Don’t Call it a Culture War

With so much at stake, the rhetoric heats up endlessly in the same kind of feedback loop.

David Clay / 5.12.22

“We are not at war with Egypt,” once claimed Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, “We are in an armed conflict.” This line is often cited as an excellent example of political doublespeak, but it’s also understandable why Eden would want to avoid calling his invasion of Egypt a war,” which is just about the most destructive and emotionally fraught enterprise human beings can engage in. Sure, our respective armies might be actively shooting at each other, but it’s not as serious as all that. 

Compare Eden’s reticence with the fact that professional cultural commentators and ordinary people alike readily refer to the present moment in America as the “culture war.” We instinctively feel that “war,” although blessedly not in its most literal sense, is the best term to describe what is happening. The disagreements are so fundamental, and so vitriolic, that words like “struggle” or “conflict” do not do them justice. That short, blunt word is apparently necessary to get at the emotional reality. 

“Nothing beautiful survives the culture war,” writes Elizabeth Bruenig in a characteristically excellent article for the Atlantic, prompted by the news surrounding the Supreme Court’s revisiting of Roe v. Wade. Like many practicing Catholics, Bruenig has real problems with abortion, but even bigger problems with the widespread political disinterest in helping children and families in need. The problem, of course, is that politicians — as well as rank and file voters — are more interested in enjoying the pleasures of righteous anger than in solving hard problems. “After all,” says Bruenig, “this is the culture war: Each victory is just the opening volley in some grander, crueler theater.”

Everyone more or less knows what Bruenig means by “the culture war,” so much so that she doesn’t feel the need to define it. But what, exactly, are we saying when we speak of a culture war? We can get some help in thinking about this from the greatest theorist of warfare since Sun Tzu, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (d. 1831). In his magnum opus On War, Clausewitz defines war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” He then notes that war has its own internal logic causing it to escalate to ever greater levels of violence and destruction. “Kind-hearted people” might suppose that there are clever ways of defeating the enemy while limiting the violence, but in reality: 

[W]ar is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst … If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand. That side will force the other to follow suit; each will drive its opponent toward extremes …This is how the matter must be seen. It would be futile — even wrong — to try and shut one’s eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality.

The logical goal of war, Clausewitz continues, is the total disarmament of the enemy. In real life wars, of course, there are often more “limited” goals defined by political considerations, but even “limited” wars have a way of spiraling out of control. In essence, war is about rendering the other side defenseless so that you can impose your preferred policy upon them. In war, one does not simply defeat the opponent (like you would a tennis match), but destroy them. 

And everyone with any interest or involvement in our “culture war” fears, to some extent or other, this kind of political and social disarmament. Depending on our chosen side, we fret over the establishment of a Gilead-style theo-fascist state; or else a godless, socialist hellhole that has abolished personal liberty. With so much at stake, the rhetoric heats up endlessly in the same kind of feedback loop Clausewitz describes. We have simply got to win, no matter what it takes.

But here is where the analogy to war breaks down. You win at literal gunpowder-and-cannon war by disarming the enemy. But that’s not really possible in our “culture war.” Sure, our side or theirs might win this school board election or that Supreme Court ruling, but the other side is not thereby significantly weakened, much less silenced or “destroyed,” as a thousand click-bait videos claim. No one side is anywhere close to dictating terms of surrender to the other, and that is very unlikely to ever be the case. 

Nor are the two sides actually engaging with each other very much, either with hostility or otherwise. To be sure, we might periodically shout at each other on Twitter or cable news shows, but such performances rarely even pretend to persuade or influence. Bruenig is on to something: this stuff is not so much war as theater, albeit of a cruel and disgusting sort. Most of the time, however, we’re not even screaming at the other side; we are merely whipping up our own side into frenzies in our separate echo chambers. Liberals typically do not watch Tucker Carlson, unless they are writing an exposé for the New York Times; likewise, conservatives do not usually read Mother Jones, unless they are searching for reasons to be offended. As a matter of fact, when liberals and conservatives actually do interact in real life, it has the strange effect of ameliorating rather than intensifying the conflict. 

I think we ought to think more carefully about analogizing our present social and political situation to war. The analogies we use are more than a mere convenience of language; they change how we think about a topic. With that in mind, perhaps a better analogy than war for our present situation is a marital feud, one in which the spouses sometimes yell at each other, but actually spend most of their time complaining about each other to their friends. Of course, this analogy is also imperfect: “divorce” in this case is a prospect too cataclysmic to contemplate. The last time it was attempted in the United States, there was indeed a literal war. But there is apparently very little taste for that in America currently (which isn’t to say that there has been no violence at all). In general, there is a kind of begrudging acknowledgment that we, left and right, are going to be stuck with each other for a long time. 

Comparing our present situation to a dysfunctional marriage (rather than as a war) can help us to escape the Clausewitzian escalatory spiral. You can never “win” at marriage (at least not at the expense of your spouse). But you can always work towards healing a broken one. Among many other things, this involves absorbing a lot of the anger and genuinely hurtful words thrown at us from the other side without retaliating in kind. This is hard, but one of the cool things about being Christians is that we’ve already admitted that we are rotten people in desperate need of God’s grace and forgiveness. This makes the absorption process a lot easier. Of course, non-retaliation and gentleness could result in being crushed by the other side. That is a live possibility, although one to be considered with faith in the goodness and sovereignty of God. But like any marriage gone awry, it could be the start of a new chapter: actual connections between actual human beings, and perhaps the beginnings of peace. 


2 responses to “Don’t Call it a Culture War”

  1. Joey Goodall says:

    This is excellent, David!

    Thank you.

  2. Matthew Metevelis says:

    This brought me solace and catharsis. Thank you!

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