The culture war never ends

6 03 2007

Those guys at tbr.cc (which is always a barrel of laughs) link to a Dinesh D’Souza article about how the real lesson that Muslims took from Abu Ghraib wasn’t about how the US tortures and therefore torture is bad, but that the US is sexually deviant therefore sexual deviancy is terrible. As D’Souza puts it:

Abu Ghraib did not reflect the shared values of America, it reflected
the sexual immodesty of liberal America. Lynndie England and Charles
Graner were two wretched individuals from Red America who were trying
to act out the fantasies of Blue America. Casting aside all traditional
notions of decency, propriety and morality, they simply lived by the
code of self-fulfilment. If it feels good, it must be right. This was
bohemianism, West Virginia-style.

At first blush, this seems to make at least some sense. I’m probably going to put my foot in it, not being an Arabic scholar of any note, but I seem to recall a lot of Al-Qaida’s rhetoric drawing upon just this sort of culture war argument. Not for nothing have people been drawing links between the right-wing authoritarianism of extremist groups in the Muslim and Western worlds. (Note, by the by, that Blue America is painted as living by the creed of “self-fulfilment”.)

However, D’Souza then shows his hand in the very next paragraph.

At some level, the cultural left recognized this, which is why most of
its comments about Abu Ghraib assiduously avoided the issue of sexual
deviancy. The left’s embarrassment on this matter seems to have drawn
on class prejudice. For some liberals, soldiers like Graner and England
were poor white trash getting into trouble again. Of course if Graner
and England were professors at an elite liberal arts college, their
videotaped orgies might easily have become the envy of academia. If
they were artists staging these pictures in a loft in Soho they could
have been hailed as pioneers and encouraged by leftist admirers to
apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

That’s plain ridiculous on its face, and a blatant sign either of D’Souza’s bad faith or his bottomless ability to imagine liberals as any kind of straw man to fit the purpose at hand. This is not an argument so much as an opportunity to get in yet another dig at those pagan hedonists that are American liberals.

On a related note: A commenter to in the tbr.cc thread points out that Muslims are motivated not by hatred of western culture but by specific US policies and actions in the Middle East. Ian Wishart says no, it’s “b-all to do with territory and policies, and everything to do with culture wars.”

I’m not going to make an arse of myself and lump myself in one or the other camp, but can’t it be both?

Moreover, leaving aside the question of what the motives of AQ really are, it’s interesting to note that the two ways of interpreting these motives lead to very different policy implications.

If you subscribe to the idea that AQ is stoking regional resentment about discrete US geopolitical actions, then the solution would be to engage in aggressive diplomacy, with carrots and sticks. The whole shebang.

But if you subscribe to D’Souza’s culture war thesis, then you need to criminalise abortion, put a stop to all that free love, and shut down Hollywood (or at least transmogrify it into a giant Disney studio sound lot).

Good luck with that.

Which makes me realise that one thing right-wing authoritarians love (both in the Western and Muslim worlds) is the culture war. It taps into inexhaustible reservoirs of outrage (which can be used to enrich the lifestyles of its leaders, who may or may not be true believers), and it never ends. And everyone knows it can never end, but they never say so, meaning they tolerate a great deal of vagueness about the end goals of the culture war.

Is the Iraq war the military version of the culture war?

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