It Takes Two Sides to Fight a War
Pretending the culture wars are a one-sided phenomenon is a form of distortion and misinformation.
Dear Reader (excluding DJ Jazzy Donald),
This FiveThirtyEight headline caught my eye like the squirt from a grapefruit when the spoon goes in for the first time (if you don’t like that analogy, be grateful I didn’t go with the wayward fishhook one I worked on for too long and then abandoned):
I think the analysis in the piece is a mixed bag. There’s some stuff I think is wrong or tendentious and other points are well-taken or defensible. The authors, Alex Samuels and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, begin with a highly critical account of how then-candidate Glenn Youngkin made critical race theory a “centerpiece” of his campaign and then, once elected, signed an executive order banning critical race theory in schools. “But,” they add, “the impact of this executive order is less straightforward than it seems, because critical race theory isn’t actually taught in Virginia public schools.” And then they add:
This kind of tactic is increasingly familiar in politics today. Republican politicians, in particular, build entire campaigns around false or misleading information, then implement policies that respond to those falsehoods, cementing them further in our political landscape.
Now, I have any number of objections I could raise. For instance, the claim that Virginia didn’t incorporate CRT in schools to one extent or another is at least more contestable than the PolitiFact piece the authors rely on suggests. But even if you agree with PolitiFact’s analysis, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with a politician promising to keep what he and many voters think is a bad pedagogical approach from becoming entrenched in public schools.
Think of it this way: If there were a growing movement to teach “white supremacy” in public schools, I doubt many liberals would denounce a politician vowing to keep that movement from spreading to their local schools. Note: I’m not saying that CRT is equivalent to white supremacy, I’m merely illustrating the point that what public schools teach is a perfectly legitimate question in local or statewide elections.
Similarly, I think many of the authors’ claims about abortion are deeply flawed. I won’t dwell on all of it, but the claim that pro-life Republicans are peddling myths and falsehoods in their opposition to late-term abortion (something they fairly accuse Donald Trump of doing) ignores efforts and statements by pro-choice Democrats that make pushback from pro-lifers understandable and defensible. For instance, a Democratic Virginia state delegate introduced legislation in 2019 that would have, in her initial explanations of her own bill, legalized abortion through the 40th week, including during labor. She later cleaned up her remarks in response to wholly defensible blowback. Then Gov. Gary Northam, a pediatric neurologist, explained in an interview how very late-term abortions were carried out in his experience: “The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Northam also cleaned up his remarks. Still, there’s a certain one-hand-clapping nature to complaints about Republicans opposing late term abortions of viable babies when Democrats often lend rhetorical or policy support to their concerns. It was Sen. Barbara Boxer who infamously said that a new human has recognizable rights “when you bring your baby home, when your baby is born … the baby belongs to your family and has all the rights.” When then-Sen. Rick Santorum responded, “Obviously, you don't mean they have to take the baby out of the hospital for it to be protected by the Constitution,” Boxer didn’t say,“of course I don’t mean that.” She said, “I don't want to engage in this.”
Damn those Republicans for taking Boxer literally or seriously.
Kulturkampf über alles.
Okay, with that out of the way, I actually want to talk about that one-hand-clapping thing.
Let’s start with the headline, “Why Democrats Keep Losing Culture Wars.” This gets at a long-running point David French and I have been making for a long time. Both sides of the culture war are convinced that they always lose. Here’s a Newsweek piece from last April, “Why Conservatives Keep Losing the Culture Wars.” And here’s Dinesh D’Souza saying the same thing. The idea that conservatives always lose the culture war has been a staple on the right for a long time and was central to the case for Trump in 2015-16.
It’s a simple fact of logic that if combatants on either side of a “war” or “wars” think they are losing or “always” lose, then someone is at least partly wrong. Yes, yes, there’s a venerable pacifist point of view that holds that everybody loses in a war, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But that’s not what people mean when they say they always lose.
Second, culture wars are nothing new and there is nothing inherently illegitimate about arguing about the kind of culture you want to live in.
Now, I personally believe that the left wins culture war conflicts more often than the right does. And despite being a conservative, I’m sometimes glad for it. For instance, the civil rights movement was far more bipartisan than Democrats sometimes like to acknowledge, but I think it’s fair to say that it was predominantly a movement from the left. More broadly, it’s undeniable that the cultural left has wracked up any number of big wins over the last half-century, from abortion to gay rights to the role of religion in public life.
Importantly, this also requires acknowledging that the left is very often the aggressor in the culture war. It drives me crazy to hear resistance to cultural offensives from the left described as “aggression.” If existing law says that nuns shouldn’t be required to pay for birth control, it’s just ludicrous to cast their pushback as aggression. If you stick to the millennium-old view that men can’t get pregnant, you’re not the aggressor in the fight to overturn that view.
Indeed, taking immense pride in your movement’s history in delivering “change” and “progress” is fine. But don’t play the victim when some of the institutions and individuals you’re steamrolling object.
“Both sides” is real.
But my objections to the FiveThirtyEight piece aren’t merely philosophical or rhetorical. The notion that Democrats don’t routinely initiate “culture wars”—in the way the authors attribute to conservatives—strikes me as preposterous.
Consider the brouhaha over a Tennessee school district removing the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from its curriculum. Countless outlets have described this as a “ban” and part of the right’s “culture war.” Here’s Barron’s: “The ‘Maus’ ban added to the list of so-called culture war fights in which conservatives have forced local schools to proscribe books, particularly those written with the perspectives of ethnic and gender minorities.” And here’s CNN anchor Christine Romans:
All right, to the culture wars now—the fake culture wars. The Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” is back on bestseller lists. This, after that Tennessee school district pulled the book from its eighth-grade curriculum for what it said was rough and objectionable language. “Maus” is an account of the author's father's experiences with the horrors of the Holocaust depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.
First, let me say upfront, I think removing Maus from the school’s curriculum is a mistake, and I share a lot of the scorn from liberals for the decision.
But removing books from required reading lists, course curricula, or even individual libraries is not—and has never been—a “ban.” Saying students won’t be required to read something is not the same thing as banning them from reading it.
But if you’re going to say that this sort of thing constitutes “book banning,” then that requires you to acknowledge it is wholly a bipartisan practice. Indeed, barely a week ago a school district in Washington state “banned” To Kill A Mockingbird because it contains the n-word, among other thought crimes. In 2019, Democrats in New Jersey tried to “ban” Huckleberry Finn. Both books have apparently been “banned” in Minnesota since 2018.
I disagree with these decisions, too. But that misses the point. Where’s the bowel-stewing panic or sophisticated condescension about mule-headed and retrograde Democrats waging a “culture war” and “banning books”? And by the way, who made the banning of Maus a national culture war issue? Hint: It wasn’t Republicans. Conversely, who usually makes anecdotal cases of Huckleberry Finn being “banned” national issues? Hint: It’s usually not Democrats.
The FiveThirtyEight authors insist that Republicans peddle misinformation and distortions in order to appease their whipped-up voters—and they have a point!
But Democrats often peddle misinformation and distortions in order to appease their whipped-up voters, too.
What is the constant invocation of “Jim Crow 2.0” if not a rich cocktail of misinformation and distortion? I listen closely every time a cable news talking head or Democratic pol rails against the Republican refusal to “extend the Voting Rights Act.” They virtually never point out that the Voting Rights Act doesn’t need to be extended—it’s the law of the land. The extension stuff is entirely about one narrow aspect of the law invalidated by the Supreme Court that reasonable people can believe doesn’t need to be extended. Reasonable people can also disagree, but they can’t reasonably insinuate that those on the other side of the argument are akin to Bull Connor or other segregationists.
At the rhetorical level, the “war on women” is often little more than culture war boob bait. Pay disparities between men and women often vanish when you control for all sorts of relevant factors, starting with the individual choices of women. The way Democrats talk about guns is shot-through with culture war dog whistles, misinformation, and distortion.
My point isn’t that liberals don’t have colorable arguments on any or all of these issues. Nor is it that Republicans are always right when they ignite culture war fights. When Dr. Seuss’ estate opted to pull a couple of his more politically incorrect books from its catalog, Kevin McCarthy thought it was more important to read the “unbanned” Green Eggs and Ham than to stand in the way of Biden’s $1.9 trillion spending spree. I’m happy to mock that.
No, my point is that it’s fine to complain about culture war contests if you have a reasonable complaint. It’s also fine to wage culture war fights if you have a reasonable complaint. But pretending that this is a one-sided phenomenon is itself a form of distortion and misinformation. It takes at least two sides to fight a war.
If I could offer one piece of advice to writers and editors of all stripes—opinion and straight news—who want to expose the bad practices of one party or camp in the culture wars, or in politics generally, it would be to first ask this question: “Does the other side do it, too?”
If I can close with a modest plug for The Dispatch, we don’t hide the fact that we come from the right side of the ideological aisle. But part of the reason Steve and I launched this thing is to make precisely this point. It took the rise of Donald Trump for me to fully appreciate the degree to which the Republican Party and many conservative institutions are part of the problem in our politics. I also believe Trump made those problems not just more apparent, but objectively worse. But admitting the scope of partisan corruption doesn’t require relinquishing one’s commitment to conservative policies or principles.
For instance, Liz Cheney is still a principled conservative, but she’s not willing to ignore or downplay the facts about January 6 because of that. The Republican National Committee just voted to censure her (and Adam Kinzinger) for this fact. The upshot of this is that Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and the other gargoyles of the right can spew their bile and be considered Republicans in good standing and receive help from the party. The censure resolution begins, “WHEREAS, The primary mission of the Republican Party is to elect Republicans who support the United States Constitution and share our values.” Donald Trump, it is now abundantly clear, endeavored to invalidate a constitutionally valid election, with the full support of such poltroons and gibbons. But support for the thrice-married serial adulterer and coup-plotter, is considered consonant with “our values” but seeking the truth isn’t. That’s because Trump has become the personification of our culture war conflicts.
If that’s what defines the culture war, I’m happy to sit on the sidelines with my colleagues and simply tell the truth as I see it—about the GOP and the Democrats.
Various & Sundry
Canine & feline update: The dogs are doing just fine. Pippa found a wonderful, super-terrific stick the other day (yes, I let her bring it in) and she remains quite proud of it. She’s also upping her camo game. Zoë is bossier these days for reasons I can’t quite identify. We’ll return to the subject another time. But the big quadruped news is that Chester—our neighbor’s cat and the late Ralph’s chief frenemy—is basically stalking Gracie these days. Technically, Chester is waiting for the Fair Jessica to give him treats, which she does daily. But then he hangs around staring at Grace. Lots of people want us to let him in. This would be a bad idea. He’s kind of a bully and Gracie is getting up there in years and doesn’t need any confrontations. Also, I think Zoë and Pippa would see this as a fundamentally unacceptable breach of security protocols.
And now, the weird stuff