Copycat Culture Wars image

Copycat Culture Wars

"If you think being stuck in a culture war is bad," wrote Helen Lewis in an excellent article for The Atlantic last October, "imagine being stuck in someone else's." America, she explained, has exported its culture wars: the tenor and temperature of its debates about gun control, race, politics, identity, cultural appropriation and so forth have gone forth and multiplied internationally, especially in English-speaking nations like hers and mine. This is mildly annoying for those nations, and skews important discussions in unexpected ways. But neither is it good for America, whose natural hegemonic tendency to frame everything around themselves is reinforced by the fact that everyone else does (hence the increasingly surreal and amusing New York Times descriptions of life in Britain). "America, our former colony, won the internet," she concludes, "and now makes us speak its language."

It is an article I have thought about numerous times since I read it. Part of living wisely, let alone pastoring and preaching to others, involves reflecting critically on important cultural dynamics, especially those which affect nearly everything - and Americanisation, it seems, is one of those dynamics. So it was fascinating to hear a more extended treatment of the subject in Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland’s The Rest is History podcast this week, entitled simply “Americanisation.” Remarkably, it was recorded before the Oprah interview, which serves as a pretty emphatic confirmation of much of what they were saying.

I was struck by this section in particular:

Holland: The culture wars are actually the way that America is being most influential on us ... So we were talking about Anglo-Saxons: the sense that that is somehow a “problematic” phrase, so you’re no longer supposed to use the word “Anglo-Saxon” to describe the period between the end of the Roman empire in Britain and the Norman conquest, because Anglo-Saxon is seen as being an inherently racist, white supremacist phrase. But that’s only the case in America. It’s infuriating. It’s the “English” Defence League, not the “Anglo-Saxon” Defence League. “Anglo-Saxon” doesn’t have that connotation here in Britain; it’s a purely American connotation. But because it’s American academics leading it, British academics (or some of them) just nod obediently and say, well of course we must abolish this phrase - and ignoring the fact that “Anglo-Saxon” has a quite different connotation for the French or the Germans. I think that’s an intriguing change, because now it’s the Left that has been Americanised.

Sandbrook: I remember 25 years ago teaching undergraduate courses about white supremacy in America, with white supremacy being a very specific thing to do with slavery, and the incomplete legacy of reconstruction at the end of the Civil War, and the creation of these white supremacist regimes in the American south. And it was a very distinct, specific, American thing. And now, of course, white supremacy is a concept that is bandied around in a very vague, undefined way, and people talk about white supremacy in Britain and European countries, and it’s not the same thing at all; what they’ve basically done is just taken an American term. And that’s true of almost all these culture war battles. A lot of the most notable examples of statue toppling are of Confederate statues in America, and people have been copying what they see in the States and translating it to the British cultural landscape ... A great example from the ‘60s was the British protests against the Vietnam War. I mean: we weren’t in the Vietnam War. But people had protests about it anyway. That really is just copycat: “we’ve seen it in America so let’s just do it in Grosvenor Square.”

Once you notice it, you see it everywhere: on banner adverts, in political interviews, on Twitter, in academic conferences, before football matches, and even in royal interviews. The question, of course, is: given all that, what do we do about it? And the answer, I suspect, is to be aware of it, to endeavour not to let conversations become unduly skewed by it (whether inside or outside the church), and to attempt some version of what Oliver O’Donovan said about politics: “there are times when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”

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