insights.

  19. scz: you’re so right. I should have looked up the definition of evangelical before using it. I was trying to find a word that was assertive, but not war-like.

  20. It has been my personal observation that those persons (Left and Right) who indulge in military rhetoric and urge the destruction of their enemies, hsually have an agenda beyond “culture” or “politics”. What they want is for you to a) listen to/watch their media programming so they can get rich, b) keep those Mastercars, leters of credit and cheques coming in so they can get rich, c) buy their books, tapes, meddalions, and plastic Touch of God that glows in the dark so they can get rich. The whole circus is intended for the sole purpose of arousing people’s adrenalin so their grip on sanity and bank account is loosened.
    Competition is one thing, and plays well in the ‘marketplace of ideas”. The jingoistic mouthings have to become ever more extreme, the jawings must ever ratchet up a notch on every iteration, until the whole thing collapses in resort to actual, not virtual violence. And once again, we who stand by and say nothing at theescalation iof insanity are as culpable as the actors when the chickens come home to roost. [Rant over, you may resume your regularly scheduled programming.]

  21. Re: the Left demonstrates its willingness to employ violence against history, logic, facts, the truth and finally

    Word have meanings, so where is this violence you are talking about? “Violence” is something more (a good deal more in fact) than just be rude or obnoxious, and far, far more than disagreeing vehemently with this or that self-promoted guardian of culture or tradition. Violence involves bleeding bodies and broken windows. Our so-called “culture war” has none of that– just a lot of overheated rhetoric and hyperbole on both sides.

  22. “Culture war suggests a battle to the death. But the metaphor is wrong and therefore fosters poor thinking. A culture is not something with which to do battle, either as an offensive weapon or an object of attack. A culture is a living thing, an inheritance, passed on from generation to generation. It is preserved by loving care not militant brow-beating. It cannot survive as a merely negative opposition to something perceived as its opposite. It is a creative, developing expression of a people’s view of the world that reaches ultimately to the highest things: to the good, the true, and the beautiful. To weaponize culture is, therefore, to destroy the very thing for which the battle is ostensibly waged.”

    Beautifully stated. Thank you for this thoughtful entry!

  23. It seems to me that the author here misses a large part of the culture wars: the political rise of conservative christians. They are, in fact, fighting for policies that they believe (literally) lead to “life” or “death.”

  24. Shouldn’t this article include a nod to those who first started calling policy disagreements “a culture war”?

    Surely they deserve a pat on the head or something….

  25. It seems that the modern use of the term comes from (or at least was popularized by) Pat Buchanan in 1992:

    “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the soul of nation we will one day be as the Cold War itself.”

  26. Tell me, with all of this preaching about how evil culture wars are, what about directing some of that criticism towards abortionists and proponents of ungodly same-sex unions? It’s funny, it’s always the vocal conservative who has to be silenced. Liberals always get a pass.

  27. Recently read the following, which seems relevant to the above discussion.

    From REASONABLE PLEASURES, Fr James Schall: “The world and its loves are held together by things affirmed as true. Modern relativism, by contrast, maintains that the only way we can stick together is if we deny that anything is true. Unity for the relativist means a prior agreement that nothing is true…Dogmas are said to cause wars; dogmatic disagreements are seen as mere quibbles over nothing important. The argument presumably follows that, if we forbid or deny doctrine, prevent or hinder its public expression, we will have peace.”

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