DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Real Culture War, Part 1: Defining the Battleground

By David Brin, Ph.D.

A Flood of Post-Election Opinions

It's not about "left-vs-right" or "morality" or any other 20th Century cliché. The issue is Modernity and how to deal with a new century of change.

After the most divisive, draining and intensely-fought presidential campaign (2004) that any of us can remember, postmortem analyses have flowed from every pundit. Among the best are Gary Wills talking about the rejection of the Enlightenment and Simon Schama offering a British perspective on Worldly America vs. Godly America, in "Onward Christian Soldiers."

Other appraisals range from systematic to far-fetched, debatable to amusing, partly-bogus to intriguing-but-so-what? Some even try to combine commentary with art...

...while others portray the furious anger of those who feel (rightly or wrongly) that two successive squeaker elections have been stolen by manipulators who thereupon proclaimed a "mandate" to run roughshod over half of the American people. (Even if every vote were properly counted, this was among the three closest elections in a century, reason enough for peacemaking gestures and negotiated consensus, rather than exacerbated division.)

Wading through such a torrent of opinion can be daunting. Still, a few post-election conclusions seem widely accepted. (I'll try to use a neutral voice.)

  • Karl Rove is a genius. After the 2000 election, George W. Bush's political strategist said -- "There are four million missing evangelicals out there. I'm going to go get them." And he got them.

  • The red-state vs. blue-state division grows more illuminating when the vote is broken down county-by-county. The most-cited vote distribution maps suggest, at least superficially, that this appears to be a war between rural and urban America. Commentators noting a surge in support for the president from rural areas seldom add that he lost urban-cosmopolitan America by unprecedented margins.

  • A different indicator was shown in breaking down Kerry (and Nader) support vs. Bush according to voter education levels. This time the vote of those least educated split evenly. (Gore won this category in 2000; this is the class where Rove scored his biggest gains.) By far the greatest variation between parties occurred among those who are most-educated, e.g., those with postgraduate degrees. This trend grows even stronger when comparing red-vs-blue states according to percentile of college grads. (Note: this chart relates to the 2000 election, which differs here from 2004 only in that Kerry won New Hampshire.)

  • America's tax-exempt churches have become centers of relentlessly vigorous political activism. This happened before, cyclically, in the Great Awakenings of the early 1700s and 1800s, the Know Nothings, the Temperance Movement, Depression-era spirituality etc. Still, we who lived amid five decades of confident post-WWII secular consensus have never witnessed such vociferous partisanship from the nation's pulpits.

  • Church radicalization is accompanied -- and justified -- by a perceived chasm of moral values. Disputes are couched in terms of good-us and evil-them, rather than differences of opinion about pragmatic government policy. Many in this movement openly anchor their values and politics upon an expectation that the world will soon end, according to an apocalyptic script in the Book of Revelations.

  • In fairness, many of Karl Rove's faith-based activists claim they did not start a culture war, but are retaliating for past insults. Did liberalism dig the very hole it was just buried in, by supporting radicals who deliberately offended middle class families whenever possible? By endlessly berating people with guilt and never using praise? By upping the "tolerance" ante insatiably, while sneering at folks who simply want a little tradition and decorum? A surprising number of liberal thinkers seem at last willing to consider this possibility -- that extremist indignation junkies of the left may be just as dangerous to the Modern Enlightenment as those who screech damnation from the right. (For more on this, see "Indignation and Moral Values," below.)


  • INDIGNATION AND MORAL VALUES: Science now calls indignation a distinct physiological state -- one that triggers secretion of active chemicals in the brain, delivering a "high" with addictive traits, very similar to opium.

    We've all felt the self-righteous rush. It's seductive, and deeply human.

    Faced with the temptations of outrage, some people set limits, as with any pleasurable vice. (Skeptical self-doubt is one anodyne.) Others indulge, stoking indignant fires that repay with fierce passion and energy.

    For millennia, kings and propagandists rallied public indignation against some hated-other. A different faith. The kingdom next door. Communists and Capitalists chose each other. Hitler chose Jews. Today's Middle-East shows where this process leads.

    Are we unintentionally helping to stoke this process in other lands? We should always weigh whether a foreign intervention is likely to foster other-hatred that is aimed at us. Quick actions, like toppling the Taliban, did not contribute as much to pan Islamic anti-Americanism as nightly images of the lingering, pain-drenched struggle in Iraq. Pragmatists of both liberal and conservative persuasions do not view war as something to root for or against. Wars are unpleasant affairs calling for competence, agility, and attention to decency for its practical value. The Second World War should have proved that decent behavior wins friends instead of enemies.

    I won't dwell on the "great morality debate"... or related hypocrisies and ... more hypocrisies... and bigger hypocrisies... since I feel the real culture war lies elsewhere.

    Still, we should heed the groundswell.

    Lesson One: Don't deliberately insult people who vote in vast numbers. Try not to drive moderates into the arms of radicals. Whichever side started all this Culture War, the real loser is confident tolerance.


  • The rest of the world appears deeply concerned. Cosmopolitan culture-centers from Europe to Asia took unusual interest in this election. The more "western" the country, the more heavily both press and public opinion polls express doubt or opposition toward US policies. From Paris to Beijing, meetings aimed at "restoring a multipolar world" have intensified. And while disdain for foreign opinion may be a longstanding "conservative" tradition, the neoconservatives now express contempt openly, while veering the movement toward aggressive, imperial meddling overseas. (Ever hear of Alcibiades? Can hubris go on and on without being held accountable by fate?)

  • This swing away from older traditions of reticence and caution in foreign affairs has deeply disturbed eminent conservatives, ranging from William F. Buckley and George Will, all the way to Pat Buchanan and Robert A. George. Their essays, opposing "an ill-defined war on terror" "unprecedented expansion of executive power," all stop short of an open break with the neoconservatives. Nor will they be able to make a break, till the illusion of a Grand Old Conservative Alliance is shattered.

  • Add this to the discomfort of the Old Right with huge deficits, unrestricted pork barrel spending, erosion of civil liberties, rampant cronyism, and political intimidation of the US Intelligence Community and Military Officer Corps. (See "Political Intimidation," below.)


POLITICAL INTIMIDATION: From Newsday: The White House has ordered the new CIA director, Porter Goss, to purge the agency of officers believed to have been disloyal to President George W. Bush or of leaking damaging information to the media about the conduct of the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to knowledgeable sources. "The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," said a former senior CIA official who maintains close ties to both the agency and to the White House. "The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president's agenda."


Above all, many deep thinkers of the so-called right have been joining others on the so-called left, to ask a troubling question: "Who am I in bed with?"


[image from Contrary Brin blog]

What Can We Make of All This?

Now here's a key point. None of the observations that I just offered can be made to fit the most pervasive, misleading and mind-numbing political metaphor of all time -- the left-right political axis. (See "The Left-Right Political Axis," below.)


THE LEFT-RIGHT POLITICAL AXIS: I am not the first to complain about this atrocious thing, which pretends to explain all of our complex political and problem-solving processes according to where delegates sat in the 1789 French Assembly. (Isn't that source reason enough to view it with suspicion?)

Nobody you know can define the L-R Axis. If they try, their arm-waving explanations will only glancingly resemble the vague descriptions given by anyone else.

It lumps together on the "right" -- Adolf Hitler, libertarians, Jerry Falwell, Queen Elizabeth, billionaire Rupert Murdoch, the Talking Heads... and Jesus.

On the "left" -- we pile Joseph Stalin with anarchists, Father Berrigan, King Sihanouk, billionaire George Soros, The Beatles... and Jesus.

And on both extrema you get the aristocratic nomenklatura of the Chinese Communist Party.

Every year, the creaky old thing gets less relevant to our times. Bill Clinton not only delivered budget surpluses but applied them to paying off debt. He put 100,000 more police on the streets and doubled the Border Patrol. The federal government's share of GDP dropped every year. Small businesses flourished. True, his failed Health Care Initiative seemed "lefty" -- but don't those other things matter too?

With socialism defunct, shall we continue believing (fatuously) that socialists are the only enemies of a free market? Does it help a thriving, competitive free market when a few thousand top aristocrat-cronies secretly manipulate federal regulations for their own benefit, at the expense of small business? Is it so hard to believe that some of that elite would try to cheat, when they can?

Are liberals any better when they lump together pragmatic environmentalists with neomodernist snobs who deny the very existence of an objective world? Who benefits from in-your-face demands that Civil Unions just have to get the incendiary name "marriage"? (The same pragmatic couple-benefits could have been legislated under "larriage" or "zarriage"- only without that indignant, confrontational rush.)

This little essay probably won't suffice. But someday, enough people will notice that left-vs-right was a hypnotic scam of epic and tragic proportions. A way for fanatics to hijack moderate pragmatists and distract them from the sort of sensible negotiations that might solve problems and foster an incrementally better world.

The very world that fanatics don't believe in, do not want, and will do everything in their power to prevent.


That purported "political map" has always trivialized complex issues, masking a myriad inconsistencies, contradictions and details. It also defied decades of scientific evidence for how complex human brains, personalities and societies really are. Yet, we cling to an obsolete oversimplification (see "Obsolete Oversimplification," below) that has proved effective at just one thing -- enforcing alliance between people who disagree deeply over things that really matter.


OBSOLETE OVERSIMPLIFICATION: Of course, the L-R axis is a great way to simplistically appeal to our vanity, enabling each of us to portray ourselves as heroic rebels against would be tyrants at the "other" end of the spectrum.

Suspicion of authority (SOA) is the great shared American value, promoted relentlessly in films and mass media. But each of us likes to define "authority." Republicans suspect snooty academics, bureaucrats and foreign elites of grabbing power. Democrats dread conspiring corporate CEOs. We seldom acknowledge the common (SOA) theme. All elites need accountability.

Alas, people who identify themselves on the left will seldom recognize authoritarian tendencies in paternalistic tolerance-police. Conservatives won't see that corporate power is a temptation all-too readily abused. And libertarians seem incapable of recognizing that more markets, throughout history, were ruined by aristocratic cheaters than ever were by socialists.


Elsewhere I ask: With whom should you ally yourself? Someone who shares your immediate political campaign, while disagreeing with you utterly over long-term goals? Or someone who shares your deep agenda for a better world, but disagrees over immediate tactics?

Most people -- when it is posed that way -- choose the latter. After all, tactics are a matter for pragmatic debate. We can try out all sorts of methods. Success may call for a mix of your way and mine.

But how can we work together when we disagree over the very nature of the universe and of the future? Or over the very possibility -- the desirability -- of human improvability?

Suppose you perceive -- through evidence and scientific consensus -- that the universe is about 13 billion years old, containing a trillion-trillion stars, some of which may be visited by your descendants: People who (you hope) will be greater, better, wiser than ourselves. You look forward to incremental steps in that direction, whether fostered by social benevolence or fecund competitive markets.

Perhaps those descendants -- while carefully overcoming challenges -- will even find important work to do, worthy of their ever-rising stature in a vast and ongoing universe. Does that sound good to you?

Then do you really want to put civilization's decision-making process in the hands of people who believe that native tribes had a better vision of the cosmos than modern science? (Left-handed mysticism.) Or people who actively yearn for an imminent apocalypse that will end a cramped, 6,000 year-old Creation in fire and damnation for everybody who uses different incantations than they do? (Right-handed mysticism.)

It sounds silly. Yet that is what some of our finest intellectuals do each day, from Jared Diamond and Kim Stanley Robinson to William F. Buckley and George Will. Oh, they grouse about some of the maniacs who are now running their parties. Then they close ranks, rationalizing that you ultimately have to ally yourself with fellow members of the right or the left.

But this election has shown, at last, that America just is not divided that way.

Rather, we seem divided between those who feel alienated toward -- or enthusiastic for -- a 21st Century filled with change.


[image from esri.com]

Fearful of a Changing World

It would be too easy to make my point about future-haters by citing fundamentalist preachers. You can find them any time of day by channel-surfing. Listen as they wistfully yearn for a better, pastoral, more moral yesteryear-that-never-was, while sermonizing about a coming apocalypse. The "retro vs. metro" argument is self explanatory there.

Nor is the left-wing without blatant nostalgia junkies, like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whose rants against modernity were echoed by former Sun Computers executive Bill Joy. Every time a Gaia-worshipper or Wiccan or neo-tribalist claims that ancient peoples knew and behaved vastly better than modern folk, he or she is preaching from a deeply disturbing and offensive premise -- that all those ancient people failed to raise their children better than they were.

Decent people of every generation struggle for human improvement -- more knowledge, better kids. The best of our ancestors strove hard to help make us a bit more strong and knowing. But romantic mystics -- whether "right-wing" or "left wing" -- see history as a long slide from some past golden age. Human effort is futile against this slide. Underneath all that hyper-tolerance posturing, there lies hatred of the very notion of progress.

All right, it's easy to make fun of extremes. So let's choose an example from the intellectual uber-elite. Someone precious to the clade of University of Chicago alumae who supped their neo-Platonism from the rich spring of Leo Strauss, and now aim to become philosopher kings.

The cerebral neocons who today control an actively imperial Pax Americana have a special fondness for Francis Fukuyama, Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Fukuyama's best-known book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992) triumphally viewed the collapse of communism as likely to be the final stirring event worthy of major chronicling by historians. From that point on, we would see liberal democracy bloom as the sole path for human societies, without significant competition or incident. No more "interesting times." (While my description of The End of History oversimplifies a bit, one can wish that predictions in social science were as well-tracked for credibility as they are in physics. Back in 1986, at the height of Reagan-era confrontations, I forecast an approaching fall of the Berlin Wall, to be followed by several decades of tense confrontation with "one or another branch of macho culture, probably Islamic.")

Fukayama is a favorite Bush Administration court intellectual. As a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, and in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002), he condemns a wide range of biological science as disruptive and even immoral. People cannot, according to Fukayama, be trusted to make good decisions about the use of -- for example -- genetic therapy. Human "improvability" is so perilous and loathsome a concept that it should be dismissed across-the-board. Fukayama prescribes a paternalistic government industry panel to control or ban whole avenues of scientific investigation, doling out those advances that are deemed suitable.

You may surmise that I disagree. (For one thing, shall we enforce this research ban worldwide? Shall such tools be banned forever? From elites as well? If so, how?)

And yet, in The Transparent Society I speak well of social critics who shout when they see potential danger along the road. In a world of rapid change, we can only maximize the benefits of scientific advancement -- and minimize inevitable harm -- by utilizing the great tools of openness and accountability. Above all, vigorous criticism is the only known antidote to error.

In fact, I find fretful worry-mongers -- like Joy and Fukayama -- invigorating. Their very presence helps progress along by challenging the gung-ho enthusiasts. It's called reciprocal accountability. Without bright grouches to point at potential failure modes, we might really be in the kind of danger that they claim we are.

Ironically, it is an open society -- where the sourpuss Cassandras are well-heard -- that is unlikely to need the draconian paternalism they prescribe. But that topic is for another place.

Here what's important to notice is the reflex to repress in a paternalistic manner. Clearly, alienation against tomorrow can span any spectrum, from ignorance to intelligencia, from postmodern left to neocon right.

It appears to be less a function of political party than personality.


[image from quantonics.com]

Romantics in Power

Look around. Find your own examples, while noting these traits of romanticism:

  • Nostalgia for a tribal or ethnic or biblical or pastoral or aristocratic wisdom of old. Any "golden age" lies in the past. Human effort will never build one.

  • Suspicion toward new technologies or social innovations, especially those that might empower masses to behave foolishly.

  • Preference for hierarchies. The people are best guided by an elite class that's privy to The Truth. (Not those bad, opposing elites, of course. Only the philosopher kings from your side.)

  • Enemies are strawmen caricatures, universally wrong, never worthy adversaries deserving negotiation.

  • A preference for the subjective over the objective. Lefty postmodernists say that "everything is relative." Neoconservatives insist that mighty imperialists can "create our own reality." (See "Romantics with Nukes," below.)

  • Symbols matter! Either as trappings of empire or emblems of in-your-face defiance.

  • Romantics insist that their core ideology is timeless. From Islamic jihadists to Revelation apocalypts to Liberal political-correctness police, all claim tomorrow's children should believe the same explicit Truth.

    Might brighter generations outgrow today's wisdom, finding it contingent, perhaps sweet, but also... a bit childish? Never!

This is a truer divide than any vague L-R Axis. Do you believe in raising wiser generations? Fine goal. Then why are you politically allied with people (left or right) who despise it?


ROMANTICS WITH NUKES: Take this oft-quoted passage from Ron Suskind's N.Y. Times article "Without a Doubt" -- interviewing a Bush White House aide:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"

UCSD scholar Stephen Potts adds: "This anecdote highlights the split of November 2 -- not just between red and blue, conservative and liberal, religious and secular. Ultimately, the contrasting colors on our electoral map mark a continental divide between those who prefer the real world and those who don't."


[image from Reuters.com]

The Temptation to Wage War

Is this article a waste of time? Can any plea trigger the calm re-appraisal of political clichés I'm asking for? (See "Political Clichés," below.)


POLITICAL CLICHÉS: Political clichés have resumed their old-time role (that Goebbels and Stalin would recognize) as weapons of mass consolidation and control. The devastating smear "liberal" can have political consequences far beyond any plausible description of mere policy preference. Some leftists help foster this by insisting on rigid ideological litmus tests.

Indeed, policy is no longer a central concern under the new politics. Both Republican and Democratic parties seem driven by components that are united more by livid hatred of perceived enemies than by genuine national interest. Pragmatists can only blink in dismay.

Ironically, Americans seldom had less to complain about. While crime and poverty rates have ceased their Clinton era plummets, they remain at historic lows. Millions of immigrants are assimilating gracefully. Education levels climb and material comforts pour forth. Science spawns new miracles and wonders. True, surpluses have given way to spendthrift indulgence. There are worrisome trends in the environment and the state of the working poor. But these aren't driving the resentment. Even terrorism -- comprised of just one major event domestically (9/11) -- becomes a blip when direct harm is amortized across 4 years of the vast American economy and population. In fact, none of the superficial issues -- from taxation to school reform -- explain such bilious division and hatred.

I believe that's because the real reason goes unspoken. It has little to do with the traditional way of viewing things, in terms of liberal vs. conservative.

The real issue is confidence in human ability and common sense. The rift is about whether to believe in the modern world.


The overwhelming froth of anger spilling across America seems more likely to reinforce entrenched party positions. Fear and loathing tend to encourage simplification and demonization, not re-evaluation.

Many liberals and democrats, having noted Karl Rove's success at mobilizing the republican "bottom," are now calling for a return to left-wing roots. "No more DLC compromise and moderation! Go mobilize the base. Stand by our ideals. Confront the Know Nothing hypocrisy -- obsessing on gays while letting children starve. They want a war against urban, educated America? Well, we're the smart ones. Now that we've awakened, bring it on!"

Of course, Frist and DeLay and Rove would like nothing better. Even if they lose the next election, they'll win -- and so will hardline lefties like Ralph Nader -- because a polarized America is demagogue paradise. (Especially with nearly all Congressional seats gerrymandered into utterly safe sinecures: See Part Two.)

Meanwhile, our role as the world's innovator, dynamic culture center, inventor, and leader will be over.

Others are urging city dwellers to pause. To recall that rural America is not solely populated by backward bubbas. The countryside is filled with very smart people, many of them graduates of state or ag universities (that urban taxpayers built for them). Sure, some of their dynamic brothers and sisters fled to big cities, where media and minds tend more diverse. But those who stayed on the land include many savvy people. They run their businesses -- and their politics -- with great perception and devotion to effective self-interest. They also tithe a lot to charity. And (notwithstanding "hypocrisies") nobody should mock their faith-based devotion to what they perceive as moral values.

Can we find ways to reach these fellow Americans?

In Part Two of this layered essay, I'll offer practical suggestions for politics worthy of a Twenty-First Century America -- politics that may unite those wanting to defend the modern world.

But first, let me conclude Part One with this thought: All the current talk about the political "war" only helps to reinforce dismal, 20th Century clichés and hatreds that we saw surging to full force in the November 2004 election. Nostalgic romantics of all wings want that.

What do the hatemongers of both left and right fear most? The fear of what we must give them: A strong dose of the Enlightenment.

Continue on to Part 2.