The Culture Wars and Class War

Obama Endorses Decision to Limit Morning-After Pill: President Obama, who took office pledging to put science ahead of politics, averted a skirmish with conservatives in the nation’s culture wars on Thursday by endorsing his health secretary’s decision to block over-the-counter sales of an after-sex contraceptive pill to girls under age 17. (via

That’s the lead in a recent article in the New York Times on the decision by Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, to overrule the FDA and block wider OTC availability of the “morning-after pill,” the first time ever an FDA decision has been overruled by an HHS secretary.

There’s a lot that could be said about this. When Obama was voted in, it was on a tide of hope, as that ubiquitous and arresting poster so abundantly made clear. Hope for change— in politics, in the economy, in foreign policy (particularly those pesky wars). Those hopes have met with a lot of frustration and disappointment in the years since.

This most recent move was typical of the “pragmatic” and “bipartisan” Obama of whom we’ve seen far too much lately: willing to sacrifice (what we think are) his principles, and the expectations and needs of his believers, his base, for support from Republicans or evangelicals or one of the other groups that opposes — and even hates and reviles — him, people who by and large will not vote for him no matter what he does. If there is anything worse than sacrificing principle to expediency and pandering for votes, it is sacrificing and pandering for nothing.

But stepping back and looking at the wider picture, I was struck by this invocation of the “culture war” meme, which has been around a long time now, and deserves close critical scrutiny.

Culture war: The culture war (or culture wars) in American usage is a metaphor used to claim that political conflict is based on sets of conflicting cultural values. The term frequently implies a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. The “culture war” is sometimes traced to the 1960s and has taken various forms since then. (via Wikipedia.)

While it may indeed be traced by some back to the 1960s, it really assumed the form it now has in the 1990s, and what is really going on in this “culture war” was made abundantly clear by Pat Buchanan in his speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention:

“There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself…. The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat — that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.

An ideological struggle, like the Cold War, but also crucially a “religious war.” A crusade, in fact, of the righteous Christians against the godless and strayed, a war for the soul of America between those who stand for “God’s country” and those whom their opponents now sometimes refer to as “secular socialists.”

But what is it really, this “war”?  It is a war against women and homosexuals. It is also a war against the poor and persons of color, particularly poor women of color, in that restrictions on things like birth control services, Planned Parenthood, etc., disproportionately affect them.  A war of mostly white men of power and privilege against mostly women, the poor, and people of color.  For the soul of America.

When people talk about “class war” it is, by and large, the same thing, or part of the same thing. But notice how the people who have called for a culture war are the same ones freaking out and attacking what they see as a politics of class war coming from the other side.  Their culture war is good; our class war is bad.

It’s the same struggle. Which side are you on?


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