The resilience of the adversary culture.

Author:Hollander, Paul
 
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THE TERRORIST attacks of September 11, whatever else they mean and have wrought, provide a new vantage point for examining the recent evolution and current condition of the American adversary culture. This term, coined by Lionel Trilling in his 1965 book Beyond Culture, refers to a discernible and durable reservoir of discontent, to a disposition on the part of those Americans who habitually find the United States--or at least its government--at fault in virtually every conflict in which it is engaged. It is a culture whose boundaries, both demographic and intellectual, defy precise definition, but the concept has nonetheless been indispensable for identifying a chronic domestic estrangement and the specific beliefs associated with it.

As to the demographical boundary, most of those within the adversary culture may be loosely described as intellectuals, or quasi-intellectuals, and their followers; they are found in the greatest concentrations on major college campuses and nearby communities. Living near a campus generally inclines one to overestimate the adversary culture's importance and influence, whereas distance from such a setting tempts one to write it off as inconsequential. A visit to a campus by someone not inured to its atmosphere can illustrate the psychic distance between the two. About five years ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked former President George H.W. Bush what he had learned at a Hofstra University conference about his presidency; Bush answered: "I learned that there are some real wacko professors scattered out around the country." (1)

As to the adversary culture's intellectual boundaries, it is generically far Left, its central animating views being unswervingly anti-capitalist. For most of its 20th-century existence, these views coincided with formal Marxist and less well-defined Marxoid perspectives. But radical pacifists and anarchists were counted among that culture, and with the collapse of Soviet communism and the accompanying nadir of socialism, the mix of attitudes within the adversary culture has changed and grown. Environmental, anti-globalization and "multicultural" forms of radicalism have been moving into spaces formerly occupied by conventional left-wing parties and movements. Environmentalism fits the adversary culture well, as we will see, because of its essentially anti-modernist bias. Anti-globalization combines environmentalism and anti-corporatism on a global scale to replace what used to be discrete anti-capitalism on national scales. Multiculturalism fills the need to bind together the several constituencies of the a dversary culture, for no longer is that culture dominated by white Protestants and Jews as it had been before the first half of the 20th century.

So, too, has the adversary culture adopted post-modernism and deconstructionism as the intellectual anchors for its politics. These radically relativistic affections have been combined, curiously enough, with denunciations of American society and Western culture just as heart-felt as those of simpler days gone by. As before, these condemnations rest on the non-relativistic assumption that there are absolute standards available with which to condemn that society and culture.

Adherents of the adversary culture can be found in a wide variety of settings, organizations and interest groups. They include postmoderist academics, radical feminists, Afrocentrist blacks, radical environmentalists, animal rights activists, pacifists, Maoists, Trotskyites, critical legal theorists and others. They often have different political agendas but share certain core convictions and key assumptons: all are reflexively and intensely hostile critics of the United States or American society and, increasingly, of all Western cultural traditions and values as well. The most important among their beliefs is that American society is deeply flawed and uniquely repellent--unjust, corrupt, destructive, soulless, inhumane, inauthentic and incapable of satisfying basic, self-evident human needs. The American social system has failed to live up to its original historical promise and, they insist, is inherently and ineradicably sexist, racist and imperialist.

It should also be noted that, for the most part, the adversary culture took little notice of the collapse of Soviet communism, the end of the Cold War and the retreat of state-socialist systems around the world. Its increasing preoccupation with matters domestic reflects the dearth of foreign alternatives to the alleged evils of American society and capitalism. Of late, therefore, as suggested above, critiques of globalization on the basis of its domestic environmental and economic effects have become a substitute for more explicit attacks on capitalism.

Nevertheless, the supporters of the adversary culture still tend to sympathize with virtually every political force that opposes the United States. These include the former Soviet Union, China under Mao, Castro's Cuba, Sandinista Nicaragua, supporters of the uprising in Chiapas, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Yugoslavia under Milosevic, the PLO and various other anti-Israeli Arab groups, and, most recently, even the Taliban. There have been occasional disagreements among these critics regarding U.S. policy toward particular adversaries: a few of them supported the Gulf War and more of them the intervention in Kosovo. Most recently, some recognized that the Taliban's hatred of the United States and all it stands for does not necessarily make it an admirable ally or friend. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, was seriously disheartened that authentic enemies of the United States were less than enlightened as regards the rights of women: "What is so heartbreaking to me as a feminist is that the strongest response to c orporate globalization and U.S. military domination is based on such a violent and misogynist ideology." (2)

BUT DOES any of this still matter? Many observers claimed in the weeks after September 11 that the most remarkable thing about the contemporary adversary culture is its silence. Hendrik Hertzberg, for example, found that only "traditional pacifists . . and a tiny handful of reflexive Rip Van Winkles" object "to the aims and methods of the antiterrorism campaign. . . .Conservative commentators have had a frustrating time of it rounding up the usual blame-America-first suspects, because so few of those suspects are out there blaming America first." (3) Michael Kelly proclaimed "the renaissance of liberalism" and argued that "what had been since the late 1960s the dominant voice of left-liberal politics" has become "marginalized" post-September 11. (4) Even more pointedly, George Packer argued in the New York Times Magazine:

September 11 made it safe for liberals to be patriots. Among the things destroyed with the twin towers was the notion held by certain Americans, ever since Vietnam, that to be stirred by national identity, carry a flag and feel grateful toward someone in uniform ought to be a source of embarrassment. (5)

Loud dissent and telegenic demonstrations against the beginning of U.S. military action in Afghanistan on October 7 were noticeably muted, it is true--more so even than the modest protest accompanying the Gulf War in 1991. But the adversary culture had not disappeared, and as America's conduct of the war on terrorism gradually replaced the images of the September 11 attacks themselves, it made a quick comeback. The influence of the adversary culture has been most obvious on the campuses, where anti-U.S. sentiments and statements are conventional wisdom, and least apparent in towns and suburbs, where its presence is all but absent. Generally speaking, the adversary culture, entrenched in its academic strongholds and other cultural institutions, still wields considerable influence even as it has become increasingly isolated and weakened by recent defections. In addition to the appeal of some of its messages of the moment, some of the adversary culture's worldview has been absorbed over time into what we casual ly call the mainstream through the media and, in a different way, through the American commercial culture. (6) (It is, for example, commonplace for observers outside the adversary culture to refer to the American international vocation as "imperial." (7)) That is why some observers had trouble locating the adversary culture after September 11; they were looking in the wrong places.

They were looking, in particular, at the overtly political. While the adversary culture still overlaps with the Left (old, new, and left-over), a purely political definition does not do it justice. Rather, the attitudes and beliefs in question also involve what is peripheral to the political: a sense of identity, cultural norms, matters of taste. Russell...

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