C’est la Guerre…La Guerre Culturale

We hear it from time to time.  Scientists claim that only America suffers from widespread creationism.  Hip liberals fume that only America puts prudes and fogies in political office.  America’s culture wars seem to be uniquely American.  Or are they?

We read in The Economist about a recent education culture-war in France that seems as American as apple pie.  It seems France—the land of laid-back attitudes about sex and uptight attitudes about food—has more in common with the US of A than some people might like to admit.

The recent flap follows the American pattern.  A new curriculum has riled cultural conservatives.  The new school materials, ABCD of Equality, hoped to instill ideas of gender equality in young people at a young age.  Books in the series, including “Jean Has Two Mummies” and “Daddy Wears a Dress,” hoped to teach students that gender and sexuality do not need hard-and-fast boundaries.  As often happens in this country’s culture-war politics, the book that sparked the most outrage was not even officially part of the curriculum, but rather part of a list of suggested additional picture-books on an affiliated website.  That book, “Everybody Naked!” showed page after page of, well, just what the title suggests.

Everybody Naked!

Everybody Naked!

In France, according to the Economist essay, a coalition of cultural conservatives objected.  Objections to the book series unite Catholic and Muslim traditionalists.  One conservative activist warned that such books represent a government attempt to “re-educate our children,” to make them doubt their religion and experiment with their gender and sexuality.  In clear echoes of West Virginia, conservatives called for a school boycott until the books were removed.  And, just as Patricia Polacco’s books have put mild-mannered librarians on the front lines of America’s culture wars, French conservatives have applied pressure on libraries to remove the offensive titles.

Of course, no two culture wars are exactly the same.  I doubt, for example, that any American sex educator would even suggest “Everybody Naked” for America’s elementary schools.  But in its broad contours, the kerfuffle in France demonstrates the international nature of culture-war politics.



Lesbians and Libraries: We’re All Victims Now

The recent fuss over Patricia Polacco’s In Our Mothers’ House has followed a familiar pattern.  First, a mother from conservative Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City, complained when her daughter brought the book home from her school’s library.  The book celebrates a family with two mothers and three children.  Next, the school district decided to keep the book, but put it behind the library counter.  Students would need a parent’s permission to check out the book.  Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, claiming the book must be freely available for all students.

In this case as in so many others, both sides rushed to insist on their own victimhood.

Both sides make the customary arguments.  The ACLU fights for First Amendment freedom.  In the words of one ACLU blogger,

“Removing library books because they ‘normalize a lifestyle that parents don’t agree with’ or contain positive portrayals of LGBT protagonists violates the First Amendment rights of all students to access ideas in a school library on a viewpoint-neutral basis.” 

Conservative Christians claim the books are part of a widespread conspiracy—the “homosexual agenda”—to teach children in public schools that all sexual lifestyles are equally valid.  In this case, opponents of the book cite Utah law, which they say forbids school curricula that promote homosexual lifestyles.

Just as predictably, both sides depicted themselves as the victims.  Consider the author’s defense.  Polacco, writing on the ACLU’s blog, told the story of the book’s origins:

“One year I was visiting a fourth grade class and the teacher had arranged for me to hear essays that her students had written entitled: ‘My Family.’ . . . one little girl stood up and began to read. She was immediately asked to take her seat by an aide. The aide said scornfully, ‘No dear…you don’t come from a real family…sit down!’

“This child came from a family of two mothers and two adopted siblings. I was so appalled and insulted on that child’s behalf that I immediately, after school that day, went back to my hotel room and wrote, In Our Mothers’ House.”

From the other side, one commenter on a conservative Christian website asked, “Does the ACLU also require that Bibles be on the shelves!”  Another lamented, “Law suit by law suit [the ACLU] are coarsening the moral fabric of America, and our children are the victims!”  A third chimed in, “I don’t hate these people [i.e. homosexuals] & if they want to live this way that’s their business but don’t try to push it on the rest of us!! God help them!!”

Clearly both sides in this school-library dispute focus on their own victimhood.  The ACLU insists that hiding such books behind library desks hurts families.  Polacco argues that treating some families as illegitimate hurts children.  Conservative Christians, for their part, worry about the creeping influence of the ACLU.  Conservatives fret that they have no voice in public institutions.  Their books, most notably the Bible, have been “kicked out,” while books that denigrate traditional lifestyles and morals are promoted.

Neither side publicly notices their own strengths.  We will not hear conservative Christians gloating over the Christian-friendly policies of this Utah school district.  Nor will we hear ACLU types celebrating the power and influence of their national watchdog presence.

Does the rush to victimhood matter?  Only in the sense that a cornered animal fights the fiercest.  By reassuring ourselves that we are the true victims, we condone any escalation in culture-war rhetoric or strategy as a matter of simple self-defense.  If we are all victims, we all have the moral high ground; we all have license to fight dirty.