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Who gets to be the arbiter of culture?

By Sigurd Neubauer


Language matters. Yet, over the past several years, new terminology such as “LatinX” – instead of Latino or Latina – and more recently, “birthing people,” – instead of mother – have been introduced. 

Many of the new terms being introduced into the contemporary American debate often falls along the left-right nexus and thus become part of the Culture Wars. In it, culture is simultaneously the battleground, the weapon, and the prize to be won or vanquished.

While the Culture War phenomenon has become an integral part of American life, for better or worse, what people are arguing over is constantly shifting – and often at dizzying speed. For instance, less than a decade ago, the debate over climate change became apocalyptic in nature only to be eclipsed by the #MeToo movement, then came Black Lives Matter, and now, some Americans are even “debating” what a woman is. The latest installment in the battle over culture, which in its current form rests on gender, is the introduction of the terminology: “chest feeding,” as opposed to breastfeeding. The public debate will surely move on from there once a new subject – whatever it may be – is introduced.

The curious American, however, may ask himself: where do the latest terminologies in the Culture Wars – such as “birthing people” and “chest feeding” – come from? Who invented them and why? But equally important, as the ground of America’s Culture Wars is constantly shifting, the inevitable question is: who gets to be the arbiter of culture? 

While the term “birthing people” is an extreme example of what is being introduced as social change, what is nonetheless intriguing is that many highly educated Americans are adopting these concepts as gospels. 

Another term that is frequently used in the contemporary American debate is “inclusion,” which in itself is not controversial. Most Americans want to do right by others by providing them with equal opportunity.

Cultural condescension 

But as the mantra of inclusion is being championed publicly, often through virtue signaling, what has become a near constant in American life is cultural condescension. From late-night talk-shows to mainstream newspapers and increasingly civil society, this trend has accelerated as Americans are becoming increasingly polarized over the direction of the country.

What is particularly interesting about cultural condescension – and how it plays out on late-night talk-shows in particular – is that it is nearly constantly being directed towards those less fortunate than the powerful and well-connected. In some ways, cultural condescension is the equivalent of the wealthy, good looking and healthy making fun of the poor, ugly and sick.

If you had a choice, wouldn’t you rather be the wealthy, good looking and healthy?

Or as your own “birthing person” probably told you as a child: “It’s not nice making fun of others.”

There is, of course, a fundamental disconnect between cultural condescension and the aspirational goal of fostering greater inclusion.

To understand the underlying trends engulfing the country, I reached out to one of America’s preeminent public intellectuals: Heather Mac Donald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank.

The curious American may ask himself: where do the latest terminologies in the Culture Wars come from?
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a New York Times bestselling author

“There is no precedent in human history for an elite to turn so decisively against the very values that have made it and its surrounding culture so successful. What is happening in America today is narcissistic decadence,” she says.

“The people who are forcing trans and LGBTQ ideology on young children hate childhood innocence; they hate traditional families.  They are determined to justify the 1960s sexual revolution after the fact, despite its catastrophic effects on family formation and on female emotional well-being, as the mental illness crisis allegedly affecting teen girls demonstrates,” Mac Donald says in reference to the recent introduction of transgender culture to children in form of drag queens reading children’s books at public libraries. 

“The mystery is why feminists, with few exceptions, are silent about the trans juggernaut, since it crushes so-called women’s rights.  But ‘trans’ individuals are the current top dog victim, and thus wield enormous cultural power,” she adds. 

On why segments of American society accept the constant degradation of cultural norms, even if they’re illogical and extreme, Mac Donald says “people are terrified of being publicly shamed and of being accused of racism, which is the most fatal charge that can be levelled against an individual or an institution.”

“Few people are willing to take it,” she adds, but quips: “I can’t stand idiocy and I believe in presenting the facts.”

What is happening in America today is narcissistic decadence: Mac Donald

“The elites believe that all change is good, assuming that it valorizes what was once regarded as anti-social or marginal behavior.  They have no appreciation for the value of tradition.  They have learned in universities that everything Western is defined by oppression, and that the West alone has inflicted cruelty and injustice on the ‘Other’ and on its own members—a proposition which anyone with the slightest knowledge of history or of contemporary Third World countries would know to be preposterous.  But the elites are profoundly uneducated about the past and the present.”  

The irony, however, the scholar observes, is that the members of the educated class mostly adhere to traditional standards for themselves – whether regarding illegitimacy or self-discipline and deferred gratification– but make exceptions for minorities. 

Mac Donald has been warning since the late 1980s about college campus lunacy; it wasn’t just going to stay there, she predicted at the time.

“It was disheartening to see everything that I love being reduced to rubble,” the scholar says as she explains why she chose to pursue a career as a commentator on American life and culture. 

Mac Donald concedes that she doesn’t know what it will take to stop the current trend of national self-degradation.   “People are terrified about speaking the truth that they live every day.  That was the case with Stalinism, as well.  Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed from within.  Whether we will have to fall apart to that extent as well, I don’t know,” Mac Donald says.

As I have previously argued on these pages, “For Americans seeking to find comfort in what is happening to their country, it may be found in recognizing that throughout history, man has had to grapple with periods of irrationality and mass hysteria. While this moment in time is hardly different from other periods in history marked by anti-intellectualism and parochialism, America will once again prevail as a new era of enlightenment will eventually be ushered in.”

There is no precedent in human history for an elite to turn so decisively against the very values that have made it and its surrounding culture so successful 
The elites have no appreciation for the value of tradition. They have learned in universities that everything Western is defined by oppression: Mac Donald
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