What Culture War?
You must admit, this is the most curious political phenomenon of our lifetimes: After five years of investigation by Kenneth Starr, one solid year of media frenzy, and three months of impeachment proceedings, President Clinton’s job approval rating is 72 percent, and
Republicans now rank below Larry Flynt in public esteem. And their response to all this is:
“More! More!” Kind of hard to know what to say to them.
And here am I in concert with Pat Robertson: Please, stop!
Incidentally, journalist Lars-Erik Nelson rather uncharitably noted that aside from impeachment, the Rs’ major legislative accomplishment of 1998 was renaming Washington National Airport after Ronald Reagan.
The latest wrinkle in right-wing spin is to claim that this is not a political phenom at all but rather the final battle in some culture war that I didn’t know was going on. I have my doubts about this culture war – can you be in one and not know it? Did our side actually vote for Flynt as our standard bearer? What is our side?
My last effort to grasp what the right wing is going on about here was reading Robert Bork’s latest book – an experience so horrifying that I have not yet recovered and cannot bear to read any more in the genre. If Bork was the beginning of the political-culture war, as is sometimes claimed (“payback for Bork” being an occasionally heard battle cry), all I can say is: I didn’t know it was war at the time, but I’m sure glad I was on the right side.
An alternative theory is that the culture war dates back to the sixties, and this is where I get totally lost reading right-wing cultural interpretations. The old joke is that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there. I was there, and I can remember it.
I remember the decade as being about the Peace Corps, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. As Margo Adler writes in her memoir of the period, it was quite possible to be an activist in the sixties and miss sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in their entirety. “We Shall Overcome” remains the song of the decade for many.
That is, until 1968, the year of assassinations, when it all turned very, very dark.
I could be wrong, but I still think the berserker elements of the sixties were largely the consequences of Vietnam – the drugs, the craziness, the sense that the world made no sense because that war certainly made no sense. And that war was not the fault of those who fought it or opposed it. Your famous World War II generation presented that little gift to us: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Long time passing.
Another right-wing interpretation of the sixties is the bizarre notion that black rage was fomented by white liberal social programs. Bill Kristol has been alone among right-wing intellectuals, I believe, in consistently and gracefully conceding that liberals were right about civil rights and that conservatives (a word often synonymous with “racist” in those years) were wrong. That’s most generous of him, but I think it leaves a wrong impression (a bit like that odd film Mississippi Burning) that somehow white people were the key players in the civil rights movement.
It was a movement of, by, and for black Americans; those few whites who took part – and there were mighty few of us in the South – were just bit players. As Taylor Branch’s wonderful King biography and many other books make clear, the whites in power, whether they reacted for good or ill at the time, were just reacting – reacting to one of the most astonishing, beautiful, and spontaneous uprisings for justice the world has ever seen.
The movement split in ’64, when Stokely Carmichael’s “Burn, baby, burn” stood in contrast to “We shall overcome, someday.” But to blame that on anything that white liberals did is ludicrous. Race riots had been part of American history for 100 years; they were not unusual before the civil rights movement, and the roots of the rage underlying them are obvious.
These silly books blaming the sixties for various social evils are pathetically truncated in their viewpoint. Were there symptoms of decline in black family structure? According to anthropologists, the black family is one of the most durable social structures in history; it survived both slavery and Jim Crow and finally was visibly damaged only by the Depression, which of course fell more harshly on blacks. Incidentally, the Depression had the same effect on white families – those who yearn for hard times to bring us together might keep that in mind.
Was there an increase in sexual activity outside marriage in the sixties? If so, don’t you think it had more to do with the invention of the birth control pill than with “permissive attitudes?”
Don’t get me started. But perhaps what I object to most is the use of war as a metaphor for political differences. That way lies folly and worse. Call it a spirited discussion, a disagreement, or an all-out mud-slinging match, but don’t call it war. That’s how you get murdered abortion doctors and bombed buildings in Oklahoma.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.