About a year ago, I published a long article here examining the huge expansion in the sheer number of pop cultural offerings, and the increasing variety of those offerings. The basic idea behind the piece was that, although this expansion has been characterized by often rancorous debates about cultural politics, those debates don’t have to devolve into winner-take-all battles. Cultural fragmentation has created an environment in which an increasing number of people can see themselves represented and watch the stories they’ve longed for unfold on page and screen.
“Culture warriors on both sides of the aisle who want to wipe out the things that they find offensive seem poised to be as badly disappointed as the decency crusaders before them,” I wrote at the time. “As we consume and discuss everything that is available to us now, we might not settle our big questions about art and politics and which values are best and how best to present them. The wonderful thing about this moment of technological and economic evolution and cultural proliferation is that we do not actually have to. The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.”
I wanted to revisit the piece for two reasons. First, in the year since, culture war battles have not exactly subsided, to judge by the consolidation of GamerGate and the fierce fight for predominance in the Hugo Awards, the prestigious honors for fantasy and science fiction.
Second, Democracy Journal editor Michael Tomasky was kind enough to ask me to be on a panel with Eric Liu and E.D. Hirsch Jr. to discuss Liu’s recent article revisiting Hirsch’s critically important book “Cultural Literacy.” When “Cultural Literacy” was published in 1987, it got swept up in the iteration of the culture wars then raging, and Hirsch was labeled a canon-promoting conservative. But as Hirsch himself said Friday, he was writing as an English professor, and his focus was social justice. His main concern was making sure that all children would have access to the core concepts that would make it easier for them to learn in school, because research suggested that it’s difficult to learn reading and writing without the cultural context to make sense of sentences.
I bring up Hirsch’s book and the culture wars of the past year, because while separated in time by almost three decades, the fight over “Cultural Literacy” and the GamerGate and Hugo Awards kerfuffles illustrate a common point. Debates over culture have multiple levels. One involves which culture gets made, and who gets to make it. But another, equally important one involves what receives prestige, respect and, at the highest level, canonization. And while I still think I was right that the current era is a blessing for anyone who wanted a greater variety of stories told by a multiplicity of voices, I’m more convinced than I was a year ago that the culture wars will be with us until we can resolve some of these fights over what in our culture is important and valuable.
Debates over what kinds of books, movies, television shows, comics and video games get awards are often a proxy way of debating what our cultural values ought to be. The alternative slates that attempted to wrest control of Hugo nominations were based on the idea that awards voters had over-prioritized identity politics over the quality of writing and plotting; GamerGate erroneously asserts that there’s a movement afoot to ban or stop the production of video games with certain themes or images. While I don’t agree with the premises of either of those two cultural movements, I do think left cultural criticism has sometimes asserted political litmus tests for art in recent years, and that elements of the right, spurred by the sometime success of this approach, have fallen into the same patterns (for a good example, see the suggestions that the action movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” was anti-male).
If letting everyone enjoy their pleasures is our only goal, then we can let these debates simmer, leaving everyone to their cultural trenches. But if we want to forge an evolving cultural canon that everyone has at least some exposure to, then we have to at least reach some agreement on which cultural works and cultural and historical concepts are influential, even if we don’t reach agreement on what is masterful or even good.
“I have argued that a literate society depends upon shared information, I have said little about what that information should be. That is chiefly a political question,” Hirsch wrote. “The big political question that has to be decided first of all is whether we want a broadly literate culture that unites our cultural fragments enough to allow us to write to one another and read what our fellow citizens have written.”
Twenty-eight years after the publication of “Cultural Literacy,” and many, many debates later, we’re still a long way from resolving that question with a certainty that would allow us to make meaningful progress toward it.