The culture war is real, but it's not about pitting Republican against Democrat, the God-fearing against godless or even about conservative against liberal. Those people have firm opinions about cultural warfare, but what the war is really about is over who gets to define the common culture that unites us all.
Voters in the great middle joined hands in outrage at halftime at the Super Bowl. Fathers and mothers, sitting in their living rooms watching with their children were treated to the affront that closed the culture gap with the opening of a blouse. Janet Jackson's exposed nipple didn't make anyone faint but it epitomized the contempt the entertainment world holds for the rest of us.
The culture war is about the raunchiness that seeps into everyday life, entertainments that appeal to the lowest common denominator among us. In defining deviancy down, in the memorable phrase of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sexual explicitness, nearly always vulgar and trashy, is thrown in the faces of everyone.
Americans have always yearned to be a part of the great middle, looking for moderation in nearly all things. This includes the culture. Large majorities of Americans support civil rights for homosexuals but nevertheless believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and if necessary the law should define it that way.
Large majorities believe that an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy is sad but not murder, yet this same majority believes that partial-birth abortion is barbaric brutality. Large majorities of Americans want to protect freedom of speech but nevertheless loathe the obscenities that pass for lyrics in popular music and don't want their children exposed to them.
Most Americans eagerly uphold our liberties and want to protect their children above all else, and see how the intellectual and entertainment elites demand freedom without protecting common decency. The popular culture and the politically correct mavens have replaced independent thinking with groupthink that's considerably more repressive than the rigid culture we overthrew five decades ago.
The sexual revolution was aimed at rigid rules of behavior that treated adults like adolescents. We've replaced it with an adolescent mentality that governs adults. When the adults were in charge, they fostered middle-class values of politeness and postponed gratification. With the adolescents in charge, the mature of mind become the rebels against a culture that celebrates man's basest instincts.
Video games, for example, draw on the worst of the hip-hop lyrics: fantasy games about dragons and dungeons have been replaced by portrayals of ritual thuggery, gangster rap and rape, carjackings and brutal beatings.
Stanley Crouch, the iconoclastic black columnist, takes aim at the purveyors of images of black youth on MTV, BET or VH1 that draw on stereotypes as insidious as the stereotype drawn in D.W. Griffith's " Birth of a Nation." Modern blacks are routinely "depicted as bullying, hedonistic buffoons ever ready to bloody somebody." He's specifically concerned with the way these images corrupt young people in the "hood," but such images permeate the popular culture for children of all races, where the thumping energy of violence is celebrated without any appeal to or even recognition of what's right and what's wrong.
In "The Artificial White Man," he writes: "A blue, despairing cry is coming at us from behind the trends of extreme hairdos, piercings, ethnic getups, aggressively bad taste, nose rings, tattoos, and the fashion collages that draw so badly and so freely from the worlds of the primitive, science fiction, and street gang posturing."
We've dropped moral judgment from creative thinking. The remake of the movie "Alfie," a misogynist cad, dramatically illustrates the damages wrought by the sexual revolution. In the 1965 version made in England, Michael Caine plays a nasty philanderer who has a moment of recognition of his own moral monstrousness as "an accomplice to murder" when he looks into a bucket containing a fully-formed fetus dropped there from an abortion he arranged for a woman he impregnated.
In the new version made in Hollywood (by Paramount), Alfie is a disarming, charming bounder whose only insight is that his philandering leaves him childless and a little lonely.
Republicans are widely believed to be winning the culture wars by better articulating a fundamental desire to return to traditional middle-class values. Bill Clinton told an audience at Hamilton College last week that "I think the current divisions are partly the fault of the people in my party for not engaging the Christian evangelical community in a serious discussion of what it would take to promote a real culture of life."
The ex-president is no dummy and he got it half right. You don't have to be an evangelical Christian to want to change the culture.