I have had endless conversations lately about “culture wars” and the degree to which folks should be worried about them. Cultural permabears are convinced that our country is teetering on the edge of a civil war, where questions of identity and a public pathos are tearing families and long-term friendships apart. There’s no denying the latter, at least, is indeed happening or that it’s a big deal in a lot of social ecosystems. But it’s difficult to persuade anyone that most human beings are not willing to kill for beliefs they only hold performatively.
Most of the appeal of politics to newly “anti-racist” white liberal cultural jihadis, for example, is the socialization of losses and lack of personal sacrifice involved. They would gladly entertain the idea of reparations as a ten-year federal appropriation financed in the US Treasury market with the actual cost passed on to their grandkids, but they’d never sell their house in the suburbs and give the proceeds to an HBCU in the name of racial equality. If you proposed seizing their property to redistribute, they’d tell you to go get your own shiplap. Do you seriously think woke professionals are going to learn how to use an AR-15 so they can defend the 1619 Project? That’s the difference between the people who left home to fight in the Civil War and Instagram Bolsheviks. The vocabulary of a cause is not a cause. A troll is not a soldier, even if they do occasionally succeed in swatting someone.
They dabble in this stuff performatively because it makes them feel good about themselves, which is why the language of white liberals is now indistinguishable from white supremacists. A Rawlsian thought experiment: Imagine what it is like to be a Black mother with a Black child in public school, having a white liberal teacher telling your precious child things like “objectivity” and “comfort” are fundamentally white traits, that have only come to be possessed by whites because they have historically been a more powerful race. By white liberals raising their levels of personal awareness, they can be the heroes of their own narrative, lifting up those who have a lesser existence to them as a matter of fact, because they are the only ones with the power to undermine their own power. “I’m truly sorry I am so much better than you, but I am committed to doing the very difficult and humbling work of reducing my own influence.” (Where did all these Black homeschooling mamas come from, you ask. How did charter schools take over urban areas? No sane person could blame them for yanking their children out of such an environment.)
But white liberals are not personally invested in any of it. They certainly aren’t starting a war over it. They dwell in an intellectual bubble of Civil Rights fan fiction like The Help, where a plucky white girl single-handedly undid all the racism in Mississippi with her undergraduate degree in creative writing. A complete and utter lack of introspection is their superpower.
Once the masses start ignoring cancel culture idiots and the mastheads that monetize their digital terrorism, white liberals will move on the new hotness. They’ll become Buddhists and start studying Tibet or something. They have decades of this behavior behind them.
While the US surely has functional problems with its social institutions, there is a difference between a true breakdown of society and a fad. A better way to frame these problems would be how to best limit the damage ill-informed fads can wreck temporarily. That is a good and important conversation to have. And the most efficient way to accomplish that is to simply stop talking to people who think this way, because attention is their currency. Stop engaging them on social media. Pull your kids out of their schools, churches, extracurricular activities, and colleges. Google people before you hire them. Google people before you do business with them. Put your money and attention on people who are kind – or at a minimum, psychologically well-adjusted. Cancel cancel culture.
In general, I do not worry much about the durability of big-c Culture, the legacy of the Enlightenment, or western civilization. Everything that is true and beautiful endures, and moreover it has already endured political moments far more stupid and dangerous than the current one.
In fact, I would submit to you that we are already seeing the beginning of a forceful rejection of cancel culture and increasingly nonsensical and antisocial “progressive” ideology. That rejection is not contingent on the outcome of the upcoming election, either – it is going to gain steam no matter who shows up at the polls in November (maybe even faster if Biden wins and empowers cancel culture through the country’s bureaucratic apparatus, putting all the stupid on full and forceful display).
As a majority of Generation Z reaches adulthood – a generation that is far more culturally conservative than Millennials, having been raised by Generation X and not the 1960s critical theory generation, that romanticizes the space program and real achievement more than struggle sessions and hook-up apps – this idiotic political moment will probably be fully past us. Marketing departments will have a new demographic to appease. Generation X will be leading academia and determining its norms. (I hope they recover humanities departments from the Instagram Bolsheviks rather than continue to eliminate them altogether.)
That is simply how generations and culture work. It’s a pendulum, not a story arc. It took less than 15 years to go from hippies to preppies. From Woodstock and living out of a van to popped collars and gilded everything. From Roe v Wade to helicopter parents.
But instead of hippies and preppies, let’s pick a cultural phenomenon closer to home. Remember Carrie Bradshaw?
Sex and the City in many ways anticipated the rise of the Millennial generation. The main characters were older, but the elements of their faux existence that made them edgy involved acting like Millennials while situated in Michael Bloomberg’s ultra-materialistic New York. The narcissism. Sexual promiscuity elevated to a form of self-care and the rejection of “slut-shaming.” The obsession with one’s personal image.
The last episode of Sex and the City aired on February 22, 2004. Now, imagine if someone told you back then that most of the retailers made trendy by that show would have either filed for bankruptcy or be on a trajectory toward bankruptcy within 15 years. Imagine if someone told you that you would be more likely to see women prancing around in Amazon Basics t-shirts and athletic clothing than logos and stilt-like shoes. And that’s before we get to how Mr. Big is a capitalist pig who built a career renting out his white privilege.
Every aspect of that feminine shtick is now defunct, but at the time it was treated as the new normal. Women would never “revert” to primitive eras where they did not treat their love life as a commodity. By the end of the series, viewers were so bored with smashing social norms that the movie sequels involved getting married and raising children. Who goes clubbing when you have crows’ feet? The characters did not evolve, per se, but the writing committee awarded them with some unconvincing human accessories – as if there is some God in the machine that will automatically repair your values when you become pathetic.
There is nothing more hilarious (tragic?) than people who think they are “on the right side of the history.” As we have seen in recent years, there’s no meta definition of what constitutes progress. Movements that want to manage the course of history tend to go off the rails because they are too busying changing what exists to bother with the question of whether they are changing it for the better. That whole project is lost, however, because everything that is good is eternal.
This too shall pass. But in another 20 years, they’ll invent something new to annoy the hell out of you. And that won’t be the end of society either.