Return of the Yeti

Notes from a Culture War refusenik


Cryptozoologists report several recent sightings of the Culture War, a legendary beast not seen since 1992, when it was reported lurking about Houston in an apparently wounded state. The New York Times, a daily journal of unexplained phenomena, heralded CW's return on Leap Day 2004, citing the creature's presence in such disparate settings as the debates over gay marriage, Janet Jackson's overexposed breast, and The Passion of the Christ. Experts are uncertain as to what might have prompted CW's reemergence, though most analysts point either to the alarming decay of our once healthy culture or to the repressive urges of puritanical troglodytes.

But I blame 9/11. If everything changed on that day, as so many people assure us it did, it was not because we found a new moral seriousness or a cause so compelling that it swept aside our fixation on trivia. It was because the attacks forced Americans to conceive of the United States as a nation again, and thus to fight for alternate visions of what that nation should be. The battleground for the fight would be all those unvanquished trivialities: the latest Super Bowl halftime show, the latest Mel Gibson movie, the latest empty political gesture by the government of San Francisco. 9/11 didn't eliminate our appetite for fluff—it just made us magnify the fluff's social significance.

The correlation between culture wars and real wars isn't an exact one, but there is, I think, a real link. Analysts who once sneered at the suggestion that Washington should reduce its interventions abroad so that "they" won't "hate us" anymore trotted out the exact same argument when Janet Jackson's breast tumbled out on television, declaring that this was the sort of thing that might turn mild-mannered Muslims into terrorists. (Mickey Kaus fretted about "the message it sends to international audiences…who may have been wondering whether America really is immoral." The line was quickly quoted by a host of hawks, including the hopefully inimitable Peggy Noonan.) On the other side of the fence, secular war boosters celebrated the arrival of bathing suits and beauty pageants in Afghanistan as a sign that U.S. troops were winning the Culture War in Kabul. No discussion of The Passion was complete until someone had brought up the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the Middle East; no discussion of gay lib could conclude before someone compared the religious right to the Taliban.

There was much more tolerance on all the sides of our cultural faultlines in the period that followed the end of the Cold War and preceded the War on Terror. It's difficult to imagine so many social conservatives caring what went on in San Francisco in, say, 1998, except to the extent that it fortified their desire to avoid the place; it's just as difficult to imagine so many social liberals getting upset that people they hardly ever interact with would watch a movie like The Passion. The very fact that I'm able to speak about "social conservatives" and "social liberals" as two opposing forces shows how much things have changed. In the '90s, those categories had broken down almost beyond recognition. Today, the once-facile talk of "two Americas"—as though the number of Americas isn't actually in the hundreds—sounds much more plausible.

I realize it's possible that I'm romanticizing the 1990s. Though I'm not aged enough yet to qualify as an Old Fart, it's already clear that by the time my paunch has doubled its size and my stubble has turned to gray, I'll be a guy who yammers about the '90s with the same obnoxious nostalgia my Boomer forefathers bring to their monologues about the '60s. Skeptics among you will point out that Pat Buchanan's famous speech about the Culture War took place at the Republican convention of 1992—a year that, you will note, includes a "ninety"—and that Bob Dole declared war on Quentin Tarantino movies four years later. To them I reply that both Buchanan's speech and Dole's brief stint as a film critic were flops, notable mostly for their failure to rouse anyone but their enemies. (And not just on the left: Surely the most enjoyable sight during the '96 election was the spectacle of Samuel Francis, the fiery paleoconservative columnist, rising to the defense of Tarantino's True Romance.) True, Beltway elites tried to treat the impeachment of Bill Clinton as a Culture War moment. But polls consistently showed not only that most Americans opposed the president's removal, but that those of us who did want to impeach him were frequently driven not by a distaste for consensual fellatio but by the belief that Clinton was guilty of crimes far more serious than adultery.

It was a different era, dammit. When the Republicans took Congress in 1994, the hardcore backbenchers almost always framed their conservatism in terms of the right to be left alone: to blow up their TVs, school their kids at home, and otherwise escape the tentacles of secular society. The radical right's cause celebre was a racially mixed band of spiritual oddballs led by a promiscuous longhaired rock'n'roller who thought he was the Messiah. Now they won't even stand up for shock jocks.

When The New York Times rediscovered the Culture War last month, the Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg warned the paper that there's "a whole generation of people growing up who just don't think about these issues in the same way." Perhaps she's right. Or perhaps the next generation, raised against a backdrop of nationalism and war, will keep the beast alive for decades to come.