The Resilience of the Adversary Culture

Article excerpt

THE TERRORIST attacks of September 11, whatever else they mean and have wrought, provide a new vantage point for examining the recent evolution and current condition of the American adversary culture. This term, coined by Lionel Trilling in his 1965 book Beyond Culture, refers to a discernible and durable reservoir of discontent, to a disposition on the part of those Americans who habitually find the United States--or at least its government--at fault in virtually every conflict in which it is engaged. It is a culture whose boundaries, both demographic and intellectual, defy precise definition, but the concept has nonetheless been indispensable for identifying a chronic domestic estrangement and the specific beliefs associated with it.

As to the demographical boundary, most of those within the adversary culture may be loosely described as intellectuals, or quasi-intellectuals, and their followers; they are found in the greatest concentrations on major college campuses and nearby communities. Living near a campus generally inclines one to overestimate the adversary culture's importance and influence, whereas distance from such a setting tempts one to write it off as inconsequential. A visit to a campus by someone not inured to its atmosphere can illustrate the psychic distance between the two. About five years ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked former President George H.W. Bush what he had learned at a Hofstra University conference about his presidency; Bush answered: "I learned that there are some real wacko professors scattered out around the country." (1)

As to the adversary culture's intellectual boundaries, it is generically far Left, its central animating views being unswervingly anti-capitalist. For most of its 20th-century existence, these views coincided with formal Marxist and less well-defined Marxoid perspectives. But radical pacifists and anarchists were counted among that culture, and with the collapse of Soviet communism and the accompanying nadir of socialism, the mix of attitudes within the adversary culture has changed and grown. Environmental, anti-globalization and "multicultural" forms of radicalism have been moving into spaces formerly occupied by conventional left-wing parties and movements. Environmentalism fits the adversary culture well, as we will see, because of its essentially anti-modernist bias. Anti-globalization combines environmentalism and anti-corporatism on a global scale to replace what used to be discrete anti-capitalism on national scales. Multiculturalism fills the need to bind together the several constituencies of the a dversary culture, for no longer is that culture dominated by white Protestants and Jews as it had been before the first half of the 20th century.

So, too, has the adversary culture adopted post-modernism and deconstructionism as the intellectual anchors for its politics. These radically relativistic affections have been combined, curiously enough, with denunciations of American society and Western culture just as heart-felt as those of simpler days gone by. As before, these condemnations rest on the non-relativistic assumption that there are absolute standards available with which to condemn that society and culture.

Adherents of the adversary culture can be found in a wide variety of settings, organizations and interest groups. They include postmoderist academics, radical feminists, Afrocentrist blacks, radical environmentalists, animal rights activists, pacifists, Maoists, Trotskyites, critical legal theorists and others. They often have different political agendas but share certain core convictions and key assumptons: all are reflexively and intensely hostile critics of the United States or American society and, increasingly, of all Western cultural traditions and values as well. The most important among their beliefs is that American society is deeply flawed and uniquely repellent--unjust, corrupt, destructive, soulless, inhumane, inauthentic and incapable of satisfying basic, self-evident human needs. …