Our country is tense as the 2020 election fast approaches. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 was a political earthquake that manifested deep and stubborn fault-lines in American civilization. Those who weren’t paying attention when the cracks seemed smaller are most certainly paying attention now. And the last four years have seen little in the way of cultural reconciliation. Instead of taking the opportunity to ask why it was out of touch with working class Americans after the “surprise” defeat of Hillary Clinton, most of the establishment left doubled-down in its reduction of middle-America to the breeding ground of prejudice. Those on the right, long-frustrated with the infantilizing juggernaut of critical theory making its long march through the cultural institutions, doubled-down in both its self-defense and seized this rhetorical opportunity to go on the attack. The predictable result has been both a hardening of official camps, and a host of ordinary Americans “jumping ship” from any stable political identity, trying to discern if there is some “other narrow way” through the times. There is now a stock-trade of books that attempt to describe our situation. On one side are a host of books that describe the Trump presidency as the outcome of systems of oppression, and the fragility of white people. On the other side are books that portray the discourse of the left as a contemporary chapter in the history of Marxist civilizational arson. Increasingly, Americans on either “side” of the culture wars live in different realities, with different news sources, different intellectuals, different narratives, and finally even different sets of data (which can be “spun” with apparently infinite elasticity).
And yet, for all the supposed difference between the right and the left, on some glances, they bear a suspicious amount of family resemblance to one another. Indeed, when one begins to look for it, the left and the right increasingly appear to be dialectical alter-egos who mirror each other in mutual reflection and projection. Consider:
1. Note the two metaphors that have emerged of late to describe patrons of the so-called “far left” and the so-called “far right”: the “woke” and the “red-pill” respectively. What is interesting is that each of these metaphors are the same. Each group speaks to themselves (about themselves) as “awake” ones within a sea of passion-driven or agentless drones. Each considers themselves in tune with “what is really going on,” and consider the others as ignorant (or at worst, sinister) pawns in a power struggle that only the awake grasp. Not unlike the similar mental habits of a cult, each is habituated to see outsiders as mostly passive and uncritical in their views. Each frequently code pushback as “demonic” possession.
2. Presumably these impressions could be reasonably debated, but increasingly, each side lives in its own world of “alternative facts.” Each has their token experts, a similar range of mediocre to substantive intellectuals, and one’s pet principles for determining whom to trust. Each tends to acquire this information (and the evaluation of the other side) from different sources and pundits. In short, each lives in a different information universe, and each finds drastically different claims (alternatively) plausible or implausible. How likely is it, for instance, that the majority of experts – speaking for any status quo position – are correct? One’s answer to this ordinarily depends upon a rather large “reading of things.” And yet most who trust contemporary experts, for instance, would admit that there have been historical (and at least in some other cases, contemporary!) circumstances where this strategy would mislead.
3. Typically, these alternative readings are rooted in alternative stories. Where have we come from and where are we going? Who have been and continue to be our natural enemies? Who are “we?” On the one side is a tale about a country of a mortal struggle between an impulse to freedom, and a lazy tolerance of systems of oppression. On the other side is a tale about the long march of Marxism through our cultural institutions and into the minds of our young people through propaganda, government education, and corporate indoctrination. One might argue, of course, that this is just the techniques of boomer anti-communism employed by their Millennial children and grand-children to different ends (Alinsky didn’t actually invent any of his rules, after all). Each side is persuaded that it has the real facts and is in touch with the real story. Each has a set of data points that they believe can “only be explained” by their own narrative, and each feel reinforced in their “ground level” impressions of the other side (gathered from Facebook and the grocery store).
4. Especially in recent years, each is persuaded that we are largely beyond the point of compromise. We are locked in a zero-sum war of power with two radically different agendas. The common perception is that for our civilization to move forward, one of these must win. There is an increased cynicism about the mental stability and persuadability of those on the other side, not to mention the ultimate “driving force” of their motivations. Their story is assumed to be internally unpersuasive to the mind, and therefore what is “really driving the show” must be willful and sinister.
5. In a game of this sort, it is not surprising that each increasingly becomes a bit of what the other projects into them. It is a long-standing principle of psychology that labeling easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The right and the left of today are the mutual parodies of yesterday. Increasingly, each is beyond parody (straining the imagination), as each summons the worst out of each.
6. Constitutional cynicism does not work without some degree of projection, and this is indeed precisely what we find on the left and the right. The left frequently critiques the right for its relationship to power, and yet nothing is more “white” than critical theory. This is not the language of the oppressed talking about themselves, but the language of those identifying with the oppressed talking about their identity. Critical theory is an academic language of enormous privilege and is (in its results) very much ordinated to the advantage of a certain intellectual and social class (those whose influence extends through corporate and human resources channels). Only the privileged could ever afford to invent new pronouns, insist upon them, and encourage others to do the same. Similarly, the right frequently criticizes the “victim” mindset of the left, but is itself addicted to its own self-image of victimhood. It would be difficult to find a right-wing talking head who was not a collector of “oppression” stories, Tweeting the most recent story of left violence and right victimhood, each encroachment one step toward the coming revolution. And indeed, just as on the left, such agitation is often inversely proportionate to the actual drama of the story (the smallest microaggressions the catalyst for the most dramatic prophetic performances). Moreover, persons on the right (for all their critique of “collective identity” and the praise of “individualism”) frequently reduce persons on the left to ideological labels (i.e. “Cultural Marxist,” “Socialist,” etc). One’s interlocutor becomes a walking worldview rather than a human with precisely the same dis-integration as one’s self.
7. Most interesting, both sides are deeply fearful that they are losing. I have pointed out before that modern apocalypse can look like 1984 or A Handmaiden’s Tale. Each side considers their opponents the greater threat to civil order, and considers claims to the contrary credulous. Ask whether the recent riots are the most immediate threat to civil order, and you will discover two different Americas.
Moreover, patience while we gather “the facts” seems far more a matter of concern when we are talking about the police than when we are talking about antifa (or vice versa). Especially among the working class – and if a rather “middling” Facebook feed is any indication – each believes we are at a threshold that will push strongly in one direction or another. There is no time for overanalysis. This is war. If we are serious, we must move quickly and to win.
8. As in any war, each despises the supposedly neutral, the ideologically non-possessed on each of their teams. Those who do not go far enough are simply “making the world safe” for their enemies, and unwittingly believe that they can achieve peace with those who are not interested in peace. In the eyes of the faithful, such latitudinarians look naive, self-protective, and cowardly. Our current woes are not one big misunderstanding. There is real cultural identity at stake. Like any family feud, there is no neutrality to the fighting participants. One is either for or against them.
9. On the furthest ends of each side of this dialectic, we see ideological possession. If one wishes to try and grasp the world through the lens of radical theory or the lens of Q Anon, one will discover a somewhat (not entirely) coherent way of interpreting life. Everything can be “made to fit” the paradigm, and one can claim all sorts of circumstantial evidence to sell the story. They prey upon assumptions that are already there, while suppressing others. It is not unusual for family members of such persons to feel as though their loved one has converted to a cult for whom the whole of life and the universe is an epiphenomenon of their newfound system.
10. Both are hungry to rediscover “home” in a common and complex world where the local is evaporating, and identity over abstractions is ordinary. Each tends to operate on the presumption that unity in ideology is prior to unity in embodied mutual trust and an immediate common project. Yet it is perhaps this hunger (this common groan) which is the most hopeful site of unity. The modern world is one large re-negotiation of the “dance” between men and women, the old and the young, the family and the state, the local and the global, and the individual and the corporate. This is not a theoretical statement, but a lived fact of modern life to which all modern movements respond in inherited-but-differently-juggled terms. And I will later argue that it is perhaps by sitting together in our common problem(s) that we will learn how to speak without our cosmopolis (also a lived fact). I will further argue that our chief foe in the modern world is a constitutional cynicism that, while understandable, is not the narrow way. Cynicism “just knows” what love refuses to assume – precisely because love lives in the neighbor rather than for self-protection.
In the next installment, I will discuss the so-called “Grey Tribe,” who identify neither as “red” nor “blue,” insisting that persons in our civilization actually do not have to choose a side in the culture wars. They believe third-ways to be still viable. After trying to evaluate their promises and liabilities, I will then – in a third post – seek (following Herman Bavinck and C.S. Lewis) to situate our cultural conundra within a particular reading of modernity. Without grasping (and crucially, simply being honest about) the larger historical circumstances within which we are trying to find our way, we will tend to misidentify our most immediate challenges and tasks. In the fourth and final installment, then, I will suggest criterion for what might help us discern a path through our times. Uniting my analysis is the hunch that left and right are conjoined (but fighting) twins who loathe their very own projected selves. In typical fashion, this sublimation requires Pharisaical white-knuckling to prove one’s self culturally elect (i.e. not them). In the process, we become blind to our own limitations and to our neighbor’s possibilities. In the era of the self, we understand ourselves least of all. Our neighbor (our “second self” to both Aristotle and Luther) is consequently reduced to the smallness of our atrophied imaginings. Nevertheless, I will make the case that there is still hope for more peace than we might think. This is, after all, also an era of hopelessness about the church. And yet such hopelessness often bespeaks a theology of glory that fails to discern the promise and presence of God. But love hopes all things.