If anything has rivalled COVID-19 in the news headlines and front pages over the last 18 months, then stories concerning “culture wars” are surely the pandemic’s only contender. As soon as the UK and America emerged out of lockdown last summer, a murder thousands of miles away created shockwaves across Britain’s political and social landscape. Whether to topple or champion, the statue debate ignited by Britain’s coming to grips with its imperial past formed part of a trend – one where imagery and controversy rather than taxes and benefits are becoming the topic of twitter threads and TV interviews. But what are culture wars? And why are they being fought?
The debate about what culture wars actually are can be as ferocious as the wars themselves. From the right, culture wars have been reduced to the essence of politics itself, justifying the integration of nationhood, history, and identity into political discourse. Meanwhile, the left has attacked Conservative politicians and right-wing commentators for their deliberate provocation of culture wars, citing their inauthentic and artificial nature. They have a point, it’s hard not to notice how there has been a deliberate, institutional attempt to distract from the government’s handling of the pandemic.
But equally, to dismiss culture wars as artificial is to grossly misunderstand politics, and Keir Starmer is too shrewd to bow out of the fight. His recommitment to an overtly patriotic, flag-celebrating Labour party will fly in the face of the progressive wing of his party, but challenge Johnson and co. on their cultural crusade through the old-labour heartlands. If Labour are re-arming, Johnson won’t seek to appease. It is a fight he thinks he is winning, and he’s looking to extend his lead.
Though Britain’s culture war over possession of its colonial and patriotic past is a vociferous one, an article about culture wars would be incomplete without mention of America’s significance. Tom Holland, a historian of Christianity, argues how culture wars are essentially a debate about theological terms when one side of the debate doesn’t recognise its religious nature. He notes how installing transgender toilets is contrary to God’s wish, who had created male and female; yet to refuse kindness to persecuted peoples equally offends the teachings of Christ. As such, America’s self-conscious religious community, often identifying with Republican conservatism, comes into contention with liberal Democrats who are beginning to consider Christianity as oppressive, yet have ideals entrenched in the Christian notion of progress and humanity.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and The Civil Rights Movement exemplified this development. The fight for racial equality in America, from its inception, has been expressed in biblical terms and narrative such as ‘The Promised Land’ to make it digestible to white Christians. However, as the recent tightening of Texan abortion laws shows, women’s reproductive rights do not gain the biblical traction that ‘love thy neighbour’ provides the fight for racial equality. Therefore, the fight for women’s and LGBT rights, which have consistently been caught in the crossfires of the culture war battlefields, have begun to criticise the oppressiveness of the Christian ideals which govern many Republican lawmakers. With the Republican parties’ commitment to Trumpism in the wake of his election defeat, the hostility towards inclusivity is intensifying, and the notion of liberal progress is unshackling itself from its Christian template.
In many ways, all this serves to explain why Britain has no immunity to American culture wars. Having exported our own brand of radical Puritanism across the Atlantic during the colonial era, a uniquely British brand of Protestantism acted as the bedrock for America’s conceptualisation of itself, a legacy which remains today. Although the American Christian conviction is much stronger and wide-ranging than that in the UK, the political right’s commitment to tradition and pride in British history has been seen by some as an Anglicisation of the Republican commitment to Christian teachings.
But if discussion of religion by high-minded university academics makes you feel alienated from these trends, then the screen you’re reading this on is an as an as recognisable element of modern culture wars than any published essay. Marc Andressen, Silicon Valley billionaire and tech genius, recently revealed that the one thing that keeps surprising him, ‘over and over again’, is the internet’s capacity to facilitate the creation of ‘cults’. In his attempt to explain how and why the internet’s pros outweighs its cons, he apologised for being too profound when suggesting social media provides a meaning to people whose sense of tribalism, community, religion has been eroded by modern western culture.
But I don’t think this is too profound at all. Nowadays we find cohesion, a sense of purpose, who people think they need to hate, and who they should applaud by finding like-minded people online. ‘Cults’, or movements, can in fact be seen as a form of secular religion, with their own leaders, martyrs, guiding principles, fanatics, moderates, and opponents. Whether its BLM or QAnon, it is hard to deny social media’s extraordinary capability to provide people a purpose and voice which both supports, and is appropriated by, a side of the political spectrum.
So, will there be a final battle which might end the war? I doubt it, especially in the West. Culture wars – like politics, precisely because they are, in effect, politics – don’t reach stalemates or peace agreements. We are witnessing an increasingly post-Christian society interacting with secular innovations which recreate the religion-like sense of belonging humans have craved for, what might as well be, all of history. Far from a modern phenomenon, the debate whether to topple or to champion is as much about basic human impulses as the Roman conflict between paganism and Christianity. There will always be unhappy moralists and irresponsible libertarians, a silent majority and vocal peripheries. So social media explains why Starmer is willing to take the fight on, when Johnson nonetheless thinks he’s the winner. For statues and flags, history and belonging? That’s what politics is all about.