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The US culture wars


Published with the kind permission of the author

The coming midterm elections matter because their outcome will affect the cosmological beliefs of much of the world

For the last few months, I have been in the US and the UK, and have never seen the two countries more polarised at an individual level. In Britain it is Brexit which is the centre of growing animosity between friends and family. Thus, at a recent dinner party of longstanding friends once the conversation turned to Brexit it led to a heated discussion and eventually the hosts turned on the guests, who were Brexiteers, and asked them to leave and never speak to them again. One eminent historian who is a Remainer has a notice in the front window of his house saying “no Brexiteers welcome”. In dinner parties on the two coasts of the US it is equally impossible to defend Donald Trump amongst long-standing friends with civility. These are not mere conflicts of personal identity, as many political scientists (such as Francis Fukuyama) have claimed, as these friends have happily socialised with their diverse identities without coming to blows. They are more like the European religious wars after the Reformation. So increasingly in social intercourse I have taken the sane advice of Queen Elizabeth I, that she didn’t want to make “windows into men’s souls”, and banned discussions on Mr Trump or Brexit.

This provides a clue to the source of this growing social disorder. In my Ohlin lectures (Unintended Consequences, 1998) on the role of culture in explaining socio-economic outcomes I had distinguished between the material and cosmological beliefs that constitute culture. The former are concerned with making a living. The latter with how one should live. Material beliefs are malleable and change as the material environment changes. Cosmological beliefs, which include moral and social norms, have greater hysteresis.

Much of the political debate and conflict in the West since the mid-19th century concerned material beliefs arising from the rival claims of capitalism and socialism. With the implosion of the countries of “really existing socialism” after the demise of the Soviet Union, this political dispute seemed to have ended. But is now re-emerging with the takeover by the neo-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn of the UK’s Labour party, and the attempts by the socialists Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to take over the Democratic party in the US. But these are at present only straws in the wind.

More important, as Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, points out in his latest book (Trump’s America, 2018) is the sustained attempt by US liberals to change the cosmological beliefs which have been part of traditional US culture. The most important of these beliefs argues Mr Gingrich (apart from the national motto proclaimed on its currency “In God we trust”) were America’s exceptionalism. This was based on the “melting pot”- as summarised in its national motto “E Pluribus Unum”— From Many, One — and the primacy of the Constitution as written by its founding fathers to ensure individuals can speak, worship and live as they please, as long as they do not infringe the fundamental rights of others. To ensure these individual, civil and political liberties are not eroded by the rise of a Caesar they invented the Separation of Powers.

These values have been undermined subtly by the Left by infiltrating academia, where “professors promoted secularism, liberal social mores, and a twisted version of history, which casts America as the villain in nearly every era of its existence” (p.13). As these students moved into the professions “the beliefs of the Left became the norm in elite circles.” They came to believe that “traditional America is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, oppressive, anti-female, militaristic, and violent”— filled with Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”. (p.12).

The “melting pot” which turned a multitude of immigrants into Americans, and thence into a united nation was replaced by the notion of the “salad bowl” of multiculturalism, which as the historian Arthur Schlesinger — a lifelong Democrat — noted in his The Disuniting of America, “belittles unum and glorifies pluribus”. It engenders a philosophy that “America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups”. This goes against the individual-focused rights in the Constitution and seeks to create a tribal system of group rights with factions constantly vying for power.

And so it has come to pass, a heterogeneity of selfselected minorities differentiated by ethnicity, gender and/or sexual preference have sought to use the law to enforce their rights based partly on “needs” and partly on “equality of respect”. Though on Mill’s Principle of Liberty the various disabilities that minorities with non-traditional sexual preferences have suffered are completely unjustified and have been rightly repealed — as recently in India — the groups which feel empowered by the social recognition of group rights can overreach themselves. This has happened with the transgender movement in the UK. It has advocated the self-identification of those who think their biological gender is inappropriate and need to be recognised as male or female without undergoing the necessary physical reassignment. This has created a rift with feminist groups, initially about lavatories, but most recently by a male rapist self- identifying as a female being sent to a women’s prison where “she” raped the inmates. (James Kirkup: “The march of trans rights” , www.Spectator.Co.UK, October 6, 2018)

But, the most serious attack on the traditional cosmological beliefs of Americans has been the ascendancy of judges in the legal system who believe in a “living” constitution. As a result, as Justice Antonin Scalia noted in a series of opinions, “the courts moved from interpreting the Constitution to inventing a new American constitution based on radical values which increasingly repudiates the thinking and writing of the Founding Fathers”. Mr Trump’s successful appointment of two Supreme Court justices and 23 federal judges upholding a strict reading of the Constitution is a major victory for the traditionalists in these culture wars, to the fury of the losers.

Finally, Mr Trump has reasserted US sovereignty in foreign policy by repudiating the new world order proclaimed by President George H W Bush in 1990 which envisioned a world where nations are mutually accountable for acts of injustice and answerable to the international community for crimes against humanity or the global order. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, China’s virtual annexation of the South China Sea, Iran’s interventions in the West Asia, put a speedy end to this Wilsonian dream.

Mr Trump has repudiated this “globalism” by departing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Agreement, challenging China and Iran, and giving notice to the free riders on US generosity in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the UN. It being noted that the Brexiters in the UK are also supporting British sovereignty against the globalist dream of the Remainers, and have had the explicit support of President Trump.

The current US culture wars over the US’ cosmologicalbeliefs will be a fight to the end, like similar conflictsin its past, which “do not necessarily involveblood-shed, but they do provoke intense feelings thatlead to bitterly fought elections” (Gingrich p.17). Thisshows the importance of the coming midterm elections,and given the US’ soft power — when Americasneezes the rest of the world catches a cold — theoutcome of these culture wars will also affect the cosmologicalbeliefs of much of the world.

Source: Business standard, October 2018