Joseba Louzao

What I Have Learned From Culture Wars in the Past

«From culture wars in the past I have learned, as people ironically insinuate, that they are not simply about politics as we have known it»

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What I Have Learned From Culture Wars in the Past
Foto: Janko Ferlič| Unsplash
Joseba Louzao

Joseba Louzao

Historiador especializado en el mundo contemporáneo y profesor universitario. Bilbao, 1983.

Even if they are in vogue today, culture wars have existed at least since the end of the nineteenth century. There is nothing new under the sun. When I was working on my PhD thesis, over ten years ago by now, I had to account for the culture war that pitted clerical and anti-clerical forces against one another, in a Spain that straddled the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Culture war was one of the analytical tools used in international literature on the subject at the time to frame these conflicts between those who defended religious faith and those who defended lay culture.

In fact, the concept arose in Germany under Chancellor Bismarck with the idea of Kulturkampf (understood as «cultural struggle»), which brought the German Catholics, grouped together in the Zentrum, up against the regime. From there James Davison Hunter dusted off the concept in 1991 to frame the political and moral conflicts in the United States under Reagan, George Bush, Sr., and Clinton. And it has snowballed so much that now nobody talks about politics without lapsing into use of this polemical term, sometimes without really knowing what it refers to.

From culture wars in the past I have learned , as some people today ironically insinuate, that they are not simply about politics as we have known it. We may talk about a culture war because we like the way it sounds, but the concept conceals something deeper. A culture war is, at bottom, the sharpening of the conflicts over norms which any modern society faces, and it is the site  where  the values and interests of the different groups that make up a society’s plurality converge. As sociologist Peter L. Berger pointed out, normative conflicts are the political-cultural contests that occur with respect to the fundamental aspects of  the very definition and  self-identification of a collective , and they always hinge on two basic questions: Who are we? How are we to live together?

That being the case, and the more opposite the normative convictions, the borderline between both groups will be more clearly delimited, resulting occasionally in the total exclusion of one’s political adversary, who has now become the enemy. The victory of one’s opponent may now spell not only a political defeat but rather a serious threat to the survival of morals and values being defended. No matter what those are. And it is then that normative conflicts leading to war take a back seat. Because what matters the least is reaching agreements for living together over those very matters. There are reasonable people who behave like genuine moral idiots, and those who already were idiots take pleasure in the mudhole everyday life becomes.

In that sense, I have also learned that cultural wars polarize and pollute public space, but also private space, on a battlefield from which no one escapes. Everything is an occasion for a fight and there are those who do not miss an opportunity to fight one on one. All of which makes it easier for even the most impassive temperaments to end up mired in the absurdest quarrels. Even silence can be understood as a declaration of war. Yes, in the past one did not speak of frameworks or the narrative. But they knew what it was all about. Cultural wars do not bother with facts or with reality. They are always presented as a struggle between good and evil which activates the mechanisms for angry and constant mobilization. A consensus is not forever. When it breaks abruptly,  the lines of confrontation are reactivated to the point of becoming an unbridgeable chasm. The main obstacle to reconstruction is that, once some of the fundamental principles are destroyed, nobody can be sure that the other principles will hold up. Even if we are far from this happening now,  there are points of no return in this war that blow up all possible bridges for an understanding.

And, finally, I have learned from culture wars in the past that they maintain a pendular rhythm. In order to win a culture war the first thing to do is to believe that you did not begin it, that it is a lost cause and that, at most, you can only put up a fight. Nonetheless, these conflicts are conjugated in irregular verbs. You may win today but you will lose tomorrow. It is also true that I have never seen any culture war in which the contending parties believed that they had won. And they are partly right.. To paraphrase that charismatic character in The Wire: in culture wars nobody wins, one of the two sides just loses more slowly. If you don´t believe me, look at the political context in which we are dissolving.

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