Calling Culture War a "Distraction" Mistakes its MeaningRoundup
tags: culture war, critical race theory
Olufemi Taiwo is assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and author of Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).
In the United States, fights are raging over cultural issues: constant coverage of “cancel culture”, pitched battles over teaching “critical race theory” (CRT) in classrooms or the definition of the term “woman”. For years, many on the left have argued that such battles were “distractions” from the real fight over class and economic issues. They are only half right.
These supposed sham battles are simply the most recent moments in a loosely organized cultural rightwing insurgency. The Federalist Society has been incubating rightwing legal careers since the 1980s. The fight against critical race theory continues a longstanding rightwing offensive against public education, whose roots go back as far as the backlash to racially integrated schooling.
It’s right to note, as detractors of the “culture wars” have, that something is dishonest about these battles. The details have always been squishy in the particulars: defending constitutional analysis of the “original intent” of the slaveowners of yesteryear has long been difficult to take seriously on the intellectual merits. The standard bearers of the opposition to critical race theory have had a tough time saying what it even is that they oppose, and Florida textbook reviewers assigned with rooting out CRT from math textbooks didn’t fare much better.
But this vagueness on the side of justification is paired with a frightening clarity of tactical purpose on the side of action. Florida legislators may have a problem articulating the reasons for banning the books, but they have banned 40% of math books anyway.
Meanwhile, Alabama and Texas have criminalized care for trans youth. Perhaps most dramatically, the recent leak from the supreme court suggests that the court may strike down Roe v Wade, a critical blow against the bodily autonomy of women, trans men and non-binary people with uteruses (even more legislation aiming at uncomplicating this sentence will surely be forthcoming).
It couldn’t be clearer, then, that the view of “culture wars” as purely distractions from “real”political struggle is seriously mistaken. The idea that concrete, “material” issues ought to mean a narrow focus on jobs and the economy – and not, say, uteruses – seems hard to justify.
Even the most hard-nosed materialist, ought to notice that decisions about school curricula determine whose values are listened to, and whose aren’t. That is, in even the most realpolitik of terms, the struggle being waged has real-world effects on redistribution of social and political power. And that redistribution is shifting power in the direction of the least honest, most bigoted and most authoritarian social forces on the political right.