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A False Peace

April 08, 2001|Neal Gabler

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — In case you haven't heard, the culture wars that so enlivened the 1980s and '90s are over. Or at least that's what some commentators are feeling these days. The savage fight that raged full-scale as recently as two years ago over gay rights, abortion, gun control, environmental protection and general permissiveness, and that culminated in the Antietam of culture battles, Bill Clinton's impeachment and trial, seems to have just petered out. These pundits say that the combatants, exhausted from all the verbal shelling, have accepted compromise rather than press on for total victory, and it has led to a new spirit of accommodation. As one observer put it, the "crackle of cultural gunfire is now increasingly distant."

It makes you wonder what country they're living in. If we don't hear the crackle of gunfire anymore, it may be because the bombs detonating overhead drown it out. Look around and you will see that abortion, gun control, environmental protection, gay rights and, lately, campaign-finance reform are still the hot-button issues, and neither side seems especially willing to lay down arms. If anything, they seem emboldened after an election that showed the citizenry to be evenly divided. No one wants to give ground for fear the tide of battle will turn.

But while the political war over social issues rages on, what these observers may have really sensed is an increasing tolerance in the popular culture for things once considered unacceptably outside the mainstream. Just a decade ago, there were no gays on television situation comedies. Now NBC's "Will & Grace," one of television's most popular sitcoms, celebrates gay characters, and no one seems particularly lathered about it. A decade ago, television commercials barely hinted at sex, lest they offend potential consumers. Now they hurl sexual innuendo, and no one bats an eye. More than a decade ago, Madonna scandalized polite society with the suggestion that a new romance made her feel like a virgin. Now radio plays the most sexually explicit music, and no one notices. Britney Spears and former Sen. Bob Dole share the same Pepsi ad, and it seems natural. One might be excused, then, for assuming that there has been a truce and that a new era of cultural coexistence has dawned.

But, in truth, this is hardly a new state of affairs. The popular culture has always been more tolerant than the political culture, and the tension between the two has accounted, in part, for the launching of the culture wars. Though it is a chicken-and-egg question, cultural conservatives raise a taboo and purveyors of popular culture violate it. Then the conservatives rail against the violation, and the purveyors of popular culture rise to the challenge and push the envelope. Then the conservatives howl over the latest transgression, and the popular culture transgresses once again. And so it goes. It is a dynamic and continuous process--a symbiosis not only between the so-called conservatives and liberals but also between both of these cohorts and American society generally. Without it, the culture would be directionless, which is not only why culture wars will continue but also why we need them to continue. How dull the culture would be without them.

Considering that American popular culture is a growth industry, the combatants are hardly equal. Conservatives may be ascendant in politics, setting the agenda since at least the days of Ronald Reagan, but they are always the beleaguered ones in the war over the popular culture. Still, that discrepancy between political power and cultural power is something to which they have never quite been able to reconcile themselves. Militant conservatives simply cannot fathom how one can vote Republican, profess to embrace conservative values and yet buy Eminem CDs or watch NBC's "The West Wing" or go see R-rated movies. To them, it is both inconsistent and a betrayal. The barrier, as they see it, isn't between politics and culture but between conservative values and liberal values. They won the political war, so how come their troops aren't carrying the cultural one, too?

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