Everything I ran from in the church, I found in liberal activism. The culture wars of the right and left are functionally the very same — neither are what this country needs.
I probably would have stayed in the conservative working class bubble I grew up in if not for the intensely obsessive hatred fundamentalist Christianity found for homosexuality.
That’s an uncomfortable truth in the way American politics have shifted in the twenty-some years since then. Are you saying you’re a fascist? A white supremacist? — these are the questions of the American left’s culture warriors, laughable to anyone who’s ever known me, yet also dire in the state of this country they reveal.
What I mean is that neither liberalism nor more traditionally leftist ideologies have offered any real counter to the economic conditions of this country. Although the mismanaged bailouts of the recent recessions and the pandemic were missed opportunities for something more populist, the most definitive example I can think of is NAFTA, the trade policy that collapsed the US textile industry and likely poisoned at least two generations of working class Americans from ever voting Democrat again — myself and my father included.
You don’t grow up to vote for career politicians or their family members when you associate Clinton with a childhood spent sleeping in a car while your parents separated to try to find work in different states. You don’t grow up tolerant of being shouted at about your privilege when your childhood was defined by constant teasing over your heavy country accent, cheap lunches, and hand-me-down clothes.
The way Democrats talk now, you’d be forgiven for believing the 90s never happened. They expect buy-in on the basis of running otherwise cardboard candidates who happen to be women, black, or gay. Have a specific criticism of their policy proposals? They’ll reason you’re either a deplorable or a Russian agent here to disrupt democracy.
Ah, but this is why many working people turn to any of the numerous socialist parties instead. Yeah, stick around long enough and you’ll figure out that those folks are more concerned with Korea, Palestine, and which dead Europeans to idolize than they are with actual life here, let alone politics that amount to anything more than selling newspapers to college kids or constantly insisting on how radical they are compared to Democrats. There is no working class left here — at least, not an organized one and not one with a clearly articulated vision for an alternative type of society.
So then conservatism must be the answer, right? I’m not convinced yet, but many folks like me are. The difference between us there is that I’m old enough to remember when the right-wing dominated the culture war. I remember developing the social compartmentalization of myself out of fear that my sins might be uncovered and publicly condemned from the pulpit.
You can’t tell someone — even if you don’t realize that you’re telling them specifically — that their existence is a Satanic plot to destroy their families, and then expect them to maintain some sense of allegiance to your community.
And that’s a lesson the American left could stand to pick up too.
There’s this one protest a friend and I laugh about occasionally. Years ago, I befriended some local college activist types while completing my degree. Contrary perhaps to your assessment of me based on this article so far, I do actually care about racial justice. One day, one of these kids starts texting me out of the blue about a demonstration happening that afternoon.
I explained that the timing would be difficult for me, among other challenges — I didn’t actually live in the same town as them. I asked for more information, but all I got was an insistent plea for “white bodies on the ground.” Against my better judgment, I brushed off the comment and made plans to attend, thinking I’d learn more about this apparently urgent demonstration once I arrived. I brought a friend and we even picked up another activist type stranded without her own car.
To say the experience was awkward is an incredible understatement. After a half an hour, we still had no idea what the demonstration was about or hoped to accomplish. All we kept hearing was verbalized frustration that more “white allies” weren’t there — what we should do once there was an exasperatingly unfair demand of the people who invited us. No one was interested in “educating” us about “the issues.”
So we left and we still roll our eyes about the episode years later.
For what it’s worth, I tried to engage more after that. Again, I care about racial justice. I got accustomed to being treated as a “white body” — a sort of intrinsically racist object from behind which antiracists could scream increasingly polarizing messages, with the call-response style of those attending giving the impression that everyone present agreed. My “white body” was routinely positioned to the front lines of whatever demonstration was happening, especially when others were escalating confrontations to the point that physical violence seemed inevitable.
My “white body” was never allowed to be anything other than “white” (i.e. biologically racist and responsible for all the world’s ills). If I tried to reframe my relationship to anyone else as one rooted in being a “disabled body” for instance, that in itself was shutdown as an expression of white supremacy — evidence of my personal failings to be an “accomplice” not merely an “ally.”
If I questioned choices particularly around the “leader-less” activist structure which in practice just cemented the de facto authority of the angriest, loudest, and most uncompromising people, it meant I only cared about “equality” not “equity.” No experience nor identity could trump being white. Nothing I could say or do would ever be enough to severe me from an ahistorical understanding of “white people” that didn’t even accurately describe my own ancestry. My role was to show up constantly, say nothing, question nothing, and give as much cash as possible to middle class college students whose oppression I was benefitting from. My empathy for hurt people and my desire to resolve the cause of their pain (versus indefinitely serving as a receptacle for unfocused scream therapy) meant I was only interested in “fighting” racism not “dismantling” it — the distinctions were never clear to me. The language shifted so quickly, it was impossible to keep up with.
And while I empathize with traditional leftists seeking to differentiate themselves from American ultra-liberalism, you’ve had years to propose something else and you haven’t. There is no meaningful difference between the politics of the liberals and leftists I am summarizing here.
The culture wars of the right and left are in functional terms the very same. Neither offers real relief for its warriors. Both are defined by an inescapable trauma inflicted by the other, and a hyper-paranoia at the spooks of fascists, communists, racists, and illegals around every corner. Neither can stand the virtues of equality under the law or of a free mind. There must always be someone more righteous, “more equal” than all the others. Every thought must be interrogated and exorcised for its diabolical origins.
To these people you are a body. You are a shell possessed by some ideological specter with which they are at war. You are only the grossest, most basic visual assessment of your existence. Unending work of repentance is necessarily to drive the spectral ideology from within you. And throughout this process, you must constantly be reminded of the terror that is your true form, your failure, your lack of worth.
To them you are a body. You are a sinner.
Everything I ran from in the church, I found in liberal activism.
What was once a phenomenon relegated to outbursts on college campuses just a few years ago, conservatives were correct in predicting is now a nation-wide struggle session. From the profit maximizing Antiracism Inc. of self-appointed white fragility educators to the most devolved refusal to give a fuck about gun violence or roving street militias when it doesn’t fit your agenda, this country is woke with the next culture war’s cultic neo-theology.
I started this piece saying that I’d probably be a conservative if not for the previous iteration of this war. With the next election cycle just around the corner already, I hope liberals wake up to that reality. Calling everyone a white supremacist, holding normal city life hostage, and burying your point in inaccessibly academic jargon is just going to turn off people who would otherwise agree with you.
And lest the right-wing believe I can be counted on to vote Republican no matter what, if you think shouting about communism and gender is what I’m looking for, you’ve missed my point entirely.
America could be a decent country, maybe even a great one. It needs more compassion for the common man though. It needs more equality and less vengeance. More reason, values and a backbone to stand for them. Less bickering, less symbolic signaling.
America needs less escalation towards abstract revolution. She needs more effort at making something of the country the last one granted us.