What Culture Wars Do

When right-wing contrarians distract you with issues of minor concern intended to promote extreme responses, ask yourself: why?

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There is very little that epitomizes the purpose of culture wars and the difference between Substack and actual journalism than what I am about to tell you. On Wednesday, as the rest of the world pondered the conviction of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, Bari Weiss went ahead with a scheduled Zoom focusing on anti-racism programming in New York’s private schools.

Compare these two things, if you will.

One was a nationally-watched trial that produced the rarest of things, the conviction of a white cop for killing a Black man, and avoided something we have come to dread, the torching of a neighborhood. It was followed by Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department and yet another police killing in Columbus, Ohio.

If you were following journalists, there was an extraordinary range of responses from Black participants and pundits: some repudiated the idea that justice had been served; others pointed to how perfect the case had to be to convict Chauvin; some imagined the conviction as a turning point. Reverend Al Sharpton, who has been fighting this fight since the late twentieth century, led a prayer of Thanksgiving on live TV.

The other is about white people associated with private schools in New York City who don’t want to do anti-racism training. This is a purely internal matter in these schools, falsely reformulated as a matter of general public concern.

On the one hand, Weiss had a dilemma on her hands with which I can empathize. None of us knew the Chauvin verdict would come down so quickly: she probably thought she had plenty of time before she had to respond to it. And she had promised her 50,000 paying subscribers a conversation with the anti-antiracists she had published that week.

But here is one difference between Substack and journalism: in newsrooms around the country, every opinion journalist probably had two columns ready to go because they would have been asked by an editor to be prepared for either outcome.

Not so on Substack: yes, we are all concerned with being relevant, but we aren’t required to respond to a hierarchy of importance regarding the news.

In fact, what we need to be concerned about is meeting our commitments to our own audience. Weiss told her followers to expect a conversation with Paul Rossi and Andrew “Brearley Dad” Guttman. It was wildly popular: the cap of 1,000 participants was reached within two minutes. So people who pay her to be reliable and do what she said would have been disappointed.

But here’s the thing. Could she have used this moment to do something more important? The regularly scheduled programming effectively distracted those 1,000 people from a vital, national conversation about race happening at that exact moment, replacing it with a conversation about society and not schools to which a tiny minority of the population has any real connection.

And that is what culture wars do. They say: don’t look over there at that complex problem that you don’t know what to think about or understand. Look over here at this highly relatable problem that threatens your very way of life, will cause you to feel powerful emotions, and identify your real enemies.

Distraction is a critical element of all culture wars rhetoric: forget about the minimum wage, people are poor because they aren’t virtuous; forget about your underfunded public schools, transgender girls want to use the ladies room; forget about anti-Black violence perpetrated by police, diversity consultants are psychologically abusing white children in public school.

In other words, the thing you are being diverted from is a structural problem with real, political solutions. In contrast, culture war problems center hysterical, unproven harm, suffered by very few or no people, and assert that conspiracies—anti-racism, a living wage, feminism—are the leading edge of an Armageddon planned by a vast, left-wing conspiracy that hates America.

In contrast, real journalism and edited opinion columns, liberal or conservative, ask you to focus your mind on something important. They tell you why it is about more than your own personal concerns and why it matters to society. They tell you what the parameters of the problem are and suggest a way of thinking about it. They don’t demand that you agree: they challenge you to disagree. They don’t ask you to become distraught. They don’t present as “common sense” perspectives with which everyone but a knucklehead or a dreamy, out-of-touch leftist would agree.

It goes without saying that unmediated access to audiences via the internet has produced a whole new chapter in the culture wars. Blogging wasn’t the first medium to promote this attention-grabbing technique. Still, it did bring tabloid-style reporting to the internet, where social media platforms capitalized on it, birthing pseudo-news outlets that profited from outrage and clickbait.

Substack and its imitators are the latest versions of this. It is no accident that, with a few exceptions, contrarians with large followings have been recruited to lead the platform’s charge to profitability. But remember, the next time you are being wooed with outrage from the right or the left: it is a media dynamic—not anti-racism, not a conspiracy, not organic disagreements about equality—that have brought us to a place where failures of social justice in America have become borderline undiscussable.

Then ask yourself: what is it that this person wants me to not think about? What is going on outside this bubble of concern?

And open your mind to that.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).

What I’m reading:

  • As the United States’ effort to ship vaccines abroad struggles, Russia is happy to fill the void. (Valentina Lares, Persuasion, April 23, 2020)

  • CPAC head Matt Schlapp’s Twitter autocorrect malfunction suggests that he and his family are boycotting a sperm bank. (Ben Mathis-Lilley, Slate, April 22, 2021)

  • Legal historian Mia Brett explains how cops came to be protected from civil damages. (The Editorial Board, April 22, 2021)