Forming groups to kill other groups over territory, resources or belief is so much a part of the human condition that when a nation is denied those traditional casus belli it will often deploy martial terminology in places where armies have no obvious role. Thus, the ink had barely dried at Yalta when a bunch of bleeding-heart Brits, undeterred by the irony of including one of the main causes of third world poverty in the name of a charity dedicated to its relief, declared a War on Want. And Vietnam still had two years to run when Richard Nixon, having failed to stop the spread of communism on foreign soil, launched what he hoped would be a more popular War on Drugs at home; a struggle which proved no less protracted and unwinnable.
For most other Western democracies, despite walk-on roles in Balkan and Middle Eastern theatres, the last half-century has been amongst the least bellicose in their history. But that’s not even the blink of an evolutionary eye, and for all our pacifist protestations most of us are still genetically predisposed to a punch-up. So rather than consign the W-word to the dumpster of patriarchal shame along with nouns like ‘masculinity’ and ‘mullet’, we append it to just about any kind of disagreement or challenge. Past examples include EU disputes over fishing rights in the North Sea being hailed as the Cod War, the soft drinks duopoly which has killed more Americans than Ho Chi Minh and Covid-19 combined being branded the Cola War and the slogan for the world’s most popular crispbread being for many years, ‘In the inch war Ryvita helps you win.’
Probably because hostilities broke out on several different fronts, the defining guerre de nos jours is a plural. But it took time for the Culture Wars to enter the vernacular because many people confused the term with the Clash of Civilisations, a broad descriptor for the anti-democratic utterances of fundamentalist Islamic leaders and the murderous actions of their diasporic proxies, and itself an extrapolation of the War on Terror triggered by 9/11. It hasn’t helped the public to keep with the program that many of these titles have been re-purposed by the manufacturers of computer games in their attempts to satisfy the appetite of today’s young people for martial conquest in a way that board games like Risk, Battleship and chess never did for their parents.
And for a time, the Culture Wars was also a bit of a game. Like many, I started using the term in a spirit of comic hyperbole when talking about anything from climate change to identity politics. And when it was still deemed not only polite but necessary to begin such conversations with the opener ‘Where do you stand on…?’. But that question became redundant when you realised that where many people stand on, say, fossil fuels is now a reliable indicator of where they stand on Brexit and transgenderism and pretty much everything else in the news cycle. And that the decision to adopt that position, for a worryingly large number of them, is informed less by what they believe in their hearts than by what it will say about them on Facebook.
But there’s nothing metaphorical about the way the Culture Wars have spilled onto the streets of American cities in recent weeks. And there’s nothing hyperbolic about comparisons between the way Black Lives Matter is dividing the US population today and the way the question of slavery divided it before the Civil War. There is also a consensus amongst pundits from both sides of the political divide that whoever wins the White House in November, the losing side could respond with organised violence on a much greater scale than anything we’ve seen in Portland or Chicago. And if that happens, rather than simply watch in puzzled horror, as we did 150 years ago, it seems likely that the populations of other cities in other countries may well divide along similar lines and might express that division just as forcefully. And rather than being remembered as the low-life victim of an act of inexcusable police brutality, George Floyd may go down in history as the Archduke Ferdinand of the 21st century.
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