Culture Politics, and Other Kinds
Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
(The eleventh in a series of reflections on the theme of "Christian America.")
We have seen the way in which a thorough secularist such as Richard Rorty also subscribes to a Christian America, but one that is Christian once or twice removed. What he, following his mentor John Dewey, does not hesitate to term a religion stands in sharpest contrast to the "culture politics" now being waged by both the left and the right. Achieving Our Country is a poignant cry for the left to return to what Rorty thinks is the real business of politics, which he frankly describes as "social justice" understood in terms of redistributing wealth. It seems that Rorty's appeal to reconstitute what now might be called the "old left" will have few takers in the foreseeable future. Although those of the hard-core left today declare themselves to be anticapitalist, a declining number affirm that they are socialist, and, unlike the "old left" of earlier decades, a real Communist is almost impossible to find.
Questions of economic, military, and foreign policy are perennials in American politics, as in the politics of any nation. They will never go away entirely, and in unpredictable manner will sometimes erupt as the dominant and formative questions. For the present and in the likely future, however, American politics is mainly "culture politics." One notes again that "culture" is derived from the Latin cultus, meaning what we revere or worship or hold ourselves accountable to. Culture politics is therefore a contention over what religious or quasi-religious moral tradition, if any, will guide our deliberating and deciding how we ought to order our life together. In this country, composed of these people with their history and associational allegiances, that contention inevitably engages the reality of Christian America.
I do not find it entirely persuasive, but the argument should be acknowledged that "culture politics" is nothing new in the American experience; that it is, in fact, the normal thing, with most of the twentieth century being an aberration. The dominant public issues of the twentieth century were the crises of war and economic depression, with the program of the Progressive Era, which is essentially a program of state regulation and redistribution of wealth, making its way as best it could through and around the crises. The two world wars, the Great Depression, and the more than forty years of Cold War are all in the past. As is the era of big government, or so at least former President Bill Clinton once proclaimed and some believe. So now, in this view, we are returned to the normality of politics as culture politics. After all, what else should politics be about if, as Aristotle suggests, it is the deliberation of how we ought to order our life together, and "ought" is defined by available and commanding ideas, which is to say, by culture?
It is an argument of more than passing interest, but I believe a better case can be made that the form of culture politics dominating our historical moment is the aberration. I am not prepared to press the case very hard, however, since I also harbor the suspicion that it is futile to try to specify what is aberration and what is normality in the American experience. It is difficult enough to try to get a fix simply on what is happening, quite apart from judging whether it is aberrant or normal. Recall the adage that America is so vast and so various that almost any generalization about it is amply supported by evidence.
In any event, there is no doubt that many people are disturbed by the present dominance of culture politics. Culture politics necessarily results in the "moralizing" of politics. Across the political spectrum, there is considerable ambivalence about this turn in our political culture. The left complains about an ascendant "neo-Puritanism," especially in relation to sexual ethics, and especially in the aftermath of the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton. The right responds that it is simply challenging the "new morality" so vocally and successfully promoted by the left since the 1960s. Both sides have more than a point. It is not that one side is moralistic and the other is not. One of the more successful conservative ploys of recent years, for instance, was to highlight the rigorous moralism of "political correctness." In the dispute over "speech codes" on campuses, to take but one example, there was the irony of conservatives, in their opposition to such codes, sounding like moral libertarians, while liberals were determined to impose moral standards.
Moralities in Conflict
More often than not, culture politics is not a matter of morality vs. immorality (or even amorality) but of moralities in conflict. As much for secularists like John Dewey and Richard Rorty as for religionists like Walter Rauschenbusch and James Dobson of today's massive "Focus on the Family" network, it is a conflict that takes place within the ambiance of Christian America. And that for the inescapable reason that Christian America--however confusedly Christian--is the only America there is. Culture politics has to do with the right ordering of our life together, and the right ordering of our life together has to do with almost everything. It has to do with everything, that is, when everything becomes politics, and it is worth remembering that it is has typically been a tenet of the left that everything is politics.
Culture politics has to do with sex, of course. But again, it was the "new politics" of the left, not of the right, that declared a "cultural revolution" (meaning, above all, a sexual revolution) some thirty years ago. The cultural-sexual revolution entailed major social and political changes in gender roles, family structures, attitudes toward homosexuality, and much else. I indicate some reservations about attributing all this to "the sixties" because, in fact, the revolt against what are called bourgeois values goes back much farther than that. In some respects, the "culture wars" have been underway almost a century now. This is brilliantly described by Modris Eksteins of the University of Toronto in his Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, which takes as its title and starting point Stravinsky's ballet first performed in Paris in 1913:
That the issue of sexual morality should become a vehicle of rebellion against bourgeois values for the modern movement was inevitable. In the art of Gustav Klimt, in the early operas of Richard Strauss, in the plays of Frank Wedekind, in the personal antics of Verlaine, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde, and even in the relaxed morality of the German youth movement, a motif of eroticism dominated the search for newness and change. "Better a whore than a bore," mused Wedekind, while in the United States Max Eastman shouted, "Lust is sacred!" The sexual rebel, particularly the homosexual, became a central figure in the imagery of revolt, especially after the ignominious treatment Oscar Wilde received at the hands of the establishment. Of her Bloomsbury circle of gentle rebels Virginia Woolf said, "The word bugger was never far from our lips." Andre Gide, after a long struggle with himself, denounced publicly le mensonge des moeurs, the moral lie, and admitted his own predilections. Passion and love, he had concluded, were mutually exclusive. And passion was much purer than love.
Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and Norman O. Brown's "polymorphous perversity," both major features of the 1960s, are not a far distance from 1913. One might suggest that the cultural revolution declared at the beginning of the twentieth century was delayed by the distraction of crises--from World War I ("the Great War") through the end of the Cold War in 1989. The conservative turn in politics over the last decade is a long-delayed response, now led in significant part by evangelicals, the heirs of the fundamentalists who went into cultural exile almost a century ago. Of course the response is condemned as a philistine reaction against today's so-called high culture, which has, for the most part, descended into a self-indulgent and transgressive vulgarity far removed from the panache and imagination of an earlier modernism. But, then and now, the core of the revolution is sexual.
When in the culture politics of today the right comprehensively packages its agenda under the label "pro-family," it is mirroring the definition of the conflict proposed by the left. Disputed policies ranging from parental choice in education, to a tax break for married couples, to opposing the legalization of gay rights are all included in the "profamily" package. The right, and especially "the religious right," is frequently viewed as the aggressor in our culture politics. Its champions, however, believe that they are engaged in a defensive aggression. The clarity of public discourse would be well served were that point conceded. To deny it is to deny that there was a cultural-sexual revolution launched in the 1910s and resumed in the 1960s, or else to claim that it was not about anything of importance.
There is today one question above all others, however, that drives culture politics. It underlies and overarches a host of other issues. Start probing apparently unrelated disputes, and soon the argument gets around to it. Most of us wish this were not the case. But it is the finally unevadable question in American public life, and it will not go away. The question, of course, is abortion. Not surprisingly, those who are put off by culture politics are put off by the conflict over abortion. The arguments for or against the existing abortion license are not necessarily religious in nature. Yet in the everyday reality of public debate and battle, nothing cuts so close to the frazzled nerve center of Christian America. More than any other factor, abortion has also shifted the public constellations of religious allegiance in the country, notably in the convergence of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in the anti-abortion cause.
Of course, abortion and its centrality in the culture wars did not come out of nowhere. Some resist the suggestion, but I believe the abortion license is inexplicable apart from the moral acceptance of contraception, beginning with the Anglicans at the Lambeth conference of 1930, and, later, the development of the pill. As Eksteins notes also with respect to homosexuality, the revolution aimed at liberating the erotic from fertility and morality. Following on the abortion license and its declared dominion over life and death, the revolution is entangled today with biomedical activities that constitute nothing less than a return to eugenics (see my article, "The Return of Eugenics," Commentary, April 1988). Considering how long the culture wars have been underway and what is at stake, it is hardly surprising that, barring a distraction such as global war or depression, our politics at the beginning of a new century are mainly culture politics. The great question in dispute is whether passion and love are mutually exclusive, whether passion offers a freedom greater than the freedom proposed by the hard tasks of love.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Culture Politics, and Other Kinds. Contributors: Neuhaus, Richard - Author. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Publication date: April 2001. Page number: 68. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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