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New Dogs, Old Barks: Culture Wars Recalibrated

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The recent decision by Texas’s Harris County grand jury to clear the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast clinic puts an end to the recent campaign to discredit the organization.

The grand jury cleared the clinic following a two-month-long investigation of alleged charges that it had engaged in “dismembering aborted babies” and selling fetal body parts for profit.  A surprise to many, the grand jury indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, both affiliated with the “Center for Medical Progress,” a phony medical-research organization that not only made secret recordings of clinic officials but edited the recordings in an effort to discredit Planned Parenthood.

The Texas decision followed similar decisions by 11 other states that cleared Planned Parenthood from charges that the organization profited from fetal tissue donations, including Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington.

The controversy over Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of fetal tissues is but the latest battle in the four-decade long culture wars.  The rightwing wars began in the 1970s originally to stop the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and against the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.  The wars continue in the 2016 presidential campaign with all the Republican candidates railing against abortion rights, immigrants, Muslims and proposed limits to gun registration requirements.

The Republican and Christian right have effectively exploited deep seated fears among predominately white – and male – voters for nearly a half-century.  They have turned fear into rage – and sometimes rage into violence – to maintain power and their notion of moral order.  This year will be no exception.

* * *

The current wave of the culture wars began in 1972 following the ERA’s passage by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.  Often forgotten, the ERA was much contested for decades preceding the final Congressional action.  Among those who initially opposed it were Eleanor Roosevelt and the AFL; in 1958, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to urge Congress to pass the ERA.

While often unacknowledged, race has long been at the heart of the culture wars.  In the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Republican politicians have followed what Pres. Richard Nixon’s advisor, Patrick Buchanan, called the “Southern strategy.”  It was a bargain struck between conservative Republican politicians and many white Americans to use the ballet to protect traditional “white skin privilege.”

Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist and lawyer, launched the “Stop ERA” campaign in 1972 to block the Amendment’s adoption by the states and was ultimately successful.  The early-‘70s was the era of mounting anti-Vietnam War protest that inflamed Schlafly and other conservatives.  She opposed the Amendment for a variety of reasons, including: it would eliminate the male-only draft and require women to register; it would open up military combat roles to women; it would support taxpayer-funded abortions; it would legalize homosexual marriages; and it would lead to unisex bathrooms.  In the end, the proposed Amendment failed to garner sufficient state approval for its adoption by 1982.

In 1973, the all-male Supreme Court issued its landmark Roe v. Wade decision on the grounds that the Texas statue blocking “Jane Roe’s” abortion was a violation of her constitutional right to privacy.  The decision met with strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and many fundamentalist Protestant ministers.  The National Conference of Catholic Bishops established the National Right to Life Committee in 1967 and, in the wake of the Roe decision, separated it from the Catholic Church so it could attract a larger membership.

Conservatives backed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election and anticipated him ending the right to an abortion.  However, Pres. Reagan failed to deliver; this led to the rise of the “rescue” movement and violent attacks on women’s health clinics, even the targeted killing of abortion providers.  By the 2000s, this direct action tactic was replace by a mean-spirited campaign targeted at state legislatures.  The Guttmacher Institute found that in 2015 more than 400 anti-choice bills were introduced and 17 states enacted 57 anti-abortion laws.

Over forgotten in light of recent Supreme Court decisions regarding gay rights as well as changes in federal policy (e.g., U.S. military), during 1977-’78, Anita Bryant led the “Save Our Children” campaign in Miami, FL, to block the city’s anti-discrimination law to include homosexuals.  Collaborating with Jerry Falwell and other conservatives, an anti-gay movement swept through much of the country.  Bryant ultimately succeeded in having the state legislature pass a law prohibiting gays from adopting children

Over the last two decades, the Christian right’s vengeance of old seems to have dissipated, particularly in light of the successes of the gay right movement.  However, the 2016 presidential campaign has renewed the old bark.  Almost daily news stories report on how Republican candidates and their supporters rekindle the rage felt among some of their sympathizers.

Donald Trump’s calls to forcefully repatriate millions of undocumented foreigners and to block Syrian and other asylum seekers are well known.  More recently, Trump called on Jeb Bush — whose wife is Mexican-born and who speaks Spanish –- to speak only in English during the campaign.  Sarah Palin, a Trump backer, insisted that immigrants must “speak American” and candidate Ben Carson proposed barring Muslims from being president because, he insisted, Islam is inimical to the Constitution. More such assertions will likely proclaimed until the November election.

* * *

White skin privilege is deteriorating and this is a defining issue of the 2016 election.  It is the anchor issue of the new culture wars.

The great post-WW-II era of prosperity is over and postmodern inequality is intensifying.  The economic and political crisis confronting a growing number of white Americans is driven less by people of color (who are poorer and suffer greater hardships) than by the policies of the – mostly white – “1 percent,” those with real power.

Often overlooked, the racism of white privilege contains its own negation.  It plays a key – if unspoken – role in the repression of many white people; it keeps them blind, in denial, to the causes of their deepening immizeration.

Ann Coulter seems to have been the first to play the race card in the 2016 electoral beauty contest.  “The way Republicans win is by driving up the white vote,” she argued in early June on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor.  “It is not by appealing to women or Hispanics or blacks.  In fact, those groups are going to start fighting among one another … How about, for once, appealing to your base? … How do we get pro-lifers to support us? Let’s get a slice of the evangelicals.”

She knew what none of the Republican presidential candidates would publicly admit: the white popular majority is projected to be eclipsed in 2043.

The Republicans strategy has long sought to assure white voters, especially poor and working-class people, that their “white skin privilege” made them better off than people of color.  Sadly, this story has long been true; for generations, on average, whites have been better off then America’s demographic minorities.  Racism is institutionalized in Americans life — and long worked.

For a half-century, the Republican strategy of exploiting racism and culture wars proved successful, fostering an increasingly divided electorate along racial lines.  In 2008 and 2012, the race issue was embodied in one candidate, Barack Obama; racialists decisively lost – and they’ve never fully recovered.  In 2016, race is no longer targeted at an individual candidate but is being expressed in the deepening crisis waged over the demographic and economic restructuring American society.  Today’s culture wars remains anchored in denying a woman the right to an abortion; it is being recalibrated to include immigration, the Muslim religion and efforts to regulated gun ownership.

The modern era of religiously-inspired culture wars has been a defining feature of American politics for more than a century.  The Christian right’s rage of the 1970s — against the ERA, abortion and gay rights – was incubated by moral reformist movement of the late-19th century.  Then Christian conservatives and “progressive” reformers rallied against the moral threats of that day, including purity (non-marital sex), temperance (alcohol consumption), obscenity (pornography and birth control), prostitution (white slavery) and homosexuality (sodomy).

These waves of moralistic rage date from the Puritan witch trials of the 1690s and have ebbed-and-flowed over the last four centuries.  If Americans elect a “progressive” president and Congresspersons (House and Senate), we may finally see an end to this round of the culture wars.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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