The next culture war

Social conservatives lost the culture war against liberalism. Where will they stand in the next fight?

June 14, 2014 1:30AM ET

What happened to Ross Douthat? The youngest and yet most archaically conservative of The New York Times’ opinion columnists, Douthat appears to have gone rogue. In a series of posts this month, he has taken aim at cultural misogyny, an odd tack from a traditionalist like Douthat. Add this to his April 20 column, “Marx Rises Again,” in which he muses hopefully about the future of communism, and if this were the 1950s, he would be awaiting his summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee. But Douthat’s transformation isn’t just a matter of personal conscience; it’s a sign that the 20th century culture war — between liberals and conservatives — is over, and a new one is just beginning.

Some liberal commentators don’t believe in the veracity of Douthat’s turn, but a close look at his writing shows a definite change in his thinking on gender relations. In a 2009 column, he praised director Judd Apatow as the great white hope of American cultural conservatism: “By marrying raunch and moralism, Apatow’s movies have done the near impossible,” he wrote then. “They’ve made an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy.” Movies such as “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” propagated the Douthat-approved idea that unappealing men stuck in extended adolescence could still choose marriage, family and responsible citizenship. Five years later, Douthat is furthering the notion that Apatow’s films are not only misogynist, but also part of a culture that’s directly responsible for Elliot Rodger’s murder of six people in Isla Vista, California. “A ‘strident’ and ‘scolding’ feminism is often straightforwardly correct,” he wrote in a follow-up blog post. What changed?

The most important difference between 2009 and today is that conservatives officially lost the culture war. In the past few years, public support for both marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage has surpassed 50 percent, with no indication that these trends are likely to reverse. Women make up more than half of the professional and technical workforce. It’s a midcentury Christian conservative’s worst nightmare: The country has been overrun by pot-smoking gays and women’s libbers. Cultural liberalism won, and there’s nothing Douthat or his pious brethren can do about that.

But there are discontents still; portions of the radical left have long pursued their own case against liberalism. Instead of the “permissiveness” that Douthat constantly gripes about, the left sees an oppressive consumer culture of compulsory sexuality, where you can buy anarchy and peace, but only as sickly sweet body sprays. It’s a culture that tells women they can wear anything, as long as they stay on the sexual market — so it had better not be a hijab. It’s a culture that tells men they can have anything they want — attention, validation, sex, free labor — as long as they learn to take it from women. This is not our shining sexual liberation, this is a culture that reflects and reinforces the brutal economy beneath it.

That is the terrain where the left will fight the new culture war, and the realignment is already started. Pope Francis has — at least rhetorically — rejected his office’s past cultural conservatism in favor of attacking the rich and the vicious global order they impose on the poor. “If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death,” he wrote — not about homosexuality or abortion or divorce, but about capitalism. “It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.” The pope himself has declared capitalism to be in contradiction with the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

Ross Douthat is right that the radical left can’t pose a real threat to liberalism without presenting a cultural alternative.

We've become so accustomed to the post-Reagan prosperity gospel wedding Christianity and market culture that it’s hard to see these old ties fraying. But as the godless libertarian wing of the Republican Party prepares to do battle with the blasphemous corporate wing, the future of cultural conservatism is up for grabs. Douthat admits as much in his column on Marx:

The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, [the rise of fascist parties in Europe] suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.

I could quibble with Douthat’s economic analysis, but he’s right that the radical left can’t pose a real threat to liberalism (or, for that matter, fascism) without presenting a cultural alternative. In a response to heterodox left-wing blogger Freddie deBoer, Douthat seconds deBoer’s desire for “a 21st-century model of masculine heroism” that isn’t “anti-strength, anti-confidence, anti-leadership, anti-toughness or anti-sex,” though he argues that some of these qualities don’t have to be remade from scratch — that they exist in the Jimmy Stewarts and ethical gunslingers of our past too. But “It’s a Wonderful Life” is over, and Douthat is looking for heroism in the wrong place.

Cece McDonald has become an icon of the radical left — when I attended a talk she gave at the New School in April, the line to enter the auditorium stretched around the block — because she exemplifies the very heroic virtues that Douthat imagines men need to reclaim. In 2011, McDonald was walking to the grocery store with her family when they were attacked outside a bar. They stood their ground against a torrent of abusive slurs, McDonald’s face was slashed with a piece of glass, and when she couldn’t back up any further, she fatally stabbed one of her attackers in the heart with a pair of scissors. For surviving and defending her family, she was sentenced to 41 months behind bars.

There’s nothing about strength, confidence, leadership or toughness that’s intrinsically or even historically masculine; McDonald has all the above with some to spare. Freed from incarceration after 19 months, McDonald has put these qualities to work as an advocate for the rights and dignity of marginalized Americans, fighting against the prison industrial complex that snatched her up. Her rhetoric is fiery, clever, honest, and when she took the New School microphone to speak about the way capitalism has used and abused her community, she sounded — dare I say — positively papal.

Perhaps McDonald doesn’t look like Douthat’s idea of a hero: She’s a young black trans woman who chose her own family and is not a bit sorry for any of it. But if the alternative is man-child Seth MacFarlane ineptly spraying his six-shooter at audiences across America in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” it should be clear who is heir to John Wayne’s better aspects. Douthat knows his team lost the fight against degenerate liberalism, but as long as he and those who agree with him stick with their backward notions about what kind of outfit virtue wears, they will watch the 21st century culture war from the sidelines, waiting for a properly masculine leader who is never coming. If, on the other hand, they’re willing to broaden their vision of what family and community can mean, I have faith that the radical left will find space for some unlikely comrades in arms. As both McDonald and the pope remind us, there are lives at stake, and the battle has already begun.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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