After the Culture Wars

In a revealing article in “Politico,” Republicans admitted that they are dropping their focus on the issue of gay marriage. The article points out that in the 90s this was a bread and butter issue for conservatives.   They decried “activist judges” who tried to force acceptance of gay marriage on the country, and could appeal to the emotions of citizens who wanted to maintain the “traditional” definition of marriage as “one man and one woman.”

No more.

Conservatives are quoted noting that there has been a cultural sea change in how Americans think.   Only 30% of Republicans actively support gay marriage, but if you went back to the early 90s polls would have probably shown at best 30% of the country supporting it.   As with any culture shift, the youth are leading the way.   People between 18 and 26 overwhelming support gay marriage rights 70% to 30%.   Yet even in the mainstream the shift is becoming very clear — what once was seen as weird or at least exotic is now common place.

Rick Santorum’s quixotic run for the GOP nomination demonstrates the change.   His emphasis on contraception, opposition to abortion (even in the case of rape and incest) and rejection of gay marriage have led most Republicans to consider him un-electable.  His views are simply too far from the mainstream, even though twenty years ago they would be defining stances in the ‘culture wars’ launched by social conservatives in the eighties.

To groups like Equality Maine, the battle is nowhere near over.   They are fighting to pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Maine, and are confident that they can succeed.  In 2009 they lost a referendum 53% to 47% in which the voters rejected same sex marriage.   Things could be very different this time around.

Not only is it a Presidential election year, meaning a much broader voter turnout, but unlike three years ago the Roman Catholic church is going to sit this one out.  The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is on the defensive about tactics it employed to try to drive a wedge between blacks and gays, convince hispanics that opposition to same sex marriage was a “badge of Anglo identity” and get children to speak out against gay parents.  The fact Romney gave to that group is being used with success against him, as it makes him vulnerable to charges of “right wing extremism.”

In 1992 President Clinton retreated from allowing open service by gays in the military, implementing “don’t ask don’t tell,” which social conservatives still saw as going to far.  In 2010 President Obama gained political support and stature by going back to Clinton’s original decision, repealing DADT.  The appeal of a Falwell-esque “moral majority” is virtually nil, Pat Robertson has become more a joke than a political force, and Republican sops to social conservatives do them more political harm than good.   Within the Republican party the libertarian wing is eclipsing the religious conservative wing of the party.

Yet while that can all be seen in a positive light, there is something missing.  Perhaps the biggest distortion in the so-called ‘culture wars’ is the way in which religion and spirituality got defined in terms of very socially conservative world views.   Take the recent “reason rally” in Washington — the alternative to religion appears to be a cold, materialist embrace of rational thought.  The world has no inherent meaning or value other than that which we create for it, and we should do so using reason and logic.

The "reason rally" sounds good, but the belief that all that exists is a material world with no deep meaning or underlying purpose is as much a leap of faith as any religious belief.

Back in 1789 the French revolution embraced reason as the key for governance and learned a hard lesson – reason is a tool, it is not a path to truth, especially not in terms of values and ethics.   Where reason leads depends on core assumptions made, and those assumptions ultimately are taken on faith — or based on sentiment/emotion.   Reason as a tool is meaningless on its own.

Embracing reason alone doesn’t counter consumerism, hyper materialism, and the sense of emptiness many find in day to day routines, especially in a culture where community solidarity has given way to the notion that each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness.   For all their faults, religions do serve a function of giving people a sense of a deeper meaning and a ethical core that rises above individual self-interest.

So the culture wars may be over, but the need for meaning and a core sense of meaning is still something people yearn for.  We live in a society with unprecedented material wealth, yet full of problems ranging from anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders and a general sense of emptiness about life.

This 1979 video from Supertramp captures the dilemma.  There is something missing in the purely rational approach to life.  So the conservative “culture wars” may be ending, but the challenge to build a positive sense of identity and meaning remains.   The economic crisis may have dented the drive of consumerism, but people still look for external fulfillment of internal needs.

The next culture shift needs to address that issue.  It’s one thing to combat the fear of those who are different, we also need positive change.  Reaching out, understanding both ourselves and others, and overcoming alienation and low self-esteem requires openness to sentiment, emotion and a sense of wonder.   It’s not enough to just work against fear, we need to promote love.  Not love as romance or abstract emotion, but as a concrete sense of connection to each other and our world.

Sometimes kindness does more than any political campaign or cause can accomplish

So after the culture wars, it’s time to build positive cultural peace.

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  1. #1 by Sherry on April 1, 2012 - 8:34 pm

    While I would very much like all this to be true, I’m doubtful. I’ve been writing against the Religious Right (and I am a practicing Catholic no less) for some time. The Religious right goes back a very long way, and the intricate interconnections of these folks with politicos is truly amazing. There is all tied up with fundamentalism, the authoritarian personality, and frankly how you were raised as a child. The Right has mastered the art of infusing fear as a means to excite their base and to motivate them to move. Yes, they are a minority, and probably always will be, but fully 25% of the electorate can be so catagorized. They are not folks who can think logically. I have termed this as having brains that are more akin to filing cabinets than computers and without any merge button. They can and do hold attitudes and believes that are diametrically in conflict, but they never compare and contrast as it were.

    there are any number of books out there but I would recommend a book called the Authoritarians, which is the result of scientific studies over decades. And also Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal. There is essentially no way to talk to these folks, they receive evidence that they are wrong as deliberate lies manufactured by the Left. (They live in the land of projection by the way.)

    The mob is not of course aware of the intent of it’s masters for the most part. A true theocracy is what is desired by Santorum, Palin, Dobson, Huckabee, Hagee, Perkins, Inhofe, and others of that ilk. The rest are just adept at using them, although of course now we find that the tail is wagging the dog.

    If you want The Authoritarians is complete online as a PDF file. And the other book is on Amazon for $6 including shipping. There are any number of other. Jeff Shalet wrong about the “The Family” which is what they call themselves.

    • #2 by Rob F on April 2, 2012 - 12:40 am

      This is the link to The Authoritarians

    • #3 by Scott Erb on April 2, 2012 - 1:45 am

      I’ve read Adorno et al’s groundbreaking book on “The Authoritarian Personality.” I agree that it’s probably too early to declare victory — I know people working here in Maine on the fall referendum are in the middle of a real battle. And the issues will change — once it was interracial marriage and segregation, now it’s gay marriage and teaching evolution, who knows what can ignite fear in the next generation. Maybe it’s just undue optimism, but I still am hopeful!

  2. #5 by George DeMarse on April 2, 2012 - 9:04 pm

    Good stuff Sherry. In talking to people I have discovered that many of the Tea Party types, who were energized to counter the Obama election, and who are mostly white older males, are also right wing ideologues who vote with the religious right, but they are not mainly religious. They fundamentally believe in “authoritarianism,” since they never got worked up over Bush’s war mongering (at least I never heard of the Tea Party during the Bush years). Their issues seem to be they don’t like Obama because he’s part black (not one of “us”) and they focus on government deficits, not overall government policy. They also pretty much only respond to people “like them,” listening to the same right wing media day in and day out, and no evidence counts against their positions. Their brains, as you say, are wired in a particular way that makes them that way. It is actually physical so I’ve heard from George Lakoff and other psychologists. They also believe in a world where “I’ve got mine–screw you” prevails. That is until they don’t have “theirs” any more, which is happening more because of failing capitalism. Then they go for Social Security and Medicare, but only because they believe they have “earned it,” nobody else has.

    George DeMarse

  3. #6 by Alan Scott on April 7, 2012 - 12:20 pm

    Scott ,

    As you forge new boundaries against traditional marriage you risk having none . Once you get rid of one taboo, many of the rest of them make no sense . Incest laws have the practical side of not producing children from adults too closely related . Monogamy laws restrict numbers .

    With gay marriage why do you need incest or polygamy restrictions ? Marriage has issues with the high divorce rate . The family breakdown in the Western world already has cultural and economic consequences. This is more of the long slide that sees declining birth rates in Western Europe and it’s slow death by entitlement .

    • #7 by Rob F on April 8, 2012 - 2:29 am

      Recently, at the Supreme Court of British Columbia, there was a court case concerning polygamy. A lawyer appointed by the court to argue against Canada’s polygamy laws cited marriage equality in his arguments against the polygamy law.

      Guess what?

      Even though a slippery slope approach was explicitly cited, the laws against polygamy >upheld.

  4. #8 by Alan Scott on April 8, 2012 - 6:17 pm

    Can somebody please splain to me what Gay Marriage does for Gay People . Is it just the legal, medical, and property rights ?

    • #9 by Scott Erb on April 8, 2012 - 6:32 pm

      I’d say marriage does the same for the people in same sex marriage as it does for people in different sex marriage. In that since there is no ‘gay marriage,’ just marriage. Gays get nothing more or less from marriage than what any other married person gets.

  5. #10 by Alan Scott on April 8, 2012 - 7:31 pm

    Scott ,

    Then what are the advantages instead of just living together ?

    • #11 by Rob F on April 8, 2012 - 8:34 pm

      An incomplete listing. Cited in the article is are sources that indicate 1138 (my adding of the totals given) rights, benefits, and privileges involve marital status.

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