Flipping the Culture Wars

“Which side are you on?” When Pete Seeger asked that question, he wanted to push vacillating leftists to the workers’ side. In today’s culture-war politics, one could be forgiven for being confused which side is which. As a recent commentary at American Conservative points out, the right used to be the side of stuffy censorship and outraged morals. Now that mantle has been claimed by the left.

The culture-war flip isn’t only in the world of art. During the twentieth century our creation/evolution battles experienced a dizzying reversal. In the 1920s, as I recount in my history of educational conservatism, conservatives wanted to ban evolutionary theory outright. Even more, many conservative activists had success in making their theocratic vision for public schools legally binding.

At issue in the Scopes Trial, for example, was Tennessee’s law against the teaching of human evolution. Back then, mainstream science activists were fighting merely to have evolutionary theory included in public schools.

By the end of the twentieth century, the situation had flipped. As creationist pundit Duane Gish famously but incorrectly protested in 1995, at the Scopes Trial Clarence Darrow insisted “it was bigotry to teach only one theory of origins.” In fact, it wasn’t Clarence Darrow who said it, but Darrow’s fellow counsel Dudley Field Malone.

gish teaching creationism public schools

If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu…

But Gish’s sentiment was correct. At the Scopes Trial, evolution’s defenders insisted that all sides should be heard. By 1995, the tables had turned, and creationists merely wanted a seat at the table.

At American Conservative recently, Nick Phillips argued that the same culture-war flip has happened in the world of art. These days, we see progressive campaigners insisting that offensive images be banned. We hear of college protesters fighting to eliminate statues and paintings that portray sexist, racist themes. And Phillips asks,

We used to have a word for people who sought to enforce restrictions on the bounds of public discourse in order to insulate sacred norms from attack by non-believers. They used to be called “conservatives.” How did this happen? Why are leftists acting like conservatives?

Of course, this dynamic is as old as politics itself. Whoever has power works hard to keep it. Ideas that challenge the status quo are threats to whomever benefits from that status quo. When creationists appeal to our sense of fairness and inclusion, they have merely recognized that they can no longer simply legislate their vision. And when progressive art activists seek to ban images, they are demonstrating their feeling of proprietary control over the goings on in art houses and college campuses.

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1 Comment

  1. The story behind an attempt to track down the original source of the oft-repeated Darrow quote you mentioned iis fascinating (Malone apparently didn’t say it either–though he did say something some have taken to mean the same thing, though even that’s doubtable): https://ncse.com/cej/8/2/creationist-misquotation-darrow

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