Culture War

David Brin's Official Web Site The Real Culture War (article)


an article by David Brin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2004. All rights reserved.

Part One: Defining the Battleground

It's not about "left-vs-right" or "morality" or any other 20th Century cliché.
The issue is Modernity and how to deal with a new century of change.

A Flood of Post-Election Opinions

After the most divisive, draining and intensely-fought presidential campaign that any of us can remember, postmortem analyses have flowed from every pundit. Among the best are Gary Wills talking about the rejection of the Enlightenment and Simon Schama offering a British perspective on Worldly America vs. Godly America, in "Onward Christian Soldiers."

Other appraisals range from systematic to far-fetched, debatable to amusing, partly-bogus to intriguing-but-so-what? Some even try to combine commentary with art...

...while others portray the furious anger of those who feel (rightly or wrongly) that two successive squeaker elections have been stolen by manipulators who thereupon proclaimed a "mandate" to run roughshod over half of the American people. (Even if every vote were properly counted, this was among the three closest elections in a century, reason enough for peacemaking gestures and negotiated consensus, rather than exacerbated division.)

Wading through such a torrent of opinion can be daunting. Still, a few post-election conclusions seem widely accepted. (I'll try to use a neutral voice.)


David Brin is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth and the Hugo winner Startide Rising. The Postman inspired a major film in 1998. Brin is also a leading commentator on modern technological trends. The Transparent Society - (nonfiction) - won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.
"Ideological clichés only distract from the real struggle between two ways of perceiving time - romantic nostalgia vs. pragmatic modernity. To some, the future seems daunting, limited, and perilous, requiring steady leadership from above. Others see it as a frontier of opportunity where free citizens can thrive, both individually and together.
"It boils down to whether you believe children can and should be better than their parents."
Brin takes sides. Not between "liberal or conservative" or "left-vs-right." (See below for examples of when he played friendly contrarian to groups ranging from Libertarians to the World Federalists to the DLC.) The common theme in this article - and those linked below - is choosing the future over the past:

  • Neoconservatism, Islam and Ideology
  • War in the 21st Century
  • Honoring the Losing Majority
  • JRR Tolkien vs. the Future
  • The libertarian dilemma
  • The liberal dilemma
  • Citizens are competent
  • Philanthropy & hope
  • The Meme Wars
  • We will watch the watchers!
  • Privacy, secrecy, surveillance
  • Disputation & accountability



    Above all, many deep thinkers of the so-called right have been joining others on the so-called left, to ask a troubling question: "Who am I in bed with?"

    What Can We Make of All This?

    Now here's a key point. None of the observations that I just offered can be made to fit the most pervasive, misleading and mind-numbing political metaphor of all time -- the left-right political axis.

    That purported "political map" has always trivialized complex issues, masking a myriad inconsistencies, contradictions and details. It also defied decades of scientific evidence for how complex human brains, personalities and societies really are. Yet, we cling to an obsolete oversimplification (see the "Obsolete Oversimplification" sidebar) that has proved effective at just one thing -- enforcing alliance between people who disagree deeply over things that really matter.

    Elsewhere I ask: With whom should you ally yourself? Someone who shares your immediate political campaign, while disagreeing with you utterly over long-term goals? Or someone who shares your deep agenda for a better world, but disagrees over immediate tactics?

    Most people -- when it is posed that way -- choose the latter. After all, tactics are a matter for pragmatic debate. We can try out all sorts of methods. Success may call for a mix of your way and mine.

    But how can we work together when we disagree over the very nature of the universe and of the future? Or over the very possibility -- the desirability -- of human improvability?

    Suppose you perceive -- through evidence and scientific consensus -- that the universe is about 13 billion years old, containing a trillion-trillion stars, some of which may be visited by your descendants: People who (you hope) will be greater, better, wiser than ourselves. You look forward to incremental steps in that direction, whether fostered by social benevolence or fecund competitive markets.

    Perhaps those descendants -- while carefully overcoming challenges -- will even find important work to do, worthy of their ever-rising stature in a vast and ongoing universe. Does that sound good to you?

    Then do you really want to put civilization's decision-making process in the hands of people who believe that native tribes had a better vision of the cosmos than modern science? (Left-handed mysticism.) Or people who actively yearn for an imminent apocalypse that will end a cramped, 6,000 year-old Creation in fire and damnation for everybody who uses different incantations than they do? (Right-handed mysticism.)

    It sounds silly. Yet that is what some of our finest intellectuals do each day, from Jared Diamond and Kim Stanley Robinson to William F. Buckley and George Will. Oh, they grouse about some of the maniacs who are now running their parties. Then they close ranks, rationalizing that you ultimately have to ally yourself with fellow members of the right or the left.

    But this election has shown, at last, that America just is not divided that way.

    Rather, we seem divided between those who feel alienated toward -- or enthusiastic for -- a 21st Century filled with change.


    Fearful of a Changing World

    It would be too easy to make my point about future-haters by citing fundamentalist preachers. You can find them any time of day by channel-surfing. Listen as they wistfully yearn for a better, pastoral, more moral yesteryear-that-never-was, while sermonizing about a coming apocalypse. The "retro vs. metro" argument is self explanatory there.

    Nor is the left-wing without blatant nostalgia junkies, like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whose rants against modernity were echoed by former Sun Computers executive Bill Joy. Every time a Gaia-worshipper or Wiccan or neo-tribalist claims that ancient peoples knew and behaved vastly better than modern folk, he or she is preaching from a deeply disturbing and offensive premise -- that all those ancient people failed to raise their children better than they were.

    Decent people of every generation struggle for human improvement -- more knowledge, better kids. The best of our ancestors strove hard to help make us a bit more strong and knowing. But romantic mystics -- whether "right-wing" or "left wing" -- see history as a long slide from some past golden age. Human effort is futile against this slide. Underneath all that hyper-tolerance posturing, there lies hatred of the very notion of progress.

    All right, it's easy to make fun of extremes. So let's choose an example from the intellectual uber-elite. Someone precious to the clade of University of Chicago alumae who supped their neo-Platonism from the rich spring of Leo Strauss, and now aim to become philosopher kings.

    The cerebral neocons who today control an actively imperial Pax Americana have a special fondness for Francis Fukuyama, Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Fukuyama's best-known book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992) triumphally viewed the collapse of communism as likely to be the final stirring event worthy of major chronicling by historians. From that point on, we would see liberal democracy bloom as the sole path for human societies, without significant competition or incident. No more "interesting times." (While my description of The End of History oversimplifies a bit, one can wish that predictions in social science were as well-tracked for credibility as they are in physics. Back in 1986, at the height of Reagan-era confrontations, I forecast an approaching fall of the Berlin Wall, to be followed by several decades of tense confrontation with "one or another branch of macho culture, probably Islamic.")

    Fukayama is a favorite Bush Administration court intellectual. As a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, and in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002), he condemns a wide range of biological science as disruptive and even immoral. People cannot, according to Fukayama, be trusted to make good decisions about the use of -- for example -- genetic therapy. Human "improvability" is so perilous and loathsome a concept that it should be dismissed across-the-board. Fukayama prescribes a paternalistic government industry panel to control or ban whole avenues of scientific investigation, doling out those advances that are deemed suitable.

    You may surmise that I disagree. (For one thing, shall we enforce this research ban worldwide? Shall such tools be banned forever? From elites as well? If so, how?)

    And yet, in The Transparent Society I speak well of social critics who shout when they see potential danger along the road. In a world of rapid change, we can only maximize the benefits of scientific advancement -- and minimize inevitable harm -- by utilizing the great tools of openness and accountability. Above all, vigorous criticism is the only known antidote to error.

    In fact, I find fretful worry-mongers -- like Joy and Fukayama -- invigorating. Their very presence helps progress along by challenging the gung-ho enthusiasts. It's called reciprocal accountability. Without bright grouches to point at potential failure modes, we might really be in the kind of danger that they claim we are.

    Ironically, it is an open society -- where the sourpuss Cassandras are well-heard -- that is unlikely to need the draconian paternalism they prescribe. But that topic is for another place.

    Here what's important to notice is the reflex to repress in a paternalistic manner. Clearly, alienation against tomorrow can span any spectrum, from ignorance to intelligencia, from postmodern left to neocon right.

    It appears to be less a function of political party than personality.

    Romantics in Power

    Look around. Find your own examples, while noting these traits of romanticism:


    Science now calls indignation a distinct physiological state - one that triggers secretion of active chemicals in the brain, delivering a "high" with addictive traits, very similar to opium.
    We've all felt the self-righteous rush. It's seductive, and deeply human.
    Faced with the temptations of outrage, some people set limits, as with any pleasurable vice. (Skeptical self-doubt is one anodyne.) Others indulge, stoking indignant fires that repay with fierce passion and energy.
    For millennia, kings and propagandists rallied public indignation against some hated-other. A different faith. The kingdom next door. Communists and Capitalists chose each other. Hitler chose Jews. Today's Middle-East shows where this process leads.
    Are we unintentionally helping to stoke this process in other lands? We should always weigh whether a foreign intervention is likely to foster other-hatred that is aimed at us. Quick actions, like toppling the Taliban, did not contribute as much to pan Islamic anti-Americanism as nightly images of the lingering, pain-drenched struggle in Iraq. Pragmatists of both liberal and conservative persuasions do not view war as something to root for or against. Wars are unpleasant affairs calling for competence, agility, and attention to decency for its practical value. The Second World War should have proved that decent behavior wins friends instead of enemies.
    I won't dwell on the "great morality debate"... or related hypocrisies and ... more hypocrisies... and bigger hypocrisies... since I feel the real culture war lies elsewhere.
    Still, we should heed the groundswell.
    Lesson One: Don't deliberately insult people who vote in vast numbers. Try not to drive moderates into the arms of radicals. Whichever side started all this Culture War, the real loser is confident tolerance.



    From Newsday: The White House has ordered the new CIA director, Porter Goss, to purge the agency of officers believed to have been disloyal to President George W. Bush or of leaking damaging information to the media about the conduct of the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to knowledgeable sources. "The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," said a former senior CIA official who maintains close ties to both the agency and to the White House. "The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president's agenda."



    I am not the first to complain about this atrocious thing, which pretends to explain all of our complex political and problem-solving processes according to where delegates sat in the 1789 French Assembly. (Isn't that source reason enough to view it with suspicion?)
    Nobody you know can define the L-R Axis. If they try, their arm-waving explanations will only glancingly resemble the vague descriptions given by anyone else.
    It lumps together on the "right" - Adolf Hitler, libertarians, Jerry Falwell, Queen Elizabeth, billionaire Rupert Murdoch, the Talking Heads... and Jesus.
    On the "left" - we pile Joseph Stalin with anarchists, Father Berrigen, King Sihanouk, billionaire George Soros, The Beatles... and Jesus.
    And on both extrema you get the aristocratic nomenklatura of the Chinese Communist Party.
    Every year, the creaky old thing gets less relevant to our times. Bill Clinton not only delivers budget surpluses but applies them to paying off debt. He puts 100,000 more police on the streets and doubles the Border Patrol. The federal government's share of GDP drops every year. Small businesses flourish. True, his failed Health Care Initiative seemed "lefty" - but don't those other things matter too?
    With socialism defunct, shall we continue believing (fatuously) that socialists are the only enemies of a free market? Does it help a thriving, competitive free market when a few thousand top aristocrat-cronies secretly manipulate federal regulations for their own benefit, at the expense of small business? Is it so hard to believe that some of that elite would try to cheat, when they can?
    Are liberals any better when they lump together pragmatic environmentalists with neomodernist snobs who deny the very existence of an objective world? Who benefits from in-your-face demands that Civil Unions just have to get the incendiary name "marriage"? (The same pragmatic couple-benefits could have been legislated under "larriage" or "zarriage"- only without that indignant, confrontational rush.)
    This little essay probably won't suffice. But someday, enough people will notice that left-vs-right was a hypnotic scam of epic and tragic proportions. A way for fanatics to hijack moderate pragmatists and distract them from the sort of sensible negotiations that might solve problems and foster an incrementally better world.
    The very world that fanatics don't believe in, do not want, and will do everything in their power to prevent.



    Of course, the L-R axis is a great way to simplistically appeal to our vanity, enabling each of us to portray ourselves as heroic rebels against would be tyrants at the "other" end of the spectrum.

    Suspicion of authority (SOA) is the great shared American value, promoted relentlessly in films and mass media. But each of us likes to define "authority." Republicans suspect snooty academics, bureaucrats and foreign elites of grabbing power. Democrats dread conspiring corporate CEOs. We seldom acknowledge the common (SOA) theme. All elites need accountability.

    Alas, people who identify themselves on the left will seldom recognize authoritarian tendencies in paternalistic tolerance-police. Conservatives won't see that corporate power is a temptation all-too readily abused. And libertarians seem incapable of recognizing that more markets, throughout history, were ruined by aristocratic cheaters than ever were by socialists.

    Might brighter generations outgrow today's wisdom, finding it contingent, perhaps sweet, but also... a bit childish? Never!

    This is a truer divide than any vague L-R Axis. Do you believe in raising wiser generations? Fine goal. Then why are you politically allied with people (left or right) who despise it? ROMANTICS WITH NUKES:
    Take this oft-quoted passage from Ron Suskind's N.Y. Times article "Without a Doubt" - interviewing a Bush White House aide:
    "The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.'"
    UCSD scholar Stephen Potts adds: "This anecdote highlights the split of November 2 - not just between red and blue, conservative and liberal, religious and secular. Ultimately, the contrasting colors on our electoral map mark a continental divide between those who prefer the real world and those who don't."


    The Temptation to Wage War

    Is this article a waste of time? Can any plea trigger the calm re-appraisal of political clichés I'm asking for? (See the "Political Clichés" sidebar.)

    The overwhelming froth of anger spilling across America seems more likely to reinforce entrenched party positions. Fear and loathing tend to encourage simplification and demonization, not re-evaluation.

    Many liberals and democrats, having noted Karl Rove's success at mobilizing the republican "bottom," are now calling for a return to left-wing roots. "No more DLC compromise and moderation! Go mobilize the base. Stand by our ideals. Confront the Know Nothing hypocrisy -- obsessing on gays while letting children starve. They want a war against urban, educated America? Well, we're the smart ones. Now that we've awakened, bring it on!"

    Of course, Frist and DeLay and Rove would like nothing better. Even if they lose the next election, they'll win -- and so will hardline lefties like Ralph Nader -- because a polarized America is demagogue paradise. (Especially with nearly all Congressional seats gerrymandered into utterly safe sinecures: See Part Two.)

    Meanwhile, our role as the world's innovator, dynamic culture center, inventor, and leader will be over.

    Others are urging city dwellers to pause. To recall that rural America is not solely populated by backward bubbas. The countryside is filled with very smart people, many of them graduates of state or ag universities (that urban taxpayers built for them). Sure, some of their dynamic brothers and sisters fled to big cities, where media and minds tend more diverse. But those who stayed on the land include many savvy people. They run their businesses -- and their politics -- with great perception and devotion to effective self-interest. They also tithe a lot to charity. And (notwithstanding "hypocrisies") nobody should mock their faith-based devotion to what they perceive as moral values.

    Can we find ways to reach these fellow Americans?

    In Part Two of this layered essay, I'll offer practical suggestions for politics worthy of a Twenty-First Century America -- politics that may unite those wanting to defend the modern world.

    But first, let me conclude Part One with this thought.

    All the current talk about political "war" only helps to reinforce dismal, 20th Century clichés and hatreds that we saw surging to full force in the November 2004 election.

    Nostalgic romantics of all wings want that.

    What do the hatemongers of both left and right fear most? They fear what we must give them.

    A strong dose of the Enlightenment.


    Continue on to Part 2.

    Zeek The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism

    The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
    Jay Michaelson

    What do Americans want from their political system?

    With the 2004 election looming, the contemporary Left seems baffled at how many Americans repeatedly vote against their interests, and seem about to do it again. Countless ‘Red States' voters prefer Bush's rhetoric of values and integrity to economic policies that would actually improve their lives. They buy this phony rhetoric at high personal cost. Some statistics: 40% of the 2001 Bush tax cut has gone to the richest 1% of American families. The Estate Tax repeal benefits fewer than 2% of Americans, yet it will cost over $50 billion per year once fully phased in. Down the line, you can review every single Bush and GOP policy, and not find a single one that benefits the poorest two-thirds of Americans more than the richest one third. Really, it's quite a remarkable fact. And yet, large numbers of middle and lower-middle class Americans vote Republican. Why?

    To simply ascribe the Republican success to "values" is to miss the point. John Kerry proclaims his values at least as often, and nearly as irritatingly, as Bush does. People just don't seem to believe him. There must be reasons why one side's "values" are believed and they other side's aren't. These reasons have to do with the foundations of Bushism – quite different from Repubicanism, as I have elaborated on in some detail in my column in Jewsweek, A Jewish Critique of Bushism – itself.

    In this essay, I want to offer not another shallow excuse but a psychologically and perhaps spiritually deeper understanding of American political choice, one which accounts for the Right's astonishing success (controlling all three branches of the federal government, and most states), and which offers an alternative to it. I want to construct and prove the following argument:

    1.      Politics, like most of life, is based on the primal fear of death. In our dominant culture, consumption is the chief actual remedy for fear, while conservative, patriotic rhetoric is the necessary cover for it.

    2.     The Right supports economic liberty and social restrictions, whereas the Left supports the reverse. This leads to several problems for the Left. First, because economic liberty is more important to the majority of Americans' life-projects (i.e., because it addresses their fears, and corresponding desires for more life and more possessions), the Right's message of ‘more' will be more likely to succeed than any message of ‘less.' At the same time, because Americans are more used to conceiving moral value in social than in economic terms, so the Right can claim the higher moral ground even as it takes a lower moral path in terms of real-world consequences. The Right has more powerful moral rhetoric, with fewer sacrifices required; the Left's moral rhetoric is less powerful, and requires more sacrifices.

    3.     Due to the nature of American political discourse, the Left can neither speak in a shallow voice (lock-boxes, health plans) nor try to shift the fundamental definitions of the ‘American Dream' away from economic success. Despite many liberals' own aversion to hyper-capitalist excess, to be the party of obligation instead of desire is to be perpetually in a minority position. The Left must effectively speak to the fear that undergirds our political system. It can do this by articulating a view of moral good and evil, just as the Right does. As the Right subtly cast Clinton's and other Democrats' failings in terms of moral evil, so too the left can cast Bush's policies in the same way, without engaging in extreme rhetoric. The Left can understand Bush's policies as morally evil (here using the term as understood within the Jewish tradition) and articulate them in a non-extreme, skillful way.

    •     Nothing to fear but fear itself

    This past January, my grandmother passed away just as I was completing a two-week meditation retreat. The post-retreat period is always delicate, as the sensitive self re-emerges into a noisy world and as a clinging part of the ego wants to hold onto the sweetness of silence. This time, I was acutely aware of how indirectly we speak, how our emotional needs are subverted by the very tactics our minds use to address them, and how distracted everyone seemed. Returning from sitting shiva in Florida, I noticed that my companions on the airplane were doing anything and everything to avoid the present moment: televisions, magazines (usually both), anything to distract. I was struck: here we are, thousands of feet above the Earth; I am on sensory overload – the quiet roar of the engines, the sensation of motion, the beauty of the sky, the sadness I feel looking down on the patchwork devastation of Florida's natural environment. And yet, what was overload for me was insufficient for other people. Despite the reading, watching, drinking, eating, most were still, clearly, bored.

    On contemplative paths, one of the core practices is to relax the mind and be present with whatever is going on at this moment. In theistic systems, the moment of Now is our experience of God; in nontheistic ones, being fully present allows the unity of all Being to be perceived. But in a fidgety, distracted world, we cannot find enough substitutes for Reality. Silence is to be feared, because it is the predicate for presence, seeing the self, even of death. I've heard many people say they are afraid of meditation, because they are afraid of what might come up. So: distraction, which breeds the need for more distraction.

    American culture may be characterized as a culture of distraction. We have grown metaphorically and literally fat, stuffed with cheap (and government-subsidized) food, coated with fats and sugars, and copiously over-entertained. We are unhealthy, surrounded by carcinogenic pesticides, enmeshed in a spider's web of radiation, consuming products which came from laboratories. And of course many of us generate even more fear as a result, hiding away in ever-more-organic safe zones, where somehow we won't be touched by the filth.