Sunday, March 07, 2004

Battlefields of the Mind: Looking at the Culture War from Afar
Part One: A Reasonable Madness

For those who donít read David Neiwertís blog, Orcinus, you really are missing something. Mr. Neiwert has, for some time now, been documenting the hate speech and general antics of the Ultraconservative Right in what has become known ostensibly as the Culture Wars. And heís doing an amazing job. Seriously, if you arenít reading Orcinus on at least a weekly basis, I donít see how you could call yourself culturally or politically aware.

Iíd like to look at the Culture War, but from a Big Picture perspective.

First off, who is involved in this War? What are the sides and where are the lines drawn? Itís harder to pin down these specifics as the culture war, unlike your all too common geopolitical war, is fought entirely on an abstract plane of ideas, with memes instead of bombs and rhetoric in place of machine gun fire. To catch even a glimpse of the Big Picture, we need to examine the mental battlefields where these skirmishes take place.

In itís broadest sense the culture war has been going on for over 200 years, and started way back in the eighteenth century with the Declaration of Independence (in the US) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (in France). To generalize for a moment we can look at the current Culture War as little more than an extension of the centuries old battle for human spirit, with the Champions of the Enlightenment on one side and the Minions of Theocracy on the other. But this is, as I said, a generalization (Iíll also admit that Iím squarely on one side of this conflict and so more than a little bias. Iíve always had an affinity for Enlightened Humanism and a profound disdain for theocrats of any shape). But the lines arenít drawn distinctly. It isnít simply Liberal vs. Conservative, Right vs. Left or any of the other dull labels that our mass media drag out every time they stumble across one of these ideological battlefields. However, we can make meaningful distinctions between the two sides of the culture war if we examine them from the perspective of Information, or more precisely, their attitudes about Information.

Robert Anton Wilson characterizes the two sides as Infophobes and Infophiles.

The pure infophobe (represented not too badly by most "respectable" law-abiding citizens anywhere) obsessively avoids exotic foods, exotic ideas, exotic clothing, exotic people, "dern foreigners," new technology, innovative art or music, tabu subjects, originality, creativity etc. Sen. Exon, Sen. Gramm, most of Congress, Theodore Roszack and Unibomber represent various styles of compulsive infophobic imprints. The pure infophile remains a relatively rare person at this primitive stage of evolution. The infophile seeks out the new and exotic in food, ideas, clothing, technology, art -- everywhere. Picasso, Joyce, Niels Bohr, Bucky Fuller and all the murdered heretics and innovators of history represent extreme infophiliac imprints.

Infophobes are frightened out of their narrow little minds by any new information that comes along, especially if that new information instigates a reassessment of their values or preconceptions about the world. That the Infophobes have held power for the better part of the last 6000 years is a phenomenon I scarcely claim to understand and am at a loss to explain. Speculating, Iíd say they are drawn to positions of power in order to squash as much new (and therefore in their view, dangerous) information as possible. This pathological disdain for the new manifests in a number of ways: disliking of foreign food, culture or traditions, a clinging to nostalgic ideals about a supposed golden past before these tacos and enchiladas where put before their noses. This fascination (which borderlines on obsession for some. See: Pat Buchanan) with the supposed simpler days of Yore is really one of the major traits of the Infophobe. Youíll often hear them talk about traditional values (traditions, being long established, have their origins in this golden past), reminisces of the days of their youth and a general longing to return to some previous state of being long since fallen into corruption by nebulous outside forces (whose agents all have dark skin and weird tasting food). That there never was such a Golden Age of purity and benevolence is beside the point. It never existed, but had to be created out of fantasy in order to give contrast the ever-present here and now, which never seems to live up to their Platonic expectations.

The infophile, meanwhile is a curious little monkey scampering through the modern world in search of knowledge and an ever expanding consciousness. The Infophile never knows what they may find around the next corner, over the next year or week or day. But whatever it is, it can only broaden ones picture of the world and therefore it is welcomed and even craved when absent. Infophiles like to travel, watch foreign films (are intrigued by the various languages that the subtitles translate) are curious to try that new Ethiopian restaurant down the street and canít wait for the new book by their favorite author to hit the shelves of their corner bookstore. That these sorts of people tend to be day dreamers and creative types, always thinking about the future and speculating what it might hold is a common trait and one that arguably has been the force behind every human advancement. After all, people who respect their elders and like the way grandpa thinks arenít interested in changing anything. That might upset the status quo.

Obviously, this is another generalization. But if we keep in mind that these two types, the Infophobe and Infophile are at opposite ends of a sliding scale, we can have a greater, more nuanced understanding of who the fighters in the Culture War are and what it is they stand for, regardless of what shape their rhetoric takes or how they spell their name.

It's a bit maddening to play these verbal games but when a war is being faught in every brain in the nation, a more reasonable form of madness is all we can hopefore.

In Part Two Iíll look at some specific battles in the Culture War and maybe identify some of the current generals on both sides.


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