A few days ago, with somewhat bittersweet timing, Marvel Entertainment made an exciting announcement. This was at a time when low information people — up to and including the president — were realizing that, uhh, hey Chuck, this virus thingy might be quite a big deal. Might be a good time to stock up on rice and beans, you know?
Back to Marvel’s announcement. They were creating a new generation of heroes for a grateful populace! Their names you ask? Well, there was Screentime, a ‘meme-obsessed super teen’ who has the ability to use Google without a WiFi connection. There was Snowflake (they/them) and Safespace; the former throws psychic snowflake shurikens at people who read Breitbart and the latter generates a pink force shield around them as they do so. Trailblazer was the fa-, sorry, the plus-sized one. She has a magic backpack or something. There’s also a vampire dude, he seems fairly chill, or at least not engineered, designed and constructed to piss off people who watch Fox News.
What follows is a confession, of sorts. Let me explain how I would have written this article if Marvel’s announcement had been made in January. No, let me first tell you how the announcement would have appeared to me, a vaguely center-right-ish writer who despises the tedious, rote idiocy of the imaginative economy in the Current Year: Fish. In. A. Barrel. Thank you Marvel, I would have thought, as I proceeded to write a delightfully vituperative 850-word criticism of the company’s latest adoption of ‘purposeful’, ‘empowering’ (and dumb) identity politics. I might have chucked in a bit of historical context for my readers. Wasn’t Marvel always progressive? Go back, if you can bear it, and look at the original X-Men stories. Look at Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Captain America. Maybe I’d throw in a slightly inappropriate quote from someone I actually respected, say Arthur Schopenhauer, or Dr Johnson.
And then, languidly chuckling to myself as I typed, I would have issued a stern, trenchant warning to whoever stacks the bucks at Marvel: get woke, go broke, buddy. Take that woke industrial complex! Perhaps the article generates some debate on Twitter, which I largely ignore. Other jobbing hacks write similar reactions to Marvel’s announcement, and although I would not say this publicly, I consider mine superior in almost every way. A few weeks later I receive a modest sum of money for my exertions. I refill my pen. With deep stoicism I await the next fluctuation in the culture war — say Yale students decide that masonry is a symbol of white supremacist patriarch capitalists and avidly begin dismantling their residences, which, with full approval of the Office of the Dean, will be replaced by a camp of yurts — and then I write my next piece. Rinse and repeat.
Nothing, of course, ever changes. The cultural Cold War, in which I participate as merely a foot-soldier, or a bag carrier, or a bot, continues. Everybody shouts down their own little well. Stasis, stagnation, decadence — whatever you wish to label it, continues. As the punks used to say: No Exit.
When did the culture wars begin? On January 15, 1987, when Jesse Jackson and 500 protesters marched down Palm Drive, the main entrance of Stanford University, chanting ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go’, perhaps? Maybe it was on August 17, 1992, when Patrick Joseph Buchanan told the Republican convention that while the Cold War was ended, stern alarums could not be cast aside. The ‘war for the soul of America’ had begun. To enumerate all the battles, the campaigns, the victories, the defeats, the last-stands and routs that have constituted this interminable conflict, a quacking goose which has taken flight of America and perched all over the world, from Britain to Brazil, would drive one to the bar, if any of them were still open.
If you’ve spent too long slurping the troubled brew of these conflicts — which means falling down a Paul Joseph Watson rabbit hole and thinking, hang on, maybe that man shouting in front of a map has a point — then you begin to see every conflict as a culture war. Dreyfus affair? Culture war, bro. Karl Lueger’s mayoralty in fin de siècle Vienna? You bet that’s a culture war. The repeal of the Corn Laws? That, sir, was a culture war. Here’s a monk sounding like a millennial’s idea of a baby boomer in the 13th century: ‘The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone know everything.’ The culture war: just another ineradicable part of the human condition, clearly.
And now COVID-19. Predictions of tumult, sickness and death. The four horsemen mount their steeds and prepare to leave the paddock. The need for the mobilization of resources and personnel that resembles an actual war. In these circumstances what can really be said about Marvel Entertainment or Colin Kaepernick? What were once mighty oaks look pitifully reduced now. The concerns of last year are so much shrubbery. The great narrowing of focus, this enormous stripping back to core concerns — health, shelter, sustenance — has the effect of making what used to feel important seem beyond marginal. Take a VICE headline from Thursday: ‘As Hospitals Prepare for Covid-19, Life Saving Trans Surgeries Are Delayed’. This appears to me to be a fossil dug up from some distant age, like the Marvel announcement. I feel for the four trans people who were booked in to get their toenails painted, I honestly do. But I think hospitals might have more pressing concerns at the moment.
The luxuries and fixations of the culture wars may finally be over. Nobody will mourn its passing, because nobody conclusively won it, or ever could. In Samuel P. Huntington’s magisterial Who Are We? (2004) he noted that the absence of an external ‘other’ to rally against usually undermines the unity of a society. Divisions and grievances multiply. Cultural battles replace political process. Huntington could see a future America with only an Obama-style ‘creed’ as the basis of its polity. Following such a trajectory this America evolves into a deglutinated confederation of ethnic, cultural and political tribes with nothing in common save geography. Like the Ottoman Empire, or Austro-Hungarian Empires before it, the USA dissolves in an acid bath of competing identities.
But then again, maybe not. Maybe, as the learnèd philosopher Matthew McConaughey posits, COVID-19 is the external ‘other’, the enemy, that can bring America back together again. Even if that is too much to ask, surely one of the more likely consequences of the fight ahead will be the end of the culture wars as a daily irritant, at least for now. All those moments from Sarah Palin to Obergefell v. Hodges, from #OscarsSoWhite to Gillette, from Tumblr to 4chan, wil be lost in time, like tears in rain.