I have no issue with Charles Moore's description of the so-called culture wars as 'poisonous', and they are the more so when they impinge on practical problems like climate change, international relations or the Covid pandemic. But some of the poison consists of errors on both sides in the conflict: (a) From conservatives who cling to imagined traditional and national identities and, thereby in effect accelerate modernity in all its forms (especially technology) to keep ahead of rival identities; and (b) progressives who regularly campaign on identity politics without explaining how they can dismiss nationalism, racism, sexism, etc., when these are forms of identity politics. Both these errors result from failure to understand identity.

Although appearing to fight culture wars can be attractive to politicians - especially populists - culture is hardly amenable to political action in the ordinary sense. Even ruthless totalitarians fail to win culture wars, as illustrated by the failure of Mao's Cultural Revolution to extinguish traditional Chinese culture. In turn, those trying to defend tradition from modern changes also failed - even in cases like General Franco in Spain or Senator Joseph McCarthy in the US.

Paradoxically, this is not because politics does not impact on culture, but because its impacts come overwhelmingly from the major events and trends. These include the world wars, decolonialisation, migration, technological change, and so on, all of which are likely to dwarf particular politicians, parties, and campaigns. Very often in these cases, as with the outbreak of the First World War, political leaders did not plan the outcome at all.

In so far as the pathetic posturing of culture warriors makes a difference, it feeds the dynamics of modernity without helping us to manage them in any way. In a small way through progressives searching for new democratic causes to follow extension of political rights to entire populations. But in a stronger way through the acceleration driven by rival identities (especially nations). The conservative Pat Buchanan fought immigration to protect American identity, but that very protection requires economic, military, and educational capabilities that modernisation and its technology alone can provide.

Blog home Next Previous