Many people may know that the US has been mired in “culture wars”, especially in the past decade or so. From racism, illegal immigrants, presidential elections, relations between state and religion, to abortion rights, sexual preferences and gender identity, gun rights, college admission, and freedom of speech, various issues are causing division.
Commentators often call this an unprecedented “American cultural revolution” that is bringing about a “schism” or even a “new civil war”; US society would fall into disorder and unrest, there would be a loss of rationality, increased conflict between communities, and a decline or collapse in the strength and international standing of the US.
Putting aside the grand ideas of “the rise of the East and decline of the West” and a reshuffling of the global order, just looking at the internal divisions and fighting in what has been the world’s largest economy for more than 130 years and the world’s premier military power for the past 80 years, naturally one would pay attention, or even feel aghast.
Opponents of the US often rejoice and embellish the facts as they happily await the self-inflicted downfall of the US empire, welcoming the “change of a century”; proponents of the US are worried, bemoaning the changing times, hoping that a wise leader will bring the country back to its tradition and restore stability and unity in the US.
To be overly optimistic or pessimistic is to be hoodwinked
My humble opinion is that the gleeful opponents of the US are overly optimistic, while the gloomy proponents of the US are overly pessimistic, as they have all been a little hoodwinked by the current trend of exaggerated “sensational” news reports, and become victims of attention-grabbing we-media.
Americans have been vocal and constantly wrangling, with willing audiences for all sorts of extreme views. The intensity is at a level that calls for a showdown.
People are naturally inclined towards focusing too much on their immediate emotions. Furthermore, when politicians and interest groups intentionally distort and promote certain discourse, the media reports events with bias and internet platform algorithms perpetuate preconceived notions and encourage compulsive trend-chasing, an information cocoon is formed. The outcome is unsettling.
In the Chinese-speaking world, especially where simplified Chinese is used, people are more likely to misunderstand situations and fall for false information because of the way opinions and social media present perspectives as something “everybody knows”.
In fact, since its independence 247 years ago, it can be said that the US has constantly been in the process of debate, contention, trial and error, and fighting in areas such as culture, values, policies, laws and so on. Fortunately, only once did these constant cultural wars evolve into an actual civil war: the American Civil War in the 1860s (largely around the same period as the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom during the late Qing dynasty).
As a former colony and an immigrant nation, save for a brief period of war against other countries, US society has never enjoyed the kind of stability and homogeneity lauded by historians — even when Congress declared war against Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there were votes against it!
On issues like “Black Lives Matter”, the identities and rights of various ethnic and gender groups, encouraging diversity under one constitutional framework, and how to handle the neverending flow of “illegal” immigrants, it can be said that Americans have been vocal and constantly wrangling, with willing audiences for all sorts of extreme views. The intensity is at a level that calls for a showdown.
... the US’s culture wars in recent years are in fact really much less severe.
But compared with historical strife — the persecution of indigenous people, slavery, anti-Catholicism and antisemitism, female discrimination, labour restrictions, anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiments, Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement — whether in terms of the level of violence, extent of turmoil, or the pain, resentment, and casualties caused, the US’s culture wars in recent years are in fact really much less severe.
Looking back, having experienced these endless culture wars, the US — a great testing ground where ethnic groups from around the world have gathered — has actually achieved dynamic stability in its basic governance framework and mainstream values. It is a place where tolerance and competition coexist, with constant innovative revolutions.
Its achievements and global influence in the economic, cultural, scientific and technological spheres are clear for all to see; even the various minority groups and cultures that were once derogated have gradually and generally peacefully entered the so-called mainstream. The ethnic Chinese, who constitute just a small percentage of the US population, have gone from being prohibited from emigrating to the US 80 years ago to filling countless posts as senior officials at ministerial levels and above. Formerly subjected to laws criminalising being gay, homosexuals can now hold Cabinet positions. American women did not have the right to vote a century ago; some are now top officials in the White House, or second-in-command.
An inevitable cost?
Of course, the US is far from perfect. But this is exactly why there are reasons to initiate endless culture wars to continuously clash, adapt, adjust and improve.
And of course, culture wars are certainly not always without detours, nor are they without side effects or the occasional radicalism and negative behaviours. Overcorrection indeed leads to overdoing things and exhaustion from internal conflict. These are costs that must be minimised, but they may not be completely avoidable.
Overly minuscule and endless identity politics of "equality", when combined with harsh and robotic "politically correct" language, raise the expense of social governance and information exchange. They also undermine individual rights and social harmony, infuriate people and even spark steadfast resistance.
Compared with the illusory and rigid stability and calm of dictatorial rule, the endless and annoying American culture wars — as long as they remain peaceful and do not turn violent or undermine fundamental institutions and values such as human rights, civil rights, property rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law — can actually drive improvement, progress, innovation and change; promote social justice and fairness; and constantly seek a balance between the two major dynamics of individuals and collectives, and of competition and equality. This is not too high a price to pay, nor is it catastrophic.
... the US is a good mirror — we should hope that the US’s culture wars will continue and that the US will have endless lessons to learn, so that the rest of the world will be able to constantly learn and glean experience from the US...
The US’s recent overall economic and cultural performance seems to show that the clamorous culture wars are not hindering innovation or dragging down growth. Putting aside smoke screens and noise and looking at mass incidents per capita, the US is in fact similar to South Korea as a relatively peaceful country.
When it comes to major national events, it seems that the two political parties that refuse to back down and are ready to fight to the death will still work together. From 2018 to 2023, the US Congress enacted many laws related to China, and most of them were passed unanimously, making them seem even more united than when they declared war on Japan.
There is no need to fret or gloat over the US’s intense, bizarre, vibrant, even shocking culture wars. After all, the US is a good mirror — we should hope that the US’s culture wars will continue and that the US will have endless lessons to learn, so that the rest of the world will be able to constantly learn and glean experience from the US, figure themselves out and manage their affairs.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “美国会在“文化战争”中崩溃吗？”.