Culture Wars: Real and Fake
I have said before that I believe that the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” are incoherent. It is not that they have no principles. It is that the principles they claim to have are often not principles at all. At the level of the specific things they claim to support (or oppose) the relationship to “liberal” or “conservative” is often contrived and arbitrary.
Here is an article written in the American Prospect about one such contrivance. The American Prospect has the phrase ”Liberal Intelligence” on its masthead. But this article is a critique of a developing conservative meme and is written by Brink Lindsey, a vice-president of the Cato Institute.
“America faces a new culture war,” declares Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in the opening sentence of his new book The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future. “This is not the culture war of the 1990s. This is not a fight over guns, abortions, religion, or gays. … Rather, it is a struggle between two competing visions of America’s future. In one, America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism.”
Well put? Consistent? Coherent? Lindsey notes:
But Brooks’ book isn’t about policy; it’s about ideology and how to engage in politics. And it is, I’m sorry to say, a thoroughly wrongheaded way to approach these questions. The attempt to turn economic policy disputes into a populist cultural crusade rests on deep-seated confusion about the nature of those disputes and how best to effect constructive policy change. Brooks’ key move is to cast our “free enterprise system” as an instance of American exceptionalism — in contrast to the social democracy of Europe and other advanced nations. Thus, economic policy becomes fodder for cultural politics: Supporters of free markets are defending a unique and precious American heritage, while members of the “30 percent coalition” have thrown in with the foreigners — worst of all, with effete, decadent Europeans.
When we fight what we think are the culture wars we often do not ask what the underlying principle we are defending really is. Nor whether a political position in its entirety can really be derived from it. Nor what the struggle for power (for that is what a culture war is) does to our arguments as we try to frame our positions to greatest advantage. The late political theorist Alan Bloom said in The Closing of the American Mind that one of the curses of the modern age, if not the curse, was what he called “moral indignation.” He of course was referring to what he thought of as the modern (or post modern) left. But the mud sticks to everyone, doesn’t it?