The phrase “culture wars,” or its singular “culture war,” is now commonly used to refer to the conflict between conservatives and progressives in contemporary America. (I rather prefer the singular—because, while there are many battlefields, there is also an overall clash between worldviews.) The phrase has been made popular in a 1992 book by the sociologist James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. (I also like the singular form of the phrase because it alludes to an earlier conflict, the Kulturkampf in the 19th century between Bismarck’s militantly Protestant state and the Roman Catholic Church—first in Prussia, then in newly reunited Germany as a whole. At the end of that day, the Church won.) Except in the minds of theorists, worldviews are not logically consistent entities, nor are the cultures in which worldviews are embedded. The ideas that make up a worldview are often contradictory, haphazardly put together. And the groups propagating them are typically alliances between different interests. Nevertheless, there are more or less distinct conservative and progressive subcultures in America; if you are familiar with the country, you will know in which of the two you happen to find yourself. Furthermore, the two major political parties have come to be associated with one or the other of the two subcultures—cultural conservatives are an important constituency for the Republican Party, cultural progressives for the Democratic Party. Issues south of the navel are important (though not exclusive) battlefields in the culture war—gender, sexual ethics, homosexuality, abortion, and (to a lesser degree) contraception. For the past fifty years or so much of domestic politics has revolved around the culture war. But America is not just any country. While it may no longer be politically or economically hegemonic, both its popular and its “high” culture are enormously influential throughout the world. Not surprisingly, both subcultures have become export commodities. Put differently, the American culture war has become globalized.
As is my (possibly obsessive) habit, I will juxtapose two recent news items. On August 9, 2014, the Economist carried a story about extramarital sex in Iran. The publication (in my opinion the best international news magazine) was founded in 1843 in London, where its headquarters is still located. Ever since, it has stood for free markets and free trade. The title story of this issue is “The Sex Business,” approvingly reporting how information technology is making it possible for prostitutes to become independent entrepreneurs—yet another instance of an emerging free market. I don’t know to what extent adulterers and prostitutes in the Islamic Republic of Iran have become technologically sophisticated, but the notion of sexual freedom that legitimates their behavior is of unmistakably American provenance (on this, regretfully, I must agree with the ruling Shi‘i clerics—on empirical grounds, even though I do not share their moral judgments). On August 1, 2014, the New York Times reported that the Constitutional Court of Uganda declared the recently passed draconic anti-homosexual law to be invalid. I don’t know to what degree the international outcry against this law influenced the Court, but its decision was on purely technical grounds—the law was passed by parliament when a quorum was not present. The government said that it would appeal further, so that this is not necessarily the end of the story. In this case, one need not speculate about American influences: The law was proposed in parliament as a result of an intensive campaign by American Evangelicals.
The Iran story: Iran’s parliamentary research department published an 82-page report on sexual behavior in the country. Some of the results must have deeply disturbed the theocratic elite. Thus, among other findings, 80 percent of unmarried females are supposed to be sexually active and 17 percent of students to be homosexuals. Of course both behaviors are strictly illegal in the Islamic Republic. Did some of the respondents lie? I don’t know the methodology of this study. Nor do I know whether the issuing of this document was part of a political agenda by either side of the dispute between moderates and hardliners in the regime; both may have an interest in unmasking the reality behind what the Economist story calls an “unspoken accord”: Do what you want, as long as it is done behind closed doors. Be this as it may, this report confirms anecdotal accounts of a sexual underworld existing under the radar of the official morals police. This dichotomy seems to span the Shi‘a/Sunni divide currently inflaming the Middle East: Both in Iran and in Saudi Arabia sophisticated individuals manage to circumvent the officially imposed moral rectitude—that is, individuals who understand English, can access American media, and even perhaps have studied at American universities. It is worth noting that the libertine influence from the Great Satan comes from both sides of the aisle—from the popular culture that is happily consumed by Tea Party activists who also bemoan American decadence—and from emissaries of the progressive ideology of sexual liberation (see the excellent article by Martha Bayles, “American Misguided Gender Missionaries,” in the March-April, 2014, issue of The American Interest).
The aforementioned Iranian document goes beyond the alleged fact-finding to make a recommendation which allows a compromise (at least for heterosexuals) between raging hormones and the Shi‘a version of Islamic law: the curious institution of sighey/“temporary marriage.” This can last for a long time or for minutes. The offending couple goes through a ceremony that unites the two partners in a perfectly legal “marriage,” but this union can be dissolved at any time without the cumbersome requirements of a regular divorce. An unmarried or even adulterous couple can enjoy the benefits of such an arrangement for months or even years. But it is also very convenient for men visiting a prostitute: The customer can be “married” at the entrance of a house of ill repute and be “divorced” at the exit an hour or so later. According to rumor, this practice is favored by theology students in the holy city of Qom. (Are scholars in the Saudi Kingdom pondering whether Sunni law might allow a similar practice?)
The Uganda story: Most African countries, regardless of whether they have a Christian or Muslim majority, have laws criminalizing homosexuality. (As far as I know, no one has suggested homophobia as a basis for interfaith amity.) But Uganda gets first prize. American Evangelicals can claim credit for this. In 2009 a very public “workshop” on homosexuality was conducted in Kampala, the national capital. The organizers and main speakers were prominent American Evangelicals. There was a broad “gay agenda,” dealing with the alleged sinfulness and perversity of homosexuality, its harm to individuals, the family and the general society. One of the topics was the availability of “Christian therapies” to cure the condition. As far as I know there were no specific recommendations for legislation, though it was clear that homosexuality was deemed to be a serious peril that needs intervention by the state. The message was widely appreciated. In 2013 parliament passed a law prohibiting any form of homosexual behavior or advocacy, with harsh penalties for each category. In the original bill the death penalty was to be imposed for “aggravated homosexuality”; in the final version this was changed to life imprisonment, presumably in response to an international outcry and a threat of sanctions by Western democracies. (The Ugandan law resembles the one recently passed by the Russian Duma. I don’t know whether there were consultations by the two legislatures. I am sure that President Putin, or for that matter the Moscow Patriarch, did not threaten Uganda with sanctions.) The law was signed by President Museveni, who is widely admired in the West as a statesman and supported in his campaign against Joseph Kony’s terrorist insurrection called The Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony has concocted an ideology meshing a vague charismatic Christianity with African magic, and his troops have a record of barbaric atrocities that rivals that of ISIS or Boko Haram. (I am not suggesting that American Evangelicals have had anything to do with this bunch. I just mention it to round out the picture of what may be a Ugandan propensity for religious craziness.)
Back to the American culture war: The conflict covers a broad spectrum of topics, from behavior in the bedroom to the use of military force. Logically, many of these topics have nothing to do with each other but came to be linked because of the requirements of political alliances. For example, during the Cold War many individuals with hawkish views on confronting Communism suddenly emerged espousing strong opposition to abortion because they were politically aligned with people holding strongly pro-life convictions. Nothing new in this: Politics has always made for strange bedfellows. (Personal disclosure: I have all along been unable to enlist wholeheartedly under either a conservative or progressive banner. I incline toward a conservative worldview both for temperamental and intellectual reasons: My Viennese origins make for deep-seated pessimism and sociology suggests skepticism about radical efforts to change the world. But many of my views are progressive, certainly on issues south of the navel. In this blog I have not hidden my own beliefs, but neither have I advocated them. I have tried to comment objectively on the religious scene, but I have felt free to be irreverent about some of its absurdities.)
Of course reasonably intelligent people will not subscribe to every item in a catechism of political correctness. All the same, two distinct ideological orthodoxies have emerged from the American culture war, and in certain environments they can be repressive. I have always been struck by the particular grimness of both conservatives and progressives when it comes to questions of sexuality. Evangelical girls who belong to virginity clubs will resent levity as much as members of women’s health collectives who meet to examine each other’s genitalia. (Old joke: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?—That’s not funny!) Of course there are all sorts of serious issues about human sexuality. But one of the most important things to understand is that sexuality is profoundly funny (I use the adverb “profoundly” with deliberation). That is a humanizing perception, tending to undermine the Puritan grimness.
My readers will be interested to know that yet another scroll has been accidentally discovered in yet another cave near the Dead Sea. It contains a fragment from the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. It comes after the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, the act for which they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The canonical text reads: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” The Dead Sea scroll adds a further sentence: “They looked and looked at each other. Then they could not stop laughing for a long time.”