Northern Valley Beacon

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Culture Wars: the great American tradition

The term "culture wars" gained currency in 1979 with the publication of a book titled The Tribes of America by Paul Cowan. Its pre-publication chapters were the discussion topic for a month at the Sunday morning study sessions at a Lutheran Church attended by many of the professors and their families from the nearby Lutheran-affiliated college in Rock Island, Illinois. Theologians from a prominent seminary on the University of Chicago campus came to town to participate in the discussions. That's where I first heard the term "culture wars." The book was re-reviewed late last year in The Columbia Journalism Review.

Cowan, a writer for The Village Voice was getting restive over the smarm and pretentions of the super bourgeoisie that was camping out on the left. A story in West Virginia caught his attention. Some parents were battling their local school board over the selection of textbooks for their children. They blew up a wing of the school district office with dynamite, planted more bombs at schools, and took shots at school buses. They posted a sign regarding the text books that said "Jesus Wouldn't Have Read Them." [Poor Jesus. Does anyone in our age read, listen to, or know what he said?] Cowan went on a journalistic venture to find out just what the motives and stories were behind the insurgents in West Virginia in the early 1970s.

It was a story of class war. When "class war" is mentioned, writers gloss over the patronization and insult that motivates and results in the acts of actual violence. The story Cowan uncovered was one of presumptuous and snotty people imposing on people of economic and educational disadvantages the stuff that could lead to their inclusion in our "democratic melting pot." These presumptuous people were belittling the culture they looked down upon, imposing their bourgeois values on it, and, in the process, supplying reasons and motives for violent reactions against them. Umberto Eco would have termed them the bearers of the banners of neo-fascism. Well, he would have used the term "Ur-fascists." [When we get time, we will post our e-mail essay "Why we call some Republicans and Democrats fascists" and Eco's observations on this web log.]

Yes, we have self-inflating, ego-bound souls on the left who do not understand that patronization is, to use Hawthorne's term, "the unforgiveable sin." But, then if you dare venture into the blog prose on the other side, you are aware that liberals can lay only minor claim to the mantles of self-absorbed presumption. It is a bi-partisan trait. It does not have to do with actual class. It has to do with presumptions of superiority--which is the main thing my ancestors left the Old World to get away from.

The class wars, or culture wars, if you will, are not matters of Democratic and Republican beliefs, of liberal and conservative doctrines. They are matters of people throughout the political spectrum not understanding how their personal demeanor and displays of attitude cause animosity and seething anger that erupts into violence.

Before Democrats get all tied up in the role assigned them as combatants in the current form of culture wars, they would benefit from understanding where the term comes from and what facts and narratives define it. Then we need to find a Cowan (he died in 1988) to go to Iraq and see if the motives behind the IEDs are the same ones that blew up schools in West Virginia.

And then read The Beatitudes. Or does that suggestion foment more culture wars?

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