|Henry Higgins tempting Eliza Doolittle|
And so, disputes that owe more to the Hatfields and McCoys than to Henry Higgins are labeled “culture wars.” They have nothing to do with culture. They have everything to do with provincial resistance to change. They are not in good taste; they are not well mannered; and more often than not they owe little to the kind of open-minded thoughtfulness fostered by education.
The latest tribal norms to emblazon the banners of the “culture wars” are religious tenets. Historically, this is boringly unexceptional, of course. There have always been religious crusades. On all sides. Think of Christians and Muslims pushing each other back and forth across the Middle East for centuries. But those days of religious zealotry and intolerance seemed like barbaric episodes from our unenlightened past. As we became more educated, more cultured, we became more tolerant.
That’s the way it has seemed in this country for many years. Perhaps the truth is somewhat different, though. Perhaps the truth is that our tribal norms, most often expressed as religious beliefs, simply had no serious challenges. For many generations, America was a Protestant land. Most were believers, and most believed the same things. Our early settlers and founding fathers felt that their laws came from their moral beliefs, and that their moral beliefs were handed down by their Christian god. So religion and law were not separate at all, not in that sense. Religion in effect gave us our laws.
Then came the others. The Jews, of course, but they stuck to themselves. Then the Italian and Irish Catholics. Well, they weren’t so different. A few niggling differences about birth control, but most people ignored that little inconvenience anyway. But beginning in the 1950s, the secular state raised its heretical head. Not the legislative branches--they were still pandering to the accepted norms--but the Supreme Court. First in the Griswold decision striking down state bans on contraception and then in Roe v Wade.
The Supreme Court told us what the cultured believed, that contraception and abortion are matters of personal conscience, protected by a right to privacy. Apparently, some of us weren’t ready for that message. Several generations later, we are still squabbling over it, now more vociferously than in a long while.
Why is that? What’s happening here? It is the last stand of a dying norm. The Civil War of reproduction. In this case, women are the slaves. Eventually the outcome will be the same as in our first Civil War. Slavery, by color or gender, cannot endure in our society. We are too pluralistic, and too prone to libertarianism. Even when we don’t sympathize with one slave or another, we don’t want to be slaves ourselves, so we tend to band together, across norms, to fight repression.
A true culture war would be an oxymoron. People of good taste, good manners and good education can find better ways to resolve disagreements than by going to war. That’s what college dorm room discussions are for. You know, the ones that one politician recently said are threatening to indoctrinate our young people in liberalism.
Yes, that’s the threat, all right. Liberal thought. Broad mindedness. No wonder those clinging to repressive gender norms are fighting so desperately.