Reciprocal Follies: No Truce in the Culture Wars

By Lazere, Donald | Tikkun, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Reciprocal Follies: No Truce in the Culture Wars


Lazere, Donald, Tikkun


In the overheated rhetoric of the culture wars, leftists and conservatives alike often appear to be mimicking the very excesses they denounce in the opposing side. Without denying the Left's follies, however, I find something uniquely ludicrous in the conservative stance, as most recently exemplified in Lynne V. Cheney's modestly titled book, Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense--and What We Can Do About It (Simon & Schuster).

A principal issue in the culture wars is the claim by academic and other leftists that what appears to be "objectivity" or "rationality" often masks the conservative biases of ruling-class elites and white, heterosexual males in general. Cheney and other conservatives twist this argument around to charge that neo-marxist and/or post-structuralist "tenured radicals" are nihilists who reject the validity of rationality or objective truth altogether and impose their own partisan, politically correct "truths" in the manner of Orwellian doublethink.

Few reputable leftists actually advocate the latter notions; the conservatives' alleged adversary is mostly a straw nihilist, fabricated to evade the issue of conservatives' false objectivity--the strong point of Left theory. Some leftists appear to come close enough to such notions, however, that they play into conservatives' hands, as the cultural Left has done in so many ways.

More important, the stance from which Cheney and other conservatives criticize the Left is itself a hoax, which amazingly they've perpetrated to date without having been laughed out of the political and journalistic arenas. Cheney and her allies--from the highbrow Irving Kristol, to the middlebrow Newt Gingrich, to the lowbrow Rush Limbaugh--purport to defend intellectual non-partisanship and scrupulousness against their suppression by cultural leftists, who in Cheney's words "discount...traditional standards of accuracy and evidence." The conservatives are fond of quoting Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and essayist who defined the function of cultural criticism as the disinterested effort "to see the object as in itself it really is."

The conservatives, however, fall into precisely the mode of Orwellian doublethink they attribute to leftists. They have convinced themselves that the defense of cultural non-partisanship is exclusively vested in their own political party, just as they would have us believe that all Republicans are living models of godliness and family values. As heads of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education, Cheney and William J. Bennett opposed the alleged orthodoxies of the cultural Left by dictating their own orthodoxies as an official government line and supporting imposition of a similar line by bureaucrats and academic administrators such as Boston University president John Silber.

Rather than forthrightly admitting that their assault on academic leftists, public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts are partisan efforts to wipe out their political opponents, Cheney & Co. ask us to believe that such attacks are motivated by pristine commitment to Truth, Justice, and the American Way of Life. Ironically, this equivocation ends up confirming the validity of the leftist thesis that "nonpolitical" stances themselves tend to serve political purposes--the very thesis conservatives so furiously try to discredit.

Conservative leaders accuse leftists of politicizing all cultural issues, thereby polarizing society, yet in a bizarre pattern of codependency, conservative leaders provoke and exaggerate Left polarization for their own political advantage. They couldn't make headlines and solicit contributions without an Evil Empire against which to wage holy war, whether in the Kremlin or in college English departments. It's an old Republican ploy going back to Attorney General John Mitchell's strategy of provoking "positive polarization" between opponents of the Vietnam War and "the silent majority. …

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