NOTES ON THE CULTURE WAR

The Cancel Culture War that’s been on high simmer for several years now has heated up considerably since the death of George Floyd on May 25th. That’s probably a good thing, insofar as the conflict is finally revealing what it’s not about. It’s not about ideas. Nor is it about whether it should be about ideas, because if it were then it would be about at least one idea, namely whether it should be about ideas. Rather it’s about power. The power to decide, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “what doctrines are fit to be taught”.

Note that he said ‘taught’, not debated. This has long since been the case with the so-called “radical left”, who’ve made it clear that there is no debate about indigenous exceptionalism, or trans women being women, or the meaning of All Lives Matter. But it’s equally so with the so-called right, as made clear by Donald Trump’s demand, echoed by Fox News, that children be taught to love their country, and to honor its founding fathers [sic] as heroes.

Wars make strange bedfellows. Just yesterday 150 well-known writers and academics penned a letter reprising John Stuart Mill’s case for freedom of speech, much to the delight, no doubt, of Fox News. The same Fox News, by the way, that’s championing Trump’s call for mandated patriotism.

Is this hypocrisy? Not necessarily. For the counter-consideration is that no community can survive as a community in the absence of any beliefs and values held and maintained in common. George Washington was both a patriot and a slave-owner. If the slave-owner is allowed to trump the patriot, Americans can’t gather round the same flagpole. And if they can’t gather round the same flag, neither can they be expected to defend it on the battlefield.

Hence the perennial conflict between liberty and community, a conflict which is entirely orthogonal to that of left and right. Each of us bethinks she’s taken a side, until she’s pressed on it and hits her personal “but not that!” Freedom of religion, but not if it involves female genital mutilation. Freedom of speech, but not if it licenses Holocaust denial. We each have our Precious. And if we can’t defend it by appeal to maintaining the peace, we’ll simply lower the bar of what counts as a threat to the peace. These are, after all, judgment calls, about which reasonable people can and do disagree, right?

So is there a principled way to resolve these conflicts? There is not. At the end of the day, if cooler heads don’t prevail, someone eventually goes postal. That usually clears the air, the equilibrium gets reset, and the whole process starts up again. Carl von Clausewitz understood this. Or was that in an unrelated context?

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