I’m always looking for historical background that puts our present situation in new light. We often don’t realize, for example, how different was the world before and after the Second World War. The 1940s and 1950s was a strange time.
There was a brief moment around the mid-century when the number of marriages shot up and people married younger. So, when we compare marriage rates now to those in the post-war period, we get a skewed perspective because that post-war period was extremely abnormal by historical standards (Ana Swanson, 144 years of marriage and divorce in the United States, in one chart). It’s true that marriage rates never returned to the level of that brief marriage (and birth) boom following the war, but then again marriage rates weren’t ever that high earlier either.
In the 1990s, during the height of the culture wars when family values were supposedly under attack, the marriage rate was about the same as it was from before the Civil War and into the early 1900s, the period I’ve referred to as the crisis of identity. In the decades immediately before that starting around 1970, the marriage rate had been even higher than what was seen in the late 19th century (there isn’t dependable earlier data). Nor is it that premarital sex has become normalized over time, as young people have always had sex: “leaving out the even lower teen sex rate of GenZ, there isn’t a massive difference between the teen sex rates of Millennials and that of Boomers and Silents” (Rates of Young Sluts).
As another example from this past century, “In 1920, 43 percent of Americans were members of a church; by 1960, that figure had jumped to 63 percent” (Alex Morris, False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump). Think about that. Most Americans, in the early 1900s, were some combination of unchurched and non-religious or otherwise religiously uninvolved and disinterested. A similar pattern was seen in the colonial era when many people lived in communities that lacked a church. Church membership didn’t begin to rise until the 1800s and apparently declined again with mass urbanization and early industrialization.
By the way, that is closely associated with the issue of marriage. Consider early America when premarital sex was so common that a large percentage of women got married after pregnancy and many of those marriages were common law, meaning that couples were simply living together. Moral norms were an informal affair that, if and when enforced, came form neighbors and not religious authority figures. Those moral norms were generous enough to allow the commonality of bastards and single parents, although some of that was explained by other issues such as rape and spousal death.
Many early Americans rarely saw a minister, outside of itinerant preachers who occasionally passed by. This is partly why formal marriages were less common. “Historians of American religion have long noted that the colonies did not exude universal piety. There was a general agreement that in the colonial period no more than 10-20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church” (Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, The Churching of America). This was at a time when many governments had state religions and so churches were associated with oppressiveness, as seen with the rise of non-Christian views (agnosticism, atheism, deism, universalism, unitarianism, etc) during the revolutionary period.
Are we to blame commie liberal hippies traveling back in time to cause the decline of America practically before the country was even founded? Nostalgia is a fantasy and, interestingly, it is also a disease. The world is getting worse in some ways, but the main problems we face are real world crises such as climate change, not namby pamby cultural paranoia and fear-mongering. The fate of humanity does not rest on promoting the birth rate of native-born American WASPs nor on the hope that theocracy will save us. If we want to worry about doom, we should be looking at whether the rate of moral panic is experiencing an uptick, something that often precedes the rise of authoritarian mass violence.
It feels good to see Bill Cosby taken down. There are few people more deserving of it. For years, he has been acting self-righteous in judging others. He was the great conservative icon and father figure who was supposed to represent all that is good about the American Dream, a black man who rose up out of poverty. As part of the supposed meritocracy, he took it as his right and obligation to condemn those he left behind in poverty.
His life and popular television show expressed the social conservative values of hard work and family values. He was America’s dad, as the media liked to proclaim. Now he has fallen from grace or rather his true face has been revealed. But this is nothing new, as it follows an old pattern: Catholic priests molesting children and gay-bashing fundy preachers being caught in gay sex, Rudy Giuliani’s philandering and Donald Trump’s everything. These people aren’t aberrations to the norm and exceptions to the rule, aren’t failures of social conservatism (also, keep in mind this conservatism was never limited to the GOP, as Barack Obama no different than Cosby — both Democrats, of course — loved to bash poor blacks because of their supposed laziness and general inferiority; and don’t forget the racist dog whistle politics of our first black president, by which I mean Bill Clinton). Their two-faced morality is the norm and rule. These great men of power and celebrity, these authoritative voices and leaders represent what it meant for conservatives to have won the culture wars, and for a long time conservatives felt high and mighty, though it turned out to have been a temporary and hollow victory.
The moral depravity we’ve seen again and again is what social conservatism has always been about, alpha male authority figures swinging their dicks around (something George Carlin liked to ridicule). Deep down, conservative family values equates to the reactionary authoritarianism of patriarchy. The family, as with the rest of society, is supposed to submit to the wise father figure who knows what’s best for us and no one should be allowed to challenge him or talk back. The morality of the patriarchy was justified by power and privilege, rather than power and privilege being justified by morality. It’s the reason anti-choice activism is motivated by social control, not saving innocent lives considering conservative policies worsen women’s health and the abortion rate. Real world results that hurt actual people are irrelevant. Rich male conservatives, supported by their dick-sucking followers, always knew they were right because they felt righteous — they were in a position to force their views on others and to silence their critics, as they silenced their victims. The blatant hypocrisy of it all rubs salt into the wound.
Donald Trump was elected for the very reason that he embodies everything that the Republican Party has become. His moral depravity isn’t a minor detail overlooked by social conservatives such as evangelicals. It is precisely why they love and worship him. The more he flaunts his immoral egotism, the more his fans go wild. He shows no shame and that is taken as an inspiring example of how pure power will put feminists and liberals back in their place. The difference with Bill Cosby is that he pretended to have been different, using his claim as a moral exemplar to justify his being a moral scold. But now it has been revealed there never was any difference. Cosby and Trump are the same patriarchal archetype, proving right everything feminists have said for generations. This is what it means to make America great again, the patriarchy coming back out of hiding and damn! is it ugly when seen in the glare of open scrutiny.
Many social conservatives have stopped pretending anymore and instead have embraced this moral depravity as a point of pride, in the hope of demonstrating how much influence they still have. Trump defies all social norms of moral behavior and appears untouchable. No one can tell him what to do, just like it was in the good ol’ days when every man was supposedly a king in his own castle. But that arrogance is changing, demonstrated by the taking down of Bill Cosby. In his attacking poor blacks as being morally inferior, it should be noted that it was the rich black guy who was drugging and raping women. It turns out that wealth, ambition, and success aren’t signs from God that you are one of the divine elect. Maybe the same morality that applies to the rest of us also applies to the rich and powerful. Maybe they aren’t above the law, after all. Maybe they aren’t untouchable.
Here is my simple prayer. May Bill Cosby rot in prison and die in shame. And may the likes of Donald Trump be next for the chopping block. As for women and all others who are also rich and powerful assholes in both political parties, whether serving the patriarchy or pretending not to, we will be coming for you soon. Be patient. The moral arc of history is bending back around.
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My criticisms here aren’t a response to mere moral failure. Most of us to varying degrees fail our own stated moral standards. But there is a difference. Not all of us hold ourselves up as morally righteous and superior to our fellow humans. Moral failure is commonplace, although the levels of moral failure seen with the likes of Bill Cosby exist on an entirely different sphere of outright moral depravity. That is the difference that makes a difference. Cosby’s outward righteousness was precisely correlated to his hidden depravity.
Let me share a comparable example, even if only comparable in that it is another celebrity caught up in the #MeToo movement. On far lesser accusations, Louis C.K. was brought down low and deserved it to some extent. But here is what was very much unlike the Cosby case. First, his moral depravity was much less depraved. Second, he immediately admitted to his wrongdoing and then gave a heartfelt apology. And, last but not least, he never held himself up as better than others, if anything doing the opposite in making fun of himself as a pathetic loser.
Humility can go a long way in life. I can be a righteous asshole at times. Even so, I know I’m not morally superior to others. I regularly admit to my own personal failures. All of us are imperfect in varying ways as we are all fallible humans. There is nothing wrong with that. Keeping one’s ego tamped down with humility is probably the best way of avoiding the worst forms of moral depravity. The point isn’t about being morally perfect or necessarily even coming close. The simple truth is that, the higher are the moral standards we hold, the greater will be our falling short. But that is better than lowering one’s standards so far down that they are easy to meet without effort. Or worse still, you could go the route of Trump and have no standards at all by simply embracing depravity as a way of life.
Writing this was a cathartic experience. I really am not in a position to be morally righteous, even as I’m deeply moved by a moral outrage that implicates us all in our societal failure. No one should be following my example, other than maybe in my willingness to be a truth-teller. My few moral strengths are worthy, I suppose. I try my best, which admittedly is limited. Still, I don’t feel better in seeing others brought down low, although I do feel wonderful knowing that justice is occasionally served. Justice can seem so rare that it’s a breath of fresh air when it does happen. For all the problems with the #MeToo movement, it has forced much needed change. And it was the victims that forced that change, which is how it should be.
“The framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
That is from the infamous Billy Graham. The argument is that the founders weren’t serious when they talked about the separation of church and state. It’s amusing in its silliness. It would be like saying that the framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of oppressive monarchy and aristocracy, not freedom from oppressive monarchy and aristocracy. He is playing a word game to push an agenda. But many of the founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, were quite clear in what they meant about separation of church and state. Religious freedom most definitely does not entail the constitutional right to enforce theocratic laws onto others.
Graham has a long history of political involvement and influence. This has been true across every presidential administration since the 1950s. He was particularly close with Richard Nixon. After Nixon’s scandalous resignation, Graham expressed more wariness toward politics. He went so far as to later on criticize Jerry Fallwell’s politicized “moral majority” (Parade Magazine, 1981), stating that:
It would be unfortunate if people got the impression all evangelists belong to that group. The majority do not. I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak out with such authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person.
Referring specifically to Falwell, he made himself even more clear:
I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.
That didn’t stop Graham from continuing to play the political game. He stayed close to the Washington establishment in the decades since. In 2011, he once again expressed regret for his complicity in the politicization of religion. Yet the very next year he jumped into another political fight over gay marriage in North Carolina. The culture wars are simply too thick in his blood. The attraction to political power is an addiction. He can’t help himself. John Becker wrote that,
The fact that the 93-year-old Graham, who was born during the final days of World War I, supports marriage discrimination is not, in and of itself, surprising, when one considers both his age and his evangelicalism. What is rather surprising, however, is the fact that he’s made such a public anti-gay pronouncement at all. After all, the man has been essentially in retirement since 2007. Since that time, he’s left most of the right-wing craziness to his son, Franklin “President Obama may or may not be a ‘son of Islam’“ Graham, and his daughter, Anne “9/11 was God’s way of getting back into the government and our schools“ Graham Lotz. Waggoner notes that William Martin, an authorized biographer of Graham, cannot recall any effort by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association similar in size and scope to its current pro-discrimination push in the organization’s entire 62-year history. And according to Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University, this can only mean one thing: that the source of this bigotry is not Franklin Graham, who heads the BGEA, but Billy Graham himself. Says Martin, “I am somewhat surprised that he would take that strong a stand. In the past, I have heard him say with respect to homosexuality, there are greater sins. Franklin has been more outspoken about it, but it sounds as if this is Mr. Graham expressing his own will.”
It appears the Graham family ministry has become ever more politicized as the patriarch ages. Billy Graham is no longer heeding his own advice, hard earned from his earlier life experience. This can’t be blamed on his family taking over the ministry. It’s obvious the elder Graham is still fighting the culture wars in very much politicized form.
It’s with this in mind that we should take note the political support of Donald Trump by family members and key figures close to Billy Graham. Even though Franklin Graham promised not to endorse a candidate, he posted a photograph of his father with Donald Trump right before the election. He described those photographed with his father as “a few special friends,” implying the relationship between Billy and Donald isn’t a casual association. Acknowledging the support he had been given, Trump stated that he was “a big fan of Billy Graham” and then thanked some of the family members.
It’s not clear what Billy Graham thinks of Trump. But one thing is clear. This new administration has been extremely divisive among evangelicals, even among those surrounding the Graham family. Consider the warning of “21st century idolatry” given by Ed Stetzer. He is the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center.
Trump’s narcissistic buffoonery and anti-Christian sociopathy will make many evangelicals rethink their position on the politicization of religion, specifically in its present partisan divide. It will weaken the ties between evangelicals and the Republican Party. It might also weaken the ties with the religious right as well, since younger evangelicals are increasingly liberal and progressive. It is the decades of politicized religion by religious right figures like Billy Graham that have turned so many away from the old culture wars. That might not have happened if Graham had taken his own earlier advice to heart.
I was reminded of an old post of mine where I discussed an unintentionally humorous bumper sticker: “Kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies.” The logic being used is rather odd, the former having little to do with the latter. It just makes me smile.
The fact of the matter is that few kids do any of those things. It’s true that most kids who hunt, fish, and trap don’t mug little old ladies. But then again, it’s likewise true that most kids who don’t hunt, fish, and trap also don’t mug little old ladies. Despite the paranoia of right-wing media, there isn’t a pandemic of juvenile delinquents taking advantage of the elderly.
The culture wars never die. In one form or another, they’ve been going on for a long time. The same kind of rhetoric can be found even centuries ago. It’s a powerful worldview, eliciting generational conflict. It seems that adults have always complained about kids being worse than they were before, as if the entirety of civilization has been a slow decline from a Golden Age when perfect children once were obedient little angels.
Seeing that post again, I remembered a book I read about a decade ago: Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation. The author explained the reason manliness and character building suddenly became an obsession around the turn of the century. It led to stocking rivers with game fish, the creation of the Boy Scouts, and greater emphasis put on team sports.
It was far from a new concern. It was built on the Jeffersonian views of agrarian democracy. Immediately following the revolution, it became a fear that the next generation of children needed to be carefully shaped into good citizens. The wholesome farm life was a major focus, especially among the ruling elite who worried about the unruly underclass. This worry grew over time. What exacerbated the fears over the following generations is that in the mid-to-late 1800s there was the beginnings of mass industrialization and urbanization, along with the commercialization of every aspect of life such as the emergence of a consumer economy and consumer culture. The consumer-citizen didn’t fit the heroic mould of old democratic-republican ideals of masculinity.
It relates to why Southerners worried about the end of slavery. It wasn’t just about blacks being free. It was a sign of the times, the end of the independent farmer and the rise of paid labor. Many worried that this would simply be a new form of slavery. How could a man be a man when he was as dependent as a child on another for his living?
This was a collective concern. And so society turned to collective answers. This contributed to the push for Prohibition and public schooling. It was a sense that boys and young men, in particular, had lost some essential element of character that once came natural to their agrarian ancestors. This new generation would have to be taught how to be real men by teaching them hunting, fishing, trapping, sports, etc.
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Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:
“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”
This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.
This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.
I broke my policy and wrote a comment on an Atlantic article, Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church by Emma Green. I’ve tried to stop commenting outside of a few select places on the internet because it usually ends up feeling pointless. Some of the responses were unworthy in this case, but it turned out not to be that bad of a discussion, relatively speaking.
Despite the frustration often involved, part of me enjoys the challenge of formulating an informative comment that actually adds to public debate. Plus, it got me thinking about one of my ancestors, a country abortion doctor who operated when abortion was technically illegal in Indiana and yet the law apparently wasn’t enforced at the time.
That was a different world, when communities decided which laws they did and did not care about, no matter what distant governments declared. Most people were fine with abortions, just as during Prohibition most people were fine with drinking. Laws are only meaningful when they can be enforced and the US political system has often left much of the power of enforcement at the local level, which is how so many bootleggers avoided prosecution as their neighbors were the jury of their peers.
The following are my comments, my original comment first and then two following comments. I had several other comments in the discussion, but those below are the most significant.
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Sertorius wrote: “These liberal Christian denominations have experienced a massive drop in membership. Example: the Presbyterian Church (USA) had more than 3 million members 30 years ago. It now has half of that.
“This is unsurprising. Why would people go to a church which doesn’t take the Bible seriously? What is the point? How is it different than the local meeting of the Democratic Party?”
Most young Christians, including most Evangelicals and Catholics, identity as progressive or liberal. Most young Christians also support gay marriage and pro-choice. They do so because they read the Bible for themselves, instead of trusting the words of fundamentalist preachers.
Thomas R wrote: “Do you have a source for this odd assertion? I believe a good part of why millennials come out so socially liberals is they are less Christian than other generations.”
I always find it odd when I’m asked a question like this on the internet. If you really wanted to know, you could find such info in a few minutes of doing web searches. Maybe a bit more time, if you were really curious.
I’m sure you believe all kinds of things. But your beliefs, if uninformed, are irrelevant. Many other Christians would also believe that you are less Christian. BTW, if you go back some generations to the early 1900s, many Christians were progressives and the religious left was a powerful force. This kind of thing tends to go in cycles. But there is always a split. Even as the religious right became loud and demanding, a large swath of silenced Evangelicals remained liberal/progressive.
Belief is a funny thing. Surveys have found that the atheists on average know more about the Bible than do Christians on average. So, if Christian belief for so many self-proclaimed Christians isn’t based on knowledge of the Bible, what is it based on? Does God speak to Christians personally and tell them what to believe? Or are most Christians simply following false prophet preachers? Since these preachers are false prophets, should they be killed as the Bible commands?
If you look below at my response to rsabharw, you’ll see how little fundamentalists actually know about the Bible. The irony of their literalism is how non-literal or even anti-literal it is. Literalism simply becomes a codeword for ignorant bigotry and dogmatic politics.
Anyway, most Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.
It should be noted that, on the issue of abortion, Millennials are in agreement with Americans in general and so it isn’t a generational gap. Young Evangelicals have always had high rates of premarital sex, going back to the largely Scots-Irish Evangelicals of Appalachia and the Upper South. Millennial teen sex rates now are as low as they were more than a half century ago (drug use and violent crime rates among the young also are low right now). Sexuality hasn’t really changed over time, even as rates slightly shift up and down in cycles. Even in early America, most marriages followed pregnancy and hence premarital sex. No matter what a belief states, humans remain human.
It’s similar to other issues, although often with more of a generational gap. Consider guns, a supposedly divisive issue but where the majority of Americans simultaneously supports strong protection of gun rights and the need for stronger regulation (and enforcement) of guns. Even liberal Americans state having high rates of a guns in the home. There is no contradiction between someone being for both gun rights and gun regulations, both being liberal positions, one classical liberal and the other progressive liberal.
In general, most Americans are fairly liberal, progressive, and economic populist on most major issues. But this political leftism cuts deep into the part of the population that outwardly identifies as conservatives. So, even conservatism in the US is rather liberal.
Public opinion, across the generations, has been moving left. But it is most clearly seen in the younger generation. Still, even the oldest living generation seems liberal compared to the generations that were alive before them. The Lost Generation (i.e., WWI vets and 1920s libertines) were judged in their youth by older generations just the same as young people today. This would be obvious, if so many Americans weren’t historically ignorant.
The greatest differences in opinion aren’t necessarily between generations. Nor even between Christians and atheists. The growing divides in the US are often seen most clearly within Christianity, between: Catholics and Protestants, Mainline Christians and Fundamentalists, white Christians and minority Christians, etc. But that has always been true, going back centuries. The entire Protestant Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and religious wars including the English Civil War) were about Christians struggling over who would get to define Christianity for others and who would be free to define Christianity for themselves.
Many of these are old issues. Catholics, for example, genocidally wiped out the Christian Cathars for practicing gay sex. Many denominations that exist today were created by congregations being split over social and political issues. That will continue. Rifts are developing within churches, such as the Catholic Church that is equally divided between the two major parties. The small town Midwestern church my grandfather preached in was shut down over conflict between the local congregation that was fine with a gay music director and the national church organization that was against it. In place of churches like that, new churches will form.
Thomas R wrote: “The rules on abortion and homosexuality are part of the faith. Both are found in the writings of the Early Christians and in the Catechism. (See Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407), Severian, the Didache, Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, Canon 1398) As well as the statements of Popes.
“At the very least abortion after the first trimester is consistently considered wrong by the faith.”
Even most pro-choicers treat third trimester abortions differently. There is also a reason why pro-choicers like me are more concerned about preventing abortions entirely than are most supposedly pro-lifers, it being a question of prioritizing either moral outcomes or ideological dogmatism.
Your knowledge of Christian history is obviously incomplete. That is problematic.
Among early Christians, there were different views about life, ensoulment, abortion, and murder. There was no unanimous Christian belief about such things, something you would know if you knew Christian history. There is no scholarly consensus that most early Christians treated abortion as a crime. It was often a standard sin, like most other sex-related sins. As far as that goes, sex itself was considered a sin.
It’s hard to know what early Christians believed. When they spoke of abortion, they had specific ideas in mind based in a cultural context of meaning. That depended on when one considered the fetus or baby to gain a soul. Not all early Christians thought life, much less ensoulment, began at conception and so early endings of pregnancies weren’t necessarily considered abortions. That is a main point that many pro-choicers make.
None of the New Testament or Old Testament writings clearly and directly discuss abortion, infanticide, and exposure. It apparently wasn’t considered important enough issue even to be mentioned specifically, much less condemned. It was only in the following centuries that Christians made statements about it. So, if Christianity isn’t directly based on Jesus’ teachings and the Bible, then what is Christianity? What kind of Christian tradition isn’t based on the earliest known Christianity that formed by Jesus’ first followers?
Aborton didn’t become much of a legal and political issue until modern Christianity. Plus, beyond decrees in the following centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, there is no evidence that early Christians were ever any less likely to have abortions than non-Christians, as decrees imply something is common in persisting and so requires condemnation. So, is Christian tradition based on what church elites decree or on what Christians practice?
If the former, then all of Protestantism is false Christianity, since it was founded on defying the church elite of the time (even the Catholic heresiologists were defying the Christians in the church that came before them, such as Valentinus and Marcion). But if Protestants are correct about individual conscience of the Christian, then what Christians do has more validity than what church elites decree.
This is no minor point with profound theological and moral significance, especially considering most American Catholics seem fine with not absolutely following Vatican declarations. This is further complicated since the various church elites over the centuries have disagreed with one another on fundamental moral issues, including on abortion.
Anyway, shouldn’t Scripture supersede the personal opinions of church elites, no matter how authoritative they like to pretend to be? No one speaks for God but God. The fact that church elites disagreed and argued with one another proves they are far from infallible. Even the Vatican didn’t consider church positions on abortion to be infallible teachings.
However individuals wish to interpret all of this, there is the issue of one’s response as a Christian. Since only liberal policies have proven to decrease unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortions, it would be the religious duty of any pro-life Christian to support liberal policies. Yet they don’t and instead promote policies that either increase the number of abortions or don’t decrease them. Those Christians are committing sin, in placing their political ideology above their faith.
When someone acts in such a way that inevitably promotes a sin, what should the Christian response?
“There is scholarly disagreement on how early Christians felt about abortion. Some scholars have concluded that early Christians took a nuanced stance on what is now called abortion, and that at different and in separate places early Christians have taken different stances. Other scholars have concluded that early Christians considered abortion a sin at all stages; though there is disagreement over their thoughts on what type of sin it was and how grave a sin it was held to be. Some early Christians believed that the embryo did not have a soul from conception, and consequently opinion was divided as to whether early abortion was murder or ethically equivalent to murder.”
“Neither the Old nor New Testament of the Bible make any specific mention of abortion, though Numbers 5:11-31 refers to a ritual known as the “ordeal of the bitter water”, which will test if a woman has been faithful to her husband by giving her a special potion concocted by a priest, possibly an abortifacient. If the woman was unfaithful, this will cause her “thigh” (a biblical euphemism for the woman’s reproductive organs, as well as any embryo contained within) to “swell and fall away” (some texts use the term “rupture” instead of “fall away”), which is a likely reference to miscarriage. Because of the Bible’s authors being so fond of euphemisms, it is a matter of debate whether this text is an endorsement for abortion when the woman is impregnated by someone who is not her husband (euphemistic interpretation) or simply a ritual that would presumably kill the wife for her adultery (literal interpretation). The actual views of Christian society and the Church can definitively be gathered only via other extra-Biblical writings on theology and ethics.
“During the first and second century CE, abortion, intentional or forced miscarriages, and infanticide, were all commonplace, as families faced serious limitations on the number of people they could support. Though legal and ethical texts seem to suggest that this was somehow sinful, it did not take on any serious move to create or enforce a prohibition against abortion or infanticide. Scholars have suggested that in the very early parts of the 1st and 2nd centuries, discussions about abortion and infanticide were effectively the same issue.
“By the mid-2nd century however, Christians separated themselves from the pagan Romans and proclaimed that the theological and legal issues with abortion had nothing to do with the father’s rights, but with God’s view of the sanctity of life itself. It was as bad a sin as any other sexual sin, including contraception and intentional sterilization, which suggested that a central issue was the giving of one’s body to God and being open for procreation as much as it was the inherent value of the unborn’s life. The issue of when the soul enters the body, and if that should affect the ethics of abortion, remained unresolved, though Augustine of Hippo offered his opinion that it did not enter until the third or sixth month, depending on the sex (the latter for girls). However, while he did not view abortion as murder until that point, it was still a sin in his view.”
“Then, in 1869, completely ignoring earlier teachings, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy. He further stated that all abortion was homicide. This was an implicit endorsement – the church’s first – of ensoulment at conception.”
“Most people believe that the Roman Catholic church’s position on abortion has remained unchanged for two thousand years. Not true. Church teaching on abortion has varied continually over the course of its history. There has been no unanimous opinion on abortion at any time. While there has been constant general agreement that abortion is almost always evil and sinful, the church has had difficulty in defining the nature of that evil. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have opposed abortion consistently as evidence of sexual sin, but they have not always seen early abortion as homicide. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the “right-to-life” argument is a relatively recent development in church teaching. The debate continues today.
“Also contrary to popular belief, no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an “infallible” teaching. This fact leaves much more room for discussion on abortion than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.
“The campaign by Pope John Paul II to make his position on abortion the defining one at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was just one leg of a long journey of shifting views within the Catholic church. In the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago.”
‘An Intercultural Perspective on Human Embryonic Cell Research’ by Leroy Walters Stem Cells, Human Embryos and Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
edited by Lars Østnor
“”In the early centuries of Christianity there was diversity of opinion on the question of abortion. In a Roman Empire where abortion was widely practiced, some Christian theologians argued that every abortion was a homicide (Noonan 1970: 7-14). On the other hand, the ‘formed-unformed’ distinction came to prevail in the mainstream, or most authoritative, Christian theological and penitential traditions. Augustine presaged the predominant view when he argued that an unformed fetus had no soul and no sentience (Noonan 1970: 15-16). His view was accepted by Thomas Aquinas and by most theologians through at least the 18th century (Noonan 1970: 34-36). There is a nuance here that I do not want to obscure. Both the abortion of an unformed (that is, unensouled) fetus and of a formed (ensouled) fetus were considered to be sins. However, terminating the life of an unformed fetus was morally equivalent to the sin of contraception. In contrast, the terminating the life of a formed fetus was considered to be (unjustified) homicide (Noonan 1970: 15-18).
“The predominant Christian view was increasingly called into question in the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, in 1869, the authoritative Roman Catholic view came to be that it was morally safer to assume that ensoulment occurs at the time of fertilization.”
Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood
by Kristin Luker
“SURPRISING As it may seem, the view that abortion is murder is a relatively recent belief in American history. To be sure, there has always been a school of thought, extending back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, that holds that abortion is wrong because the embryo is the moral equivalent of the child it will become. Equally ancient however is the belief articulated by the Stoics: that although embryos have some of the rights of already-born children (and these rights may increase over the course of the pregnancy) , embryos are of a different moral order, and thus to end their existence by an abortion is not tantamount to murder.
“Perhaps the most interesting thing about these two perspectives (which have coexisted over the last two thousand years) is the fact more ancient and the more prevalent one. Their success in this effort is the product of an unusual set of events that occurred in the nineteenth century, events I call the first “right-to-life” movement. […]
“Similarly, although early Christians were actively pro-natalist and their rhetoric denounced abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and castration as all being morally equivalent to murder, the legal and moral treatment of these acts—and particularly the treatment of abortion—was never consistent with the rhetoric. 4 For instance, induced abortion is ignored in the most central Judeo-Christian writings: it is not mentioned in the Christian or the Jewish Bible, or in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud.* Abortion, it is true, was denounced in early Christian writings such as the Didache and by early Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and St. Basil. But church councils, such as those of Elvira and Ancyra, which were called to specify the legal groundwork for did not agree on the penalties for abortion or on whether early abortion is wrong.
(“* Opponents of abortion sometimes argue that the Bible does express disapproval of abortion in Exodus 21:22-23. In fact, what is mentioned there is accidental miscarriage. The text says that when two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman, “causing the fruit of her womb to depart,” they may be liable for a capital offense, depending on whether “mischief” has occurred. It is not clear what is meant by “mischief”; the Hebrew word it stands for (“ason”) occurs only one other time in the Bible. Nor is induced abortion covered in the Talmud; for information on abortion in Jewish law, see David Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, p. 255. The only related text in the Mishnah says that during a difficult delivery, an embryo may be dismembered until “the greater part” of it is born; only when the “greater part” has been born does Jewish law hold that the embryo is a person, and “we do not set aside one life for another”; see Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics , p. 184.”)
“In the year 1100 A.d., this debate was clarified, but hardly in the direction of making abortion at all times unequivocally murder. Ivo of Chartres, a prominent church scholar, condemned abortion but held that abortion of the “unformed” embryo was not homicide, and his work was the beginning of a new consensus. Fifty years later Gratian, in a work which became the basis of canon law for the next seven hundred years, reiterated this stand. 6
“The “formation” of an embryo (sometimes known as “animation” or “vivification”) was held to happen at forty days for a male embryo and at eighty days for a female embryo; the canonist Roger Huser argues that in questions of ambiguity the embryo was considered female. In this connection it is important to remember law—which were, in effect, the moral and legal standard for the Western world until the coming of the Reformation and secular courts—did not treat what we would now call first trimester abortions as murder. 8 (And given the difficulty in ascertaining when pregnancy actually began, in practice this toleration must have included later abortions as well.)
“Nineteenth-century America, therefore, did not inherit an unqualified opposition to abortion, which John Noonan has called an “almost absolute value in history.” 9 On the contrary, American legal and moral practice at the beginning of the nineteenth century was quite consistent with the preceding Catholic canon law: early abortions were legally ignored and only late abortions could be prosecuted. (In fact, there is some disagreement as to whether or not even late abortions were ever prosecuted under the common law tradition.) 10
“Ironically, then, the much-maligned 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, which divided the legal regulation of abortion by trimesters, was much more in line with the traditional treatment of abortion than most Americans appreciate. But that in itself is an interesting fact. The brief history moral equivalent of murder.”
* * *
rsabharw wrote: “Where does it say in the bible that sodomy and child-killing are good things?”
The Old Testament is one of the most violent holy texts in the world. God commands and sometimes commits all kinds of atrocities. Priests and prophets also made decrees that were, by today’s standards, quite horrific. And, yes, this did include child-killing (along with much worse, such as genocide and what is akin to eugenics).
Let me give an example from the prophet Zechariah. I find it fascinating because of the worldview it represents. This seems to imply that any Christian child who speaks in tongues or some similar act should be put to death.
“And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.”
That kind of thing is from uncommon in the Old Testament. I could make an extremely long comment just by quoting the Bible. Yet that kind of thing only involves children after they are born. The Bible is clear that a fetus isn’t treated as a full human and that death of a fetus isn’t considered murder.
For most of history, this was a non-issue for Christians. It was even a non-issue for most Americans until the culture wars. Earlier in the 20th century and before, the average doctor regularly did abortions, as it was considered part of their job. I have an ancestor who was a country doctor in Indiana, from the late 1800s to early 1900s, and he was also the local abortion provider.
As for homosexuality, the Bible has no clear and consistent position. Besides, no Christian follows all the rules and regulations, decrees and commandments described in the Old Testament. Even Jesus didn’t seem to have believed that his new message of love superseded the old Jewish legalisms.
If Christians are to literally interpret and follow the Old Testament, that means Christians can’t eat pork, shellfish, and black pudding; can’t get tatoos, cut the hair on the side of their heads, wearing of blended fabrics, charging interest on loans; et cetera. Plus, Christians would have to marry their brother’s widow, adulterers instead of being forgiven if they repent must be killed. and those with disabilities are to be treated as unclean like pigs. But slavery, genocide, and child murder are fine.
Yet if we are to simply go by Jesus’ words, we are limited to having no opinion on homosexuality and abortion. The best a fundy literalist could do is to cite Paul, but he never met Jesus and the evidence points to him having been a Gnostic (the heretical Valentinus and Marcion were among the earliest followers of the Pauline tradition, prior to Paul being incorporated as part of the Catholic canon).
So, if Christians don’t prioritize the teachings of Jesus over all else, what is the point of their even calling themselves Christians?
rsabharw wrote: “Abortion was illegal in Indiana in the 1800s. Therefore, your ancestor was not a doctor, but, rather, a criminal. The Hippocratic Oath specifically bans abortion. Any doctor who performs one is breaking that most sacred oath, and thus cannot call him or herself a doctor any longer.”
Studies show that banning abortions either doesn’t decrease or actually increases the abortion rate. It’s common sense that laws don’t always have much to do with actual human behavior. Even Christianity has been outlawed at different times and places, but it didn’t stop Christians from practicing.
Anyway, when did rural people ever worry about what political elite in far away big cities decided to tell the lower classes what to do? My ancestors in rural Indiana, besides including a country doctor who was an abortion provider, were also bootleggers. Screw you paternalistic, authoritarian a**holes! That is what my Kentuckiana ancestors would have told you. And I agree with them, on this issue.
We will make our own decisions and live as free patriots. Despite the laws, it’s obvious that the other rural people living around my country doctor ancestor were fine with what he did, for he was never prosecuted. These were his people, the place where he was born and raised. It was a typical community for the time. Few abortion cases were ever brought to court, despite it being extremely common at the time.
“The court also said that because many of the state abortion laws dating tothe 1800s explicitly protect pregnant women from prosecution, it was a stretch to believe that lawmakers intended for the feticide law to be used against pregnant women who attempt to terminate a pregnancy.”
“In the early nineteenth century abortion simply did not elicit as much comment or controversy as today. Though not openly encouraged – and condemned in some circles – it was not necessarily dismissed out of hand if done early enough into the pregnancy. Abortion before “quickening,” the first signs of fetal movement, usually during the second trimester, was generally considered acceptable. “Most forms of abortion were not illegal and those women who wished to practice it did so.” As there were no laws specifically addressing abortion in the America of 1800, the only source for guidance was, again, English common law, which recognized quickening. […]
“These earliest abortion laws must be viewed contextually to be properly understood. In the main, they were not promulgated out of any fervor over the “morality” of abortion. As mentioned, quickening was generally accepted by both the courts and the public as the pivotal issue in abortion. Abortion was not generally considered immoral or illegal if performed prior to fetal movement. Because this was so widely accepted most American women did not have to “face seriously the moral agonies so characteristic of the twentieth century.” That Indiana’s law did not specifically mention quickening should not be seen as a step away from the doctrine. Instead, it is likely further evidence that quickening was so ingrained that it need not be especially written into the statute. […]
“Whatever the reasons, Indiana had an “anti-abortion” measure on the books after 1835. It seems to have been a law little regarded and little enforced. It also seems unlikely that it prevented many women who wished an abortion from obtaining one. Chemical or natural agents for producing abortions were readily available if a woman knew where to look – and most knew exactly where to fix their gaze. Mid-wives knew all the secrets; druggists advertised appropriate potions; medical texts provided answers.
“To judge the relative importance lawmakers attached to abortion, one need only compare the penalties involved. Assisting in an abortion, or performing a self-abortion, was punishable by a maximum fine of $500.00 and a year in the county jail. Burglary’s penalty was fourteen years in the state prison; murder (analogous in some modern minds with abortion) was a capital offense. Clearly, the state of Indiana did not equate abortion with murder, or even stealing your neighbor’s silver service.”
“As the above indicates, abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were “available, but dangerous.” This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the midwest, and the average midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.
“It was not, however, impossible. Such information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such information sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a “tea” brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included “bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics.” Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonians claimed the preferred “remedy” was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.
“More reliable sources of information were the ever popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings’ The Married Ladies Companion, was meant especially to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who “took a common cold,” the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation. Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to “release obstructed menses” and “dangers” to avoid during pregnancy.
“The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to “restore menstrual flow.” Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.
“Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was feasible, available, and used option; it was a likely contributor to the birth rate falling by mid-century.”
I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.
If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]
If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.
I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.
Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.
* * *
The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:
An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”
I just wrote about Corey Robin’s view that the conservative movement is inherently reactionary. I understand his point and I think it is valid, although I would tend to place it in a larger context (of history and psychology). At the moment, however, my mind is focused on a somewhat smaller context: culture wars. I was thinking that the culture wars fit into Robin’s framework of a reactionary conservatism.
Before I noticed Corey Robin’s book, I was having some discussions with a conservative. The issue of culture wars came up. It is an issue that is both very personal for me and for many others, on both sides of the spectrum. But it is personal for different reasons.
The Silent and Boomer generations were born before and in many cases grew up before the present culture wars even began (i.e., the 60s; and not really gaining full momentum until the late 60s). Also, they didn’t know the hardships and sacrifices previous generations made. They didn’t experience the oppression that led to the rise of working class movements during the Populist and Progressive Eras. They didn’t experience having to fight for basic rights and protections during an era when industrialism arose. They didn’t experience WWI, didn’t experience Prohibition and the Great Depression, didn’t even experience WWII to any great extent (although some Silents would have memories of it from childhood).
The era of the early lives of Silents and Boomers was a time of mostly peace and prosperity. It was a time when liberalism reigned without much challenge (progressive reform, high union membership, enactment of EPA, progressive taxation, building of infrastructure, the G.I. bill, etc), and this liberalism created a booming economy and growing middle class (along with increasing social mobility, career opportunities, and civil rights). Silents and Boomers, especially the latter, grew up in privilege and entitlement. They only knew the benefits of what previous generations had fought for but not the hardships and sacrifices. For this reason, they became in many ways selfish generations who dismantled much of what they had benefited from, pulling up the ladder behind them so that later generations would struggle and suffer (if you’ve paid attention, you’d notice that Boomer-dominated unions often are more protective of the rights of older workers than of newer workers who tend to be of the younger generations entering the workforce).
Silents and Boomers were those who started and fought the culture wars. Maybe they did so because they had life so good. Since they didn’t have to worry about survival, they could distract themselves with cultural issues of identity politics, abortion and abstract idealizations about family values. Silents played a particularly interesting role as the leaders of the culture wars and as the reactionaries to it (while the Boomers originally played the role of the troops on the ground in their protests and grassroots activism). It was the Silents like Reagan who were the great dismantlers of the Great Society and they justified it with the culture wars which was partly just a superficial facade placed on the old class wars of the previous generations. So, war on poverty became the war on the poor (on the welfare queens, on the drug addicts, on minorities, on immigrants, on anyone who was part of the lower class).
From my perspective as a GenXer, I feel like saying “Pox on both your houses!” The left and the right of the culture wars seemed to have lost any vision of what made America great and instead focused on winning battles, battles whose costs they didn’t understand (or else didn’t care about… in their correct assumption that future generations would be forced to deal with it). The Silents and the Boomers knew a world prior to the culture wars, but GenXers did not. The culture wars is the only America I’ve ever personally experienced in my life. The culture wars touches upon everything. When the culture wars started, the Silents and the Boomers all took sides. The 60s typically are portrayed as just a time of left-wing activism, but that isn’t the reality. It was the 60s that involved the renewal of evangelism and the rise of the religious right as a political force. Furthermore, the hippies and the police who beat them up, the veterans and the anti-war protesters, all of them were of the same generation(s), all of them responding to the conflict of the times that would form their entire worldview by which they would rule for the next half century.
There is a distinction to be made about how and when the culture wars played out on the right. By the time the culture wars came around, the militant right such as the KKK had been demolished as an effective political force (the KKK had been the culture warriors of the past in defending American ‘white’ culture, defending capitalism and the capitalist class, defending family values, etc). After the culture wars went into full gear, left-wing groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers took the place as the new militant radicals. Left-wingers, however, were radicalized for the very reason they weren’t in power and they became more radicalized as they lost ground. From Nixon to Reagan, the early culture wars involved the left-wing against the Establishment (which was being taken over by a new breed of reactionary conservatives along with a new breed of centrist ‘liberals’ who denied left-wing politics from having power in Washington). Many older conservatives remember this time as an eroding of cultural values, but what they don’t realize is that this erosion as much came from the top as it was a time of shifting from liberal leadership to conservative leadership and the struggle of power that happened during this shift.
To a liberal, it is no accident that the preceeding era of peace and social cohesion was during liberal leadership. The new conservative movement led by the likes of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan was a reaction against the first half century of liberal reform, (starting with the Populist Era bringing working class politics into the mainstream, leading to the Progressive Era victories aligning the working class with the liberal class, and culminating in the Great Society). This liberal era ended with the liberal moment of the 60s and the conservative backlash that followed was dramatic. The liberal movement (along with American society in general) never fully recovered from the trauma of the assassinations of so many of their greatest leaders over such a short period of time. The left-wing became radicalized in response to an increasingly radicalized right-wing leadership and activism. It was at this time that liberals and moderates were being pushed out of the Republican Party (the very party, by the way, that began with anti-slavery abolitionists, working class free soil advocates, and those friendly to the then budding Marxist socialism).
As liberals see it, this new era was a dark period of the ending of the liberal reign and the beginning of the conservative reign. To conservatives (especially those of older generations), however, they only see the liberal reaction to this shift and not what liberals were reacting to. In losing political power, liberals turned to identity politics and cultural issues. Some were usurped into the academic fold or became yuppies seeking materialism and success. Others more cynically turned away from their naive youth toward Reagan neoconservatism and libertarian neoliberalism or else they got religion and joined the ranks of the religious right. Everything was translated into terms of the culture wars which undermined and suppressed the class awareness that was the foundation of the labor movement. The reason left-wingers made so much fuss at the time was because they were losing power, not because they were gaining it. Conservatives somehow managed to play the victim card for so many decades even as their power and influence increased, often making the argument that the privileged and well off were in some strange way being victimized by the poor and disenfranchised. The right-wing made the culture wars into a class war, denying their own classism while projecting it onto their opponents. When liberals and left-wingers pointed out this obvious class war, they were attacked for promoting class war. Those on the left couldn’t win for losing at that time.
Later on, the culture wars became a one-sided battle of the conservative movement against anything and everything. Conservatives wanted to “take back” America. After all, they saw themselves as the only “True Americans”, the heirs of the Founding Fathers (just ignore the radical left-wing criticisms of Paine and Jefferson). This second phase of the the culture wars began to gain momentum in the 1980s but didn’t fully manifest until the 1990s. This historical period is analyzed well by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? and David Sirota in Back to Our Future. When I was growing up, I was largely ignorant of this conservative movement, although it was permanently in the background of the mainstream media world I was immersed in. It only became clear with two events: the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1998 Lewinsky Scandal in 1998. The right-wing was on the attack.
So, right-wing militants followed the previous left-wing militants. However, there was a difference. The previous left-wing militants were reacting against a conservative establishment, but when the right-wing militants came along there was no liberal establishment. At that point, the liberal class had long ago lost its privileged place in society (as described by Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class) and had mostly retreated from activism into academia and non-profits (the only ‘liberals’ who maintained their political power and influence were those that shifted to a more neoliberal stance or else became progressive neoconservatives).
Anyway, all of that formed the background for Generation X. Many GenXers were pulled into this conservative movement, some even joining the far right anti-statists and culture warriors. On the opposite end, a particular segment of GenXers tried to slowly rebuild the broken foundations of the liberal movement. In the 1990s, the culture was blandly liberal in a general sense even as left-wingers were fighting a battle on two fronts, attacked by the Gingrich Republicans on one side and by the Clinton Democrats on the other side. It was the right that had captured the political narrative and the collective imagination. Liberals lacked strong visionary leadership. Even the most moderate of liberals were on the defensive. Centrist and corporatist ‘liberals’ like Clinton became quite talented at playing on the defense by way of triangulation and compromise, but they were constantly backing off from every new fight, playing it safe.
This is where my young adulthood comes in. I graduated from high school in 1994, the year Kurt Cobain died (the symbolic death of the alternative culture that began to erupt in the 1980s). I became aware of the right-wing at this time by my listening to the paranoid conspiracies on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM and also by my occasionally catching some of the early right-wing radio shows such as Laura Schlessinger (her show was nationally syndicated in 1994). I even felt some affinity with elements of this right-wing, but 9/11 changed all of that. The right-wing pundits and activists went into overdrive. The only choice offered seemed to be between the right-wing fascist Bush administration and the right-wing anti-egalitarian Ron Paul libertarians. No liberal alternative (or even moderate conservative alternative) was being offered in the mainstream politics portrayed by the mainstream media. Left-wingers such as Nader and Chomsky only had relevance as nuisances and distractions. I voted for Nader and found myself attacked by ‘liberal’ Democrats.
As everyone knows, the 2000s (AKA the ‘Noughts’) was a depressing decade. I feel so tired out by the endless political conflict and I’ve grown to hate the culture wars, especially the right-wing version of it (“compassionate conservatism”). For some reason, right-wingers are trying to keep the culture wars alive, going so far as even to inject the religious right’s culture wars into the formerly libertarian-minded Tea Party movement. The culture wars makes me sick to my soul… and that is no exaggeration. I’m tired of it all. I wish everyone would just let the culture wars die. My generation has been hit the hardest by the culture wars and it hasn’t done us any good. It’s turned some of us into ranting pundits and lunatic clowns, the Becks and the Palins who are trying to push American society over the edge. The culture wars have come to fruition in a nihilistic fantasizing about societal decline and a cynical longing for Apocalypse. The right-wing is losing momentum in gradually losing support, but as they go into decline the right-wing just gets uglier in their antics.
For many Americans (moreso among the older generations), the class wars remain relevant because the past remains alive in their minds and hence in our collective consciousness. This particularly can be seen with Boomers. Their sense of identity was solidified with the culture wars of the 60s, whether as liberal progressives or conservative reactionaries. The culture wars are real to them because they’ve dominated society for a half century. The media made by and/or for them was often steeped in the culture wars ethos. The memories of the 60s keeps replaying in their heads, having almost become mythical at this point. In talking with the conservative I mentioned above, one thing became apparent. The culture wars was an apt metaphor. There are two distinct sides, both seeking to gain victory by forcing their enemy into defeat or retreat. One side has to win at the cost the other side losing. There is no win/win scenario. This is fueled by a mentality that there is an absolute right and wrong. There is something dualistic (almost to the point of Manichaeism) about the Boomers worldview with their utopian ideals and apocalyptic visions. Culture warriors just know they are right and others are wrong. Their entire identity is built on this demand to be righteous. They refuse to accept that differences exist and that the world won’t collapse just because they aren’t allowed to dominate. Both sides used the government as a pawn in their battles, and the real loser in this was democracy itself (along with the American citizenry that democracy is supposed to work for, rather than for special interest groups). Culture warriors were willing to try to win at almost any cost and that cost turned out to be very high.
As a GenXer, I grew up in the world made by the Boomers. Even as an adult from the mid 90s to the present, the impact of Boomers was mostly in the foreground and the impact of GenX was mostly in the background. If GenXers wanted to play in politics or the marketplace, we largely had to play according to the rules set down by the Boomers (the internet seemingly the only place where GenXers could operate on their own terms). I feel disappointed in my generation for having conceded so much to the Boomers. I know we were a small generation and couldn’t fairly compete with the Boomers, but still I wish we had been more of a thorn in the side of power. Instead, we in many ways just played along and made things even worse, embracing the Reagan era mantra of greed and self-centeredness (my generation playing no small part in helping to cause the economic problems), too many of us becoming politically cynical and apathetic in the process or else bitterly angry in our fight against such apathy. The closest most GenXers got to political involvement was to become anti-statists and anarchists fighting against the New World Order or against the the liberal elites (depending on one’s ideological persuasion), but it was a politics without vision or even much hope, just reactionary activism against Boomer’s society (Tea Party GenXers like Beck and Palin being the prime examples of this GenX style activism). I didn’t get a full doseage of Reagan rhetoric as I was on the younger end of GenX, but I’ve seen its impact on my generation.
Despite my emotional response, I’m still able to step back and look at all of this somewhat objectively. I’m fascinated by the close connection between culture war and class war. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. Generally speaking, both the left and right usually see the culture war of the other side as blatant class war, both sides agreeing that there is a culture war going on even while disagreeing about eachother’s motives, the difference being that the left is more likely to see culture war and class war as inherently linked. Most liberals probably don’t take as an insult the conservative allegation that they are pushing class war. The liberal agrees there is a class war, although they would simply add that the rich are winning. Conservatives often use rhetoric grounded in obvious class war, but for some reason they are unwilling to admit to it. I think it’s because there is no way to admit to the class issue without also admitting to the race issue, those two also being inherently linked (or so it seems to my liberal-biased mind).
I have some further thoughts on generations and activism.
For Boomers, activism is about the past. Old hippies romanticize about 60s activism. In conservative activism like the Tea Party, aging non-hippy Boomers likewise obsess over 60s activism but for different reasons (see the documentary ‘Generation Zero’, popular among Tea Party supporters, which essentially blames hippies for all the problems of society since). Boomers, on both the left and right, are motivated by the past, sometimes inspired and at other times one might say enlivened. As a GenXer, I intimately know Boomer nostalgia; I understand how it is embedded in our culture and how to an extent it has become internalized by many GenXers; however, it doesn’t usually bring out the best in GenXers. Corey Robin argues that conservatives are reactionary; to this I would add that GenXers are also reactionary which would explain why Reagan conservatism (the ultimate reactionary conservatism) was so appealing to my generation (GenXers literally having been the strongest supporters of Reagan’s presidency), although many of those GenXers have at this point turned away from their youthful conservatism or at least turned away from shamelessly idolizing capitalist greed and self-interest (some turning instead to the left and others going even further right into politicized religion).
How activism manifests among GenXers is apparent when one compares different protest movements.
I’ll begin with the Bush era anti-war movement since I was personally involved with it. As far as I can tell, the anti-war protests were mostly a youth movement consisting of lots of GenXers and the first wave of Millennials hitting adulthood. The anti-war protests seemed fairly positive and inclusive in unifying a diversity of veteran and new activists, from Ron Paul libertarians to pacifist liberals, from anarchists to socialists, from social justice Christians to social justice atheists.
The protest movement that followed was the Tea Party. It began with a righteous cause and had great potential. It could have followed the example of the grassroots populism of the anti-war protests, but was coopted by corporate interests and the religious right… and so became a more narrowly defined movement that was far to the right of even the average Republican. The Tea Party also included many GenXers, especially in the leaders that took over (i.e., Beck and Palin), but overall it was slanted toward an older demographic that included more Boomers and fewer Millennials. I was just now thinking that this is a key element. The higher percentage of Boomers seemingly either brought out the worst in the GenXers involved or brought out the worst GenXers (by worst, I mean righteous anger that increasingly shifted toward bitterness and divisiveness).
That now brings us to the present with the Occupy protest movement. It seems more similar to the anti-war protests with many GenXers involved but even more heavily weighted toward a Millennial demographic. Once again, the Millennial presence seems to bring out the best in GenXers or else, opposite of the Tea Party, seems to bring out the best (most positive and inclusive) GenXers. In spite of the 99% meme which could be interpreted as class war, it was the Tea Party that expressed a more strident message of class war (or so it seems, once again, to my liberal-biased mind)… after all, 99% of the population is pretty damn inclusive, especially considering that even some of the 1% supports their message (if you want to hear a clear promotion of class war, then check out the 53% message; and while you’re at it check out this respectful liberal response to that attempt at class war; it’s ironic that the 53% is intended to be a criticism of the 99% since, when one thinks about it rationally, it becomes obvious that the vast majority of the 53% are part of the 99% lol).
It’s a very strange time we live in. We are overdue for some massive social change of the likes not seen since the Progressive Era. For much of this past decade, I’ve been closely watching the polling and demographic data. It was obvious a shift was happening and my prediction was that it likely would be toward the left (eventually), but until now the mainstream media and politics managed to resist these changes that could be seen in the general population. According to Strauss and Howe’s generation theory (Fourth Turning), change was gound to come and they were right on the money with the predictions of theirs that I’m familiar with (such as their early 90s prediction of increasing security in schools). At the same time, the culture wars no longer have the influence they once had. Millennials simply don’t care about the culture wars. The Tea Party demonstrates the decline of the culture wars. As it was increasingly coopted by the religious right and their culture wars, the Tea Party movement increasingly lost public support to the point that the movement is now less popular than either the Republican or Democratic Parties (the parties themselves being very unpopular at present), less popular than even Muslims and atheists.
I don’t know where that leaves us as a society. I’ll be watching the Occupy movement closely in the hope that something will come of it. If the culture wars are finally dead (at least for the time being in their present form), then what will replace them?
I just noticed a reference to David Sirota’s recent book, Back to Our Future. It looks interesting. After reading some reviews and hearing some interviews, I decided to purchase the book on my Kindle. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and skimmed later sections. This post is more about my initial response, but it’s a very thorough initial response.
To put it simply, this book provides analysis of 80s culture’s impact on politics and how that impact continues.
•Atari: Best-selling videos Missile Command, Combat and Space Invaders sold techno-militarism to a generation of future drone pilots.
•Rambo: Embittered vet refought America’s wars and “gets to win” this time.
•Ghostbusters: The movie’s lesson: When government fails, these private security contractors saved us from interdimensional “terrorists.”
•World Wrestling Federation: Theatro-sport in which American good guys like Sgt. Slaughter body slammed foreign bad guys like the Iron Sheik.
•Mr. T: No matter what character this Mohawk-wearing strongman played, he represented racial stereotyping and threw it back in our faces.
•The Cosby Show: The pre-Obama image of the “post-racial” brand, the Huxtables were the first black family to dominate TV.
•Ferris Bueller: John Hughes’ cheeky truant glorified “going rogue” years before Sarah Palin.
•Air Jordans: Best-selling sneakers pushed the idea that we can each be superstars if we “just do it.”
•The Yuppie: Upwardly mobile wealth-obsessed Alex P. Keatons rejected ’60s idealism for modern materialism.
•“Greed is Good”: Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street became the decade’s most famous phrase — and its most enduring ethos.
– – –
My discovering this book was serendipitous. I happened upon a reference to it the other night. A few hours prior, while at work, I had been talking to a coworker about all things apocalyptic, the Japanese nuclear plant problems being the starting point of the conversation. She mentioned something about a tv show and I was reminded of how many post-apocalyptic movies there were in the 1980s when I was a child. Between that and evil children movies, a child of the 80s was almost inevitably warped in the head.
I’m a child of the ’80s, and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning.
I don’t know that Sirota discusses the post-apocalyptic genre, but it seems to fit in with his overall analysis. The nuclear accidents back then made nuclear apocalypse an increasingly real possibility which was imaginatively portrayed in various entertainment media. As a GenXer born in 1975 (the same year Sirota was born), I’m well aware of the impact of 80s culture.
Sirota takes this a step further and says this impact is continuing as if the 80s somehow stunted America’s natural development. The country was going in one direction with the civil rights movement, environmentalism and other things, but then the 80s came and a different attitude took over: hyper-individualism, capitalist greed, paranoia of government, aggressive militarism, ultra-nationalism, racial fear-mongering, class war, culture war, radicalization of religion, etc. Americans haven’t yet collectively recovered from the trauma of the 80s. There were the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and it’s been the 80s ever since. An endless nightmare as if Reagan were still president.
[T]he ’80s speak to us today for one simple reason: “Because it’s still the ’80s. The calendar doesn’t say ’80s, but we’re still looking through an ’80s mind-set.” Think Charlie Sheen. Think Lehman Brothers. Think McMansions.
As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The ’80s set the stage for our lives today, Sirota says, and he explains it best in his introduction: “Almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the ’80s. … The Sopranos was an update of an ’80s Scorsese flick (Raging Bull and later Goodfellas).The Wire was Baltimore’s own Colors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a Los Angeles-set Seinfeld. American Idol is Star Search.” And so on.
[ . . . ] “The reason you see so many remakes is not just because nostalgia resonates,” Sirota says, “but because (’80s movies) are still culturally relevant.”
Part of his argument relates to his realization that most people aren’t political at all, or rather don’t consciously identify as political, don’t consciously think out their political views. And, even those who are consciously political as adults, usually didn’t identify as being political when growing up. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that everyone has political views. Even children, when asked, can offer views on political issues. We all gain our political views from somewhere. Sirota thinks that pop culture has a greater impact on our minds and worldviews than we normally realize. He even goes so far as to see it playing a role of pseudo-propaganda in some cases and outright propaganda in other cases. This can be seen to some extent as part of the normal enculturation process, but the 80s were anything other than normal… and, in the process, a new norm was created for American society.
So I’d been reading some social research, and one thing that’s been coming up is that pop culture and entertainment — especially for children — is just as formative to how we see the world as news; as children, this entertainment that’s packaged as non-political, it can be as reality-shaping as reality is.
All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn — and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today’s Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture — themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.
As I show in , much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, “takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game.” You could see that in Nintendo’s Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today’s hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.
Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s — only in that case, we’re now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.
– – –
Several points stand out to me in Sirota’s analysis.
First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.
Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence. This hero worship also led to our culture of idolizing celebrity and wealth (a celebritocracy borne out of a distorted vision of meritocracy).
“A lot of the changes that happened (in the ’80s) weren’t good,” Sirota admits. “The deification of celebrity, for instance. The individual. Michael Jordan could soar above all the rest. It wasn’t about the team anymore. That wasn’t so good.”
[ . . . ] “It was the outlaw with morals. The guy working on the inside for the common good,” Sirota says. He says that trend translated to sports, pointing to a poster of bad-boy Barkley. “He broke the rules but he was a good guy.”
As for ’80s greed, the examples are endless both then and today.
He cites Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success (1987) as glorifying the ’80s goal of “working your way up to huge sums of wealth.”
But another 1987 movie perhaps summed up the era best. Wall Street (which co-starred Sheen) lives on because of three famous words uttered by Michael Douglas: “Greed … is good.” The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, was released last year. Still relevant. Bernie Madoff, anyone?
“The young of the ’80s didn’t want to save the world,” Sirota says. “They wanted to get rich. It became the norm, and it’s the norm today.”
Third, Sirota explains how all of this was disconnected from reality. It had become a collective myth that couldn’t be questioned. He gave some examples about the enemies the media and government demonized during the 80s.
The US government was using propaganda about the Godless commies for the purpose of justifying the building up of the military-industrial complex, but the US government had plenty of data in their own reports that the Soviet Union was technologically inferior by far and was destroying itself trying to keep up with US technological advancement. The US government knew the commies were no real threat, but the myth of a powerful enemy was necessary and desired. To have a powerful enemy, gives a nation a sense of meaning and purpose even if it’s an utter lie.
The other example shows how lies when repeated enough become collective reality. On some level, I suspect most Americans were aware that the commies couldn’t be used as a scapegoat forever. The Cold War was drawing to a close and so the search for a new great enemy was already beginning. The new enemy to be feared was Islamic terrorists (which was already at that time starting to become the new standard enemy in American entertainment).
In our fighting the commies, we had at times aligned with radical Islamic fundamentalists and theocrats. I think many people realized that this would eventually lead to blowback, that our allies once we were finished using them would turn against us. More importantly, we just needed an enemy. If we had to create that enemy by funding, training and arming radical Islamic fundamentalists, by overthrowing democratic governments and supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East, then so be it. Creating enemies is no easy task. It takes a lot of money and time, a lot of effort and planning, a lot of destruction and loss of life. But what the 80s have taught us is that endlessly fighting enemies of our own creation is something worth fighting for.
– – –
Here is another related factor that Sirota may or may not touch upon. The attitude of seeking enemies was an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world and hence of making public policies.
Worst of all, the demented paranoia of the 80s even led to the American people becoming the enemy. There was evidence of this mentality from earlier times such as with COINTELPRO from the decades prior, but the 80s brought it to a whole new level. COINTELPRO only targeted specific groups. The War on Drugs, however, targeted the entire American population. In many ways, it was worse than even McCarthyism. The War on Drugs has done more damage than probably any other public policy in American history. I doubt there is any US policy that has led to more people being imprisoned, more people having their lives destroyed, more increase in violence, more increase in a corporatist elite profiting off of the suffering of others, more targeting of the poor and minorities. My God, even Prohibition wasn’t this damaging. The War on Drugs has been going on for decades which has only led to an increase in drug use and drug-related violence. Now, the War on Terror (funded by the black market for drugs) has ratcheted up even further this paranoid oppression and authoritarian fear-mongering.
The 80s created a schizophrenic mentality. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the supposed even greater enemy of commies, terrorists, and drug dealers. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the enemy that is hiding within. Any American potentially might be a commie, a terrorist, or a druggy (or a gangsta, or a welfare queen, or an illegal alien, or an eco-terrorist, or a radical liberal). Everyone potentially was an enemy. No one could be trusted. It was everyone against everyone. A society of trust and cooperation was a thing of the past. The role of the government in helping average Americans was seen as evil and the power of the government to hurt the enemy was seen as good.
So, spending on social services and infrastructure (what conservatives like to call socialism) were reduced as the military-industrial complex (along with the alphabet soup agencies) continued to grow (along with the debt). Both fiscal and social conservatism were ironically used as part of the propaganda to increase the power of the ruling corporatist elite. Fiscal conservatism!?! Give me a fucking break! Neocons like Reagan believed in fiscal conservatism in the same way a pedophile priest believes in God. Even if their belief is genuine and earnest, those negatively effected would hardly find much comfort. I don’t know if a laissez-faire ideology correlates to reality any more than Christian theology. What I do know is real are the impacts that those who believe in such things have on the real world and on real people. And the enduring results of 80s culture of greed ain’t pretty.
– – –
What appeals to me about David Sirota’s view is that he is putting this all in the context of the larger history of the 20th century. The 80s concretized a particular worldview of culture war that continues to this day, and it continues to be grounded in mainstream culture. He explains this well in giving a summary about his book:
The book really has four basic sections. There’s a section about how the 1980s redefined our memories and our ideas of the 1950s and the 1960s, basically by remaking our memories of the 1950s into this idyllic time of calm and prosperity, and remaking the 60s into things that are bad, things like chaos and assassination — and so that ’50s vs 60s battle is still something that influences groups like the Tea Party and so forth, and it really divides along political lines.
[ . . . ] You know, the 1980s really was the time when there was this conflation between entertainment and real — Reagan was constantly referencing movies and pop culture in his speeches; you know, he’d been an actor himself. And so people might say, oh, The A Team wasn’t a big deal, Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t a big deal — but The A-Team, this one one of the highest rated shows for preteens, this show with the premise of four, you know, private contractors on the lam from a government that can’t do anything right. This stuff has a real impact on how you think about your world.
“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”
With all the angry right-wingers, fear-mongering fundies and cold-hearted neocons these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when a Republican could be portrayed as being a genuinely kind, lovable character. With all the horrifying results of trickle down economics, all the rampant crony capitalism following deregulation and all the cynical class war against the working class, it’s hard to imagine that fiscal conservatism once upon a time could’ve been shown as almost quaintly charming in it’s innocent naivette. It’s understandable that many at that time were persuaded, inspired even, by Michael J. Fox’s role:
The world has changed. The contemporary equivalent of Alex P. Keaton would be Eric Cartman from South Park. In the episode “Die, Hippie, Die”, Cartman sees hippies as dangerous vermin to be exterminated.
“Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people.”
~ Alex P. Keaton
“For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town.… I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast!”
~ Eric Cartman
Alex as the charming fiscal conservative has morphed into Cartman the not-so-charming bigoted conservative. And yet both capture some basic essence of the desire of many contemporary conservatives to rebel against society (a corrupt, lazy and generally inferior society that deserves being rebelled against).
The radicalization of the conservative movement is one of the oddest phenomena in US history. There were always radical elements in American society, but something about Goldwater’s campaign allowed the radicals to take over the entire conservative movement. Now we have Cartman-like pundits on the radio and on cable. They still rail against mainstream culture despite having become so much apart of mainstream culture that they now help to shape it. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from acting like victims as if hippies were somehow still a dominant force. The right-wing mindset is forever stuck in the past which blinds them to the present. To the right-winger, Cartman’s paranoia is the reality they live in.
Alex P. Keaton continues to be relevant more than a couple decades after Family Ties ended. Having gained power, the conservatives inspired by the likes of Alex may now feel disgruntled by their failure which has inevitably followed from their success. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, doesn’t give them pause, doesn’t cause them to doubt their ideology. It remains relevant because the True Believers keep it relevant:
Still, it’s tempting to conclude that Keaton’s near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the “culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side.” Having been “shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered,” conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from “Goldwater kitsch” to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.
Alex P. Keaton fits this vision perfectly. Throughout the show’s run, he was on his own: His parents were liberal, his sister was a ditz, and his one conservative ally, Uncle Ned, was a fugitive and then a drunk. Still, he persevered.
Conservatives nowadays have plenty of Uncle Neds who may seem like frauds and failures to those who don’t share their capitalistic idealism. Still, conservatives persevere.
– – –
Not only do they persevere, their becoming disgruntled has made them even more rabidly motivated. And big money has given their minority voice a big megaphone. This is what the Tea Party is or has become, arguments aside about how it began. Tea Party leaders and icons, such as Beck and Palin, represent this tendency toward nostalgia that Sirota writes about (Back to Our Future, pp. 27-8):
Now, during the Obama presidency, the Tea Party opposition is an exact analogue to the Reagan vanguard, all the way down to the latter-day roots of its very name—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the The New York Times labeled what were then the first contemporary antigovernment/antitax revolts “modern Boston Tea Parties.” Not surprisingly, the goal of today’s Tea Party protesters is a return to the politics of the fifties-worshiping, sixties-bashing 1980s.
Tea Party protesters and their leaders in the conservative movement acknowledge this intrinsically in their choice of language and extrinsically in their most unfiltered declarations. For example, an essay posted on the website of Freedom Works, the organization that sponsors Tea Party demonstrations, says protesters are enraged by “the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.”
[ . . . ] Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s media field general, says it is about “real outrage from real people who just want their country back”—and he’s very clear that “back” means before The Sixties™. In one recent diatribe, Beck praised Joe McCarthy for “shin[ing] the spotlight on the Communist Party” in the 1950s. In another, he insisted “fifty years ago people felt happier” than they do today because today “we have less God,” prompting his guest to agree by saying, “Something happened in the 1950s where everything went down … that’s when they started taking God”—“they” being the hippies, “God” presumably being a reference to mid-twentieth-century courts barring prayer in school.
This kind of nostalgia now slashes its way through today’s politics and policy debates, and its lack of connection to specific issues betrays its eighties-crafted anchor in intergenerational conflict.
[ . . . ] “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower,” Bob Dole told Politico in a discussion about 2012 presidential candidates.
The language—“back,” “real people,” “deviating from,” “slipping away,” “the way it was,” “different country than I grew up in,” “legacy,” “better time”—underscores the fierce yearning for a fantastical authenticity and conformity of old-time fifties America, sans the real-world downsides like lynch mobs, religious bigotry, burning crosses, chauvinism, union-busting, and smokestack pollution that plagued the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not Tea Party leaders are specifically pointing to the actual 1950s is less important than that the broader movement is advocating that bigger, 1980s-manufactured concept of The Fifties™.
The tragedy, of course, is the elimination of the kind of moderate Republicanism that once played a pivotal political, cultural, and legislative role in the real 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives today accept no compromise positions on taxes, national security, social issues, or anything else, because to Republican leaders, conceding such middle ground is akin to aiding and abetting the hippies—an unthinkable proposition, but not just to them.
That passage caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party for quite a while now. Last year I started to write a post about the documentary Generation Zero. The documentary created quite a buzz at the time (at least, on Fox News), but it is mostly unknown outside of the Tea Party crowd. I only heard about it because of a blog I follow which focuses on the topic of generations. The documentary is based on the generation theory of Strauss and Howe.
I never finished writing my post about Generation Zero. I felt like I was missing some element to bring my thoughts together. Sirota’s analysis may be that missing element. It wasn’t a bad documentary per se. However, it did fall into this mythology of everything wrong with America is the fault of the hippies.
Sirota is correct that the nostalgic worship of The Fifties has become popular again. And Sirota is correct that this nostalgia is disconnected from reality, from the actual history of the 50s. John Oliver of The Daily Show did an awesome clip (Even Better Than the Real Thing) which utterly lambasted this naive vision of the past that is favored by right-wingers.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for the positive in the past. But one can’t learn from the past by turning it into a Hallmark movie or a Norman Rockwell painting. One particular detail that caught my attention in the above passage is Bob Dole’s saying that, “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower”. If only Republicans were genuine about their reverence for the good ol’ days, many liberals would be more than happy to cooperate. In the good ol’ days of the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was triuphant and politicians were usually unwilling to publicly denounce liberals for fear of their political careers being destroyed by doing so. As Eric Alterman pointed out in his book Why We’re Liberals (p. 4):
It may shocking to some to discover that for much of the past century, the term liberal suggested, in the words of historian John Lukacs, “generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul.” A liberal was someone “free from narrow prejudice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the enemies of liberalism sought legitimacy within it. In 1960, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article by the philosopher Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. Indeed, he wrote, “Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism…cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene.” Frankel noted that even politicians who indulged in attacks on “liberals” were usually sufficiently cautious in their criticism to attach qualifiers to the word, lest they be accused of antiliberalism themselves. Southern conservatives, for instance, complained about “Northern liberals,” often insisting that they themselves were liberals in matters of social welfare. Even Joe McCarthy usually restricted himself to attacking “phony liberals,” leaving open the inference, as Frankel put it, “that he had nothing against genuine liberals, if only he could find one.”20 Later the same year, “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft, claimed the liberal label for himself, stating—accurately, as it happens—that he was in reality “an old-fashioned liberal.”21 The party’s successful 1952 presidential candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also on board: “To be fully effective,” Ike explained, “we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress.”22 As late as 1968, voters heard this moving tribute to the virtues of liberalism: “Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’” The speaker? That famous liberal presidential candidate: Richard Milhous Nixon.
Eisenhower was more progressively liberal than most Democratic politicians are today. So, these right-wingers aren’t being genuine when they reference the past as if, prior to the hippies, all of American society was ruled by the far right. Today’s Republicans, unlike Eisenhower, aren’t moderate about anything. Moderate Republicans are an endangered species. How can the right-wing loons of today bring up Eisenhower’s name when the right-wing loons back then thought Eisenhower was a commie (and mainstream Republicans back then thought such right-wingers were radicals and extremists). You’d be hard pressed to find even a self-identified liberal in contemporary mainstream politics who would make the type of statements Eisenhower made such as (Letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, November 8, 1954):
“You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.
“I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.
“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
“[ . . . ] I assure you that you have more reason, based on sixty-four years of contact, to say this than you do to make the bland assumption that I am surrounded by a group of Machiavellian characters who are seeking the downfall of the United States and the ascendancy of socialism and communism in the world. Incidentally, I notice that everybody seems to be a great Constitutionalist until his idea of what the Constitution ought to do is violated–then he suddenly becomes very strong for amendments or some peculiar and individualistic interpretation of his own.“
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So, what exactly are conservatives today reminiscing about? Where did they get their revisionist history from?
Sirota argues that much of this revisionist history and 50s mythologizing came from the 80s. That is the origin of the problem we now face. The 80s is the source of much revisionist history because the 80s is the point where the country started heading back toward some of the worst elements of the past. An example of this is how bigotry was championed in the 80s and was put in deceptive packaging to make it more socially acceptable. This racism has been disguised in the language of culture war and class war, but the underlying racism is obvious for anyone who has their eyes open. Most recently and most obviously, there has been a resurgence of this racism which can be found in the Tea Party. As Sirota wrote in his book (p. 212):
In light of the blitz, to blame Obama for seeking “to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race” is to yet again avoid blaming the real culprit: the white America that since the 1980s demands reticence on race from all black public figures as the price of public support. Sure, as a purely tactical matter, you can credibly argue that Obama’s Cosby-esque deal with white America is a self-defeating Faustian bargain. Survey data show roughly six in ten whites openly admit to believing in at least one bigoted stereotype, and a recent study showed that when asked about health care legislation, a significant number of whites expressed less support for the exact same bill if it was coming from President Obama rather than from a white Democratic president. A black leader who tries to circumnavigate that intense bigotry by avoiding race may be emboldening the bigotry inevitably coming his way. Similarly, American politics is increasingly steered by a largely white Tea Party movement whose supporters are, according to polls, disproportionately motivated by racial resentment. An African American leader who goes out of his way to downplay that right-wing racism to the point of rebuking former president Jimmy Carter for criticizing it—well, that only helps the Tea Party opposition play its duplicitous dog-whistle games.
I was already aware of this. I have a post about the study done where Tea Party supporters admitted to having racially prejudiced views. Of course, this is nothing new… but I guess that is why it’s so disheartening. One of Sirota’s basic points is how we as a nation are atavistically mired in our own dark past. We are stuck in this manner because the distorted 50s mythology has appealed to what has been a white majority in this country, and the appeal becomes stronger as whites increasingly lose their majority status. In the words of Sirota from the article, “The Motto of Mad Men”:
As one tea party leader told The New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”
To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.
But then, that’s the marketing virtuosity of the “I Want My Country Back” slogan. A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.
I’m not sure how many people understand the way this came about. I’ve met many conservatives who seem to have a dim awareness that the world was once different when they criticize the Democratic Party as being the party of racists because it used to have it’s stronghold in the old KKK South. What conservatives forget, in making this criticism, is that the Republicans are now the party of the South. Republicans purposely gained the South by using the Southern Strategy which was an often overtly racist strategy. It began with Nixon, but became even more important with the campaigns of Reagan and Bush Sr. From Sirota’s book (p. 18):
The magma of resentment politics that had been simmering underground since the late 1970s exploded during the stretch run of the 1980 presidential campaign. In August of that year, Reagan channeled white rage at the civil rights movement by endorsing the racist euphemism states rights, an endorsement that came during a speech to a Confederate-flag-waving audience in the same Mississippi town where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
I remember reading last year about Reagan’s campaign. I was shocked and amazed by the bravado of so blatantly referencing a violently racist past just for the sake of winning an election. You can’t get any more cynical than that. As I recall, the speech that started off his campaign was that very speech given at that town which was famous for having previously hosted the Ku Klux Klan’s murdering of civil rights workers. That was the beginning of the Republican Party and conservative movement we know today. That is the past America that conservatives feel nostalgic about.
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I find myself simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by this history of American culture. I’m generally interested in any analysis of generations. It’s very strange how whole generations can get caught up in a single worldview, especially with our mainstream media today which offers everyone the same entertainment and news.
We live in interesting times. Boomers are losing power as GenXers are coming into power. Whites are losing majority position as minorities are gaining majority position. Religious fundamentalism and politicized religion is becoming less popular as religious diversity and non-religiousness are becoming more popular. We’re in a new century with a media of the likes never before seen. The world is becoming globalized and Americans are trying to find meaning and purpose in a time when everything is shifting.
Not everyone responds to this change with a positive attitude and an open embrace. But I, for one, am ready to leave the era of the 80s behind.
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Note: I think that is all I have to say right now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts once I read more of the book. Maybe I’ll continue my thoughts by eventually finishing my post on the documentary Generation Zero.
Here is a video that gives further support to a theory I’ve had.
The younger generation is more socially ‘liberal’ than past generations. Even younger Republicans are relatively liberal on social issues (which actually started back with GenX Reagan Republicans, personified by the fictional character of Alex P. Keaton from the tv show Family Ties). Other evidence of this shift is Meghan McCain who supports gay marriage.
As far as I can tell, the only reason social conservatism took over the Republican party was because of the Boomer generation. Social conservatism has remained so dominant for so long is because the Boomer generation was the largest generation followed by the extremely small Generation X. Only the new generation of Millennials is larger than the Boomers and so that is why we are only now seeing this shift to any great extent. GenXers, by themselves, couldn’t have much impact on changing social attitudes and GenXers don’t have the same desire to change social attitudes as is seen with the Millennials.
Millennials are the most multi-cultural, multi-racial generation ever to exist in US history. Along with being racially open-minded, they support a broad range of socially liberal positions. The only position they hold that is slightly socially conservative is their being somewhat pro-life, but at the same time they are very pro-sex and they don’t support repealing Roe vs Wade. Millennials are odd in being somewhat more ‘conservative’ in their lifestyles such as being focused on marriage and family. It’s just this lifestyle conservatism is more about personal choice instead of culture war. Millennials are very critical of politicized religion. Also, their conservatism is very much pro-government.
There is also the issue about the judges being ousted over the gay marriage issue. It was an important event considering the influence that big money had from out of state, but I don’t know how much longterm impact it will have:
I think there is some danger with liberals/progressives focusing on the culture wars. It’s a waste of energy and a dissolution of focus because it can’t be won. The culture wars will die out on their own. Public opinion shows most Americans are closer to supporting liberal/progressive views:
The culture wars gained momentum with the Boomer generation. And the only thing keeping it going is the Boomer generation. The Boomers were the largest generation until the Millennials were born. Yes, Boomers have been reluctant to give up power, but they are getting old. It’s inevitable that Boomers will increasingly be retiring and dying off. The younger generations replacing them are the most socially liberal generation this country has ever seen.
The culture wars have left the national stage and turned to fight on the states for a simple reason. Public opinion is turning away from the culture wars. The moral minority of the religious right realizes they can only win fights by spending tons of money and energy on key issues in key states. They are effective in using this strategy. They may win many battles, but they are losing the war. Most Americans, especially the youth, are becoming less religious and becoming tired of the politicization of religious moral issues:
In a recent study, the majority of Americans wanted to see an increase in religious views among government officials and less of the church speaking out against the government. The polls are not necessarily conflicting though, said Jay Richards, senior fellow of Discovery Institute and author of “Money, Greed, and God.”
“Most Americans think religion is losing influence in public life and most view this as a bad thing. Most think that members of Congress should have a strong religious faith, but a slim majority also think the churches should steer clear of politics,” said Richards.
Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans believe religion is losing influence on the American way of life. Approximately 62 percent specifically noted its decline on government leaders, according to the research released by Pew Research Center on Thursday.
One of the biggest changes over the past 20 years has been that more and more Americans, when polled, cite no religious affiliation at all. That group, which Putnam and Campbell call the “the nones,” “has been skyrocketing actually in the last 15, 20 years,” Putnam says.
“So it’s now, roughly speaking, 35 percent [to] 40 percent of younger Americans … who say that they have no religious affiliation.”
That’s a big change. For many years, the researchers say, only about 5 to 7 percent of Americans felt they belonged to no religion. The shift, Putnam says, is “a quite novel and interesting, significant development.”
As for the Americans who do belong to religious groups, tolerance is flourishing among them, too.
[…] increasing lack of affiliation with any religion amongst younger generations in the United States, saying that the percentage of Americans in their 20s that declare no affiliation is now between 30 and 40 percent.
This comes on the heels of the recent news from the Pew Forum’s US Religious Landscape Survey that over 15 percent of Americans now report themselves to be unaffiliated with any religion. But looking at Putnam’s recent work, it is clear that there is a generational divide: young people are more secular than ever.
Why? Writing about Putnam’s speech, former George W. Bush speechwriter and Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson characterizes the trend this way:
The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I’m not interested.”
Fifty-four percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Monday say marriages between gay or lesbian couples should not be recognized as valid, with 44 percent suggesting they should be considered legal.
But among those 18 to 34 years old, 58 percent said same-sex marriages should be legal. That number drops to 42 percent among respondents aged 35 to 49, and to 41 percent for those aged 50 to 64. Only 24 percent of Americans 65 and older support recognizing same-sex marriages, according to the poll. (emphasis added)
With full marriage equality in five states now and New Hampshire poised tosoon be the sixth, it is clear that the political landscape for marriage equality is shifting. The current generation of young voters are less likely to support future efforts to limit or repeal marriage equality. Hopefully Proposition 8 in California will be one of the last of its kind – while two-thirds of voters over the age of 65 supported it, the measure failed to gain a majority in any other age group.
While some of the political implications of this increase in lack of religious affiliation among young Americans are clear, another major question is, will it stick? Are young Americans going to be secular for good? As reported by Gerson::
Putnam regards the growth of the “nones” as a spike, not a permanent trend. The young, in general, are not committed secularists. “They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren’t like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones.”
Putnam’s book on this research is yet to be published, but I’ll be interested to read it when it comes out, because his discussion with the Pew Forum seemed to mainly focus on politics and the negative impact of the Religious Right on religious affiliation amongst younger Americans. But political and social views are only part of the picture. What else influences younger people’s lack of religious affiliation? In their report Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S., the Pew Forum provided additional research on this very subject, examining the reasons why Americans in general change affiliations or leave their former religious affiliations without adopting a new one.