Culture Wars

The return of the Culture Wars

7 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

The return of …  is a common expression. As I type it into Google, the algorithm gives me different options to complete the phrase: the return of the jedi/superman/the king/the living dead/ the pink panther, the list of popular-culture suggestions goes on.

The idea of something returning is embedded in philosophies of time – philosophies which unsettle ideas that time is linear, and that there will ever be a point when the past is really gone. Such thinking links to work on spectres and hauntings.

The ‘culture wars’ in the social sciences are an example of the living dead: they represent a style of political engagement  and set of issues that return – and indeed flare up quite agressively – with predictable regularity. 

The Culture Wars in Time-and-Space: America in the 1980s and 1990s

In A War for the Soul of America, Andrew Hartman positions the culture wars firmly in time-and-space: “For a period of about two decades, the culture wars, like a vortex, swollowed up much of America’s political and intellectual life.”

For many, the culture wars were a US phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s. They followed on the heels of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when counter-culture thrived in large parts of the world, when alternative visions of society politicized the everyday, when the civil rights movement challenged centuries of racism, sexism and homophobia, and when poststructural theory became de rigueur in the social sciences. 

At the same time, political power in the White House was firmly secured in the hands of a dogmatic political right, with Ronald Reagan entering office in 1981, followed by George Bush in 1989. 

Moral Cultures and Sensibilities

The culture wars index an ideological confrontation between progressive/anti-traditionalist values, on the one hand, and conservative/traditionalist values, on the other. By referring to culture, rather than class, race or gender, the foundations of these debates – imaged metaphorically and somewhat melodramatically as ‘wars’ – were seen to be rooted in different moral cultures and sensibilities. 

Central to the debates was a binary mindset and style of argumentation: one was either for or against something, what was at stake was nothing less than ‘the soul of America’ (to cite from Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 speech at the Republican National Convention).

Contested issues included LGBTI rights, abortion, multiculturalism, public funding for the arts and humanities, affirmative action, Columbus Day, and more. Universities were central sites of contestation, and the Western canon, especially, came under attack. In the 1980s protesting students at Stanford demanded a more inclusive and less eurocentric curriculum.

The debate became a national one when Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, latched onto the debate and forcefully supported the traditional curriculum: it became the topic of front page news, television programs and editorials (see Mary Louise Pratt’s insightful reflections on this time in, I, Rigoberta Menchú and the “Culture Wars”, 2001).

Culture Wars 2.0

Hartman suggests that the “culture wars are history”, that they ended around 2000. Yet, as Mark Twain quibbed, reports of death are often ‘an exaggeration’. Jacqui Shine, for example, contested Hartman’s claim that the culture wars are over in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

“The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. …. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot [TopConservatives] hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints … if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.” 

The internet is an important space in the new culture wars, which got kickstarted by events such as #BlackLivesMatter, #Occupy, #RhodesMustFall, the financial crisis of 2008.

The internet is an important space in the new culture wars, which got kickstarted by events such as #BlackLivesMatter, #Occupy, #RhodesMustFall, the financial crisis of 2008, and rolled on into the electoral contestations by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, debates about non-binary pronouns and bathrooms, and, eventually, the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA (Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes, 2018, The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0).

Thus, the wars have returned, in a different shape, using a different idiom, including memes and meme wars, fake news and alternative facts, trolls and Twitter. 

Decolonization Goes Global: New Culture Wars

The culture wars are also re-surfacing at universities. Contemporary calls for the decolonization of the curriculum suggest that the debate hasn’t really changed that much. Questions about what to teach, how to teach and who should teach are raised, yet again, at Harvard, at the University of Cape Town, at SOAS and Oxford, at the University of Oslo, in Germany, in The Netherlands, the list goes on. 

Debates about decolonization are intense at South African universities: the Curriculum Change Framework at the University of Cape Town has been met with resistance long before being tabled in Senate, Lecturers who teach on topics such as social justice, racism, classism and sexism have been labelled ‘ideologues’, others have been described as ‘racial nationalists’. 

Most recently posters – produced by ProgressSA, a new formation on campus  – were put up in various buildings at the university, on Twitter and on Facebook. The posters claimed that lecturers in the humanities were “enforcing the ideologies of Marxism, radical feminism and identity politics”. The language of religion, so prominent in the moral universe of the culture wars, is part of the discourse: “Marxism and identity politics are prescribed religions in our Humanities Faculty. Those who have a different view are considered heretics”. (The posters are reproduced on the public Facebook Page of Progress SA.)

This is the language of culture wars, a language of binaries, a language of right-and-wrong: freedom is positioned against political correctness, education against political indoctrination, ‘my’ feminism against radical feminism, liberal students against radical students. It is a caricature of, and backlash against, the far-reaching curriculum changes that have been implemented after the South African student protests of 2015-2017. 

There is an erie sense of history repeating itself, and the language of the campaign is reminiscent of Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990, republished in 2008). Kimball accuses the humanities of having “installed the entire radical menu at their humanities curriculum”. Suggesting to change the canon, to read Frantz Fanon alongside John Locke, continues to ruffle feathers. 

Razors and the New Gender Wars 

Central targets of the backlash are feminism and gender studies, in popular culture as well as in academia.

In early 2019, Gillette released its anti-toxic-masculinity advert: The Best Men Can Be. The response to the advert was striking: while many applauded the advert, others were offened by it, feeling that it maligned them (‘not all men!’) and pathologized masculinity (Alexandra Topping, Kate Lyons and Matthew Weaver, Gillette #MeToo razors ad on 'toxic masculinity' gets praise – and abuse).

The debates played themselves out in various online spaces: on Gillette’s YouTube channel the advert received over 1.4 million dislikes, compared to 800,000 likes, and almost half a million comments (25/02/2019) – most of them negative. 

Critic on the Gilette ad

The advert was called sexist and offensive, and some called for #gilletteboycott, others wanted to have discussions about #toxicfeminism. Gillette was critized for bringing political issues (inspired by #metoo) into advertising, for producing ‘propaganda’. These are echoes of the culture wars in academia: lectures shouldn’t be political, and nor should adverts be political. But what counts as political? Is it not political to teach Locke and leave out Fanon? To ignore the violence of patriarchy?

These are echoes of the culture wars in academia: lectures shouldn’t be political, and nor should adverts be political. But what counts as political?

Feminism – or rather what right-wing organizations call ‘genderism’ – has become a lightning rod in global debates. In November 2018, the American Association of University Professors released a report titled The Assault on Gender and Gender Studies, drawing attention to the fact that anti-gender activism is on the rise globally (see also Eileen Boris, 2018, Gender Troubles, Redux; and Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk, 2018, Gender as ‘Ebola from Brussels’).

As in the broader backlash against radical politics, those attacking gender scholars position themselves as defenders of freedom and democracy. Consider the Professor Watchlist, a website that seeks to expose academics who are said to advance a leftist agenda. Gender scholars, who work challenges conservative social narratives, are prominent among those being targeted [James McWilliams, 2018, Conservative Media is Waging a War on the Humanities) Similar lists have been documented elsewhere, in Germany, Hungary and Brazil (Nathan Young, 2019, Academics at Risk Of Being “Exposed” Online for Left Wing Views).

For the Right, tenured radicals – especially women and scholars of colour – remain dangerous: they need to be controlled, they cannot be trusted and their free speech does not deserve protection. The aim is not to create a heterodox academy, a space of many voices, but to return to a time where there was just a single story. 

From Recognition to Redistribution

Nancy Fraser (2012, Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History) argues that in the 1980s, Western feminism shifted its attention to the cultural politics of difference and recognition, and lost its radical anti-capitalist critique, its attention to the politics of redistribution. One might suggest that this applied to cultural studies more generally: a strong focus on identity sidelined questions of political economy. 

Yet, times are a-changing. Scholars of decolonization, especially, have insisted that Decolonization is not a Metaphor (Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang 2012). In former settler colonies, such as South Africa, decolonization of curricula can only ever be the first step: decolonization will be incomplete without the return of the land. And decolonization of former slave-owning countries in the Carribean and the Americas will be incomplete without reparations. The political economy is back with a bang. 

No longer are radical scholars willing to simply change the reading list, the critique goes at the heart of neoliberalism and capitalism, imagining, and working towards, a different economic order, a different type of society. Or, to cite Frantz Fanon, a new humanity. 

It is no longer just a battle for the ‘soul’, but also for land and resources, for an equality that goes beyond recognition and allows for redistribution. No wonder the culture wars are flaring up again, the stakes are high – perhaps higher than ever.