The Culture War Returns

A growing chorus of voices on the right is arguing that the turmoil in Baltimore and Ferguson is ushering in a new round of the culture wars.

July-August 2015

The next shot in the culture wars came with Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind (to which Bellow contributed a foreword). Bloom assailed feminism, black power and affirmative action, among other things, to argue that the 1960s were, more or less, the culprit for everything that had gone wrong at major universities. Now, a provocative new book, The State of the American Mind, edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, offers an updated look at American culture, or what often passes for it. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, contends that already in middle school teachers catechize their young charges to be nonjudgmental:

We’re now trained to counter the slightest hint of judgment with deflationary gestures: “Speaking as I do from a white, privileged, first-world perspective,” and so on. It is forbidden to forbid, and our moral judgments need to be transformed into their true meaning, that is, expressions of class bias, historical circumstances, or (best of all) personal preferences.

Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, examines the transition that he believes has taken place on the left, from the 1960s emphasis on free speech to the conviction that hard-nosed controversy constitutes a threat to the emotional health of students. “We have passed from a campus climate in which being able to handle robust, meaty, and sometimes harsh debate and discussion was regarded as a precondition of genuine learning and maturation,” he says, “to one in which it is too often seen as a violation properly suppressed before it even happens.”

NEOCONS AND conservatives are now suggesting that a fresh wave of political correctness also characterizes the liberal response to the tumult in Baltimore and Ferguson. Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary, recently wrote, “The idea that calling rioters ‘thugs’ is evidence of racism shows how far the discussion of race has been debased by a debilitating political correctness.”

Other, older neocon themes are also resurfacing. For example, New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin declared that New York mayor Bill de Blasio needed to embrace the “broken windows” theory of policing or face a potential civic breakdown: “Baltimore should be his wake-up call. It shows that handcuffing the cops ultimately leads to more violence and crime, not less, and ends up with the National Guard patrolling the streets like a war zone.” Above all, conservatives are pointing to the issue of morality to suggest that a broken culture is responsible for the dismal state of cities like Baltimore.

In commenting on such stands, Frank Rich recently observed in New York magazine that the GOP could seek to profit politically from law-and-order issues to “drive a wedge between Hillary Clinton and those white Democratic and independent voters who defected from Obama but who might be inclined to vote for her.” When it comes to these issues, however, leading Republican politicians are punting. Speaker of the House John Boehner, for example, is backing more federal grant money for body cameras for police officers and said that if the charges against the six Baltimore police officers in the Freddie Gray case are true, “It’s outrageous, and it’s unacceptable.” It’s hard to avoid the impression that Republicans in general often create much ado about nothing, but are afraid to tackle vexing policy issues directly. So far, the GOP has neither shown an appetite for rediscovering Nixon and 1968 nor explained how it could successfully reinvent itself as a new party. A party that does not understand itself is not a party that can make itself understood to the electorate.


Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jamelle Bouie