The Resilience of the Adversary Culture

June 1, 2002 Tags: Islamism

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

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

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.

Nevertheless, the supporters of the adversary culture still tend to
sympathize with virtually every political force that opposes the
United States. These include the former Soviet Union, China under
Mao, Castro's Cuba, Sandinista Nicaragua, supporters of the uprising
in Chiapas, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Yugoslavia under Milosevic,
the PLO and various other anti-Israeli Arab groups, and, most
recently, even the Taliban. There have been occasional disagreements
among these critics regarding U.S. policy toward particular
adversaries: a few of them supported the Gulf War and more of them
the intervention in Kosovo. Most recently, some recognized that the
Taliban's hatred of the United States and all it stands for does not
necessarily make it an admirable ally or friend. Barbara Ehrenreich,
for example, was seriously disheartened that authentic enemies of the
United States were less than enlightened as regards the rights of
women: "What is so heartbreaking to me as a feminist is that the
strongest response to corporate globalization and U.S. military
domination is based on such a violent and misogynist ideology."

But does any of this still matter? Many observers claimed in the
weeks after September 11 that the most remarkable thing about the
contemporary adversary culture is its silence. Hendrik Hertzberg, for
example, found that only "traditional pacifists . . . and a tiny
handful of reflexive Rip Van Winkles" object "to the aims and methods
of the antiterrorism campaign. . . . Conservative commentators have
had a frustrating time of it rounding up the usual
blame-America-first suspects, because so few of those suspects are
out there blaming America first." Michael Kelly proclaimed "the
renaissance of liberalism" and argued that "what had been since the
late 1960s the dominant voice of left-liberal politics" has become
"marginalized" post-September 11. Even more pointedly, George Packer
argued in the New York Times Magazine:

September 11 made it safe for liberals to be patriots. Among the
things destroyed with the twin towers was the notion held by certain
Americans, ever since Vietnam, that to be stirred by national
identity, carry a flag and feel grateful toward someone in uniform
ought to be a source of embarrassment.

Loud dissent and telegenic demonstrations against the beginning of
U.S. military action in Afghanistan on October 7 were noticeably
muted, it is true--more so even than the modest protest accompanying
the Gulf War in 1991. But the adversary culture had not disappeared,
and as America's conduct of the war on terrorism gradually replaced
the images of the September 11 attacks themselves, it made a quick
comeback. The influence of the adversary culture has been most
obvious on the campuses, where anti-U.S. sentiments and statements
are conventional wisdom, and least apparent in towns and suburbs,
where its presence is all but absent. Generally speaking, the
adversary culture, entrenched in its academic strongholds and other
cultural institutions, still wields considerable influence even as it
has become increasingly isolated and weakened by recent defections.
In addition to the appeal of some of its messages of the moment, some
of the adversary culture's worldview has been absorbed over time into
what we casually call the mainstream through the media and, in a
different way, through the American commercial culture. (It is, for
example, commonplace for observers outside the adversary culture to
refer to the American international vocation as "imperial.") That is
why some observers had trouble locating the adversary culture after
September 11; they were looking in the wrong places.

They were looking, in particular, at the overtly political. While the
adversary culture still overlaps with the Left (old, new, and
left-over), a purely political definition does not do it justice.
Rather, the attitudes and beliefs in question also involve what is
peripheral to the political: a sense of identity, cultural norms,
matters of taste. Russell Jacoby's comment about alienation captures
what is distinctive about the adversarial disposition: "Alienation
once referred to social relations and labor, signifying an objective
condition. Later it turned into an irritation or annoyance. 'I am
alienated' someone will announce, meaning, 'I am unhappy or

Some Americans, it seems, have always been alienated; we should not
lose sight of the fact that many of the earliest American forebears
came here from the Old World precisely because they were alienated
there. A keen receptivity to the real or perceived injustices of
American society thus has a long tradition; high expectations and the
value placed on non-conformity have deep roots in American social and
cultural history. Strong beliefs in the perfectibility of human
beings and institutions have for centuries been an essential
attribute of the American view of the world, as has an indefatigable
optimism regarding the solubility of all social, political and
personal problems. The social critical temper of the adversary
culture has always fed on the high expectations that American social
and historical conditions have generated and nurtured, and such
expectations remain in place today.

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