Last Front in the Culture War

Progressives have had great success in bringing diversity to mainstream institutions. If only they would do the same to their own.

By Jack Meserve

Tagged Culture War

The culture war has been declared dead by just about everyone in the past few years. Politico Magazine explained “How Republicans Lost the Culture War.” The American Prospect trumpeted that the “Culture War Is Over.” Matt Lewis, the conservative columnist, has written that “[c]onservatives have largely lost the culture, and it can’t be won back by passing some landmark piece of legislation.”

It’s hard to argue. Conservative voices in the culture war have been marginalized by the mainstream almost completely. When Mike Huckabee recently criticized the Obamas for letting their daughters listen to Beyoncé and wondered whether Jay Z was “arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp,” the reaction was widespread mockery. Gay marriage’s legal victories have arrived with stunning rapidity, and in popular culture that fight is already over. Complaining about violence in video games is largely seen as anachronistic—though we’ll return to video games in a moment.

Overall, the left has won a nearly total victory, practically and ideologically. People not only don’t want their forms of art censored; the idea that we’re better off with warning labels added to music, risqué art removed from museums, and our sexual preferences regulated by lawmakers has been discredited.

And yet. There have been fights over culture in the last year. Look at Gamergate, the debate over the legacy of The New Republic, the complaints about the lily-white Oscar nominees, and there’s been a unifying theme. It is that liberal institutions themselves haven’t actually accepted one of the core tenets of progressivism: that our cultural outlets should include women and people of color, wholly and without prejudice. Liberals have been successful in persuading the general public; they’ve been less successful at persuading themselves.

The debates of the past year show that the left’s last fight in the culture war will be against itself, specifically on the necessity of adding voices that aren’t white and male. Maybe not literally the last fight—there will always be pockets of cultural conservatism throughout the country. But the areas where the most change can take place—movies, games, technology, journalism—are all run to various degrees by left-of-center men who have bridled when asked to take steps to fix these inequities. Convincing them isn’t going well.

IIn the past few years, there have been more critics and developers willing to critique games that feature sexualized or stereotyped female characters. “Gamergaters”—as a small but active group of players identified themselves—saw these criticisms not as the voices in the wilderness they were, but as part of a conspiracy by the left, especially the feminist left, to push politics into video games. The Gamergate activists started intimidating these writers on social media and pressuring advertisers on sites that hosted them. The controversy has fizzled out somewhat, but it captured headlines for months. To any readers who see the words “video games” and are tempted to put down this magazine, know that Americans now spend more money on video games than they do on movies at the box office. This is a forum that matters.

Although the Gamergate movement became quickly known for a virulent anti-feminism that pooh-poohed death threats against female writers, its base was not a conservative one. One of its main discussion spaces was a sub-forum on Reddit, one of the most left-wing sites on the Internet. Reddit’s most popular political posts virtually always support action on fighting climate change, supporting same-sex marriage, closing Guantánamo Bay, ending the drug war, guaranteeing net neutrality, and a host of other progressive causes. There’s no way to prove definitively that those using the sub-forum focused on Gamergate follow the general trend of the site, but if one reads the more lucid tracts of GG, it’s evident that the main strain is not conservatism but what’s been jokingly called “brogressivism.” That is, left-libertarian men who follow the liberal line on almost every issue, but who would prefer that feminism stay the hell away from their video games. Conservatives like Christina Hoff Sommers have attached themselves to the movement like remoras to a whale, but the core is a male progressive one.

An admirably honest “Gamergater” explained that while he supports equal rights, “When feminism comes into the gaming community and starts having massive influence on what gets written in gaming journalism as well as design in game development…then this goes beyond a good cause or a fight for women’s rights, into the realm of thought policing.” This attitude isn’t impossible to understand. Suppose you were a fan of blues music, and your friend began pointing out that blues musicians have been almost entirely male, and kept sending you essays on the blues’ heteronormativity, and went through your playlist to tell you that “Back Door Man” objectified women. Your friend would be right, but everyone is susceptible to the feeling of wanting to be left alone.

One irony is that video games were one of the first fronts in the culture war. In 1992, “Mortal Kombat” was released, and the displays of blood and gore—which now seem tame, even comic—were enough to provoke Senate hearings. Back then the ideological left marched in lockstep against meddling from conservatives, some of whom were Democrats. But many of those same gamers, now grown up, feel just as annoyed about perceived meddling from progressives.

Gamergate, like Huckabee’s comments, was universally condemned by the mainstream. But it’s not at all clear that a victory in discourse translates to a victory in reality. In those 1990s Senate hearings, the cultural conservatives actually “won.” They pressured video game publishers into adding a rating system onto game boxes with warnings about mature content. But the proof of the gaming is in the playing, and games became darker and more violent, to the point where the original “Mortal Kombat” now looks cartoonish. Today, complaints about that violence mostly just remind people of the 1990s.

A similarly hollow victory could now face the left. Gamergate was a small, extremist movement that probably numbered in the low thousands. But the broader movement of gamers is comfortable with games that mostly feature women either as MacGuffins to be rescued or as ludicrously proportioned sex objects. If this attitude isn’t turned around, Gamergate has the potential to be the tip of a very large spear.

When a liberal magazine nearly collapses because of an organic, spontaneous labor action, one would assume there’d be widespread sympathy from the left. The New Republic received that sympathy from its many alumni scattered throughout the media, but it got a much chillier reception from outside that group.

Its defenders cited its long-form writing, its history, and its continued seriousness in the face of new-media challengers that tailored writing for sharing on social media. But critics pointed to the nearly complete absence of non-white voices from its pages and the longstanding anti-Arab bigotry of its erstwhile owner Marty Peretz as reasons to say good riddance to bad rubbish.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking for the prosecution, wrote:

Earlier this year, [Franklin] Foer edited an anthology of TNR writings titled Insurrections of the Mind, commemorating the magazine’s 100-year history….There is only one essay in Insurrections that takes race as its subject. The volume includes only one black writer and only two writers of color. This is not an oversight. Nor does it mean that Foer is a bad human. On the contrary, if one were to attempt to capture the “spirit” of TNR, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that black lives don’t matter much at all.

This is a strong and depressing point, but it doesn’t prove as much about The New Republic alone as Coates thinks it does. As it happens, Coates’s magazine, The Atlantic, released an anthology in 2007 called The American Idea. It contained 78 essays, only four by African Americans, three of which were written in the 1800s. The anthology included one Asian writer, one Native American, and as far as I can tell, no Latinos. But no one writes about The Atlantic’s race problem, or assumes Latino lives don’t matter to the editors of The Atlantic.

This doesn’t excuse The New Republic, which for many years had an embarrassing owner and published embarrassing essays. It’s to say that these narratives that implicate everyone but ourselves—that it’s those other magazines with the race problem—gut the self-criticism that’s needed more than anything. (Democracy, in its nearly ten years of existence, has had a single non-white employee.)

So what’s the alternative? A vigorous, unflinching look at the systems that create these homogenous cultures.

The understanding that broader structures drive individual actions has always been the strength of liberalism. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently wrote in Jacobin that the leftist critique contrasts with “right-wing accounts of politics, which focus on individual choice and disposition, private and personal interests, and folk-legendary tales of bootstrapping….The vigor of the left position arises from the fact that we do not have to traffic in one-offs and pan flashes.” But the left has recently walked into an individualist story, one that pretends that racism and sexism and transphobia are problems of certain bad people believing bad things, problems that can be beaten one shaming tweetstorm at a time.

To look at some of these cases is to see their futility. A Texas PR firm, “Strange Fruit PR,” changed its name after being pilloried for using the title of a Billie Holiday song about lynching, and continued to be harassed even after changing it. Mount Holyoke College stopped showing The Vagina Monologues because it supposedly excludes trans women by assuming that all women have vaginas. It’s a sad movement that calls these victories.

The problem isn’t just that these tactics won’t succeed for the left, it’s that they’re easily appropriable by the right. The folks behind GG assumed “gamer” as an identity and claimed that this was just another example of nerds being bullied by the majority. The idea of “hashtag activism” on Twitter was popularized by the left, but used to great effect by GG. These tactics may be effective, but there’s no rule that only the good guys can use them. In an astute essay, the writer Freddie deBoer pointed out how the men behind Gamergate were following the left’s playbook:

We on the left have argued for ages that “the personal is political.” We’ve told people that they should look for political resonance in every aspect of their personal lives, in order to see the hand of various oppressions at play in microcosm. And we’ve incentivized that behavior in the way we always do, by treating the deployment of that kind of argument as a trump card against those who you’re arguing with….And now we’re seeing the same thing from the GamerGate crew: this isn’t a fashion or hobby for me, it’s an identity. Your criticisms aren’t criticisms, they’re bullying. I’m not being blamed for bad behavior, I’m being oppressed.

On the other hand, the group VIDA annually calculates the percentage of female writers published in every major magazine, and the numbers in their totality are far more damning and effective than if bad offenders were plucked out for individual embarrassment. (There has been halting progress on the journalistic front, especially at new media companies.) Tech companies have begun voluntarily publishing their diversity statistics and acknowledging the amount of work they need to do to improve—a disclosure it’d be worth pressuring top game companies to make.

The way to win this final theater of the culture war is to see these left media bastions—movies, video games, journalism—as systems that need to be fixed, not bad people who need to be drummed out. To borrow a line from E.J. Dionne, the left should be looking for converts, not heretics.

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Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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