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Culture and Politics: Culture’s Important But Culture’s Contradictory

Culture and Politics: Culture’s Important But Culture’s Contradictory

By Dennis Loo (1/5/14)

When people talk about politics and culture and their connection to each other, the most common argument goes like this: a country’s politics reflect its culture. In the US this frequently takes the form of people arguing that individualism and the American Dream, two prominent features of American culture, are durable and determining aspects of American political life. No public policies and no political movement can succeed that run contrary to the pursuit of individual material wealth. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

While there is no question that individualism and the American Dream are prominent aspects of American culture, there are two problems with this perspective.

First, culture itself is contradictory. Every culture is. To take this on the broadest level first: no society, including American society, can in fact operate as a society without co-operation being overall the most important aspect. By definition a society only exists in the first place because everyone except the tiniest fraction of outliers co-operate with one another. Those few outliers are either ejected from other social groups (and suffer for this, including the most severe cases by being incarcerated or by execution), or their talent(s) are so socially valuable that their idiosyncrasies are tolerated, even as they are disliked for their distressingly anti-social behaviors.

Consider an example that might appear to be the strongest refutation to my argument: the existence of competition. While competition – such as found in sports and games - is something that we see in every human society, competitors have to co-operate with each other for their competition to occur in the first place. They have to agree on the rules that they will play by and the honoring of those who participate, whether they win or lose. Distinguishing the victories of the winners from others only occurs because they are doing so through a process in which others contend against them on an agreed upon format. You will not receive plaudits for what you do unless there are others who are engaged in the game that you are playing and playing along with you in a collective enterprise. Moreover, even in the endeavors that are considered the most solitary – for example, chess – are not solitary at all. Being a chess grandmaster cannot occur without there being a team of people that supports the player and that player could not do what s/he does without deeply and continuously studying the games and strategies/theories of other great chess players in history. Great chessmasters stand on the shoulders of previous and contemporary great players. They more profoundly grasp, and go beyond based on that,  the contributions and insights of other great practitioners, who in turn represent the pinnacle of the collective efforts of millions of others in human history. Chess, in other words, the most seemingly solitary of games, is at bottom fundamentally a team sport just like society itself.

Second, within American culture are also ethics that contradict individualism and the pursuit of material wealth. There are, for example, strong cultural values for supporting others in need - relatives, friends, and/or strangers. Being stingy and selfish is not a recipe for wide appreciation by others. Philistines are philistines no matter what culture you come from. The War on Poverty that President Lyndon B. Johnson launched in the 1960s is only removed from the Me-decade of the 1980s by less than twenty years. The legacy of the 1930s New Deal remains among us in the form, for example, of Social Security, despite neoliberals’ persistent, protracted, and determined efforts to destroy the New Deal. Occupy Wall Street and its emulators around the country (and world) represent a very strong counter-cultural initiative that before it was violently dispersed by the state was supported in its goals in numerous polls by a majority of Americans. As GOP pollster Frank Luntz confessed in late 2011, Occupy was “frightening” him “to death because it was changing the way Americans think about capitalism.”

Culture is something that does not change readily. It can and does change, but not quickly. Political policies, on the other hand, are more amenable to change. The two are not synonymous with one another and what those who place culture as the primary causal variable overlook is how all of culture’s contradictory strains provide a canvas upon which varying pictures can be painted. Put another way, the particular aspects of culture that get foregrounded and other aspects backgrounded at any point in time is a result of political movements and political actors. The primacy of individualism and the American Dream are directly and mostly attributable to the fact that the group in the leading political and economic position in our society are capitalists. Individualism and the American Dream suit their purposes. 

As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society,

[T]he exercise of political power is surprisingly tenuous compared to conventional understandings of it. It all turns on a small set of facts and fairly subtle interpretive moves. (p. 273)

The mobilizing of American public opinion in favor of attacking Iraq in 2003, for example, turned on a few select lies – the linkage of Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 attackers and the claim that Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Had the Bush regime not hammered away at these two lies and had mainstream media, including The New York Times, not echoed these lies instead of closely examining and refuting them, then popular support for an invasion and occupation of Iraq could not have been assembled.

An illustration of this error can be found in a May 22, 2007 Salon.com essay by Gary Kamiya entitled: “Why Bush Hasn’t Been Impeached.” After correctly stating that the main reason he had not been impeached was because the Democrats refused to press for it, Kamiya went on to articulate his essay’s main theme:

“[T]here’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off—and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness—come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.

The truth is that Bush’s high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies . . . tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity. . . . Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. . . .”

He goes on to cite as evidence of this:

“[L]arge numbers of Americans did not just give Bush carte blanche but actively wanted him to attack someone [after 9/11]. They were driven . . . by primordial retribution, reflexive and self-righteous rage. And it wasn’t just the masses. . . . Pundits like Henry Kissinger and The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also called for America to attack the Arab world. Kissinger . . . said that 'we need to humiliate them;' Friedman said we needed to 'go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something.' . . . For many Americans, who Bush attacked or the reasons he gave, didn’t matter—what mattered was that we were fighting back.[1]

Kamiya’s essay provoked scores of letters in response, many agreeing with him that the fault lies with the American people. Kamiya’s argument, however, contains major flaws. To begin with, he cites no evidence from the masses to support his claim that the public did not want Bush and Cheney impeached. In fact, he actually cites evidence to the contrary—polls showing that for years large numbers, in several instances, a majority, had wanted impeachment.

All of the specific individuals he cites to support his characterization of the public mood differ distinctly from the American public as a whole. John Wayne was a popular movie star, but in at least one respect he was not a typical American. Wayne’s defense of the war, the widely panned film The Green Berets, was a flop because the American people had turned against the Vietnam War. And unless you conflate elite policymaking and public opinion making figures with the public (which democratic theory does conflate),

Henry Kissinger and Thomas Friedman also cannot be said to fairly represent the American people. The 2003 Iraq War was predicated on lying to the American people repeatedly, persistently, and ubiquitously about a connection between Iraq and 9/11. Without those half-truths, untruths, and deceits, a popular basis for the war would have been impossible to assemble.

If Kamiya is right and Americans just wanted revenge, then Bush and Cheney would not have had to lie about a 9/11-Iraq connection and the liberal New York Times would not have had to make the case for war. Bush and Cheney could have said: we’re blaming Hussein—all those Arabs are alike after all—and let’s have at them. Good ole boys would have been persuaded by that caliber of argument, but they would have been vastly outnumbered by the rest of the country who are neither as gullible nor as xenophobic.

Vanilla Ice Cream Anyone?

Aside from Kamiya’s unfortunate choice of whom to cite, the traction of Kamiya’s argument and the reason it resonated with so many of his readers arise from his voicing an exceedingly widespread, unexamined, taken-for-granted, and cherished belief: leaders are simply expressing what the public wants. We are, after all, a democracy, aren’t we? This view confuses policy makers and opinion leaders’ initiatives with public receptivity.[2] Just because the public (or some segment of the public) responds favorably to something proffered to it by leaders does not mean— and is not the same as—the public’s initiating attention to the issue. If someone offers you vanilla ice cream and you eat it with relish, this does not mean that you decided that you would rather have vanilla than, say, chocolate. It merely means that you respond favorably to vanilla and are willing to eat it.

You could hold out and say: “I will not eat anything at all until what I really want is put in front of me,” but if you are not the cook in the kitchen and you have to choose either to eat what is handed to you or not to eat, the fact that you eat the vanilla does not prove anything other than that you would rather have vanilla ice cream than nothing at all. Furthermore, if the cook offers you a choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry and you select chocolate, this means only that you prefer chocolate to vanilla or strawberry and to not eating. It does not mean that you would not really have preferred a hamburger (or a soy burger if you are a vegetarian). (GDS, Pp. 218-221)


[1] Gary Kamiya, “Why Bush Hasn’t Been Impeached,” Salon.com, May 00, 0664, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/kamiya/0664/65/00/impeachment, accessed

[2] I owe this distinction between initiative and receptivity to sociologist Katherine Beckett.

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