We are at war, trapped in a conflict that seems doomed to escalate as the year goes on. No, not the War in Iraq. Nor the Global War on Terror. I’m referring to the Culture War – that amorphous conflict between “values” which has now gone global, making it more political than ever.
Bashing pop culture, as we’ve seen, is pretty standard political grandstanding. But conservative author Dinesh D’Souza‘s latest book takes it to a new level. He’s pointing a finger straight at the enemies he sees in this country, the ones responsible for the propagation of abortion, divorce, homosexuality, secularism, blasphemy, feminism, pornography, and graphic violence. He sees a global war with the Left – the folks who support all that corruption – a force not being simply satisfied with destroying this country, but exporting its weapons abroad.
Andrew Sullivan, in his review of D’Souza ‘s book, contextualizes this conflict as a logical next step for the conservative movement. In the 20th Century, there was a great war fought between the Left and the Right and (in the view of conservatives like Sullivan and D’Souza) the Right won. Now, everyone can agree that Capitalism won and Big Government lost. What’s left to fight about? Morality and faith and how things ought to be, that’s what.
This is the philosophical path that D’Souza has chosen. When I became aware last fall of his book, I was prepared to dislike it sight unseen and dismiss it as merely a continuation of the type of polemic that shrieking loons like Ann Coulter are always launching. But then I noticed that the promotional materials for the book included charges that terrorism (specifically) and the global cause of anti-Americanism (generally) are driven by the “moral depravity of American popular culture,” and I had to explore further.
Back in January, when Stephen Colbert, host of the satiric program The Colbert Report, suggested that D’Souza was supporting radical extremists in the Muslim world, it seemed quite amusing – a comic exaggeration made more entertaining by the idea that conservatives – that’s the flag-waving crowd, right? – would endorse the ideals of our harshest critics and deadliest foes. So, imagine my shock upon finding out that D’Souza seems quite sympathetic with our enemies – just as Colbert had, I thought facetiously, suggested.
D’Souza asks a basic question: “Is American culture now so decadent and depraved that it is a danger to the traditional culture of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East?” He seems to come very close to excusing the murders of two Dutch citizens – politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh – because of their personal sexual behavior; both were gay. He criticizes Hillary Clinton for supporting “a V-chip” to control violent programming, since she “has never called for an S-chip to enable parents to monitor sexually explicit programming;” he seems unaware that the V-chip and other parental control options block content in a variety of ways that include both violent and sexual content. He suggests that Ellen DeGeneres’ announcement of her sexual preference was a deliberate transgression of convention and a breach of decency. Really? Not The L Word?
More broadly, D’Souza comes across in the book as somebody he doesn’t like this country all that much. In fact, he sounds a lot like Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian author and intellectual whose writings helped shape Islamic fundamentalism and Al-Qaeda. From 1948-50, Qutb was a scholarship student studying curriculum at Colorado State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado) located in Greeley, CO. Greeley was small-town America, with only about 16,000 residents. It was a planned community based on the philosophy of temperance. Hardly a hotbed of degeneracy, but it drove Qutb crazy.
In 1951, he wrote an account of his time in Greeley, called “The America I Have Seen.” Keeping in mind that Qutb observed small town America in the late Forties, here are three choice quotes:
- “The sight of the fans as they follow [football], or watch boxing matches or bloody, monstrous wrestling matches… is one of animal excitement born of their love for hardcore violence.”
- “The American’s enjoyment of jazz does not fully begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming.”
- “The great majority of American films clearly possess simplistic story lines and primitive emotions. They are generally police films and cowboy films.”
To further understand Qutb’s probable role as town grouch, an NPR report interviewed people who actually attended school at the same time as Qutb. To say that they had a different view of their lives is an understatement. Girls had a 10:30 p.m. curfew. Teachers were required to wear coat and tie.
Naturally, today’s society is more rough-and-tumble than it was back in the Forties. There is a great deal of sex and violence to be consumed in the media. Our discourse is coarser than it once was – ironically, a by-product of the free market economy that conservatives fought for. But I think Qutb’s experience reveals a key error on D’Souza’s part.
D’Souza treats faith and morality as a universal culture that unites Islam and Christianity. So much in common! He thinks women ought to stay home and take care of the kids – and so do they. He thinks secularism is bad and religion ought to be central to everything – and so do they. But those moral issues also exist in a cultural environment. Concepts like “authority” or “freedom” means different things in Pennsylvania than they do on the Saudi Peninsula. A kiss from Richard Gere means one thing in Iowa and something quite different in Mumbai.
Has D’Souza really found his spiritual brothers on the other side of the world? Should the conservative movement line up behind him in this new front of the Culture War? Will we see Republican presidential candidates move from blaming Hollywood for corrupting teens to inspiring terrorists?
I hope not. I happen to think America’s rich cultural diversity is our strength. And even if I’m wrong, even if popular culture is a corrupting influence, I think we can rise above. Hey, Dinesh. You think Sex and the City is dangerous? Well, I’ll take Carrie Bradshaw’s confused but well-meaning attempts to chart her dizzy way in the world over strict lessons and precepts concerning what she – or I – should be doing for our moral or spiritual health any day of the week.