You should all read my friend Alyssa Rosenberg's long and smartly written piece in The Washington Post on the evolution of the culture wars. Rosenberg, a culture blogger who frequently writes about the intersection of politics and pop entertainment, traces the evolution the culture wars from 80s-era right-wing concerns about morality and decency—think: congressional hearings about violent video games, schools banning Bart Simpson shirts, Vice President Dan Quayle criticizing Murphy Brown for deciding to become a single mother—to the culture wars of today, which often feature left-wing critics concerned with political messages in media—raising issues about fair or proportional representation of minorities, about art's willingness and duty to depict patriotism, about how sports interact with ideas about violence and gender. Understood this way, the two culture wars, the one on the right and the one of the left, are in some sense really just one big culture war, with today's left-leaning activists replacing yesterday's conservative crusaders.
What connects all of these new skirmishes, in particular, is that fundamentally they are about self-identification and individual expression: People increasingly want to see themselves—or at least more people who look, think, act, and live like themselves and their communities—represented in media, both as creators and as characters.
Rosenberg reviews several of the fronts in the new culture war, noting its multiple strands and the way they have split apart. "As the new culture war has widened," she writes, "it has also fragmented, turning less into a clash of great powers than into a series of intractable guerrilla conflicts, marked by shifting alliances and the rapid emergence of new players."
It's that fragmentation that is in some sense the key to making peace with the culture wars, and to understanding that there's a path to victory for all sides. Thanks to the incredible profusion of creative outlets for storytelling, and the incredible niche-ification of media—Rosenberg cites a Variety report noting that scripted television series on cable alone have increased by 1000 percent (!) since 1999—there are opportunities for everyone to see themselves and their interests depicted in more or less whatever way they would like to see themselves and their own worlds represented on screen and in stories. Politicization of media and pop-culture storytelling might bother some viewers, but in a niche-driven business, it can also be a market-differentiation strategy. The incredible expansion of choice, and the ability for content with relatively small audiences to survive and profit, means that both interests, and all sorts of subtle variations in between, can be satisfied.
Part of what I like about Rosenberg's piece is that her conclusion—that more choice, and a healthy private market that supports that choice, can make us all winners—is an essentially libertarian one. It is an argument for more options, more individual expressions, and also for more speech. Indeed, it's not too far off from the argument that many libertarian types relied on in response to the first generation of culture wars, when conservative decency crusaders were leading the charge: Don't like it? That's fine. Don't watch it—and if you want to see something else, something different and more to your taste, go create it, and find an audience to support it. But don't go begging the federal government to intervene and resolve these issues in your favor.
What that means, of course, is that the culture wars themselves—the criticisms and complaints, the protest movements and consumer activism—are in some sense a necessary part of the process. Those public debates, conducted in seemingly endless blog posts and comments sections and press releases and panel discussions, can be exhausting. (Example: I've declined to write on the GamerGate fracas so far in part because I find the entire uproar too frustrating, in too many ways, to dwell on it at length.) But they are vital to the healthy evolution of these debates about we want culture and politics to be, and what it should be, and how it already is.
The flip side to that, of course, is that you need these debates to be allowed to continue without intervention from on high, even and especially when they are tiring. And when these cultural conflicts get taken to powerful authorities, especially to government authorities like the FCC, that's generally not what happens: That's a process of shutting down the debate and putting a stop to that process, which, yes, can be long and tiresome, but is also the mechanism by which these conflicts are best resolved, or at least productively advanced.
I looked at the explosion of TV choice in my own recent print-edition feature on the evolution of television, setting the expansion of smart programming in the context of the general mediocrity of television for so many years before. As I noted in that piece, when FCC Chairman Newton Minow gave his infamous "vast wasteland" speech in 1961, television producers, fearing the agency's wrath, responded by explicitly designed shows to his perceived taste—taste one show packager described as "generally antiseptic, somewhat didactic, slightly dull, offensive to no one, and above all else 'justifiable.'" For decades, even after Minow left, the agency would exert a dulling and constrcting influence on television programming, whose creators were, for the most part, extremely cautious about upsetting federal overseers.
That's how everyone loses in the culture wars. And it's what everyone ought to hope to avoid as the culture wars evolve and continue. What Rosenberg does so well is show not only how the multitude of market offerings lets everyone (or at least more people than ever before) win, but how the culture wars themselves can help shape those victories, by pushing both creators and industry executives to respond with even more choice and variety.