Magazine article The Nation

Patterns of Culture Wars: The Right's Attack on 'Cultural Relativism' as Synecdoche for All That Ails Us

Magazine article The Nation

Patterns of Culture Wars: The Right's Attack on 'Cultural Relativism' as Synecdoche for All That Ails Us

Article excerpt

As Jane Austen might have written: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a right wing in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a winning ideology. Thus our Culture Wars, literally manufactured since the 1970s, as Ellen Messer-Navidow and others have documented. through massive, strategic infusions of cash For decades, we have been engaged in nearly futile wars of position in debates on political correctness, multiculturalism and women's studies versus "academic standards" in the schools; the morals of rap music and television serials; public funding of "obscene" art and the proper public messages to be disseminated by museums. This process is a shell game, a pre-empting of intelligent public discussion of the grotesque, federal policy-riven upward shift in income and wealth distribution since the 1970s--the United States is now the most unequal industrialized state in the world, with the smallest middle class. It is et the same time an attack on public cultural phenomena that are real, and real in their effects. For good reason, then, the buzz inside the Beltway now is that the Republicans, motto for the coming elections is "It's the culture, stupid."

Far more, however, is being accomplished under the flag of Culture Wars than has been recognized. In particular, since the 1980s neoconservatives have developed an increasing fascination with anthropological topics. We've seen Pat Buchanan's Zulus, Saul Bellow's "Proust of the Papuans," Allan Bloom's indictment of the discipline's "sex obsession," Newt Gingrich's innately giraffe-hunting men and the multiple scathing references to Boas, Mead, Benedict, Herskovits and a host of contemporary practitioners in Dinesh D'Souza's latest simulacrum of scholarship, The End of Racism. Thus the Culture Wars onslaught means both art, entertainment and higher education, and the "other cultures," including domestic ones, thought to be the province of anthropology. The growing negative cynosure of the New Right's eye, however, is not anthropology as a whole but the anthropological construction of cultural relativism, or the attempt to envision other cultures from within their own cognitive frameworks. That knackered old warhorse of the introductory anthropology classroom is up and running again, stung to seeming life with injections of New Right steroids.

Coincidentally, this academic year marks the centenaries of two anthropologists today most closely associated with the concept--of Franz Boas's first appointment at Columbia University and of the birth of his student, Melville Herskovits, who founded the department of anthropology at Northwestern University. And this fin de siecle, eerily like the last, witnesses the perverse-combination of rapidly increasing class and race inequalities, resurgent racism mixed with voyeuristic denunciation of sexual "perversity," xenophobia, institutionalized feminism under duress and tempted toward bourgeois and racist interests--all coexisting with the most bathetic romanticization of The Primitive. In order to fight this century's Culture Wars more effectively than we did the last, we would do well to attend to both senses of "culture."

Sheer volume is one good index of cultural relativism's growing importance in the public sphere. A Lexis/Nexis search reveals scattered but increasing--and almost all negative--references to the topic in the popular press during the 1970s and into the mid-1980s At first, in the Carter years, the references are made by moderates, and are used to indict straw people, just off-camera, who are "going too far." Christopher Jencks, for example, complains in 1978 in The Washington Post of a "kind of spongy cultural relativism that treats all ideas as equally defensible." The New York Times, in a 1980 editorial against execution by stoning in Khomeini's Iran, thunders, "Cultural relativism has its limits, and at some point tolerance becomes complicity." But then the gloves come off, and all pretense of reasoned debate is abandoned. …

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