I have a confession to make: I am, at most, a reluctant culture warrior. Like Rex in “Toy Story,” I don’t like confrontation, and, as a general rule, I try not to have strong opinions, much less strong feelings, about people whom I have never met.
Add the fact that too many people seem to take the “war,” which is itself an imprecise translation of the German word Kampf, which is means “struggle” or “fight,” in “culture war” a bit too literally, and the whole megillah quickly loses what little appeal it had.
Still, some issues, most notably, the sanctity and dignity of human life, leave me no choice but to join the struggle, no matter my temperament or misgivings about German-to-English translations. As Will Kane told his new Quaker bride in “High Noon,” “I’ve got to. That’s the whole thing.”
Of course, that’s not the same thing as liking it or, for that matter, liking the people on whose behalf you’ve “got to.” As with Will Kane, there’s always the possibility of throwing your badge in the dirt once you have done your duty.
If Rich Lowry is right, my badge is headed for the dirt.
His provocatively titled piece, “Donald Trump’s New Culture War,” begins with an even more provocative lead: “The nation’s foremost culture warrior is President Donald J. Trump.”
Now, Lowry knows how ridiculous that sounds. After all, we’re talking about a man who “once appeared on the cover of Playboy.” A man who “has been married three times,” and who “was a frequent guest on the Howard Stern radio show.” And of course, his “‘locker-room talk’ captured on the infamous Access Hollywood tape didn’t, shall we say, demonstrate a well-honed sense of propriety.”
But it’s only ridiculous in the context of the “culture war” (at this point, scare quotes are mandatory) as we have used the expression for the last 40 years: a series of cultural conflicts revolving around the issues of the sanctity and dignity of human life, marriage and human sexuality, and religious freedom.
The “New Culture War,” which Lowry suggests the president is leading, is, instead, about “populism and nationalism . . . the people versus the elite, national sovereignty versus cosmopolitanism, and patriotism versus multiculturalism.”
If this is the case, badge meet dirt. This is not the “culture war” I (admittedly reluctantly) signed up for. And it’s not a “culture war” that Christians should get on board with.
There are many reasons that this is the case, but for now, let’s focus on the whole “the people versus the elite” thing, starting with the question “who is an elite?”
The Oxford English Dictionary[i] has two principal definitions for the word “elite.” The first is “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” Now, this may rub our egalitarian/populist impulses the wrong way, but that needn’t be the case. No serious person would deny that Mike Trout is an elite baseball player or that Navy SEALs are elite warriors.
The second definition—“a group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege”—is closer to what formulations like “the people versus the elite” have in mind.
“Closer,” but not the same. In nearly 25 years of following the culture wars, I have rarely heard the epithet (as in “a term of abuse”) “elite” directed at the wealthy, at least not by our side.[ii]
“Elite” is reserved for those who exercise power or influence in the cultural and political realm: intellectuals, academics, artists, journalists, and, in Washington, lobbyists and think tank types. They are and have been charged with many sins, chief among of them being insufficiently like the rest of “the people”—increasingly called the “real” or “Middle” America—and thus, “out of touch” to the point of being somehow an “other.”
There are many problems with this way of thinking. The one that comes most quickly to mind is that many of the people using the word “elite” in this way are themselves, well, elites. For starters, more often than not, these people are denouncing the Middle America-despising “elites” from their own sinecures in places like midtown Manhattan and Washington, D.C., not from Columbus, Ohio, or from Kansas City, Missouri.
Likewise, these denouncers are themselves intellectuals, academics, journalists, and think tank types, not pipe-fitters or small businessmen, who often attended the same schools as those they are decrying. They are every bit the product of what Christopher Lasch called the “rigorous separation of manual and mental labor and a hierarchy of social status in which those who worked with their hands ranked at the bottom.”
Stated simply, they’re not just folks. They may be originally be from places like Muncie or Des Moines (the same is true of many of the folks they label “elites”), but they ceased being of these places in any meaningful sense a long time ago.
Another problem is that the epithet is applied in ways that do not take into account real-world influence. While Hollywood’s cultural influence cannot be denied, the same can be said of many Christian leaders like the late Chuck Colson, who wielded more cultural influence in his sleep than entire university sociology departments do in their waking hours. If power and influence are what it means to be an “elite,” than many of our friends are “elites,” as well.
But my biggest problem with the entire “people versus the elite” thing is its reliance on resentment. Resentment is the fuel that drives it. Not just resentment at your concerns being ignored or given short shrift, but resentment at the sense that other people, i.e., “the elites,” are looking down at you.
Listen to this conversation between Ezra Klein of Vox and J. D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” and try to keep track of how often words like “resent” and “resentment” are used. I’ll save you 100 minutes of listening, and tell you that it’s a lot. Or check out “The Politics of Resentment” by Katherine J. Cramer, or Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Resentment is everywhere.
Now I’m not saying that these folks don’t have ample reason to be angry. What I’m saying is that Christians cannot, in good conscience, embrace a “politics of resentment,” especially the kind of resentment fueled by the sense that we are being looked down on.
To do so would be to go against Christ’s explicit teaching. If we are to “rejoice and be glad” when people insult, persecute, and falsely utter every kind of evil against us, then the fact that they look down on us shouldn’t matter at all. If we are to pray for our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and bless those who curse us, then the face we present to the culture should not be one distorted by anger and resentment.[iii]
I have already referred to “Toy Story” and “High Noon.” Let me finish by quoting arguably the greatest American film of them all, “The Godfather.” (By “The Godfather” I mean both Parts I and II, which I treat as a single film.) In response to an ultimatum from a Nevada official seeking a payoff, Michael Corleone says “You can have my answer now, if you like. My final offer is this: nothing.”
That’s my answer to an invitation to wage a different kind of culture war. It should be yours, as well.
[i] Of course, citing the Oxford English Dictionary is precisely the kind of thing that an “elite” would do.
[ii] Case in point: Our side was quick to label Meryl Streep an out-of-touch “elite” for her Golden Globes speech, which I didn’t hear or read, much less care about. At the same time, it took no notice of the fact that the president’s cabinet controls more wealth than the bottom third of all American households. I’m not saying that this is good or bad. I’m saying that calling the former and not the latter an “elite” is, well, ridiculous.
[iii] To those who ask if this leaves no room for “righteous anger,” I would say that, while I believe that there is such a thing as “righteous anger,” I cannot recall ever seeing righteously angry person, at least not when they perceived themselves as the injured party.