In a century scarred by two world wars and continuously haunted with the threat of a third, it’s little wonder we often opt for martial metaphors. We kill time, pick our battles, work in the trenches, and raise the white flag in resignation. And it’s no different when talking about cultural engagement: “Let’s not just fundamentally disagree with each other,” we say, “let’s have a culture war.”
But it’s a bit disingenuous to say the culture wars were just hyperbolic posturing of an entire generation held hostage by their metaphors. And I often wonder about how important it is to remember the “culture wars” within the larger context of the real wars out of which they’ve grown. If anything, the past hundred years have been one bloody reminder after another that ideas really do have legs, the worst of which can—and have—run roughshod over millions. It’s why I’m hesitant to join many of my generation and say, rather flippantly: “I’m beyond the culture wars,” even if, perhaps, that’s where I want to be. It’s more than uncharitable to simply dismiss the real fears people have had in the destructiveness of progressive ideology, the Red threat, or even now, burgeoning terrorist ideologies. Sometimes retrenchment is needed.
But perhaps the issue is not necessarily about “culture war,” but how we might see our place in it. Does culture war necessarily mean we all have to be “culture warriors”? I don’t think so.
This past week our Comment editor forwarded an essay by Roger Scruton in The Imaginative Conservative entitled, "Conservatism means Conservation.” Scruton’s point is that environmentalism, which has typically been framed as a “leftist” cause, might actually be more “right wing” than we’ve been led to believe. It’s about slow change, stewardship, and solutions from vibrant local communities. So what gives? How did the “left” hijack what should be the concern of the “right”?
The essay hit close to home for myself since starting studies in literature and ecology. Trying to explain my interests to my more conservative home-community and anything “green” is disregarded at the outset for being anti-capitalist, anti-oil, anti-Western, and generally pro-paganist animism. Yet when I explain my interests in the connections between Christian thought and conservative ideas (and yes, I realize these are NOT synonymous!) and environmentalism to others in my department, it’s often seen as unfashionably retrogressive. In many ways, it feels like I’m in the pockmarked minefields of the culture-wars’ no-man’s land.
I hope you can excuse the personal anecdote, or even better, have one of your own which likewise indicates a moment where you’ve also found yourself between hostile camps, thinking that perhaps it would do us well to keep disagreeing, sure, but also to come together so the caricatures we have of each other might be broken down. Maybe there is some common ground we can inhabit (desire to care for the world?) even if we disagree on the whys and the hows. Maybe we don’t “just” have to be warriors.
This week, I was reminded of the story of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the famous poet of "In Flanders Fields" but also a medic in the Great War. If anything, the medic might be the very embodiment of how we can still think of the world as a place always at war, but not one in which we are simply warriors for one faction over and against another. In the heart of conflict, the medic must be armed to the teeth and ready for a fight, but also venture out courageously into the blighted landscape between trenches to enact works of restoration. WWI medics especially often disregarded the categories of “friend and foe,” thinking only of the “living and the dying.”
It’s the centenary of the Great War and it’s only a few days after Remembrance. The horrific images of Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, and Vimy Ridge are still fresh in our minds. Young men with rotting feet sitting in trenches only hundreds of yards from other young men with rotting feet sitting in trenches. No-man’s land lies between them, only to be crossed with fear and a desire to rout the enemy. But that no-man’s land must, if the war is ever to end and peace is ever to reign once more, be inhabited by the survivors of both sides, and restored to the order that, in the midst of our fighting, the medic is already working to regain.