Extreme politics stoking the fire of the culture wars
Newly emboldened social conservative in age of Trump seek to roll back recent change
Andrew Breitbart speaks at Tea Party rally in 2010. Photograph Ethan Miller/Getty
When the late Andrew Breitbart of Breitbart News fame said that “politics is downstream of culture”, he bequeathed a mantra to the American right which still informs conservative strategy in the ongoing US culture wars.
Essentially, the argument goes that liberal progressives hold a disproportionate advantage in contemporary discourse due to their domination of mass media, the entertainment and creative industries, universities and, increasingly, the corporate world, with contrary views ruthlessly stamped out.
Regardless of how true that is (and it’s not completely false), the theory has been used very effectively to mobilise reactionary political movements around the world; one example this week being the scaling back of Pride celebrations in Madrid due to alleged pressure from the far-right Vox party.
Media organisations have moved away from using the word 'arts' to describe their coverage of creative activities and replaced it with the more all-embracing 'culture'
But what does culture even stand for in this context? Has the word been stretched so much that it’s now meaningless? The culture wars we hear about in the political sphere don’t get covered much in the actual culture sections of newspapers, beyond rote support from interviewees for greater diversity in the creative industries (so rote that they’re only newsworthy when the subjects diverge from the consensus line). Meanwhile, from counterculture to corporate culture to compo culture, the word seems to have become a catch-all for any set of shared beliefs, assumptions or prejudices.
Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, many media organisations have moved away from using the word “arts” to describe their coverage of creative activities and replaced it with the more all-embracing “culture”, signalling, among other things, an intention to offer more in-depth critical analysis of previously undervalued forms such as TV and popular music, while also paying more attention to the broader social and political contexts in which work was made and received.
At least that was the idea, although the continuing commodification of the entertainment industry often just led to expanded coverage of the same celebrities doing the same interviews over and over again.
The fact is the most interesting battles in the current culture wars are not between right and left but within the respective camps. We tend to hear a lot more about the tensions within the progressive side, because those voices are more dominant. But in recent weeks, a heated debate has broken out among American conservatives in the wake of the ongoing controversy over events held in public libraries whereby drag queens read stories to children.
Christian conservatives have protested against these readings across several US states (in Ireland, in a rare example of American culture wars cropping up here, a similar event was cancelled by Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown council in April because of the council’s “significant concern at the high level of degrading, inappropriate comments on social media about the performers and library staff”).
Arcane disputes among US conservatives might not seem to have much relevance to culture here, but Ahmari’s words signal an aggressive change of strategy
In the aftermath of the drag queen protests, an argument has broken out on the American right between free-speech libertarians who are reluctant to attack voluntary activities in which nobody is forced to participate, and a newly emboldened, post-Trump movement of social conservatives which seeks to actively roll back the social changes of recent decades.
Their view is best expressed by New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari, who now defines the aim of the culture war as “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good”.
On the face of it, arcane disputes among US conservatives might not seem to have much relevance to culture here, but Ahmari’s words signal an aggressive change of strategy, seeking not just to counter progressive voices in the public square, but if his words are to be taken at face value, to push them out entirely.
For examples of what this might look like in practice, we can look to recent events in Poland and Hungary, where populist authoritarian governments of a similar ideological stripe have turned public service broadcasters into their own personal mouthpieces and pushed back hard against LGBT rights and free expression.
As the far right edges closer to power in different countries, the culture wars may be getting hotter.