We’ve Only Just Begun

April 16, 2001

By Stanley Kurtz at National Review

The culture wars are far from over.

A funny thing happened to the Sixties radicals on their way to dominance of America’s key cultural institutions. They got flanked. No sooner did Hollywood, the Times, the Post, and the networks fall within the radicals’ grasp, than pesky little upstarts like talk radio, Fox, Drudge, and NRO began to make themselves known. That’s hardly surprising. The hippies and antiwar activists were never a majority of their generation to begin with. It would be foolish to deny the profound cultural damage done by the long march of the radicals through our nation’s premier institutions, but equally foolish to pretend that those institutions wield total control over the country. After all, George Bush is president. That didn’t happen because the mainstream media is unbiased. It happened because they’re not the only game in town.

But liberals can dream, can’t they? One of the favorite fantasies of the New York Times is that the culture war is over. Implicitly, an end to the culture war would ratify the dominance of the Times’s “bourgeois bohemianism” and banish competing voices to the netherworld of hopeless and fading cultural reaction. In 1997, following the lead of an earlier analysis in the Village Voice, the Times published a “Week in Review” cover story declaring the culture war over — with Gay Day at Disney World a key piece of evidence. Then, two days before the last election, the Times ran a long op-ed by Alan Ehrenhalt declaring the end to the salience of cultural issues in presidential campaigns. Ehrenhalt cited a 1992 speech by the freshly nominated Bill Clinton at a gay-rights rally as the beginning of the end of the culture war’s influence on politics. Then, just three weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a column by Andrew Sullivan claiming that the culture wars are nearly played out. What drove the point home for Sullivan was seeing the actor who plays Tony Soprano, that icon of Italian masculinity, take on the role of a gay mobster in the movie The Mexican — with nary a peep from the audience, nor a whimper from the religious right.

But the analysts have it backwards. The increasing acceptance of homosexuality doesn’t signal the end of the culture war; it marks the beginning. The homosexuality conundrum is not a simple either/or. Americans are ambivalent about the public status of homosexuality — and rightly so. They want more tolerance but demur at total equivalence, with its troubling consequences for the institution of marriage and the rearing of children. Gays themselves are ambivalent, too. Although they seek acceptance, many would subvert, not ratify, social convention. Life outside of the closet doesn’t stop divisive social debate; it starts it. The insistence on seeing the changing place of gays in American society as a signal of the culture war’s end is simple liberal wish fulfillment.

And consider this. That 1997 Times piece introduced the idea of an end to the culture war by pointing to meetings that David Horowitz was then arranging between Hollywood liberals and Robert Bork. David Horowitz as cultural pussycat? We know how long that lasted. And Ehrenhalt’s pre-election predictions fared no better. It turned out that the overt silence on cultural issues during the presidential campaign was misleading. The candidates may have been afraid to highlight hot-button cultural issues, but once they’d satisfied the country on their seriousness about core economic questions, voters decided between Bush and Gore based on their implicit cultural stance. Enter the famous red and blue map. Ehrenhalt claimed that, whether Bush or Gore won, “right-wing politics” would be on the defensive. But just after the election, Bush tacked right on cultural issues, with appointments that gave the Left apoplexy. And he got away with it too.

What about Andrew Sullivan’s more recent argument for the end of the culture war? Sullivan invokes the tepid public reaction to Sen. Robert Byrd’s remark about “white niggers.” But that proves little. As a much-needed Democrat in an evenly divided Senate, Byrd got a pass. And his remark was no big deal to begin with. If we need evidence of the continuing culture war, how about the race riots in Cincinnati? The 1997 Times story about the culture war’s end pointed to Nathan Glazer’s turnaround on affirmative action in his book, We Are All Multiculturalists Now. In light of California’s banning of affirmative action just around the time that book came out, the title was ridiculous, even then. How much more so now that affirmative action is on the ropes nationally? Just this past Friday the Times trotted out a long op-ed by legal theorist Ronald Dworkin trying to stem the growing tide against affirmative action in the wake of a federal judge’s rejection of preferences at the University of Michigan’s Law School. Whatever the Supreme Court eventually decides, the notion that we’ve reached a national détente on racial issues is simply untenable.

The explosion over the David Horowitz reparations ad should be enough, by itself, to lay to rest claims of a new racial consensus, but it also points to the renewed flaring of the academic culture wars, which only a few years ago seemed to have ended in unquestioned victory for the Left. Now, free speech on campus is a national issue once again; so are affirmative action in admissions and grade inflation. A new organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, weighs in on behalf of PC’s victims, and stories of such controversies are in the news weekly. And the battle over the SAT’s has gone national.

Sullivan rightly claims that Americans have been desensitized to sexual sensationalism. But that’s only helped to raise new cultural flashpoints. We’ve seen Calvin Klein’s most lascivious ads, and the Times now casually reviews books about gay sexuality. But all of that has stoked a heated and long-running controversy between The Weekly Standard and Sullivan himself over social tolerance for pedophilia. It’s difficult to see how any of this portends an end to the culture wars.

Sullivan is onto something, though. He’s right that moments of détente do exist — and must exist — in a country otherwise racked by cultural tension. Bush’s appointment of a Log Cabin Republican to head his AIDS office is one of those moments of détente. The need to build national political coalitions, combined with a characteristic live-and-let-live attitude, gives Americans a formidable — and welcome — capacity to accommodate cultural differences. The problem is that, in hopes of seeing the end of an endemic cultural conflict that has only just begun, Sullivan and others have pushed this insight too far.

It’s true that, as America’s traditional cultural consensus has collapsed, elements of Sixties morality have gained an unprecedented foothold. But we’re going to be fighting these battles for years. Of their very nature, the new cultural ideas cannot produce a stable society. So we’re caught between the old ways and the new, with no clear solution in sight. Sullivan points to the new generation — unburdened by an understanding of the battles of the Sixties — as the surest agent of the culture war’s demise. But this is to miss the intractable nature of the issues themselves. The assumption is that Gen X’ers and Millennials will eventually allow innovations like gay marriage. And that will be that.

But think again. As I’ve argued elsewhere, legal gay marriage cannot help but set in motion a chain of events that will severely undermine marriage itself. And the equivalence between homosexuality and heterosexuality that gay marriage brings will raise irresolvable and deeply controversial questions about the treatment of sexuality among young children. The rights-based legal arguments through which the gay marriage battle is being fought will make it impossible to hold off legalized polygamy or group marriage. And activists for these innovations already exist. Infinitely flexible marriage will be no marriage at all. But as we move toward a system of limitless variability in partnership contracts, and complete equivalence between homosexuality and heterosexuality in the schools, cultural reaction is inevitable. The overwhelming dominance of heterosexuals in society, and the inherent instability of non-monogamous relationships in a Western cultural setting, will push us back toward the traditional system. No matter that the new generations have been raised in a post-Sixties world. The cultural contradictions here are deep, irresolvable, and unavoidable. By destroying the old, admittedly flawed, cultural system, we put ourselves at the mercy of these intractable dilemmas.

But the Left has always been better at hoping for a glorious future than at thinking through the consequences of its social innovations. The oft-repeated claim that the culture war is just about over is simply a form of soft utopianism. Sullivan is a brilliant analyst — anything but a simplistic ideologue — but on this question he shares the Left’s characteristic weakness.

You want to talk culture war? Then look no further than last week’s announcement that seven gay and lesbian couples have filed a lawsuit to win the right to marry in Massachusetts. It’s unlikely that the case will be made moot, as a similar case had been in Hawaii, by a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage. And unlike the successful suit that established civil unions in Vermont, the Massachusetts suit demands full gay marriage. That would set off a Supreme Court challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, and possible national gay marriage. And a new drive for a constitutional amendment legalizing gay marriage in California could have the same effect as a successful Massachusetts suit. Within the next year or two, expect America to be divided every bit as profoundly over gay marriage as Vermont was — and still is — in the wake of last year’s civil unions battle.

The culture war has a long and healthy life ahead of it. The New York Times’s affinity for arguments to the contrary is the voice of frustrated dominance. It’s as if to say, “Why can’t conservatives just admit their defeat and accept the cultural leadership we’ve worked so hard to achieve.” But with the conservative countermedia growing, and a bitterly divisive battle over gay marriage looming on the horizon, the honest response to this war is to get used to it.

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