On The Never-Ending (Culture) War

The 'culture war' is exhausted. It's time to let it die once and for all.

On The Never-Ending (Culture) War
(Source: WikiMedia Commons)

Hasbro renamed its “Mr. Potato Head” brand to “Potato Head” in February to broaden its franchise, which includes non-mister products under its umbrella. There’s baby potato, lady potato, pirate potato, rock star potato, animatronic talking potato, make-your-own-family potato kit—one offering is some kind of fucked up potato car thing that the other potatoes ride in, I guess? That one comes with a potato dog.

It’s not difficult to understand that it is simpler and streamlined marketing to call all of these offerings “Potato Head” products instead of “Mr. Potato Head” ones. Nonetheless, this branding decision and its bizarre rollout managed to spark it’s own cycle of partisan media arguing the importance of making sure the kids know that it’s a mister potato, not some killjoy sexless spud.

That any culture war pundit or news source that covers them entertained for a minute a premise that a mustached plastic potato was some kind of stand-in for masculinity in society is a damning indictment of the entire cycle. It gives us more than enough reason to forcefully expel this discourse from any half-serious political arena, and to dismiss whatever political and social crises it uses faux outrages to allege. Culture war clickbait helps no one, accomplishes nothing, and only serves to distract us from the glaring systemic failures within our political system that are causing people unnecessary pain and suffering. It relegates its consumers to be team-sport political watchers, rather than participants.

Opinion-makers who feign genuine concern about manufactured cultural crises like the one built by right-wing media around Potato Head, and more recently Dr. Seuss books, are simply unserious people not worth listening to. They are bullshit artists worthy of mockery and, ideally, out-casting from serious platforms and outlets. (Though it can be worthwhile to expose these bad actors and how slimy the whole micro-industry is, when done well.)

Culture war will probably exist indefinitely online. The content manipulates people’s worst tendencies the same way that social platforms manipulate them, so it’s a natural fit. But we can reject it as a stand-in and deny it the legitimacy that it desperately craves. I would like to suggest that serious political people ignore the culture war almost entirely and let these weirdos chase their outrages all by themselves. Additionally, social media platforms should be humiliated for rewarding this kind of disingenuous behavior.

In the marketplace of ideas, the culture war behaves the same as a vendor selling counterfeit medicine, passing off sugar pills as cancer cures. The purveyors of the war convince their audiences that by throwing fits over these mundane happenings that they are reforming the political system. Every week there’s a new cure to champion, each as hollow as the last. One week, there are children’s books to get mad about, the next there is an “icky” rap song that’s popular. It’s packaging on a brand of butter, or something stupid that happened on a college campus. The seller takes his buyers for fools and belittles them to sell more junk.

I write this now because the Right’s culture war is experiencing a revival. Despite the fact that it has been in a holding pattern for the better part of a decade, revisiting the same topics and beating them to a pulp, it has dominated GOP-aligned media in recent months. As a recent episode of Minion Death Cult put it, the culture war has exhibited a “return-to-form,” reminiscent of the Obama years, since Trump left office. Republicans are back on offense, and this is what that looks like for their media.

But our current moment in American politics is demanding of seriousness and urgency. Domestic extremism has crawled into countless pockets of American life. Millions of people falsely believe that a de-facto coup happened in the country and some of them recently tried to topple the government over it. Bills introduced in states across the country threaten people’s ability to participate in democracy. People are struggling to survive during a pandemic that has severely inhibited the world.

This forever war is tiring, depressing, and draining, which I suspect is part of the point. But more importantly, it damages our society in deep ways by stoking further polarization, extremism, and hostility.

I’d like to suggest a crossroads for those with influential platforms: grow up, or go home. Every moment we waste to the forever culture war is lost from the things that actually matter, online and off.

If you enjoyed this writing, check out the podcast! And if you like that, please consider subscribing. It helps me keep the bills paid and the dog fed around here, and you’ll get access to bi-weekly newsletters between episodes of the show.