Culture Wars

The scope and intensity of our present culture wars may seem unprecedented, but there have also been discussions of how today’s turbulences compare with those of 1968. I understand the urge to do that, but the earlier time is often brought up in a nonsensical, competitive way—was 1968 worse than today? I, too, have indulged in such discussions, but what is the point of old folks telling younger ones that it was worse or better a half century ago? The words of Alexander Pope should come to mind: “Some old men by continually praising the time of their youth would almost persuade us that there were no fools in those days; but unluckily they are left themselves for examples.”

On the other hand, we should examine the past to learn from it. The adage that unless we learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it is, of course, false. History is not a cycle or circle. It is a continuum. Today was not created this morning; the world did not begin with the sunrise.  The seeds of the present were planted in the past, and an understanding of history helps us understand today. Certainly, many of the present battle zones are just further representations of themes of our history.

One fierce area of contention today is over sexuality. The battle may seem narrow concentrating on the transgender and same sex relationships, but U.S. history is replete with attempts to control sexuality. We have had laws that made fornication, adultery, and sodomy criminal. We have had laws restricting birth control. We have had dress codes, which, of course, were also aimed at restricting sexuality. We have had battles over sex education. And, I am sure, that you can think of other examples that were aimed at sexual impulses and identities. It may be the land of the free, but it has also been the land where some have always wanted to impose their sexual views on others.

Issues about race today may seem to center on the often-undefined Critical Race Theory, but one needs only a little familiarity with our national background to know that issues of race were with us when the country was founded and have been a central focus throughout our history. Pick any historical era, and you will find that concern about race was a driver of what was happening. The Civil War was about race, but only because of what happened before. The Civil Rights Era was about race, but only because of what happened before. The effort to stem Critical Race Theory is about race, but only because of what happened before.

Race has also been a component of immigration battles throughout our history. Our first naturalization law, — in effect for over a century — allowed only whites to be naturalized. This led to tortured Supreme Court decisions as to whether a Syrian or a Sikh was white. Our laws at one time banned Chinese workers from the country (and states forbade Asians from owning property.) Our restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s came in response to waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and others from Southern Europe because these people were not seen as really white (leading to the oft-repeated, only half-joking question, Are Italians white?)

The concern over immigrants, however, is also part of another theme of our history, an American concern and fear about the foreign “other.” From the country’s inception, there were strong anti-Irish sentiments that intensified after England’s heartless responses to the potato famine brought waves of Irish immigrants. As Catholics, they could not be American, or so thought many, under the theory that they owed allegiance to a foreign potentate, the Pope.

After the Civil War, the fear of the foreign other shifted. With accelerating industrialization came increased labor strife. Instead of examining the complaints about corporate or monopolistic practices, the owners and government officials dismissed labor leaders as foreign-born or under the sway of the foreign, un-American ideology of anarchism. The country saw something similar as it countered opposition to World War I. Fear of “foreign” ideologies intensified after World War II. Reformers of all sorts were labeled as communists or socialists. These were “foreign” ideas, after all, and those advocating for changes they thought could produce a better society must be under the influence of Russia and, later, China. Adopting a more current term, these reformers needed to be “cancelled.” 

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union came the realization that there was no meaningful foreign-inspired radical movement in the country. For the first time in well over a century we did not have a foreign “other” to fuel cries for patriotic Americanism. But then 9/11 came to ramp it up again, this time focusing on Moslems. The current immigration fears of Mexican rapists, immigrant welfare recipients, and Venezuelan communists have their historical roots in a long, unsavory American history.

We have more positive themes in our history and society, but sex, race, and the foreign “other” have been dominant ones that continue in all sorts of ways. Conservatives still respond to proposals for government actions with the cry of socialism because socialism, somehow, always smacks of the foreign. That, of course, is not new. Medicare and polio vaccinations were called socialism. The environmentalist Rachel Carson was said to be inspired by the communists. Martin Luther King was following Russian orders. And now Critical Race Theory is dismissed as stemming from Marxism, even though I am quite sure that Karl, Engels, Lenin, and even Trotsky never considered CRT. Instead of debating the merits of its message, we seek to undermine it by implying that it is foreign-inspired. While these forces within of our history persist, a theme of our early history seems to have been lost. Our founding era was a product of the Enlightenment. This period was not characterized by a rigid philosophical notion or ideology. Instead, it was a way of thinking that encouraged an examination of the world with skepticism but with confidence in reason, study, and observation. Such contemplation and study was to lead to a better understanding of history, nature, and society with the core belief that things could be improved. This should be the primary goal of education, but such Enlightenment thinking seems to have abandoned us.


Would you be whining about your work if you had an incredibly powerful job, could have it as long you wanted, work full-time nine months of the year, and make enough to put you in the top 2% of earners with the chance to make even more? And yet here is John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, publicly bemoaning that Americans question the legitimacy of his Court. Apparently, he is so unhappy that so many see his work as illegitimate that he is going to resign. Just kidding.

“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” George Eliot.

I have listened to the summer sounds. I take my coffee and reading material to the porch as the light is dawning and pause periodically to listen to the bird songs, even though I cannot identify any of the calls. After dinner and dusk, I take a book to the porch and pause in my reading to hear the symphony of the cicadas. During the daylight I hear deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits rustling the dry leaves in the woodlot next to my reading spot. But, unfortunately, during the day I also hear the summer sounds of lawn mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, and backhoes.

It must be a sign of age: I think of my youth as all the time before I was sixty-eight.

A fact that surprised me: The first medal awarded to an American at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was for art. Art competitions were part of the summer games until 1948.

Another fact that surprised me: Iceland has no ants.

A recurring question that mystifies me: Why are Americans so besotted with the un-American institution of the British royalty?

Sometimes when conservatives rail against critical race theory they betray complete ignorance of what it is. Perhaps they oppose it because they think that it is a system for picking horses.

 “In the middle of the twentieth century, any Mississippi schoolchild who achieved an eighth-grade education had been exposed to a state history textbook [Mississippi through Four Centuries] that told of the glories of the Klan. In discussing Reconstruction, it said the Klan whipped and even killed Blacks ‘who had been giving trouble in a community. . . . The organization helped the South at a difficult time.’” Curtis Wilkie, When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer. (2021).

Tony Horwitz, in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998), reports that a visitor to a civil war battlefield asked a park ranger why so many Civil War battles were fought on national parks.

The philosopher said, “Half of wisdom is being silent when you have nothing to say.”

Putin, America, and the Politics of Being (continued)

          Putin, coming out of relative obscurity, was elected Russian president in 2000 with 53% of the vote. He consolidated his power quickly and extensively in ways large and small, such as by nationalizing television, and was reelected in 2004 with a reported 71% of the vote. The Russian constitution then only allowed two consecutive four-year presidential terms. Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev for the March 2008 election and Medvedev got more than 70% of the votes. He then appointed Putin his prime minister.

          A constitutional change increased the presidential term to six years after Medvedev’s term, and Putin again ran for president in 2012. The election was viewed by many within and without Russia as corrupt. Masha Gessen in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin reports: “Putin declared victory in the first round of the presidential election, with 63 percent of the vote. Holding a virtual monopoly on the ballot, the media, and the polls themselves, he could have claimed any figure, but he opted for a landslide, and a slap in the face to the Movement for Fair Elections.” The Movement had been part of widespread demonstrations that started months before the election. They wore white ribbons, which Putin tellingly sexualized by saying the cloth looked like condoms.

          Putin won, but it was clear that a significant portion of Russians were unhappy with him and the direction of their society. Putin had invaded Georgia in 2008, which perhaps was initially popular, but became less so as the war wore on. Privatization had put money into private hands, but little of it went to anyone other than what are now known as the oligarchs. Russians could increasingly see the results of wealth, but few had it as Russia became the most economically unequal society in the world. More and more people felt dangerously unsettled. Gessen again: “Many Russians, however, got poorer—or at least felt a lot poorer: there were so many more goods in the stores now but they could afford so little. Nearly everyone lost the one thing that had been in abundant supply during the Era of Stagnation: the unshakeable belief that tomorrow will not be different from today. Uncertainty made people feel ever poorer.” And people took to the streets in numbers that Putin could not ignore.

          He responded not by trying to distribute wealth more equally, increasing civil liberties, or having fairer elections. Instead, in something that should feel familiar to Americans today, he sought to unite Russians by launching an anti-homosexual crusade. Gessen states, “In the spring of 2012, Putin decided to pick on the gays. In the lead-up to the March 2012 election, faced with mass protests, Putin briefly panicked. . . . And faced with the protest movement, the new Kremlin crew reached for the bluntest instrument it could: it called the protesters queer.” Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America sees Putin as making this an external threat: “Some intractable foreign foe had to be linked to protestors, so that they, rather than Putin himself, could be portrayed as the danger to Russian statehood. Protestors’ actions had to be uncoupled from the very real domestic problem that Putin had created and associated with a fake foreign threat to Russian sovereignty. [The protestors] were mindless agents of global sexual decadence whose actions threatened the innocent national organism.” These protestors were the tools of a foreign power, a power embodied in the person many American conservatives loathed. “Three days after the protests began, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for initiating them: ‘she gave the signal.’” A few days later, without providing evidence, he claimed that the protestors were paid.

          The propaganda maintained that the forces promoting sodomy were not just trying to affect Russia. They were also after Ukraine. “European integration (of Ukraine) was interpreted by Russian politicians to mean the legalization of same-sex partnership (which was not an element of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU) and thus the spread of homosexuality.” Gessen tells us that a Russian politician “warned that if Ukraine went west, that would lead to ‘a broadening of the sphere of gay culture, which has become the European Union’s official policy.’ Over the next couple of months, the image of the Western threat menacing Ukraine broadened to include not only the gays but also the Americans, for whom the gays were always a stand-in anyway.”

          Whether or not American manifest destiny (see previous post) compares to Russian exceptionalism, Putin’s turn to sexual matters does have American parallels. How American does this sound? Putin announced, Gessen reports, that he was “defending traditional values.” Russia passed legislation “not only banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ but also ‘protecting children from harmful information,’ which meant, first and foremost, any mention of homosexuality, but also mention of death, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, unhappiness, and, really, life itself.” (The law was entitled, “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” Perhaps it produces a snappy acronym in Russian.) Russian kiddies should not learn of things that might make them uncomfortable. A similar agenda is being implemented in an increasing number of American schools.

          Putin has adopted the basic political stance that when the topic is about the shortcomings of Russia or Putin himself, shift the topic: “Putin was enunciating a basic principle of his Eurasian civilization: when the subject is inequality, change it to sexuality.” American conservatives have followed a broader path to avoid confronting American shortcomings: the topic may be switched to a number of topics, including critical race theory or Black Lives Matter, but, of course, the staple of avoidance still remains of waving the rainbow flag of gaydom and transdom. American conservatives and Putin share the goal of wanting to make “politics about being rather than doing.”

(concluded May 9)

Virginia Governor Thinks . . . But Not Critically

Shortly after taking office, Glenn Youngkin, the new Virginia governor, issued an executive order “on Day One to end the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in K-12 public education. EO-1—ENDING-THE-USE-OF-INHERENTLY-DIVISIVE-CONCEPTS,-INCLUDING-CRITICAL-RACE-THEORY,-AND-RESTORING-EXCELLE[13856].pdf. (If on April 1, 2023, Youngkin signs another executive order, will it say that it was issued on Day Four-Hundred-Seventeen?) (Have you noticed how frequently politicians’ signatures are unreadable? Is that so that there can be plausible deniability later if they want to disown whatever they signed? Or maybe they really had wanted to be doctors? Or is it because their K-12 education did not reward good penmanship?)

As is frequent in such orders, the issuer first stated why the order is necessary and follows up with how the goals are to be accomplished. It seems almost impossible for politicians to escape platitudes in this portion of an executive order. In this one, for example: “Political indoctrination has no place in our classroom.” Our kids should not “be told what to think. Instead, the foundation of our education system should be built on teaching our students how to think for themselves. . . .We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history—both good and bad.” Who could disagree?

A closer reading of this section headed “Importance of the Initiative,” however, raises questions about the order itself and the writing and thinking ability of its drafters and signer. The order says that “we must enable our students to take risks, to think differently, to imagine, and to see conversations regarding art, science, and history as a place where they have a voice.” How does the governor want students to think differently? Think differently from whom? From what? How does banning IDCs (inherently divisive concepts) accomplish this? In addition, the governor wants to enable students to imagine. Virginia kids now don’t have an imagination? That apparently makes them different from all children elsewhere, so perhaps Virginian small fry must be enabled to think differently.

The order seeks to improve the knowledge and thinking ability of Virginia students, but the order should make people wonder about how well its drafters and signer were educated. Should we take seriously pronouncements about education from someone who writes the phrase “to see conversations”? And doesn’t banning IDCs limit the ability of students to explore–think differently about–upsetting or inherently divisive concepts?

The order states what should be another platitude: “We must equip our teachers to teach our students the entirety of our history – both good and bad.” Okay. But it continues: “From the horrors of slavery, . . . [to] our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism, we must provide our students with facts and context necessary to understand these important events.” If Virginia schools teach such poor sentence construction, more than the mere banning of Critical Race Theory is needed for a good public education there. And I doubt the governor’s commitment to historical accuracy when he writes of our “defeat” of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the clause states that schools should teach about “our country’s defeat of the Soviet Union and the ills of Communism.” Don’t the ills of Communism still exist even if the Soviet Union does not? Perhaps the goal is to teach about the ills of communism, but that is not what the order says, and, besides, it would conflict with the portion of the order that intones that political indoctrination has no place in Virginia’s classrooms and that students should not be told what to think. I doubt that Youngkin wants teachers to teach about the ills and shortcomings of capitalism; apparently, he would rather just indoctrinate them about the ills of communism.

The preamble concludes with sentences that are at best non sequiturs: the Virginia Constitution, it says, “provides a right to be free from any governmental discrimination upon the basis of religious conviction, race, color, sex, or national origin. Critical race theory and related concepts are teaching our children to engage in the very behavior the Constitution prohibits.” Did you follow that? The Virginia Constitution prohibits governmental discrimination. CRT teaches students to governmentally discriminate. Really? How does it do that? If that second assertion can, against all odds, make sense, surely there must be some intervening sentences to get there. As presented, the paragraph is gobbledygook. But it is presented by those who are going “to ensure excellence in K-12 public education” in Virginia.

Perhaps the sloppy thinking and writing in the “Importance of the Initiative” doesn’t matter much because it is the “Directive” portion of the executive order that contains the legally operative language. The thirteen numbered paragraphs make it clear that the Virginia governor is taking a strong stand against “inherently divisive concepts, including concepts or ideas related to Critical Race Theory.” They are to be rooted out of Department of Education policies and removed from DOE’s guidelines, websites, best practices, and training materials. Furthermore, the Superintendent of Public Instruction shall keep on the lookout for further executive or legislative actions that might be “needed to end use of all inherently divisive concepts in public education.”

Virginians can be proud that public school kids will no longer be polluted with these pernicious policies, or at least they will be kept safe once these offensive ideas can be identified. Good luck with that. The executive order does not even attempt a definition of Critical Race Theory, much less the “related concepts” associated with it.

(continued January 24)

From “Socialism” to “Diversity”

          It is hard for people to communicate with each other when they don’t share a common language. But it is equally hard for people who speak the same language to communicate with each other when they use words and terms whose definitions remain vague and amorphous.

          Such words, however, often do have a purpose; the goal is not to communicate meaning but to appeal to emotions. Of course, meaningful language often evokes an emotional response, but meaningless slogans are different; they do not convey content, only emotion. They are code words.

          Not all code words, however, are without content. Take the terms “illegal aliens” and “undocumented migrants.” They have the same meaning and could be part of a sensible discourse, but, of course, they are also codes, partly to evoke an emotional response in the hearer, but more often to tell us about the political sensibilities of the speaker since “illegal aliens” are dangerous while “undocumented migrants” are people in need of help.

However, there are words and phrases widely used in national discourse that look as if they are part of rational communication but don’t convey meaning; instead, they only evoke emotions in a limited group. Common language helps create a community, but emotional code words that elicit a visceral response from some but do not have content for all merely divide. And that happens a lot.

          The right uses such terms. “Socialism,” for example, is thrown about more than beads at Mardi Gras. I know what beads are, but I don’t know what socialism means to the conservatives who breathe it out seemingly on every third or fourth exhalation. I can tell that it is an epithet, but it only seems to mean any government spending or program that the speaker doesn’t like. Merely labeling those disfavored things as “socialism,” however, does not aid my understanding. I would have you explain to me why you oppose the spending or program in language that I share with you so that I can understand your opposition. Only then can you persuade me. But the word “socialism” provokes a negative reaction in a certain cohort of people and stops the conversation thus increasing divisiveness within the community.

          Of course, some on the left proudly proclaim themselves to be socialist or at least democratic socialists, but I don’t know what they mean by that either. It must mean something other than merely liberal or New Deal or Great Society liberal, but it is not clear what the differences are. Instead, the “socialist” tag is used by the left, but in their case the slogan is meant to disparage liberals who are not as far “left” as socialists. Thus AOC and Hannity, although they would never admit it, are linked by their use of that code word. They both use it to disparage their opposition.

          The right is all up in arms about “cancel culture.” But what is that? Another code phrase that seems to excoriate the left for calling out bad behavior. Those who use the term also favor the term “personal responsibility,” but the relationship of the one to the other seems vague. If I get on a soapbox seeking to influence others, I should know that my actions have effects. I should expect to take responsibility for them or at least expect that there can be consequences for them. But when the term “cancel culture” is thrown about, it seems to mean that some people should be excused from personal responsibility for their words or actions. As far as I can tell, however, cancel culture is only something the left does. Removing a writer from a television show for racist and misogynistic statements is considered cancel culture, but censuring Republicans for not toeing the Trump line is not.

          The left also has its catchphrases although one has been largely taken over by the right. “Critical race theory” has been known to legal academics for decades. Like many social theories, it was not defined with precision, but it examined the intersection of race and law to show how law negatively affected non-whites. Its first focus was on criminal justice and illuminated, e.g., that Blacks were disproportionately stopped for speeding on the New Jersey turnpike or that cocaine sentencing laws resulted in much longer sentences for Blacks than whites. CRT expanded into other areas affected by legal institutions, for example, the intersection of law and housing. I don’t know that the author would call himself a critical race theorist, but a powerful book that fits in with the movement is Richard Rothstein’s, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

          This mode of analysis morphed from the intersection of law and race to intersection of race and powerful institutions generally—corporations, labor unions, the healthcare system, churches. Such critiques got little blowback when they were largely confined to universities. This changed when scholars and others contended that American history had too often ignored race and racism in its recounting and that the teaching of American history in grade schools, high schools and universities should change. This seems to have touched a nerve, and “critical race theory” is now often a conservative epithet used to condemn education of a broader American history without reasoned explanations of the flaws in the approach.

          The path started by critical race theory, however, has given us leftist terms: institutional racism and systemic racism. These phrases do have meaning, but often they, too, are presented as conclusory self-evident terms without explanation or evidence. They do not lead to discourse that could inform or persuade but are uttered to end discussions. They, however, are better than the left’s frequent use of “diversity,” which has the barest relationship to a dictionary definition.

(concluded May 12)