A time-traveller or alien dropped into the West’s “culture war” might be forgiven for wondering if it was all intended as a big joke. After all, most of the major arguments could be taken straight out of a comedy show: “Men can get pregnant, too,” “Winston Churchill is getting cancelled,” “Donald Trump is Hitler,” “Joe Biden is a communist,” “Math is racist!” Although the plot has sometimes been difficult to follow, the culture war has provided us with a steady stream of entertainment and hilarity.
However, it stops being fun when it becomes clear that the arguments are meant seriously. And it becomes positively frightening when one also realises that this theatre of absurdities has dominated much of the public debate across the Western world for years. The culture war created the illusion that utterly obscure arguments normally ignored by everyone except eccentric university professors, perpetually outraged radical activists, and 35-year-old children living still in their parents’ basement represent the most crucial questions facing the modern West. So important, according to their proponents, that the very foundations of liberal democracy and public discourse—such as free speech—might reasonably be disposed with to “win” the argument.
Even worse, the culture war made us start wondering whether our disagreements on things like transgender bathrooms or the correct way to understand 18th-century history really did represent irreconcilable dividing lines across the West—especially in the United States. Just a year before he died, the late talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said out loud what a lot of Americans were already thinking: “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking, ‘What in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York?’” The last time Americans contemplated secession, the issue at hand was the ongoing enslavement of nearly four million Americans. But this time around, in the insane-asylum-reality of the culture war, it is disagreements on the merits of veganism or preferred gender pronouns that made Americans question whether they had enough in common to coexist peacefully as a single nation—let alone a nation providing leadership for the West as a whole.
For all but the most utterly deluded, the actual war in Ukraine ought to serve as a powerful antidote to the self-involved pettiness of our own culture war. The reality of whole neighbourhoods destroyed by artillery and bombs reminds us of how lucky we are to live in a society characterised by peace. Witnessing Putin’s readiness to imprison thousands of anti-war protestors at the drop of a hat makes us appreciate the West’s commitment to free speech and judicial due process. Putin’s readiness to destroy a neighbouring country to impose his authoritarian ideology helps us see how unified we still are in support of democracy and national sovereignty.🇺🇦🇬🇧 The first footage of the British Brimstone guided missiles combat use by the Ukrainian military from a ground-based launcher. #Ukraine️RussiaWar #UkraineUnderAttack pic.twitter.com/Nw0JGVsksR— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) May 12, 2022
More profoundly, the Ukrainian people’s willingness to risk invasion to become part of the Western world reminds us how lucky we are to be part of the West ourselves—and how much we have in common when we separate the wheat from the chaff. The contrast with Putin’s evil makes it clear that most people in the West agree on nearly everything important: democracy, rule of law, free speech, freedom of faith, individual liberty, human dignity. We never really were divided on the things that really matter. Relatively speaking, transgender bathrooms, preferred pronouns, or what you think about the 1619 Project really don’t matter at all.
Nevertheless, even in the face of true evil, the stubborn idiocy of the culture war’s principal champions appears impenetrable. Unable to view the world through any other lens than the culture war of their own making, activist-pundits both on the Left and Right scramble to make the reality of a square peg fit into the round hole of their ideological myopia. The resulting nonsense would have made even the fictional propagandists of George Orwell’s 1984 proud: it is not Putin who is at fault for his own invasion of Ukraine, but the “warmongering” Western powers that supported Ukraine’s right to national sovereignty; it is not the dictator Putin who is hell-bent on totalitarianism, but liberal Western globalists advocating for free trade and collective defence; our own politicians and media cannot be trusted, but Putin (and Tucker Carlson) apparently tells it like it is. Or, as Orwell’s fictional totalitarians put it: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”
Despite their ritualistic play at ideological arch-enmity, the hard Left and the populist Right are remarkably unified in their prevarication or even open support for Putin. But perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. Just like the still-sane majority was never divided over the things that truly matter, the ideological fringe-dwellers always agreed on the most important issues, too—but in all the wrong ways. The real argument of the culture war was never between the hard Left and the populist Right. The real argument was about whether the Western world is something we ought to cherish, value, and fight for. The culture warriors’ attitude to Putin shows us what we perhaps knew all along—they think the West belongs on the scrap heap of history.
The hard Left, to their credit, have at least always been honest about this. In their monomaniacal view of the world, the West is uniquely violent, exploitative, racist, and hell-bent on imperial domination. So much so that there is hardly any unfortunate event in modern history that they cannot explain with the West’s wickedness. The sacrifices made to defeat Hitler or end slavery are quickly forgotten. So, no wonder the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn still blames NATO for Putin’s invasion and the Democratic Socialists of America implore the US government to stop supplying Ukraine’s military with the weapons it needs to fight the Russians—conveniently ignoring the Ukrainian democratic socialists’ direct appeals to the US to do so. Oliver Stone recently tweeted “some Sherlock Holmes clues to what’s really going on in Bucha,” linking to Russian propaganda articles claiming the massacre was faked by Ukrainian forces. So much for the Left’s solidarity with the victims.(1/3) For some Sherlock Holmes clues to what’s really going on in #Bucha, here are some other reported observations: https://t.co/K393j152Y3— Oliver Stone (@TheOliverStone) April 14, 2022
Of course, many on the hard Left still claim to be opposed to Putin and support Ukraine, but their ideological blinders quickly lead them into a land of absurdities. Many leftists across Europe beat their chests about the importance of humanitarian aid for Ukraine, while they still vehemently oppose supporting the country with more weapons. Since they clearly don’t think Ukraine is worth defending, perhaps the aid they talk of can be delivered with the help of the Russian army. And in the US, Ilhan Omar achieved an improbable feat of simultaneously claiming that she “support[s] giving Ukraine the resources it needs to defend its people” and also saying that giving Ukraine the weapons they asked for would be “likely disastrous.” Did she imagine Ukraine might do better with a large shipment of pink knitted pussy hats?
The reason for such absurdities is that the hard Left thinks the only good the West might really hope to do is retreat entirely from the world stage and rid it from its permanently nefarious influence. Never mind that the power vacuum would be filled by Xi Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia. The eminent British historian Tom Holland might also point out something else the leftists are quick to forget: the very values by which they judge the West as distinctively evil are themselves uniquely Western. You cannot reject Western values without also rejecting anti-racism, anti-slavery, social justice, or anti-imperialism.
The supposedly “conservative” populist Right is trickier because its members claim to be the most unadulterated defenders of Western values, patriotism, tradition, and cultural inheritance. Their fanboying of Putin prior to his invasion, mindless parroting of Kremlin propaganda, and limp-wristed prevarication after he launched his war reveal just how much of a sham this always was. Instead of a robust defence of the West, we get self-described American “conservatives” such as Candace Owens arguing that Putin’s invasion isn’t a big deal because “Ukraine wasn’t a thing until 1989,” Tucker Carlson being so effective at making Putin’s case that his monologues get featured on Russian state TV, and Ted Cruz complaining the US military is “emasculated” compared to Russia’s. In Europe, populists like Farage and Le Pen are desperately trying to make everyone forget their years of warm words for Putin. Meanwhile, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has refused to let military aid for Ukraine pass through Hungary and used his election victory as an opportunity to describe Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as one of his “opponents.”
The reality, of course, is that the populist Right was never interested in the West’s values or intellectual tradition—because this is the very tradition they hate: liberal universalism, individual liberty, freedom of speech, democracy, freedom of religion. The populist Right is interested in the idea of tradition only as a symbol of authoritarianism and old-fashioned machismo for its own sake. They cannot bear to see the West stand up to Putin because he is the one that embodies the values they really care about—not the West.
And amid walk-backs and whataboutism, some still say it like it is. Two days after Putin launched his invasion, American far-right activist Nick Fuentes captured the mood at his America First Political Action Conference right before introducing Marjorie Taylor Greene to the stage. “Can we give a round of applause for Russia?” he asked the crowd, which responded excitedly by shouting “Putin! Putin!” Talk of patriotism comes cheap from those who want our enemies to win.
The ideas that unite the hard Left and the populist Right against the West itself are the same ones that make them both so excited about culture war. The very idea of a culture war is illiberal—and it cannot be fought without also undermining the very existence of liberal democracy. One of the most important principles underpinning Western liberalism is the idea that what you think and believe is nobody else’s business unless you chose to make it so. For a culture war to even make sense, that foundational idea must be dispensed with. What the culture warriors are working towards is a society where it’s everyone’s business what everyone else believes. An old man in Liverpool said something insensitive about women? He must be punished! A café owner in California hung up a rainbow flag by her window? Her promotion of immorality must be stopped!
Of course, a bit of moral panic and nonsensical virtue-posturing is a normal thing for any society, and usually more annoying than dangerous. The Western body politic has a strong liver and can handle a crazy night out on the town now and then. But when the culture war becomes central, it starts feeding on itself. If the “war” is over what everyone else thinks, it’s not won until everyone else thinks the same as you—or you are forced to think the same as everyone else. That result is both the justification for and consequence of mutual escalation. Once “all or nothing” becomes the central assumption, the end point is the same regardless of whether it’s the hard Left or the populist Right that wins: the end of liberal democracy and the beginning of totalitarianism. The destruction is not wrought by the Left or the Right alone, but by the culture war itself.
With that in mind, it should come as a relief to the still-sane majority that the culture warriors now have revealed themselves as the toxic frauds that they always were—both on the Right and the Left. And it seems, perhaps, that they are on the retreat. But they need but a little oxygen to breathe life back into the flames of destruction they want to consume the West. Let’s not give it to them.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/13/the-hard-left-and-populist-right-agree-on-all-the-wrong-things/