Friday, December 07, 2007

On Culture Wars

David Brooks, the conservative pundit I love to eviscerate most of the time, has written a good column on the Romney speech:

The first casualty is the national community. Romney described a community yesterday. Observant Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims are inside that community. The nonobservant are not. There was not even a perfunctory sentence showing respect for the nonreligious. I'm assuming that Romney left that out in order to generate howls of outrage in the liberal press.

The second casualty of the faith war is theology itself. In rallying the armies of faith against their supposed enemies, Romney waved away any theological distinctions among them with the brush of his hand. In this calculus, the faithful become a tribe, marked by ethnic pride, a shared sense of victimization and all the other markers of identity politics.

In Romney's account, faith ends up as wishy-washy as the most New Age-y secularism. In arguing that the faithful are brothers in a common struggle, Romney insisted that all religions share an equal devotion to all good things. Really? Then why not choose the one with the prettiest buildings?

In order to build a voting majority of the faithful, Romney covered over different and difficult conceptions of the Almighty. When he spoke of God yesterday, he spoke of a bland, smiley-faced God who is the author of liberty and the founder of freedom. There was no hint of Lincoln's God or Reinhold Niebuhr's God or the religion most people know — the religion that imposes restraints upon on the passions, appetites and sinfulness of human beings. He wants God in the public square, but then insists that theological differences are anodyne and politically irrelevant.

Romney's job yesterday was to unite social conservatives behind him. If he succeeded, he did it in two ways. He asked people to rally around the best traditions of America's civic religion. He also asked people to submerge their religious convictions for the sake of solidarity in a culture war without end.

Brooks' first point is the one I have discussed under the concept of "faithiness" rather than faith. His second point about the endless culture wars was the main reason why Romney gave the speech in the first place: He wants to be counted among the insiders who can all hate together on the outsiders: immigrants, minorities, gays, lesbians, feminists and liberals. This kind of a populist appeal to the lizard brain has worked well for the Republicans in the past, true. But the odd thing about the culture wars as a fuel for conservatives is that this will only work as long as the wars are not actually won. Hence the attempt to keep them going as long as possible, without any great Republican victory.

The term "culture wars" offers layers of contradictory meanings. Some see the word "culture", decide that the term is about what music can be played on the radio and pretty much store it away as something irrelevant, not part of real politics, something that can be safely ignored. Or they figure it as being all about abortion and if they lack a uterus they decide that it's a special interest thing and should be ignored. I have learned these things on the blogs, by the way. I never could take "culture wars" that lightly, myself, given that the term is mostly code for "let's put the women back in the kitchens where they belong, let's put the gays back in the closets where they belong and let's throw away all the keys." This is not about "culture" but about very essential political questions: freedom, justice and equality, and the most essential question of all: Who is it who deserves to have these goodies in the United States of America?

Then there is the "war" part of the "culture wars." That is how Pat Buchanan sees the issue: A war, inside the country, to force people into certain societal roles. I never forget that he chose to call all this "a war." I never forget the speech he gave in the Republican National Convention in 1992, the one where working women were upgraded into one of our main enemies. Yes, he declared war on a very large group of his fellow citizens, a group which contributes to this country in countless ways, a group which probably is one of the most law-abiding ever, a group which the majority of women belong to. Spend a second thinking about that. Then think that Buchanan's speech looked like a good idea for the Republican Party then.

It still looks like a good idea, if Romney's speech is any indication. You are now officially forewarned.