Finding Peace from the Culture War
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[Editor Note: A concise and better expressed, academic, version of the first section of this blogged discussion essay has been submitted for publication]
At the outset, it must be said there is no contempt from good people for anyone on both sides of a culture-history war when all that anyone really desires is the possibility to live life in peace. Today’s discussion is not for cultural warriors but for those who want to see a way forward for a peaceful and civic life.
There is two parts here. The first is to explore the philosophic-historiographic argument. The second is to explore the philosophic-poetic argument.
If you read broad media today, you can see we have reached a high point in the cultural war because of what is happening in American politics and society. The consensus is that the matters are going to get worse before it gets better. Danielle Allen [2021: online] in The Atlantic said in her opening remark,
“Things were getting bad even before the 2016 election, but somehow, within just a few years, they have gotten worse. In an environment of intense partisan warfare, each side believes it has a claim to lead the nation based on its own set of values.”
That is a good start to the definition of the state of the cultural-history war globally. I do not think it will help to go any further for a definition, even as more should be said. However, if I go too far into a definition, it will only revisit the war. My intention here is to outline a few historical insights but I am not going to re-debate the war. The purpose here is to look for ways to peace, meaningful peace.
The reason to open-up on the topic with The Atlantic is that in the past, sometime ago, The Atlantic was seen by left-wing commentators as a conservative journal. It is still a conservative journal, but now the journal is being attack by the extreme of the Republican Party who are trying to normalise or mainstream what is anti-intellectual nonsense. The war had become so bizarre under the Trump administration that The Atlantic is now one of the leading critics of the current state in the Republican Party. Take Allen’s article. It is entitled, “The Road From Serfdom”, which is paying to homage to Friedrich Hayek, the darling of the old neo-conservative movement. A liberal-left critic would disagree with Hayek but agree with Allen that the alt-right is in danger of creating that serfdom Hayek feared coming from the Left. Allen offers a reasonable argument against factionalism and for the political unity which George Washington describe. Whether you agree or disagree on the technical points, I would say Allen has full support for the principles he offers across the political sides of a democratic institution.
And then there was Adam Serwer’s article (2021: online) in the same issue of The Atlantic. His article would be uncomfortable for mainstream conservatives but a necessary historical corrective for the Republican Party. Serwer’s exact point is “William Howard Taft and a succession of other Republican presidents privileged restoring relations with the South over protecting black Americans’ rights.” Serwer’s wider point is that the politics of civility has become defined as “I can do what I want and you can shut up.” His alternative definition of civility relates Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. Serwer’s stated:
In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously lamented the “white moderate” who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also acknowledged the importance of tension to achieving justice. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension,” King wrote, “but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Americans should not fear that form of tension. They should fear its absence.
This insight is what is meant in the Black Lives Matter slogan, “No Justice, No Peace”. However, slogans and social media memes are no substitute for understanding the intellectual schema. Those who have no desire to dig deeper in knowledge – philosophy and history broadly-speaking and with much detail – do not understand and perpetuate a destructive warrior culture.
The Left spectrum is ‘equally’ to blame in a fair overview. I disagree with the arguments of ‘whataboutism’ because the arguments tend to cherry-pick. I agree with the conservative criticism that left-wing journals tend to ignore their ‘own’ conspiratorial agitators. But let my mainstream conservative colleagues be assured that, in social media debates, liberal-left critics or British-type socialists, are getting mentally tortured by those social media agitators who see themselves as left-wing defenders of the ideological/political faith and the fan club members of once respected academics and former teachers. The reasonable Left is also speaking out, in the same way as has brave, dissenting, Republican Party members for intelligent republicanism.
The damaging polemic debates are on both sides. We have had the process theologian David Ray Griffin lost himself to the 9/11 conspiracy movement. In a torturous four-hour argument with an eminent left-wing Australian social historian and his fan club on social media, I have personally suffered in the war. My friend’s final words were [in part]
“Every time you use it [the term, ‘conspiracy theories’] you align yourself with the CIA…I am very familiar with this process [conspiracy theories in relation to modern medicine and health policy] having studied the propaganda of the frontier and the propaganda of World War I in great depth.”
The fallacies, aimed at discrediting me, are the theory of ‘origins-determine-outcomes’ and not comparing like-with-like. The propaganda of racial and world wars and my eminent historian friend’s alleged defence for anti-vaxxer attacks on modern medicine and health policy (what was behind the above quote) is not cognitively equal for a fair comparison.
So, clearly, we have a major problem that the mainstream Left and Right can agree upon, but in that consensus is the central problem that the terms of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have become misunderstood and entangled in the polemics. I have been a cultural and social historian in relation to the ‘American challenges’ for many years. This historical analysis, which began in the 1980s, is uncomfortable for those outside of the United States, and, academically, it is contentious and has shown its limits. Indeed, the globalisation thesis of 1990s has moved debates on. Nevertheless, the historical-philosophical paradigm of the United States as the leader of the free world remains, for good or bad…or ugly.
While I appreciate the moderating commentary of better journalists, I felt that they keep missing the bigger picture for the capacity to educate people on their own belief systems, and why they become so wrong in their judgements on the political environment without that capacity. You hear a phrase like, “America has always teetered on the edge of collapse”, a journalistic phrasing which does not make sense when you think about it, somewhat deeper. The historiography is true as only as the narrative of “maelstrom”, a violent whirlpool of disorder, is true; but being overplayed, with good or bad intent (either way), it is false. Does anyone pause to consider that it is the naïve shock which feeds this exaggerated alarm. We have seen this recently with the storming of the American Congress building in Washington D.C. There became a shock at a half-hearted insurrection, where the politically astute — those who were not shocked — could see it coming. If we are gladly shocked at anything, it is the lack of bloodshed, and we can be glad for the lack of determination within the madness.
I have noticed a certain ideological conservatism in recent journalistic reactions to the mayhem. It is a tendency to blame uncomfortable agendas from the Left, back to “1968” (but agendas also had certain conservative roots). Of course, “radical” violence on both sides should be condemned, but why refer to “black civil rights, gay equality, family values, gun laws, abortion or feminism” and conclude that there is a perpetual culture war. That there is a culture war, yes, that is true, but who is perpetuating the alarm?
If you want to get out of the war, then it is important to understand one’s own self-hidden ideology and stop using the term as the problem for ‘the other’. The problem is that so-called conservatives do not understand conservatism, in the same way that progressivists do not understand progressivism. The capacity to utterly understand one’s own big beliefs is the very reason why you had thoughtful dissenters; like Mitt Romney, who was able to stand against the stupidity of his own party in a timely manner.
In the recent decades (say, back to 1990), there has been astute historical analysis of what has gone wrong in the Republican Party, and some have formulated a different republicanism (Pettit, 1997). There has also been recent astute criticism of the liberal university meritocracy policies which has contributed to the major problem (Sandel, 2020). Furthermore, there has been contemporised analysis of why the American culture has contributed to such a global polemic condition (Jacoby, 2008). One does not need to choose between any of these sociological or historical sociology theses. Each, and all, theses would tell social media readers what the set of problems are in the larger scoping, and some ways out, if only they read scholarly tomes.
Well, the concept is the historiography not driven by journalistic drama, but a historiography which attempts to untangle the logic or miss-logic of each opposing sides. Another concept is worldview, which builds from Hegel but differs from Hegel. By no means, am I endorsing any worldview, and nor am I desiring that persons remain content in their cognitive bubble.
There are two processes I am attempting. The first is to show that most of us misunderstand our own arguments, that is, not that that we do not understand our own thoughts, but in putting together the arguments as a view of the world we get entangled in a certain logic, a logic which we believe is our own tradition, but most of us are poorly read on the intellectual history of the subscribed tradition.
Secondly, to show that the dangerous arguments are not merely dangerous delusions. Certainly, delusions are part of the problem, but they are delusions built from faulty views of the world, i.e. worldviews. This is true now with the ult-right and their conspiracy theories. The theories do not come from nowhere, they come from a desire to see a particular order in the world, and that desire, with the poor capacity to deal (as opposite of critical thinking) with ideas (what is truly referred to as intellectual), produces crazy worldviews.
If that were understood, if it were taught on various platforms and schools, we could untangle the conflict, and, while we all still disagree, the warfare would not be necessary nor desired. I accept the hobbesian point that there will always be those who control the agenda, whether for peace or war, as the leviathan permits it, but I also agree with Locke, we, as individuals, have a certain power to control the agenda for benefit of the social contract. While there are those who desire the collapse, the end, of the State, a form of a proto-state will always exist, and, with all its faults, a regulated democrat state is better than tyranny – in whatever form. Perhaps, this is a contentious statement depending on a person’s worldview, however, too few are prepared to overthrow representative democracy to see if tyranny works better.
So, this brings us to Amanda Gorman’s poem and the philosophic-poetic argument, not merely for the representative democratic state, but for a democratic society based in real peace. So, let’s explore, from my humble offerings, on Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden on 20 January 2021:
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
Peace from the cultural-history wars does not come from silence or quietness, but that we boldly ask ourselves where we can find understanding (‘light’).
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
There is no going back to normalcy from war; a lesson 100 years ago. Justice must be an important part of peace.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
A nation state has endurance. If it is collapsed, it is the collective of individual decisions, even for those who opt-out, just by opting out. We should not expect that the democracy project should be perfect, but only that it is unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
The least of us can do it; the least can find the high heights of personal-social achievement. This is the dream of democracy, not merely in the American mythology, but also in the other democratic traditions.
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
This is a challenge. How do we accept the imperfection of others to create a social-political union? There is a difference between imperfections in our efforts and the efforts to undermine the union.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
In 2021 it is about harmonious cultural pluralism with justice for all. That pluralism can be interpreted in different ways, in a conservative paradigm, in a liberal paradigm, in a socialist paradigm, etc., but it will never be achieved in a paradigm that invents hoaxes and conspiracies.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Peaceful cooperation which looks to work through grief, hurt, weariness, together. True victory and true peace are not what it was in 1919, a popular attitude of peace through victory in war – it is only a pathway to perpetual warfare, not peace. We stand together in genuine search to overcome divisions while remaining different.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
Then victory won’t lie in the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promised glade
A Christian promise, not one of the fundamentalist or the Christian *FAR* Right, but a Christian promise which is pluralistic and allows the universality of God’s love, detached, un-beholden, to any one doctrine.
The hill we climb
If only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
It takes effort, and those just opt-out, need to take note. It is not about patriotism in the way the American mythology has been twisted for political ends. One of the problems, indeed a blindspot, of democrats like Barack Obama (2020) and Joe Biden (2021), is the American exceptionalism. The United States does not own the democratic traditions. However, the democratic world does appreciate the lessons of American history, for good, bad, and the ugly. How do we repair history? As a historian I am not sure it can be done, but the line of the stanza said, “it’s the past we step into…” It is not history being referenced. It is history’s legacy in the present.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
Truth matters, and the truth is that the past Trump administration sought to corrupt democratic processes and divert democratic outcomes.
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
It is a long poetic way of saying we do not conform to the agenda of doomsayers.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
The mission is intergenerational, and we have responsibility to fix our mistakes.
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
Beautiful because here you have an affirmation that co-joins conservative, liberal, non-violent radical, beliefs together. It brings a tear to my eye, but not mere sentimentality. It is a strong intellectual sentiment.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
Yes, it is American mythology in a great need for global political realism. But, as an Australian, I do not begrudge the Americans of their dream, as long as a larger realism is not denied, and we co-seek the benefit of the whole of humanity and a living planet.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
It is a historical assessment of the present moment, and an invitation to a positive future.
In this essay I have pulled together a few ways for peace to overcome the cultural-history wars. In the Philosophic-Historiographic Argument I have shown where those efforts for peace are being made across different political sides. Yes, it is still a battle for ideas, but let the educated advocate for better education. Strategies, tactics, protocols, and rules are important, and the call here is in the peace of the representative democratic state with all its flaws. In the Philosophic-Poetic Argument I have used Amanda Gorman’s poem to show that, while we may disagree over national myths and big beliefs doctrines, we do have a common good, we do have ways to work for peaceful coexistence with fairness and justice for all. If the cynics demonstrate the failures, their defeat is the philosophical vicious cycle of the warfare. Failures are judged by the peaceful democratic valuing we choose each day, and so the cynics are wrong. We are not trapped in darkness but set out in the new dawn.
Allen, Danielle (2021). The Road From Serfdom: How Americans can become citizens again, The Atlantic, December 2019 [published online].
Biden, Joe (2021). Transcript of the American President Inauguration Speech, Politico [published online].
Gorman, Amanda (2021). Transcript of inaugural poem, The Hill [published online]
Jacoby, Susan (2008). The Age of American Unreason in a Culture of Lies, Vintage Books.
Obama, Barack (2020). A Promised Land, New York: Penguin-Random House
Pettit, Philip (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford University Press
Sandel, Michael (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Random House