You Don't Mean “Culture War”
The phrase is often lazy shorthand that oversimplifies and avoids critical context
If you believe the headlines, there is an all-encompassing conflict in the United States with two distinguishable sides. The shorthand for this fight is the “culture war.” And apparently we’re all living in it.
“Culture war” is akin to “racially charged” in that it usually lives in news stories content to erase and distort. In The New York Times last week, the lack of precision was evident: “Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message.” This analysis of President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore said he was speaking to a “culture war,” shorthand for Trump’s suggestion that we should preserve all monuments to our American history, even statues of those that championed slavery.
“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said during his 42 minute speech.
Unfortunately hidden between these two short words — culture war — is an effort by the President of the United States to advocate for the Lost Cause ideology; to push the idea that we should celebrate Confederate leaders over the contributions of Black Americans. And in using a non-specific shorthand, the New York Times only works to frame a horrific challenge to Black Americans’ continued existence as up for debate, and pacify blatant bigotry.
Like the Times describes, the President suggested a straw-man version of the left wants to remove statues of slave-owning presidents. But considering his words from last week, it’s clear that he meant to include Confederate leaders as well. Days before he spoke in South Dakota, the President vowed to veto any renaming of Confederate military bases, making fun of Native Americans at the same time.
It’s not clear who is fighting the culture war that the Times references. But in trying to frame the problem as two neat sides, the Times’ article also erases Native voices: those that were arrested on the freeway trying to block access to the President’s speech; the Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner, who said the President was not welcome to the Black Hills, the site of Mount Rushmore; and the voices of those who for more than the last century who have pointed out that the U.S. violated a treaty over the Black Hills not once, but twice. The Times article makes no mention of these voices or that history, even as it refers to the carved faces on Mt. Rushmore as “some of the nation’s most revered presidents.”
But it’s not only Times that uses the phrase. And it is not only the Times that uses the phrase poorly.
The term is sometimes used with slightly more precision, adding a prefix like coronavirus culture war. But still, such a construction suggests a simplicity that does not exist. For example, the idea of a “coronavirus culture war” might suggest the mental image of white conservatives toting guns into state capitals against more tolerant white liberals staying home. But there aren’t two easily understood sides: bars from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. have been open at one point or another over the last few weeks. And they've been full.
There’s more than enough other points that put a dent in describing a cultural moment as a conflict on two sides: Black Americans, who are reasonably more likely not to trust medical scientists on COVID-19, are in crowded bars too. And the idea that the Federal government is on one side of a culture war, when it has a structural responsibility to handle COVID-19, is a dangerous conflation. Oversimplifying any of these groups into two-sides makes the problem digestible, but flat, pushing people to interpret coronavirus as a clear cut cultural conflict rather than an all-encompassing problem.
When writing the phrase, journalists seem to suggest there’s a clear-cut cultural divide between two partisan sides, as if the world could be broken down into Team Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Team Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But how can Speaker Pelosi be lumped into the same group as the Sunrise Movement, which sat outside her office in 2018 asking her to take climate change more seriously; and how can Speaker McConnell’s electoral cynicism be directly aligned with Trump’s brash disdain for reading memos? The answer is actually simple: they can’t. The world is more complicated than red and blue. Writing “culture war” without any sort of analysis as to what you mean is fitting of a hackish political ad, but not political coverage. Journalism should shed light on the current moment, not obscure it.
The term “culture war” was popularized by James Davison Hunter, who wrote the 1991 book of the same name. The phrase was originally used by Hunter to explain the modern realignment of the religious right, between two imprecise (Hunter’s words) groups: The Orthodox, who believe moral authority comes from above; and Progressives, who believe moral authority comes from experience. This view of the world is overly simplistic for a number of reasons, but it’s important to note that most journalists are usually not even speaking to Hunter’s original definition when they write “culture war.”
In his book, “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” Hunter writes:
“In most cases, our sources of information about the controversies of the day are the media of mass communications: the radio and television, the daily newspaper and the weekly news magazine. By their very nature, these media can only give superficial coverage; they are incapable of delving into or rising above the personalities and events of the moment.”
Hunter is correct that this type of journalism is common. But ironically, journalists now use the very term he popularized in order to avoid offering critical context in their explanation of current events. Use of the term “culture war” has steadily increased over the last 30 years, and its vagueness offers journalists cover for failing to explicate the details of a situation. Journalism, contextualized by history and power dynamics, can and does exist. It’s just a matter of whether or not journalists want to write for the people consistently marginalized by American institutions or audiences more divorced from the palpable harms of systemic racism and erasure.
You cannot lump all voices into a two-sided conflict without erasing distinct voices and moral imperatives. The phrase allows for a lazy description of the day’s events, without, for example, mentioning racism or homophobia or xenophobia. And without added context, it helps journalists and readers to ignore who is doing harm and who is being harmed.
If outlets aim to comfort white wealthy upper-class readers, deferring explanations of racism or xenophobia in favor of saying “culture war,” then they’re welcome to praise themselves: they’re doing their job perfectly.
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