A clash of visions

So Prof. James Hunter defined Culture Wars. He had a point. But only one. By this definition, Culture Wars are no new thing under the drones. But examined more broadly, Culture Wars are a uniquely modern/postmodern (post-postmodern?) phenomenon.

Last go-round, we suggested that while cultural struggles are at least as old as Ezra & Nehemiah, the current morphology involves far more than ancient animosities splashed across the social media. Culture Wars of this kind happen only in societies blessed or cursed – take your choice – with mass basic literacy, mass communications available to all, enough economic slack to afford it, and no immediate existential threats.

Immediate as in: They’re coming through the wire and they don’t look like they’re in a mood to negotiate.

By this standard, America’s been going through its Culture War at least since the 1960s. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Culture War I ran from the 60s to sometime in the 90s, petered out, then returned as Culture War II. And while these two slugfests share much, they also show fundamental differences.

Among them: Israel hardly figured in Culture War I, but provides a major issue for Culture War II. Israel cannot avoid being seriously affected by this. So it therefore behooves Israel to understand what the hell is going on over there.

First, a necessary caveat. Cultural history is not as susceptible to quantification or hard fact as more traditional political and economic history. It’s a nebulous field where perception often matters more than conclusion. So this is a particular way of looking at things, offered by someone who has experienced as well as studied them.

Culture War I, like all wars, began long before it started. The 1950s provided both the economic wherewithal and the grievances. Many were tragically real, from racial and ethnic oppression and poverty to, in feminist godmother Betty Friedan’s memorable image, all those women lying beside their husbands at night, thinking “Is this all there is?” – while their husbands, awake beside them, wondered the same thing.

But there was something new in the mix, what yet another sociologist, Philip Rieff, had labeled “The Triumph of the Therapeutic.” Unlike nearly all previous Western philosophies, “emotive ethics” (philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase) gives primacy to feeling, not real-world actions and events. To oversimplify, but not by much:

Reality matters less than how you feel about it. And since you can feel whatever you want, or can’t help feeling, no one can tell you that you’re wrong. And since the real criterion of emotive ethics is intensity and “authenticity,” the stronger and more “authentic” your feelings, the greater your “truth.”

Are you tracking with me, Israel? Let me help. America’s rising anti-Israel sentiment is not merely the old anti-Semitic delusions, once again serving the purposes of their purveyors. Nor is it based all that much upon fact. It’s part of an entrenched cultural style that gets into everything.

So how did it first get into everything?

Vietnam. Not the war itself, but the response of a certain privileged, utterly self-regarding segment of American youth, one of whom may well find herself back in the White House soon enough.

A bit of history.

The popular imagery of that era depicts millions of idealistic young protesters (or spoiled-brat nihilists; again, take your choice) putting their bodies and futures on the line to oppose that war. We now know what happened to their futures. The tale of what happened to their bodies has yet to be fully told.

After the war, President Ford’s Clemency Commission generated the first complete statistics concerning the Vietnam Generation’s behavior. Of the 26.8 million men who turned draft-age between 1965 and 1973, nearly half wore a uniform in one capacity or another. This figure excludes older men who were still draft-eligible, such as Dick Cheney, who had “other priorities.” But it’s only a few points lower than the World War II percentage.

Of these 26.8 million, only 3,500 went to prison for all draft-related offenses, including conscientious refusal to accept induction.

And there’s the key.

Had all these Best & Brightest been serious about stopping the war, as opposed to merely staying out of it – “Foxholes are beneath us” – there was a clear way to do it. Undergraduate student deferments were automatic, but had to be requested. Don’t request it. Or turn it in. Demand accelerated induction, then at the ceremony refuse to take that one step forward that put you in the military. Overwhelm the legal system. Fill the prisons with Ivy League and Berkeley/Stanford types.

“Pay attention, America. We can’t be bought off. For every one of our brothers who comes home in a body bag, one of us, or two or five or ten, will go to prison until this insanity stops.”

Didn’t quite happen that way.

What did happen was that, in order to evade the facts and implications of their own self-interested cowardice, the protesters and their Significant Others (“Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No”) built elaborate intellectual cathedrals to justify and flaunt their own righteousness. Part of this cathedral-building consisted of seasoning reality to taste. But by far the more important part involved arranging things to feel good about yourself.

And so it went on the American Left for thirty years, an ugly, arrogant process of ongoing self-gratification and self-destruction.

Next: How the Right Got into the Shtick.