Cause of the Culture War in America


Speculations On The Causes Of The "Culture Wars"

A personal essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup




Even a casual observer of the American culture cannot help but be impressed by the increasing degree of polarization not only of American politics, but of cultural values and even lifestyles and attitudes.

There seems to be an endless array of conflict - not just minor differences of opinion, but major conflict - even resulting in violence and murder. The results seem to be applauded or abhorred - depending on whose side you are on.

The outcome of this conflict could not be more important - it is nothing less than the survival of Western civilization. This is because the roots of this conflict run far deeper than most people realize, and its consequences far more serious.

For example, one of the major battlegrounds is over civil rights for homosexuals.

On the one side, there are "conservatives" who claim that homosexuals are seeking "special rights" and have a "gay agenda" calculated to secure those "special rights."

On the other side are "liberals" who believe that homosexuals are a "repressed minority" who suffer discrimination and bigotry, and that homosexuals deserve minority "status" and rights.

The liberals who represent that view believe that government should not involve itself in the private lives of individuals, provided it cannot show a compelling state interest in doing so.

Many conservatives, on the other hand, believe that the government should be based on a view of governance inspired by their interpretation of Christian culture, rooted in the Bible.

Why are the two views at such loggerheads? Why are they willing to fight each other, even to the death?

It is because of a basic, fundamental change that has taken place in Western civilization.

The change is the result of two technological innovations that have fundamentally changed how Americans and Western societies in general are organized and how these people relate to each other.

The first is mass transportation.

For the first time in human history, it is possible begin a journey on one continent in the morning and be on another continent in a different part of the world before the sun sets that same day. And at a price that can be afforded by a large percentage of the world's population. It is also possible to pick up and move on short notice, to follow a career or find more acceptable neighborhoods or living conditions.

The second is mass communications, especially worldwide television broadcasting.

Again, for the first time in human history, it is possible for an individual to make his voice heard by people around the world, and in so doing, make his opinion known. And every evening, the opinions expressed by ordinary people regarding events that have affected them, are seen and heard by viewers around the world. Again, people living in the poorest villages in India and Africa see these events in a world they have never known before.

The results have undermined the very basis on which civilizations have been organized since the first stirrings of civilizations in Mesopotamia and East Asia.

For millenia, people have had a commitment to their home town for no other reason than that they were stuck there. They couldn't move. Even if they had the physical means, there was often no job or other economic opportunity that made moving away from the birthplace possible. For this reason, most people were forced to remain in the same community, and few were willing to risk the ire of their neighbors. It was a clear reality that these people would be part of the rest of their lives, and it was vitally important to get along by going along.

Now that is no longer the case. Mass transportation has made it possible to change hometowns and find a more workable or pleasant living and working environment. And since people can, they often do. Americans move more frequently with each passing year.

The result has been a lack of commitment. Why make an effort to know your neighbors when you are going to be gone in a year or two anyway? Or they may even be gone before you! So why get to know them? Why settle a dispute? Just move away! We no longer have the incentive to settle disputes and go along to get along.

So we no longer feel a commitment to our communities, and cheap mass transportation is the reason why.

But why all the acrimony?

It is because the very basis of civilization as we know it has been undermined.

That basis is patriarchy, and it works like this: Since time began, since the origins of humanity, right up until about 7,000 years ago, societies were organized around women.

Contrary to what most people think, archaeologists tell us that in ancient hunter-gatherer societies that did not live in villages, women ruled the roost. They told men when to hunt and what to gather. They were responsible for rearing the children. They did the work and since men were dependent on them, the women called the shots. Men seemed to be along for the ride, and were considered inferior in status. This is reflected in the religions of the period - gods were almost always female in gender and were benign of character (fertility goddesses and the like).

About 7,000 years ago, a remarkable change occurred. Almost all over the world at about the same time, people settled down in villages with agricultural economies. What made this event occur was the invention of the army.

To defend resources, favored hunting grounds and the most productive flora, armies had to be raised to defend the group from its enemies. The logical people to do the defending were the men, who weren't responsible for anything else.

So here you have available manpower and someone is needed to organize it.

Well now, any good tyrant can spot the makings of a deal here: If the men subdue the women so they can be required to raise lots of sons for the army, and if the men will join the tyrant's army, the tyrant will give him status - for the first time, the man in the family will call the shots. All the tyrant demands in return is that the man subjugate the women in his life and that he maintain political loyalty and the willingness to go into battle. There was an increase in family size, since women no longer were in control of their fertility and men were needed for the army. With the increase in family size, agriculture became important as a means of supporting the increasing population. The rise of agriculture made centralized governments under control of the tyrant neccessary because of the need to organize the production and distribution of resources. The patriarchial tyrant was the perfect organizer to make it all happen.

And so it began. With the development of the army, societies now began to have an investment in male dominated governments that quickly became so deeply ingrained in culture, that most people assume they are genetic in origin.

This was reflected in new religions that revolutionized human spirituality.

Gone were the benign fertility goddesses (or at least they were sublimated), and they were replaced by fierce, warlike gods intended to intimidate. These gods not only were intended not just to intimidate enemies, but to strike fear into the hearts of the tyrant's subjects. That way it isn't neccessary to station a platoon of soldiers in every village. The king can simply rely on the fear of the gods, of which he was usually pretended to be one (or at least a descendent).

It is from this period that the Old Testament arises. And it is why the Old Testament begins with the laying down of the law -- this is what the new religion demanded: obedience to God (and by implication, His representative on earth, the tyrant and his government).

So therefore men became dominant in our society not because of any inherent biology, but because of thousands of years of cultural conditioning.

The curtain falls.

Millenia pass.

The curtain rises.

It's the twentieth century, and women, who have been subjugated by a myth for centuries and complaining about it all along, all of a sudden can be heard, because of the forum provided by new forms of technology, cheap mass transportation and communications.

Not only are they being heard, but what they are saying makes sense.

And the old patriarchial order isn't having any of it. For one thing, it undermines the old power base. For another, it undermines the old male claim to status.

It's not just the women. It is repressed minorities as well. Why? Because now, for the first time, they can complain and be heard. And when the complaints make sense, they offend the old order based on the status quo and subservience to the king and his government. Often called liberals or secular humanists, these people along with defectors from the patriarchial camp want nothing to do with the order that has oppressed them, and have asked for a new arrangement, based on genuine equality.

It is even becoming apparent that the tyrant and his ways of doing things are obsolete. For one thing, the tyrant's army can not only destroy the enemy in hours or minutes, but the enemy's army can destroy his with similar dispatch. Armies have become so destructive that the most powerful are no longer deployed against each other -- too much destruction would result. For another, the king can't do anything without all his subjects -- and his enemies -- knowing it almost immediately. It is no accident that slavery did not end nor did democracy take root in the world until cheap movable type made printed material and early forms of mass transportation made the wide dissemination of knowlege possible. For a third, cheap mass transportation has made international borders porous and increasingly difficult to control, even to the point of irrelevance in many cases, especially in the "third world."

Now, with television, the impact of mass communications has become much more dramatic. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, and now television brings thirty of them from around the world right into the home every second. The results couldn't have been more dramatic. Now, for the first time, one can watch the governing process in another country as closely as if one were in that country. And all the arguments and ideas are heard and understood, even when they reflect poorly on that tired old patriarchial tyrant and his minions.

But the old order is having none of it. Among the conservatives, there is a firm belief in the rightness of the old patriarchy. One hears the slogans: "My country right or wrong, my country," "a woman's place is in the home," "keep 'em at home, barefoot and pregnant!" And for God's sake keep 'em out of the military! There are serious proposals being floated to control the content of television, even though as satellite technology progresses, the ability to control that content erodes. This erosion played no small part in the collapse of the thoroughly patriarchial Soviet empire.

The patriarchy isn't giving up easily. It uses all the old justifications, whether they are relevant or not, whether they are true or not. And often, the principal justification is an old one indeed - religion. We even see the spectacle of serious proposals for the American army being increased in size and influence when no credible threat to America remains, and for the American nation, founded on secular democracy, to be turned into a theocracy, with an old-style patriarchial religion in charge!

The more the old patriarchists feel threatened, the more they retreat into the old time religion. It justifies their fears and their prejudices. It makes repression acceptable, because it is for God (often Jesus) and king ("America was founded on Christian principles!"). Thus, that which was originally invented to support the patriarchial order becomes its principal justification!

So here is the basis of the culture war. The millenia-old patriarchial order says "its this way because it is natural and God ordained it this way" and women and minorities saying "we are oppressed and we demand to be heard and our rights honored."

Neither side is willing to concede to the other. But neither side has all the answers to the problems that Western civilization faces. The rebelling minorities certainly do not have the answers to the inevitable conflicts that will and are arising between themselves. The patriarchialists ideas were founded on a myth and can't survive the intense scrutiny of the new media of idea exchange.

So the war begins.

On its outcome, hang the fate of Western societies.

Get it right, and we will have a more honorable and just society, based on genuine equality in which the concept of self determination is truly honored.

Get it wrong, and we will enter a new dark age, based on ruthless repression and rejection of technologies and ideas that have unquestionably been liberating.

Which side are you on?


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Revised 10/22/97