Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Culture Wars

Sarah Palin's nomination is being widely interpreted as another attempt by the Republican Party to exploit the public's resentment of the cultural liberalization that began in the 1960s. I agree. An interesting thing about this iteration of the "culture wars" is the extent to which Sarah Palin herself demonstrates the fact that, while the right may have won elections with cultural issues, the cultural left consistently wins the culture war itself.

Most of the "culture war" issues relate to the perception that our culture has abandoned the strict sexual mores which prevailed in earlier times. Opposition to abortion, homosexuality, sex education, and sexually explicit entertainment all rests on a sense that society now tolerates, or even embraces, extra-marital sexual behavior which was once taboo and on a desire to restore these old strict standards.

This call for a return to old fashioned morality has worked well as an electoral political issue, but, strangely enough, no matter how many Republican culture warriors are elected to office, the culture continues to move away from the sexual shaming that is necessary to enforce sexually repressive cultural codes. Americans, no matter what their religious/political stance, now accept the fact that it is normal for people to engage in heterosexual activity before marriage. The tiny minority who "save themselves" for marriage are, depending on your outlook, either virtuous heroes or self-denying prudes, but nobody thinks that they are not statistically anomalous. Consequentially, pre-marital sex no longer carries the stigma that it did in the 50s and unwed motherhood no longer excludes a young woman from "respectability" as it did then. As proof of that, when was the last time that you heard of a pregnant teenager "going to visit relatives" so that she could give birth and put her child up for adoption. The trend toward accepting pre-marital sex as "normal" was clearly manifested by the welcome given Bristol Palin and her fiance by the hordes of fundamentalist delegates at the Republican National Convention who treated Bristol as a hero because she had decided not to have an abortion.

Of course, proclaiming this young, single mother an admirable hero instead an object of contempt, the religious right is essentially declaring its defeat in the culture wars. Whereas it once fought legal abortion because the ability to quietly end a pregnancy freed "promiscuous" women from the stigma that was their rightful punishment for violating sexual codes, they now lionize a young woman solely because she decided to keep her baby, seemingly ignoring the issue of what she did to get it. These folks have, over the last several decades, thrown out the baby and kept the bath water!

Similarly, cultural traditionalists opposed the movement of women into the workforce because it undercut God-given gender roles. Now they are supporting a married mother of young children as a potential chief executive of the United States without the slightest concern for how that might effect the "proper" division of authority within her marriage or what kind of example it might set for young women, AND they accuse anyone who opposes Gov. Palin's candidacy of engaging in improper sex discrimination, invoking a principle whose legitimacy they rejected until a few years ago! Of course, if they openly favored sex discrimination, they would be seen as outside the mainstream culture.