Culture wars used to be a simple matter of left against right, liberal permissiveness versus “family values” conservatives, almost always involving the latter pushing back against the perceived encroachment of the former: From Elvis’ gyrations to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, they were driven by anxiety that world was going to hell in a handbasket. But the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg argues that there’s a new culture war, one that’s being fought less through clashes between opposing armies and more as a series of skirmishes, sometimes involving parties who are, at least theoretically, on the same side:
Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.
This culture war is not about who wins and who loses; it’s more like Karl Marx’s permanent revolution, where the struggle is a state of being and not a means to an end. Social media has allowed individuals access to the battlefield, bypassing political gridlock to take their complaints, and their aspirations, all the way to the top. If the culture clashes of the 1980s and ’90s pursued cultural change through political ends — labeling potentially offensive pop albums, or slashing funding for PBS and the National Endowment for the arts — they now aim to foster political change through the medium of popular culture. The political process can seem almost irretrievably broken, but the networks, studios, publishers and record labels that produce culture listen because they have to, ever-hungry for new audiences, and terrified of losing the ones they have. No amount of protest will weaken the right’s resolve to block Obama’s legislative goals, even if it means forsaking their own political priorities, but if enough people protest Saturday Night Live‘s lack of a black female cast member, hey presto! They add one.
It’s easy to mourn the cultural megaliths of decades past — the M*A*S*H finale, watched by one in three Americans, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller — but the mass audience’s fragmentation has allowed overlooked constituencies to make themselves heard, and for “mainstream” audiences to discover that their tastes are not as circumscribed as they might have thought. Netflix and Amazon didn’t greenlight Orange Is the New Black and Transparent based on some executive’s surmise about what “people” want to see; they’re driven by data, not instinct, and that data tells them that, while audiences may not be as fatigued with straight white male protagonists as some cultural critics, they’re open to and hungry for more. With so many outlets distributing content to an ever-expanding universe of platforms, culture is no longer a zero-sum game. As Rosenberg writes, the new culture war is one that everyone can win.
That’s not to say the battles won’t be bloody. Rosenberg points to the spectacularly ugly attacks on female video-game journalists as proof that even ad hoc cultural militias can do plenty of damage. And the cultural left’s adoption of formerly right-wing tactics is cause for concern. Chasing progress and pageviews, self-styled progressives too often pounce on minor misstatements and contextless gaffes; the lack of a clearly defined enemy means everyone is a potential foe. But when creators and their financiers take what seems like a giant leap forward, they often find an audience already waiting for them, and ready to take the next step.