Commusings: The Culture War & Our Polarized Predicament by Julian WalkerAug 14, 2021
Hello Commune Community,
It is with great pleasure that I present to you Julian Walker. Julian is a uniquely complete thinker and cogent writer. He is at once provocative and even-handed.
I have often leveraged this column to highlight our societal dis-ease, political polarization and the erosion of social cohesion. Over the coming months, Julian will delve deeper, excavating an array of issues that seem to produce binary opposition — topics such as Covid, free speech, conspiracy, and science.
This first article is more diagnostic than prognostic. Like a good functional medicine doc, Julian examines the roots of our condition before addressing any symptoms or filling out prescriptions. His goal is also mine: to better understand in order to care, to better care in order to heal.
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A New Series on Our Polarized Predicament
by Julian Walker
I sat staring in disbelief at the small screen of the television my girlfriend had set up in our one-room, second-floor Venice Beach apartment. It was my first time in it. She had met me at the airport and then bundled me, my one heavy suitcase and guitar, into a taxi that took us to what would be our new home together.
Reclining on the futon bed of our unadorned apartment, what I saw on that little TV was the Republican National Convention of 1992. It was at this event that Pat Buchanan introduced the term “culture war” into the national discourse. In a now-infamous speech, he described the Democratic National Convention of a few weeks previous as an irreligious cross-dressing party where radical leftists gathered in drag as reasonable liberals, while pushing an agenda that would perpetuate baby genocide by abortion, and would (gasp!) give gays and lesbians the same right to marry as everyone else. He also praised the National Guardsmen who, during the recent LA Riots (in one of those typical political anecdotes) supposedly stared down the violent mob outside of an old-folks home, where they no doubt would have “ransacked” the vulnerable inhabitant's possessions, and described Korean shop owners in predominantly Black areas who took up handguns to protect their businesses as “believing in the American Dream.”
“There is a religious war going on in this country,” he said. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
This was not what I had signed up for—I wanted to get on a plane back to England right away.
Pat Buchanan hadn't coined this term himself. It comes from a 1991 book by James Davison Hunter, titled Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America. The publisher's description for Hunter's book calls it, “A riveting account of how Christian fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, and conservative Catholics have joined forces in a battle against their progressive counterparts for control of American secular culture.”
Now, this was the convention speech before which Buchanan had conceded the Republican nomination to George Bush Sr., the incumbent president who would go on to lose to Bill Clinton. Buchanan had staged a run from the right at the weak-looking Bush, who would turn out to be a one-term president. In some ways, this speech marks the turn toward the Neo-Conservative revolution in the GOP that leads to Bush Jr.'s eight years, and from there to the Tea Party, and perhaps we can even draw that line to Trump, QAnon, and the Capitol Insurrection.
The Culture War has come to define our times in terms of a heavily polarized public discourse, which is increasingly characterized by the post-truth rejection of facts and evidence in favor of ideological tribalism. Today, we see the digital battleground of social media used as much to spread misinformation and organize hate groups as to connect people. Cancel culture, conspiracy theories, identity politics, and partisan echo chambers all contribute toward a feeling that we are more divided than ever, into groups that often seem to inhabit different realities and speak in radically different tongues.
This series (of which this is the first essay) will try to chart a course through those swirling seas, with reason and evidence as our guiding star, and the reclaiming of good faith conversation as our destination.
For this essay, though, I want to share how my own background intersects with today’s American cultural history.
I grew up in South Africa between 1970 and 1990. From that authoritarian and overtly White supremacist regime, people oppose to Apartheid looked to America as the shining beacon of equality and freedom. This was, however, deeply complicated by the late 20th century ideological battle between capitalist democracy and communist autocracy. As the United States and the Soviet Union amassed nuclear weapons, their Cold War involved itself in post-colonial conflicts throughout the world. Wherever an oppressed people were seeking to rise up, the USSR sought to gain a foothold by inspiring and, in some cases, providing arms for, communist revolutions. This meant that the USA, as it sought to stop the spread of communism, tended to be quietly supporting the right wing, and at times fascist, oppressors in those countries.
But the parallels between 1980s South Africa and 1960s America were striking. We had a draft (only for White boys, to quell the Black uprising). That draft also fed troops into a war against communists in the country of Angola, like the USA did in Vietnam. There was a massive protest movement, which for us was illegal under the "State of Emergency" martial law imposed in the mid-’80s. This meant, too, that there was a counterculture explosion in the arts, and pockets of radical multi-racial creativity, drug experimentation, and attempts to find identity and values outside of the oppressive mainstream society.
We can trace the American culture war back into the 1960s anti-Vietnam War hippies and civil rights protestors, as well as the more militant Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society, and short-lived Weathermen terrorist group. This rejection of ‘50s conventions, rigid gender roles and inequality for women, racist oppression, buttoned-down emotions, and repressed sexuality would evolve over time to include a growing social awareness of the need for equality and freedom for all who were marginalized and disempowered.
It would also seed the spiritual counterculture that turned into the yoga and wellness space you inevitably inhabit by virtue of being on this email list.
The crackdown against the political aspects of the 60’s counter-culture by American law and order was severe and in some cases criminally murderous (see the killing of Fred Hampton, as one example) but it wasn't enough to stop what was happening culturally from pushing into political reality.
The mainstream version of the story of the ‘60s now embraced by liberals and conservatives alike is that the counterculture movement succeeded in creating substantive political and legislative change. It also had a significant cultural and artistic liberalizing influence on the rest of the world. This pathway from protest movements to the civil rights legislation has continued to be a liberalizing political influence that perhaps had its apex in Obama becoming the first Black president, and presiding over the Affordable Care Act, the legalization of marijuana medically in 36 states, 16 of which allow it for any and all adults, and the instituting of marriage equality.
Socialized medicine, gay marriage, and legal pot—anathema to ole Pat Buchanan and all conservative culture warriors since.
But if Tea Party opposition to Obama (with its often undisguised racism) gradually morphs the Republicans into the party of Trump and his Capitol-storming Q-loyalists, are there parallels on the left?
Well, since around 2014 a new strain of social justice activism has come to prominence on the left. This “woke” ideology, fostered by an academic critique of power, posits intersecting vectors of oppression that affect women, LGBTQ folks, racial minorities, and those with disabilities.
In its most radical expression the social justice left describes America as a White-supremacist heteronormative, cis-gender, able-ist patriarchy, and frames any disagreement as unconscious and overly fragile protection of unjust privilege and power. From their perspective, the above liberal narrative of American political progress represents a dishonest cosmetic veneer over a much darker legacy of ongoing oppression. They are, of course, partially correct.
This then gives right-wing “patriots” an easy foil to caricature—especially given how Hollywood, liberal news media, and mainstream social media platforms have embraced some of the more performative aspects of woke activism.
Both sides have also amped-up the rhetoric on how their opponents are really speaking in code. Nothing they say can be taken at face value—depending on who is speaking, it’s either fascist White-supremacy, or authoritarian Marxism in disguise.
So we find ourselves in yet another incarnation of Buchanan’s culture war both on the 24-hour cable news cycle and on the even more Balkanized and vitriolic platforms of social media. It perpetuates the bold and emotionally satisfying contours of caricatured enemies, noble heroes, nefarious hidden agendas, secret unconscious bigotry, dog-whistling hatred, utopian fantasies, and apocalyptic urgency.
Drop all of that into a blender with a 100-year global pandemic, renewed obsession with bizarre conspiracy theories, and an advanced phase of our climate crisis that seemingly has half the world underwater and the other half on fire, and here we are.
But where do we go from here?
My hunch is that somewhere in the carnage of the culture war there are still salvageable strands from science, psychology, and philosophy that can serve as a kind of Ariadne's Thread leading us out of the maze, and away from the monster in the unbounded and disorienting dark.
In coming months I’ll be sharing Culture War installments that weave together themes around COVID, Free Speech, Science, Spiritual Bypass, Patternicity, Conspiracies, and the Wellness Community — but for this week, let me just give you a taste of how I see some of these ideas intersecting…
In terms of the culture war, and making sense of the catastrophe of 2020, the yoga and wellness community has its own work to do, and my stance is that healthy critique from within can be very positive.
So, here goes.
We’ve often exhibited a generalized tendency toward spiritual bypass. That’s using spiritual beliefs or experiences as a way to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, trauma, and the messiness of life. New Age beliefs like thought-created-reality, everything happening for a reason, karma dealing out exactly what each person needs, and framing all suffering or conflict as illusory, can, I think correctly, be analyzed as a psychological defense against honestly facing what we don’t want to feel.
This is an extreme example, but I have on several occasions been in conversations with lovely and smart yogis who’ve said things like “everything, including the Holocaust, slavery, and the most awful child abuse you can imagine, was all, ultimately for the highest good.”
That’s peak spiritual bypass. How do we know? Because it blankets the tragic pain and suffering of innocent people in a kind of “higher truth” metaphysical denial. From a more integrated mindset, these difficult facts deepen our compassion and humility, rather than inducing a disconnection into defensive abstraction.
Another aspect of spiritual bypass can be anti-intellectualism, often framed as “getting out of your head and into your heart.” While emotional intelligence and embodiment practices are deeply valuable, they’re not a magical doorway into knowing what’s true on topics that require critical thinking, intellectual inquiry, and the vulnerable discomfort of learning about the world in new ways. Seeing the mind as an obstacle to “waking up” is one of the factors we have identified on the Conspirituality Podcast over the last 15 months as contributing toward our community’s vulnerability to QAnon and other outlandish and anti-science conspiracy theories.
We’ve given too much power to charismatic authority figures who claim ways of knowing that bypass being qualified, or being accountable to evidence, facts and logical reasoning. Those authority figures in turn have birthed a spiritual expert economy in which students and followers are encouraged to take the same approach to communicating about knowledge. This is a complex philosophical area that requires distinguishing between different ways of knowing and different types of truth. So, I promise to come back and do that another time.
There is a related and popular idea in spiritual circles that there are hidden patterns, signs and symbols from the universe that provide access to ultimate truths or guidance from a higher source. I know people who believe these can literally tell us how to make choices in our daily lives—not only about what to do next, but about what to believe is true or false. But this reliance on intuitive pattern recognition has enough overlap with conspiracy thinking that over-emphasizing it makes it quite easy to fall into two traps.
The first trap is becoming convinced of meaningful patterns that aren’t actually there. Conspiracy theorists do this all the time, but so do people in New Age circles. The second trap is perhaps more difficult to overcome, because it is more about a kind of operating system, or lens through which we look at everything. If we believe that our own intuitive knowing, our own sense of tuned-in certainty from the universe, should be unshakable, no matter what the opposing evidence or counter-arguments may be, that’s actually a kind of religious fundamentalism, even though it’s dressed up in the hipper, counter-culture clothing of embodied wisdom.
Certainty feels good, but in this case we may be inadvertently practicing and getting really good at the form of spiritual bypass that avoids sitting with the kind of healthy uncertainty that allows us to keep growing, learning, and even healing. What we base our truth-claims on is the key question here.
In mild doses, noticing synchronicities can be a fun way of relating to reality, or even a useful cue to slow down and tune in mindfully instead of being reactive. But here’s an idea from Buddhism that helps describe the problem. The concept is that of the “near enemy.” Meditators are instructed to notice that it is easy to, for example, mistake pity for compassion. So too, it is easy to mistake the near enemy of becoming numb and disconnected for having found equanimity or non-attachment. By the same token, a perceived sense of intuitive epiphany that just feels right can be the near enemy of actually discovering, and testing, meaningful insights about the world. Sometimes it just feels right because it fits within our existing biases and defenses.
I would suggest that more mature intellectual and spiritual inquiry goes deeper than that. Meditation can, for example, be a way of becoming more mindfully aware of our biases and defenses as part of a deeper self-awareness that can, in the long run, be more objective or at the very least, less reactive or tribal.
Embodiment, compassion, mindfulness, and a pang of growing hunger for clarity of mind and freedom from delusions can all render a healthier, more integrated contemplative path extremely worthwhile as we huddle together by the fire in these dark times.
Now, I am fairly certain that at least one or two of the things I have said above will have been provocative, and who knows—I could be wrong! Maybe something I said turned on a light bulb overhead and provided useful illumination. Either way, let’s listen to one another, find common ground, and see if perhaps the way out of culture war polarization lies somewhere in the place where worldviews collide in the good faith search for truth, beauty, and goodness.
I look forward to sharing more. Thanks for reading.
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Julian Walker grew up in South Africa, and has been teaching yoga in LA for the last 27 years, he also facilitates and DJs a weekly ecstatic dance event, runs a busy bodywork practice, and trains teachers. He has been writing online since 2004 and was published in the collection of essays titled 21st Century Yoga, published by Kleio Books in 2012. Julian has also made several appearances at the UCLA Interpersonal Neurobiology conference. He is the co-host, with Derek Beres and Matthew Remski, of the Conspirituality Podcast.
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