The dirty power of culture wars.

A few decades ago I wrote an essay about the impact of state terror on Argentine society. One of my points was that terrorism was used by the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso” not because it was particularly effective at ferreting out subversives but because it worked as an atomising agent in Argentine society. That is, it used pervasive fear of institutionalised terrorism as a means to “infantilize” people and increasing isolate and alienate them as individuals, which served to destroy the horizontal social bonds that were the basis of collective solidarity among the groups targeted by the dictatorship. That in turn eased the way for the imposition of so-called neoliberal economic policies that redistributed income downwards for the majority, significantly curtailed the State role in economic management and provision of basic public services, destroyed social welfare, health and education safety nets and pauperised the population in general while increasing the material fortunes of the elites associated with the regime.

State terror created a culture of fear that atomised and isolated people in the public space, thereby paving the way for their infantilisation as social subjects and eventual dependency on and subjugation by their dictatorial masters. What is less known is that the so-called “Dirty War” waged by the dictatorship known as the “Proceso” (Process) was justified not on economic but on cultural grounds, as a defense of “traditional (Catholic) values” placed under siege by immoral, degenerate, atheistic Communist subversion in the guise of liberalism, feminism, secularism, homosexuality, youthful rebellion and other depraved foreign ideologies that had no “natural” place in the patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist social status quo that dominated Argentina at the time. Now, in the contemporary era, a variant on this theme has been introduced into socio-political narratives in the liberal democratic West as well as elsewhere: Culture Wars.

In recent years conservative authoritarians have moved to using electoral facades rather than coups as a means of gaining and maintaining government office. Their weapon of choice is no longer terror imposed by or on behalf of the State but a defense of traditional values against attempts by progressives to undermine the moral fabric of society. Similarly, authoritarians out of office no longer seek to use guerrilla war as a main vehicle for conquering power but instead embark on crusades against “wokeness,” “political correctness” and perceived (and mostly imaginary) attacks on “free speech” by liberal-progressive-socialist-communists. In both cases the strategic move has been from a physical war of manoeuvre to a cultural war of position in which the battle is over values and identities, not necessarily (although ultimately involving) government offices, economic policies or physical terrain. In other words, the social backdrop to political competition and conflict is now increasingly dominated by Culture Wars.

That is notable because the Culture Wars approach rejects or replaces the most basic axiom in politics: that people vote with their wallets. Think of it this way. The MAGA crowd voted against its economic interests when it voted for Trump (even if Trump’s “America First” economic pipe dream was sold to them as feasible). More recently, both Vladimir Putin and Recap Erdogan in Russia and Turkey diverted popular attention from their disastrous economic policies and corruption towards a defense of “traditional” values, in Putin’s case “traditional” Christian values (supported by the Russian orthodox hierarchy) and in Erdogan’s case “traditional” Muslim values (again, supported by conservative clerics). They both railed against the depravity of the West and the corrosive impact the importation of Western mores and ideas has had on their respective societies. In fact, Putin went so far as to order the invasion of Ukraine because of its “degenerate” liberal (when not Nazi) leadership’s threat to the ethnic Russian part of the Ukrainian population. The point is that when Culture Wars are used as an electoral strategy in order to outweigh objective economic realities, they often are successful.

The emphasis on Culture Wars is understandable when conservative authoritarians have no economic legs to stand on. That is where the parallel between US and NZ conservatives come in. Neither the GOP in the US or National/Act in NZ have economic platforms that are remotely close to practicable, sustainable or deserving of popular support. They are in fact elitist in construction and elitist in benefit. So, rather than modify their economic policy platforms away from their exhausted and discredited neoliberal/market-driven trickle-down policies, these conservatives turn to inciting Culture Wars as a means of diverting attention towards superstructural and often artificial fault lines in their respective democratic societies. In the US things like gun rights and opposition to racial, gender and sexual equality may be an “organic” product of American Christian repression and its record of historical conquest, but in NZ the notion of unrestricted gun ownership rights and opposition to transgender rights (on the slanderous grounds that the latter are “groomers” and pedophiles) are foreign imports that have no “organic” or native origins in NZ society. However, the attacks on co-governance frameworks in NZ is indeed rooted in deep-seated Pakeha racism against Maori, so the fusion of foreign imported ideologies and local regressive perspectives on race mesh easily into a divide and conquer (so they think) Culture War strategy on the part of the NZ Right.

More broadly, the assault on gender and sexual identity minorities, immigrants and various types of non-traditional non-conformity that defy the traditional narrative about what the “proper” society should look and behave like is rife throughout the Western liberal democratic world even where gun rights are restricted in the interests of public safety (seen, not unreasonably, as a public good rather than an infringement on individual liberty), where racism is not a historical stain or contemporary problem or where economic policies have popular support. It is major a stock in trade of elected authoritarians like Victor Orban in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland and former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as well as a host of demagogic political and social figures throughout the world, to say nothing of outright autocrats like Putin, Erdogan and a swathe of Middle Eastern and African oligarchs and strongmen.

The important thing to bear in mind is that like state terror as a social atomising agent, Culture Wars work. Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban rode them to victory in democratic executive branch elections, Putin and Erdogan used them to rally support for their unpopular regimes (with Erdogan likely to win a run-off election next weekend in spite of his disastrous economic policies and Putin holding onto power like a (rat-trapped) rat on cheese despite Russia’s futile war on Ukraine). Wanna-be’s like Luxon, Peters and Seymour in NZ seem to believe that their best bet is to copy at least some aspects of the Culture Wars strategy and adapt them to Aotearoa’s particular circumstances in the run up to this year’s general election. Given the media attention devoted to co-governance, transgender rights (or better said, their mere presence), vaccinations and the use of Te Reo in public discourse, there may in fact be grounds for traction in that angle of approach. That makes it more imperative that people push back at the introduction of retrograde ideological arguments in the NZ context. They are largely not from here and have no place in Aotearoa.

The pushback is necessary for a simple reason. Culture Wars work as a socio-political strategy because they are based on a dirty little secret: that fear is a great perception and behaviour modifier. Culture warriors traffic in the promotion of fear, both real and imagined, rational and irrational. This fear is of targeted “others,” those who can be readily identified and easily scapegoated while also be made into seemingly malevolent Leviathans who must be struck back by common, sensible, “traditional values”-holding people–the silent majority, as it were. Although it is helpful to the Culture Was projects if the “others” look different, worship different Gods, have different customary practices or engage in non-heteronormative sexual behaviour, it matters less what the “others” actually do than that they are identified as threats to traditional values and mores. The use of disinformation and misinformation is helpful in this regard because fear is a tool whether the basis for it is true or not–and it is most often not true or grounded in reality. What matters is achieving the objective, not the truth. The objective, in turn, is to restore a previous societal status quo in the face of pressures to make it more equitable, inclusive and responsive to the needs of those marginalised.and voiceless under the “traditional” scheme of things.

Complacency is the ally of the Culture Warriors because silence allows them to megaphone their messages of fear and hate through corporate and social media unimpeded by fact checkers, truth-speakers or coherent ripostes. Decent people may believe that Culture Wars are just a side-circus show that does not in fact distract from bread and butter and other serious issues of the day when people make their political and social preference choices. But as the likes of Brian Tamaki and various conservative media talking heads have shown, they do in fact have an impact on public perceptions when not challenged by more tolerant and open-minded arguments. Their fear-mongering gains ground in the measure that complacency cedes them rhetorical space in the pubic discourse.

All of which is to say that although there may be considerable distance in practice between Argentine (or Chilean or Guatemalan or Salvadorean, etc.) state terrorism and the Culture Wars in contemporary democracies, they are on a continuum where fear (manufactured or real) is exploited for political and social advantage above and beyond the economic projects that may underpin them. As Bernard de Voto noted (paraphrased here), “a person’s eyes and ears and the fulcrum of his/her judgement supplies his/her capability for action.” The fulcrum of fear is made up of orchestrated “Othering” in which contending perceptions of norms, mores and acceptable behaviours, that is, the conflict between between traditional and “progressive” values, is focused on particular subjects and groups. The purpose of Culture Wars is to warp the ideological fulcrum on which social consensus rests in order to obtain political, social and often material advantage whether it be based in the truth or not.

As a bottom line culture warriors play dirty with the truth just as much as the Argentine Dirty War ignored international norms and strictures against the torture and killing of civilians. Much like the logic of the “Proceso” when defending its actions, the ends of the culture warrior justifiy the means, and in a world in which the value of tradition is increasingly under question and often challenge, warping of the ideological fulcrum in order to promote manipulable fear in the body politic is just as useful as the pliers, branding irons, cow-prods and battery clamps used by the Latin American torturers of yore.

To which I say now as I said back then, mutatis mutandis: “Nunca Mas!”

PS: For those who may be interested in the essay linked to above, please email me ( and I will send you a copy of the entire essay as an attachment in my reply.

11 thoughts on “The dirty power of culture wars.

  1. Pingback: NZ Politics Daily: 23 May 2023 – Democracy Project

  2. Thanks for explaining this Pablo.
    It begs the question, who will speak out against the trend towards culture wars in our NZ society? Who is there (apart from you – on this relatively obscure page and relatively dense writing – forgive me – but most NZers would not understand a lot of this, as you write it – I think I have ..?!) – who will explain the ‘culture wars process’ in simple terms and make those who are part of it understand.
    Perhaps it is only by way of the threat to freedom (ultimately) that will make people realise. Often people – individuals, countries, have to experience the worst in order to value the best. The ultimate example of that is the Germans and the Japanese post WW2 – both strongly pacifist since that time (and have therefore struggled with reacting to the war in Ukraine).

    The other thing to do with understanding this apart from fear, is power. It is currently, with an election looming in NZ, the desire for power that drives the right into this arena of expression. To tap into the public groundswell (groundswell ? probably exaggerated) when they are bereft of the usual policies and criticism of the sitting and seeming successful government.

    A few simple and simplified thoughts :-)

    Thank you.

  3. Barbara:

    And here I thought that this was my non-academic, simplified style of writing for a blog rather than an academic journal. :-)

    Now you know why, when I gave my Irish mother a copy of my 600 page first book, she said that it would make for great bedtime reading. Her precise words were: Gosh, this is great. You read one paragraph and you fall asleep!”

    In any event Culture Warriors seek more than power, which in a democracy is temporarily bounded by electoral cycles and partisan dynamics that mitigate against long-term tenures in power by government authorities of all parties. Individuals come and go as do policy priorities, but parties, as vehicles for popular representation, are more likely to endure if they are able to adapt to the changing political landscape and have an institutional machinery that outlives its creators and reproduces generational successors. Institutions must move forward as societal dynamics dictate or permit, not attempt to return to a mythical past.

    Therein lies the rub: culture warriors want to return to a social and political landscape that once was but is now changing in ways that they see as negative. They want to establish a modern version of a past society–in the case of NZ, settler colonialist, pakeha dominated and where Maori knew “their place,” among other things. This may be good for the nostalgic aspirations of NZ culture warriors but is bad for those that they want to subjugate or marginalise all over again. Remember that, the musings of Right-wingers and even some old guard Leftists about how things were so much better in the 1950s and 1960s notwithstanding, things were in fact not better for Maori, Pacifika, Asians, women, gays and physically and mentally disabled people, to name a few historically subjugated, voiceless or marginalised groups. Which is exactly why the culture wars must be contested frontally, since all of those mentioned in the previous sentence have tangibly benefitted from the opening of NZ society in recent decades, neo-liberal economics notwithstanding (the connection and contradictions between economic policy and social outcomes is a much discussed issue best left for another time).

    I am not sure who should lead the charge against the culture warriors but I do believe that a broad coalition must be constructed in defense of an open and egalitarian society against those who, even using the banner of free speech, want to use freedom of expression in order to impose their backwards-looking will on everyone else.

    Think of it this way: the so-called Free Speech Union (funded and supported by rightwing actors who share at least some of the culture warrior views on issues like co-governance) has launched a campaign to get the Disinformation Project de-funded (since the latter is on soft money rather being a permanent funding line in any NZ university or research centre). Apparently the FSU does not see the irony of them attempting to shut down an organization that monitors extremist groups and hate speech. In fact, the FSU has defended these extremists by conflating the concepts of protected offensive speech and hate speech in order to cloud the distinction in legal as well as practical terms. In other words, it looks like as far as the FSU are concerned, what is good for the goose is not good for the gander, and only those who share their culture warrior views are allowed to make their case in the public square.

    Again, I am not sure who should lead the counter-offensive against the culture warriors but a broad coalition of decent people drawn from civil society organisations, unions, academia, voluntary associations and political parties would be a good start. I happen to think that it would make a good rallying point as an election issue. The biggest obstacle is that such a coalition will have to fight uphill in a media ecosystem where corporate interests enable the dissemination of culture wars disinformation while stifling the rebuttals of those opposed to it. All for eyeballs, ears and clicks because as far as the “big” media is concerned, the issue is profit regardless of whether it is made off of fear-mongering rather than something bit more virtuous.

  4. lol I agree with your Irish mother, God bless her :-) (And here I was thinking there was some Scots input – though I’ve always felt the Scottish and Irish were pretty close anyway … close, by virtue of their shared histories, even if culturally different now …)

    Some interesting musings.
    I have been reflecting lately given their current popularity (not to mention the existing number of MPs), why it is that the ACT party still exists and holds seats in Parliament at all. As it is only really at the whim of the Nats, in that loose Epsom seat. And you have also answered that question in relation to being adaptable in order to stay relevant as a party in this multi-party, multi-cultural, system and electorate. But I still think its a weakness in the Nats makeup that lets Seymour free rein to exist and then bring in a bunch of like-minded far right MPs, when the situation occurs. Its just as well they are kept busy in Parliament, we do not hear from them much at all. Not as much as the Greens (the equivalent left wing party) – I guess they are in government, gives them more opportunity to speak out.

    The election year always brings out gaffes and controversy, lets hope there will be more of that from the right, they seem to be quite good at it at the moment lol.
    And so that might be a natural means of conservative attrition, given that we left wingers tend to be fairly quiet types who just get on with life …. but ever watchful ;-)

  5. Barbara:

    For some reason your first two attempts at reply went to the trash bin, but I have restored the most recent one.

    I am half Scottish, half Italian on my father’s side, so the mix with my mother’s Irish is a familiar NYC immigrants tale.

    I am hoping that the mindless adoption of culture war themes by the NACTs will prove counterproductive since, even though there are plenty of racists in Aotearoa (native-born and immigrant), the political culture of this country will not support their agenda.

  6. Yes, sorry about that. It seems to take a long time to load, and then sometimes it appears not to load at all ? But like all good things its good to persevere lol

  7. Hmmm.. Let two gay men speak. First up is Ben Appel with Homophobia in drag:
    Then, I learned about what was happening to gender-nonconforming kids – that they were being prescribed off-label drugs to halt their natural development, so that they’d have time to decide if they were really transgender. If so, they would then be more successful at passing as the opposite sex in adulthood. Even worse, I learned that these practices were being touted by LGBT-rights organisations as ‘life-saving medical care’. It felt like I was living in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

    Her question left me speechless. I couldn’t find the words to state the obvious: that I am a gay man, not a transwoman; that statistics tell me my medical transition may not have been successful; and that I would suffer severe medical complications. In any case, if I had transitioned, I wouldn’t be living an authentic life. After all, isn’t that what this is supposed to be about? Living authentically

    For voicing my concerns about gender-affirming care for minors, I have been called a transphobic bigot. If that’s what speaking out against the medicalisation of homosexuality makes me, then so be it.

  8. Second is Andrew Sullivan, Mr Gay Marriage himself, with The Queers versus the homosexuals. Like Appel he also notes the root of this being Queer Threory and its Foucaultian ideas of language and reality:
    The core belief of critical queer theorists is that homosexuality is not a part of human nature because there is no such thing as human nature; and that everything is socially constructed, even the body…

    And he sees the same results:
    There are fewer and fewer exclusively gay male spaces left. Lesbian bars? Almost gone entirely. Lesbians themselves? On their way out. Dylan Mulvaney is exemplary of the new queer order: a femme gay man who had to take female hormones to stay relevant.

    Plus going after kids…
    Then the queers upped the ante and did something we gays never did: they targeted children. If they could get into kids’ minds, bodies and souls from the very beginning of their lives, they could abolish the sex binary from the ground up. And so they got a pliant, woke educational establishment to re-program children from the very start, telling toddlers that any single one of them could be living in the wrong body, before they could even spell.
    And where it’s going from here
    Sullivan also notes how this Foucauldian denial of reality and the destruction of all norms and prohibitions is leading to arguments that children can legitimately consent to sex with adults: legal pedophilia.

    That last is my summation of his more detailed look at that issue and as I say in my post, Remember this the next time people tell you that it’s all just a Right Wing Conspiracy Theory and yet another fake Culture War by the Right.

    Actually Sullivan sees that too:
    If you read the MSM, you’ll be told this war is back because the GOP has, for cynical reasons, become an even more unhinged hate-machine, now dedicated once again to “targeting the freedom and dignity of queer people,” as one NYT columnist writes today. You will, in fact, almost never see a news story that isn’t premised on this idea. And it’s obviously true that some on the right have never really accepted gay equality

    But when you examine the other issues at stake — public schools teaching the concepts of queer and gender theory to kindergartners on up, sex changes for children before puberty, the housing of biological males with women in prisons and rape shelters, and biological males competing with women in sports — you realize we are far beyond what the gay rights movement once stood for. It’s these initiatives from the far left that are new; and the backlash is quite obviously a reaction to the capture of the gay rights movement by queer social justice activists.

    As I said the last time you made this argument, this is as much a Cultural Civil War on the Left as anything pushed by Righties like me and we are merely reacting to “these initiatives from the far left that are new”

  9. Tom,

    Nice to have you slumming around these parts. Must be your inner queer breaking out.:-0

    3 observations: 1) Appel’s and Sullivan’s interpretation of Foucault is, to put it charitably, faulty. I would not rely on them for a definitive interpretation of the Frenchman’s thought, which was about much more than using language to bend (and yes, I mean “bent”) reality;

    2) A couple of anecdotes from some gay men do not make for a comprehensive analysis of the trans question or proof of systematic effort to sexualize children, make them question their birth gender identities, foist invasive and often detrimental medical procedures on them or otherwise amount to an institutional campaign by “woke” lefties, queers (in your language) and Leftists to turn children into quivering masses of jelly-spined Tik Tok-king hermaphrodites. The lack of credibility of the anecdotal approach to any subject analysis is reinforced in this instance by the fact that;

    3) the hatred of many TERFs and gay men towards trans people is a well-known syndrome in these communities. They feel that the transgender quest for acceptance piggy-backs on their long history of struggle for recognition and obfuscates and detracts from these “pure” struggles and the sacrifices their predecessors made to gain any measure of recognition for their rights as human beings.That division within the gay and lesbian communities is historic, well-documented and a sad reflection of the diversity of thought within those communities. Instead of solidarity for a traditionally oppressed minority, they play into the hands of religious and other ideological bigots whose objective is to use division and hatred for political and social gain ( especially in the US, where the political system has been gerry-mandered by the GOP to the point that a very minority view can prevail in electoral contests regardless of the majority opinion. That is where Bannon was right before 2016. Given gerry-wandering and the make up of the Electoral College, Trump only needed 35% of the total vote in order to win. He did better than that but the Electoral College vote was grossly disproportionate to the general vote in his favour).

    The larger point is that the “threat” of “wokeness” in general and and transgender rights in particular has been exaggerated by a range of groups, mostly but not exclusively on the Right, in pursuit of other reactionary if not anti-democratic agendas.

    Anyway, I shall go back to my well-worn earmarked copy of Discipline and Punishment and look for a refresher on self-disciple rituals so that I may atone for my dalliance with a leading representative of the Rightwing cabal trolling the NZ blogosphere. Cheers!

  10. More than happy to slum it as long as people don’t mind me lounging around in the pool drinking beer. :) No Bud Light thank you.

    The lack of credibility of the anecdotal approach to any subject analysis…
    Well Sullivan mentions the closing of the Tavistock Institute in Britain, which didn’t happen until an analysis of thousands of cases of gender transitions that had been performed.

    So many potentially gay children were being sent down the pathway to change gender, two of the clinicians said there was a dark joke among staff that “there would be no gay people left.” “It feels like conversion therapy for gay children,” one male clinician said. “I frequently had cases where people started identifying as trans after months of horrendous bullying for being gay,” he told The Times. “Young lesbians considered at the bottom of the heap suddenly found they were really popular when they said they were trans.”

    I think the reactions of gays, lesbians and gender critical feminists to the Trans movement are based on a lot more than just being offended by piggy-backing. Those two men are not the only gays I’ve heard expressing the thought that young gays are being “wiped out” by the medicalisation of homosexuality.

    And on that note, I wrote about that aspect with You raise the blade, you make the change:
    In the late 19th century, the female reproductive system was thought to be the cause of a range of mental disorders afflicting women. Thousands of mostly young women had their perfectly healthy uteri and/or ovaries removed as a supposed cure for their mental distress.
    Plus teeth removal and of course, frontal lobotomies. I’d thought we’d got past the barbarism of thinking that surgery could help mental problems.

  11. Tom:

    Good one with that Bud Lite remark. I gather that you will not be frequenting Target or Walmart either.

    For some reason reading the Sullivan quotes has me thinking that his observations are like having Nurse Ratched comment on inmates in the movie “One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest.” Some were nuts, some were not, but to her they were all should be treated the same (and with contempt).

    I do not believe that gender dysmorphia is a mental illness any more than I believe that homosexuality is. I do agree that using surgery to treat mental health issues is wrong.

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