The culture wars have moved online

The culture wars may be raging most furiously in a new space and this has consequences:

The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. Hartman’s culture wars were fought in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, cable news shows, and in the halls of Congress: all venues with some degree of gatekeeping. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints. Whether the internet is simply a new, more broadly accessible forum for old debates about the meaning of America, or whether it is facilitating a new kind of culture war altogether, is not entirely clear. Nor are online spaces any less susceptible to the imperatives of capitalism than any other part of American culture. But if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.

If this is the case, it has altered the culture war landscape in multiple ways:

1. Increased the speed of battle. Now, new issues can pop up all over the place through text and videos on multiple platforms. Who can keep up with it all?

2. The old gatekeepers – traditional media like television, newspapers, and radio as well as politicians – have to scramble to keep up. This means they may race to the bottom or endlessly cycle through everything to stay relevant.

3. The culture wars don’t have to be about big issues but rather can be a larger series of micro battles. There may be no big “culture war” but rather an endless number of skirmishes involving small numbers of participants.

4. Anyone can participate with the possibility of being part of a larger conversation behind their smaller sphere. However, it is hard to know which of these skirmishes might blow up.

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

Can “everyone win” in the culture wars now fought in a fragmented pop culture landscape?

One writer suggests the fragmented pop culture of today allows opportunities for culture warriors of all sides to find their niche:

Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.

The fierce arguments of today often center on whether culture is changing fast enough, and whether change means chucking out old ideas, storytelling tropes and character types...

Many of the flash points in the new culture wars are the same issues of identity politics that roiled universities in earlier decades. But rather than slugging it out in academic presses through works like Martin Bernal’s “Black Athena,” which situated classical civilization’s roots in Africa, or polemics like Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” the battlefields are low culture and the combatants are consumers, mass media critics and creators…

But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter…

As we consume and discuss everything that is available to us now, we might not settle our big questions about art and politics and which values are best and how best to present them. The wonderful thing about this moment of technological and economic evolution and cultural proliferation is that we do not actually have to. The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.

As noted, fragmentation is good if the goal is a lot of options and everyone getting a chance to present their perspectives. Yet, if the goal is one side or the other “winning” or even some measure of moral consensus, fragmentation is not so good.

At the same time, the idea that the culture wars are now playing out in pop culture also suggests that the average consumer is paying attention to these issues. Maybe they are moreso than in the past. However, I would guess there are still a lot of media consumers who aren’t thinking about these flashpoints as they consume. With an average consumption of 11 hours of media a day, layering the culture wars on top of that is a whole new ballgame.

Thinking about Weber as climate change may be the latest issue to join the culture wars

Michael Gerson discusses why climate change has become one of the hot-button issues in the culture wars:

What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.

No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

If Gerson is correct, the battle over climate change is simply a proxy battle. In fact, then we could probably assume that other issues will come along that will also become part of the culture wars. The fervor over the climate change issue will lessen at some point and another concern will become a flashpoint.

All of this seems related to what I had one of my classes recently read: Weber’s take on “value-free” or “value-neutral” sociology. This could help explain a few things:

1. Distrust of elites, particularly academics, is part of the issue. One way to fight elites/academics is to simply suggest that they are biased. Weber suggests all scientists have some biases. However, there are ways to do science, such as subjecting your work to others with a scientific mindset, to minimize these biases. As I recently argued, just because one scientist may have committed fraud or because some scientists have clear aims does not mean that all science is suspect.

2. Weber suggests that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as scientists looking at facts and individuals proposing courses of action. Mixing facts and ideals or policies can lead to issues. In this particular situation, I would guess conservatives think the scientists are not just exploring the scientific facts but are also pushing “an agenda.” Indeed, Gerson ends this piece by suggesting we need to put “some distance between science and ideology.” Of course, plenty of scientists are religious but the (perceived) mixing of facts and goals can be problematic.

3. In writing his piece, Weber was trying to set guidelines for a journal where people of a scientific mindset could debate sociology and facts. It is interesting that Gerson notes that opposition to secular science is now part of the subcultural identity of some religious groups, making it more difficult to have conversations because attacking/defending one’s identity is contentious. If one doesn’t want to debate facts, how can one have a conversation about science?

Sociologist discusses when protests over art are likely to break out

Some art stirs up controversy while other works of art do not. A sociologist discusses when protests about art are likely to occur:

STEVEN TEPPER: Right. Typically when we think about arts conflicts, we think there’s two reasons why people might fight over this. One is that enterprising politicians or religious leaders are sort of like birds of prey that are looking around for something smoldering that they can pounce on, inflame passions, mobilize constituents, raise money, win elections…

That’s the narrative of the culture war. And the other one is that as John Ruskin once wrote about James Whistler in the 19th century, Artists just fling pots of paint in the public space. And so if artists are trying to be provocative, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see that people get upset, but more interestingly is the fact that the same piece of art or the same presentation gets a very different response and reaction in different places…

Hundreds of theaters presented the work [Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”. In Knoxville, Tennessee, no problem. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a few hundred miles away, also a Southern midsized city, a huge controversy. In Charlotte, the city initially threatened to close down the theater on indecency charges. They decided not to pursue that route. The theater went forward with the play. Four council members with leadership in the religious community basically succeeded in defunding the entire arts commission of the county because the theater presented that. What’s fascinating about this story is that the arts community and the business community rallied around the arts and said, What kind of city do we want to have as we move forward in Charlotte? Do we want a city that supports the arts or do we not? They organized a pact, they voted out of office the four aldermen that defunded the arts, and they ended up returning a higher budget to the arts counsel and a stronger arts community as a result of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What you conclude and then go into in great detail is that it’s always local concerns, local issues that determine this.

It sounds like the culture wars and local concerns are both tied to the character of local communities. Does the work of art fit with the community’s culture, political, and religious views or not? If it does, there is likely little room for protest. If it doesn’t, people feel threatened and respond with protests.

I wonder how much artists are aware of this. On one hand, they are also operating within specific contexts and likely have an idea of who would respond favorably or negatively to their work. On the other hand, many works of art are meant for everyone or for the public and the artists might not be concerned about the tenor of the reactions but are more interested in stimulating discussion.

If art is local, it sounds like there could be a really interesting story to be told about how some work transcends the local and breaks through to larger contexts. Are there patterns to this process?