The Resilience of the Adversary Culture

The terrorist attacks of September 11, whatever else they mean and
have wrought, provide a new vantage point for examining the recent
evolution and current condition of the American adversary culture.
This term, coined by Lionel Trilling in his 1965 book Beyond Culture,
refers to a discernible and durable reservoir of discontent, to a
disposition on the part of those Americans who habitually find the
United States--or at least its government--at fault in virtually
every conflict in which it is engaged. It is a culture whose
boundaries, both demographic and intellectual, defy precise
definition, but the concept has nonetheless been indispensable for
identifying a chronic domestic estrangement and the specific beliefs
associated with it.

As to the demographical boundary, most of those within the adversary
culture may be loosely described as intellectuals, or
quasi-intellectuals, and their followers; they are found in the
greatest concentrations on major college campuses and nearby
communities. Living near a campus generally inclines one to
overestimate the adversary culture's importance and influence,
whereas distance from such a setting tempts one to write it off as
inconsequential. A visit to a campus by someone not inured to its
atmosphere can illustrate the psychic distance between the two. About
five years ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked former
President George H.W. Bush what he had learned at a Hofstra
University conference about his presidency; Bush answered: "I learned
that there are some real wacko professors scattered out around the
country."

As to the adversary culture's intellectual boundaries, it is
generically far Left, its central animating views being unswervingly
anti-capitalist. For most of its 20th-century existence, these views
coincided with formal Marxist and less well-defined Marxoid
perspectives. But radical pacifists and anarchists were counted among
that culture, and with the collapse of Soviet communism and the
accompanying nadir of socialism, the mix of attitudes within the
adversary culture has changed and grown. Environmental,
anti-globalization and "multicultural" forms of radicalism have been
moving into spaces formerly occupied by conventional left-wing
parties and movements. Environmentalism fits the adversary culture
well, as we will see, because of its essentially anti-modernist bias.
Anti-globalization combines environmentalism and anti-corporatism on
a global scale to replace what used to be discrete anti-capitalism on
national scales. Multiculturalism fills the need to bind together the
several constituencies of the adversary culture, for no longer is
that culture dominated by white Protestants and Jews as it had been
before the first half of the 20th century.

So, too, has the adversary culture adopted post-modernism and
deconstructionism as the intellectual anchors for its politics. These
radically relativistic affections have been combined, curiously
enough, with denunciations of American society and Western culture
just as heartfelt as those of simpler days gone by. As before, these
condemnations rest on the non-relativistic assumption that there are
absolute standards available with which to condemn that society and
culture.

Adherents of the adversary culture can be found in a wide variety of
settings, organizations and interest groups. They include
postmodernist academics, radical feminists, Afrocentrist blacks,
radical environmentalists, animal rights activists, pacifists,
Maoists, Trotskyites, critical legal theorists and others. They often
have different political agendas but share certain core convictions
and key assumptions: all are reflexively and intensely hostile
critics of the United States or American society and, increasingly,
of all Western cultural traditions and values as well. The most
important among their beliefs is that American society is deeply
flawed and uniquely repellent--unjust, corrupt, destructive,
soulless, inhumane, inauthentic and incapable of satisfying basic,
self-evident human needs. The American social system has failed to live up to its original historical promise and, they insist, is inherently and ineradicably sexist, racist and imperialist.

It should also be noted that, for the most part, the adversary
culture took little notice of the collapse of Soviet communism, the
end of the Cold War and the retreat of state-socialist systems around
the world. Its increasing preoccupation with matters domestic
reflects the dearth of foreign alternatives to the alleged evils of
American society and capitalism. Of late, therefore, as suggested
above, critiques of globalization on the basis of its domestic
environmental and economic effects have become a substitute for more
explicit attacks on capitalism.

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