Culture War!

W.J. Astore

I saw another article this weekend about culture war in America. Supposedly, America is deeply divided, and I’m not denying there are divisions. But when you ask Americans what they want, what’s surprising is how united we are, irrespective of party differences. For example, Americans favor a $15 minimum wage. We favor single-payer health care. We favor campaign finance reform that gets big money donors and corporations out of government. Yet our government, which is bought by those same donors, refuses to give Americans what we want. Division is what they give us instead, and even then it’s often a sham form of division.

What do I mean by “sham”? Well, our so-called divided government is strongly united in support of huge war budgets and endless war. Strongly united in support of Israel. Strongly in favor of, and obedient to, special interests and big money in politics. Strongly in favor of business as usual (with a stress on “business”), with sham elections every four years between the center-right Democrats and the increasingly unhinged-right Republicans. Sadly, when it comes to policy that impacts the working classes, there isn’t much difference between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. They are unified in what they deny us.

It’s a war of the have-mores versus the haves and especially the have-nots, and the have-lots-more are winning. Why? Because they’ve bought the government too.

Of course, we do see examples of so-called culture war in the U.S. Consider in the realm of history the “battle” between the 1619 Project and the 1776ers. The 1619ers want to stress the many violent and tragic legacies of slavery to America’s history. (1619 was the first year an African slave was brought to the colonies.) The 1776ers want to stress the ideals of the American Revolution, the proud legacy of George Washington and other founders, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and so on.

What’s the solution to this “culture war” between the 1619ers and the 1776ers? I’m a historian, and I’ve taught U.S. history. The solution is easy. You teach both. America is a land of contradictions. Any U.S. historian worth her salt is going to talk about genocide and the Native Americans; is going to talk about the violent and bitter legacies of slavery; and is also going to talk about the ideals and idealism of the founders, however imperfectly they put them into practice, and the promise of the Constitution and the spirit of liberty. To ignore slavery while singing the praises of the founders would be as flawed and one-sided as focusing entirely on slavery without ever mentioning the proud achievements of those same founders.

America is a complex and contradictory place — and any historian is going to address those complexities and contradictions because that’s precisely what makes history interesting, fascinating, enthralling. Few students want to be comforted by feel-good history or assaulted by feel-bad history. They want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, and historians should be able to teach the same. There’s simply no need for a culture war here over the content of history.

I said there’s no need, but that doesn’t mean a culture war isn’t wanted. Polemicists love culture wars, and so too do the already privileged and the powerful. For if we’re fighting each other, if we perceive we’re divided and simply can’t find common ground, we’ll forget we have so much in common, like our desire for a living wage, affordable health care, and politicians who’d actually represent us instead of the special interests.

Forget culture war. Let’s make war on those who keep us apart and who refuse to work for those so desperately in need.

Readers, what do you think?