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There Are No Winners in a Culture War

There Are No Winners in a Culture War

In America, we don’t discover who we are so much as we choose an identity from a set of prepackaged, audience-tested options. Since most Americans identify according to their political party first and foremost, pretty much everything else about us flows from that partisan selection. If you’re a Democrat, you’ve got a certain selection of causes, movies, public figures, musicians and organizations to root for. If you’re a Republican, you get an alternate set.

That’s if you’re lucky. More often, you get a selection of causes, movies, public figures, musicians and organizations to oppose. It’s a sort of negative identity, defined only by hostile reactions to various corporate political and pop cultural totems. If all the opposing forces you’ve been commanded to take up arms against were to suddenly vanish, you would have little left: no actual opinions, no concrete strategy for building a better world, no idea what purpose you serve outside of owning the libs or the cons.

This is what life is like in the culture war, a draft which few Americans have successfully dodged. We are all soldiers now, and any part of our daily life can be construed as an attack. Why wouldn’t it be? This is a war. In a war, no action can be taken for granted. No person is to be trusted. Any move could be layered with meaning. Wearing a Disney sweatshirt might be interpreted as a swipe at the Right. Shopping at Home Depot might be seen as taking up arms against the Left. Watching CNN means one thing. Watching Yellowstone means another. Caring about climate change sets you firmly on one side. Caring about cancel culture puts you firmly on another. Having children, sending them to public school, talking about race and gender, all of these things become more than just personal decisions — they become offensives in a politically mandated struggle.

This is an extraordinarily bad way to be in the world, with our lives a cobbled together mess of memes, algorithms, partisan talking points and blinding hated of total strangers based on scant information. But it’s a very easy way to be in the world. You don’t have to form any actual opinions or think deeply about what you want to build. You can just run with the package of opinions that comes with whoever you vote for and leave it at that.

It’s at this point, I’d imagine, that a lot of you are nodding along. “Yes,” you might be saying. “That is exactly what they are like.” But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Once again, we have a wartime mentality that makes it almost impossible to think about any broad critique outside of how much it applies to them.

The important thing to realize is that there are no winners here. There can’t be. We, as soldiers, are too valuable to the institutions pitting us against each other for them to ever let this war end. Instead, it will continue to escalate with increasingly violent attacks as more and more families and friends turn against each other until an irreparable amount of harm is done, anybody who can escape will do so and the rest of us will be left to sort through the rubble.

There is an alternative, but it’s not easy. It involves laying down arms in the culture war and taking up a fight against not each other, but the princes and principalities of this world. Instead of resisting each other, we must start resisting the forces and institutions pitting us against each other. Instead of fighting our fellow humans, we fight the ideologies that compel us towards fear and hatred.

This is a much more difficult way to live, because it requires more of us. It requires building community and coalitions, advocating for the wellbeing of those who are not like us and abstaining from the incessant call to battle against each other. It will mean taking what sometimes appears to be losses for the greater good and rooting our identity in something greater than political spats and culture skirmishes.

In this upside down kingdom, every time you choose not to take the culture war bait, you are committing an act of true resistance. In this life, the real revolution will come not from crushing your enemies but from building a world in which they can flourish along with the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and the reviled. If you want to fight in this war, you will have to reimagine your definitions of enemy.

Until we do that, every blow we strike in the culture war is a blow against ourselves as well. Nobody can survive a war like that. Nobody.

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