Chapter 8 - Everyone is Fighting About the Wrong Stuff

[I am writing a book and plan to post chapters as I go, here is Chapter 8. I've already posted the introduction and first four and you can start here to read them. I will update with links to the future chapters when they are done.]

The next election is the most important election of our lifetime. If that guy is elected, we are in giant trouble. Therefore get online and make your voice heard. Volunteer, donate, and most of all vote. Because if that guy wins, we are done.

This is the attitude many of us have (myself included sometimes) when we think of politics in the United States (and my friends in other nations say similar things). The United States has become a constant campaign. Social media has become an almost constant campaign. Every celebrity is constantly talking about the next election. Everyone knows that this election is important and we need to win it.  Of course, as soon as this election happens we start talking about the next one in the very same way. This one, we say, is now the most important election of our lives.

Up to this point in this book, I have introduced a topic and quickly followed it with the statement, 'the emperor has no clothes,' suggesting that everything I just said was false. In this case, I do not believe that. I do think politics matters in the world. I think bad politicians can pass bad laws and good politicians can pass good ones. I truly believe elections have consequences. Anyone who has studied the history of Germany in the 1930s or Venezuela in the late 1990s knows that this is true. Many presidents have had profound effects on the domestic and international policies of the nation.

But there is also something that would appear very strange to the time traveler about all this. Something that would seem completely obvious. Something that would cause them to say, 'the emperor has no clothes.'  The way an outsider would see our politics is the way that a doctor would see having to amputate a toe infected with gangrene. Yes, the surgery is important (perhaps very important) but the need for surgery is the result of an infection that happened long before with causes not found in a hospital room. The surgery is an end symptom not a cause. In the same way, the things we fight about in our politics (abortion, size of government, redistribution of wealth, gay marriage, foreign policy, and etc) are symptoms of a culture that is built via very non-political causes and methods. 

So, we all see important things that need to be decided and we panic about the next election thinking that this will decide them. But in reality, much of the most important issues were decided long ago. Politics are triage to society but culture is what gives a society its strength... or its weakness. 

Andrew Breitbart famously said, "Politics is downstream of culture," and he could not have been more right. People vote based on the cultural assumptions they hold. In other words, the next election has been mostly predetermined based on culture.

Here is the evidence.... I don't need to know your political background, personal views on abortion, immigration, or school funding to have a good idea how you are going to vote. If I know your church attendance record, I will have a very good idea. If you also give me other cultural clues (your religion, ethnicity, region you live in, etc), I can almost guarantee how you are going to vote.

In the most recent election, white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump (80%). And it also showed that black voters overwhelmingly voted for Clinton (88%). Further, regional differences were huge. Trump won around 68% of West Virginia. Hillary Clinton won 60% of Maryland.

If I learned that you were a black female who never attended church living in Maryland... or a white male from West Virginia who always attended church.... I almost could not miss when it came to predicting your vote.

Why is that? Obviously, your skin color, location, gender, or religious affiliation do not make you vote one way or the other. So why do so many people act the same way based on these things?

The answer is culture. Culture is a very hard to define thing but it is so important to the way we see the world. Culture tells us what is funny. Culture tells us what is honorable or dishonorable. Culture tells us right or wrong. Culture tells us what is socially acceptable. Culture tells us what should make us cheer. Culture tells us what should make us mad. In short, culture tells us how good people act. And of course.... that includes how good people vote.

So... when Trump goes to West Virginia, either he appeals to that culture or he does not. Either the republican platform gets votes or it does not. Hillary could have spent every single day of the campaign in West Virginia and would not have won. Something about her campaign made voting for her something not very many people would do no matter what.

Culture is way more important than politics.

Recently there has been quite a bit in the news about social media censorship. Youtube, Twitter and Facebook have sought to stop "fake news" from spreading on the internet. A big part of this is because they were convinced that viral memes spread fake and false information about Hillary Clinton prior to the 2016 election. Many were concerned that perhaps these may have cost her the election. But I really doubt these memes had any significant effect. I know people that shared them because they were already sure Hillary was a bad person. I know people that saw them and immediately declared them false who already were planning on voting for her. But I know no one that changed their mind based on memes. No one. Memes are not the cause of culture... they are a symptom of culture.

So what is the cause of culture?

Two things that overlap quite a bit: the gods we worship and the stories we tell.

Cult Shapes Culture

When Julius Caesar traveled north into Gaul he was shocked at what he saw. The people there were dirty, wild, superstitious, ferocious, illiterate, and libertine. They would fight naked (apparently simply to show bravery), their women would come to war with them. If they won, they would take enemy heads as trophies. They would paint their faces.These people were barbarians.

And the Romans knew that they were inherently superior. Northern Europeans could never be civilized. The best thing the Romans could do for them is to keep them under control by brute force and impose the Pax Romana on them.

But what the Romans saw as inherent to the people turned out to be cultural. In time, the Germanic tribes of the north adopted Roman customs and slowly became, at least a little, civilized.

But let us write ‘civilized’ with a small “c” for both the Romans and for the Gauls. Because their idea of civilization and ours are two different things. The Romans, for all their sophistication, were not exactly saints. For just one very uncivilized example, let me remind you of what we spoke of in Chapter 1: their slavery was nasty. They did the normal things slave owning societies do (beat, mistreat, and abuse) but they also practiced sexual slavery with horrible delight including raping young girls, young boys, and making of men into eunuchs for sexual purposes.

And the Romans were brutal in many other ways as well. They had little patience for any sort of dissent or rebellion.  They practiced widespread infanticide. Their national pastime was watching people fight to the death. And they were in a state of almost constant war. The Romans may have been more advanced than the Gauls but they were hardly a society any one of us would call good or just. And that was the best the ancient world had to offer. If you traveled to Africa, Asia, or the Americas, with the possible exception of the Chinese, you would see more uncivilized and brutal societies with as much slavery, infanticide, and war and usually some human sacrifice mixed it.

So, what happened in Northern Europe that took the typical man living on the British Isles from a wild face-painting barbarian to something more like a character on Downton Abbey? The answer is not genetics (that have largely remained unchanged). And it is not some sort of natural progression of humans (you can find similar brutality in many nations today). And the changes are certainly not the result of political changes. No. What changed Britain was culture.

Culture shapes a people.

And what changed in Britain's culture over that 2000 year period? Why did their values change so much? Why did they go from practicing human sacrifice when Caesar traveled there to viewing human sacrifice as abhorrent? The answer is the gods changed.

In his excellent, Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I think a truer statement is that you become what you worship so be careful what you worship. The warlike gods of the Celts and the Norseman when Caesar first entered the northern parts of Europe were brutal gods. They killed, raped and enslaved. With gods like that, it is not surprising that people that worship those gods might do similar stuff.

Cult is at the heart of culture. The assumptions we make about life, our enemies, the poor, our families, war, charity, and everything else that makes up a people are worked into a society like yeast in the dough over years and years by the gods they worship. People become the gods they worship. They are the images of their gods.

And when we look at what we call civilization, the first world, you can see that "western values" are actually largely Christian values. Adopted by the west, now assumed to be self evident, and taught to the world. 

England transformed over 2000 years. Not in a straight line. The Romans conquered them. Then the Romans left and the English went back to their wild ways. Then in the seventh century Christianity came to the Island. And it was Christianity that started to work, like yeast through dough, to change this wild people.

Christianity has a softening effect on people. While a wild Gaul might think nothing of displaying a severed head in his living room, the Christian faith teaches men to love their enemy and "pray for those who despitefully use you." As discussed in previous chapters, the slavery of the Roman Empire faded as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Then monks started the first universities. Bishops started the first hospitals.  Nuns started the first orphanages. Regions like Italy developed the first true capitalist economies. In England, the Lords and Dukes, understanding that God gave laws not kings, helped bring the Magna Carta. Oliver Cromwell tried to bring about the first republic.

None of it is in a straight line. But by fits and starts, Europe was becoming civilized with a big C. And that C was almost completely aligned with the C that stood for Christendom.

Niall Ferguson, an atheist, highlights the adoption of Christianity as a cause behind the rise of the west in his excellent, Civilization: The West and the Rest. He says that the religion offered Western Europe shared morals, high levels of trust, work ethic, and other values that simply did not exist before. The Reformed Anglican culture had particularly high levels of emphasis on hard work, industriousness, and trust. It is not surprising then that England and English colonies outpaced all other colonial efforts in Europe. The USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong are all examples of successful English colonies. No other European nation can list so many examples.Look at the globe. What we used to call "the first world" is a picture of the places Christianity has been the longest or the places where England brought its culture.

Some might counter that Japan and Korea as exceptions but they are not. Japan at the end of the 19th century went through a radical transformation where they tried to copy everything about English culture and while they maintained a distinct Japanese culture, the effects on their economy were profound. Korea, likewise, has been profoundly impacted in the last 50 years by the culture of the United States (thanks to the Korean War) and by Christianity (that has grown to represent a third of the population).

Politics do not bring true progress. Culture is the key. Improve the culture, improve the society. And at the heart of that is the gods that that society worships. Cult defines culture. 

You are the Stories You Consume

Remember the quote I provided from Vonnegut above, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I modified that to say that we are what we worship. But I think you could also say that we are the stories we tell ourselves so be careful what stories you tell yourself.

Next to the gods we worship, the stories we tell are the most important things that shape a culture. This overlaps with religion of course as most religions consist of stories (what is the bible if not a long narrative about God's dealings with man).

Humans are story telling animals.  Stories change the way we think. We construct stories about our own identity. We tell stories about our family. We tell stories about our national history. We tell stories of the movements we endorse. We tell stories to make each other laugh. We tell stories to make each other cry. We sing stories in our songs. We bathe almost every moment of every day in stories. And even when we sleep we dream ourselves stories.

Like the gods we worship, story telling affects how we think about the world and what our role is within it. These stories, like religion, tell us right and wrong and how we should and should not act. In the "Story Telling Animal: How Story Telling Makes Us Human" author Jonathan Gottschall outlines the results of a  2009 study by psychologist, Joanne Cantor. This study demonstrates how stories can even change our personal ethics. Gottschall writes,

"..if we watch a TV program showing a sexual encounter gone wrong, our own sexual ethics change. We will be more critical and more judgmental of other people's sexual choices. If, however, the show portrays a positive sexual encounter, our own sexual attitudes will move toward the permissive endo of the spectrum. The effects can be demonstrated after a single viewing of a single episode of a prime-time drama." (1)

If this study is even halfway correct, this is a stunning result and shows how absolutely critical stories are to shaping cultural attitudes. When we think about sexual ethics that have changed over the past two generations (from LGBT to premarital sex) one cannot doubt the effect of the stories we have told along the way. From the glamorous romances of the 1970s, to the raunchy comedies of the 1980s, to the pro-gay movies (like Brokeback Mountain) of the early 2000s. In our movies, TV shows, and music we have said something about sexual ethics to the population. And this something.... has had monumental effects - almost our entire sexual ethic has changed.

And all of this is upstream of politics. How do you vote on LGBT issues? It probably has something to do with the stories you consumed and what they said about these things. How do you vote on abortion? It very well might have something to do with the movies and TV shows you watched. What are your politics on race relations? Did you watch a movie about racism?

And given the importance of stories, it is amazing how little attention this gets by the cultural warriors of the right. Conservative Christians are largely absent from Hollywood. Largely absent from the TV industry. Not influential in the music industry. Publishing companies are generally radically left of center. Conservatives are not the story tellers of today's society.

On the other hand the left is downright puritanical in their effort to tell stories. Good luck getting a job in Hollywood if you are not pro-gay. Good luck getting a job if you even are slightly conservative. Good luck getting a job.... let alone gaining and holding any sort of power in that space.

And so you have really two competing stories in America. You have the story being told by our entertainment industrial complex and you have the story told by the church. And please do not underestimate how different these stories are.

Like it or not these two views are in open war. Both sides think they are the light to the world. Both sides think the other side is evil. But I would argue that after 2000 year of Christianity bringing good to the world there really should not be a debate on this. Hollywood's efforts to undermine, question, downplay, and destroy the Christian worldview will do nothing but destroy Western Civilization as we know it.

And so we need to fight like this is a war and not a conversation. We need to continue to tell the biblical worldview in church but the right needs to get WAY better at also telling it in other spheres. We need a wave of authors that will write great books as CS Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien did in days of old. We need a new wave of filmmakers that can tell great stories in the way that Shakespeare did in centuries past. Christian music and Christian art was once the high point of artistic expression in the world. We need that again.

We need to take this all much more seriously than we are. Stop focusing so much on the next vote and devote much more attention upstream.

Who Gets Angrier?

Almost by definition, corporations like Disney, Netflix, and etc do not have a moral compass. They are at their core amoral. They are in it for the money. And yet, over and over corporations seem to line up on the left - sometimes radically so. In 2019 Netflix jumped into a controversial topic like abortion and said that they will boycott any pro-life states that prevail in efforts to ban abortion. In 2020 almost every corporation made a statement expressing support for the leftist group Black Lives Matter. Every June almost every corporation changes their logo to the rainbow to express support for LGBT issues. Why do corporations always seem to lean left? The answer is that it is a calculation. They are getting pressure from every direction and yet they have decided that the pressure from the leftest crowd is enough that taking a pro-abortion, pro-gay, or pro-BLM stand will be better for their bottom line than remaining silent.

When I studied English history in college, my professor once noted that Queen Elizabeth I was a pragmatist more than anything. She wanted to secure the throne and did not care particularly which Christian denomination won out. She had seen the country go from Catholic (under her father) to Anglo-Catholic (essentially Catholic in doctrine but without obedience to the pope). She had seen the country go Protestant under her brother, Edward Tudor. Her sister, Mary, tried to return England to the Roman Catholic church. In all this, Elizabeth noticed something. Protestants got angrier than Catholics. They were more willing to fight. More willing to die. And less willing to compromise than the Catholics. So, Elizabeth largely yielded to the Protestants. Her form of Anglicanism (that has largely endured to this day) was to accept Protestant doctrine with a Catholic-esque liturgy.

In today's cultural war, just as Elizabeth was a pragmatist who did not have a strong preference for who won, our corporations (today's rulers - don't be fooled into thinking it is the politicians) do not particularly care who wins the culture war of today. All they care about is avoiding an uprising. They only care about appeasing the party that will get the most angry if they do not. For Elizabeth, that was the angry group of protestants. For Netflix, the angry group is the secular leftists.

The question I have is why? Why do Christians not get more upset when corporations undermine our core values? The number of leftists that get mad over dumb things such as whether Netflix filmed in a pro life state is tiny. But tiny crowd, through anger and organization, successfully pushes the corporate rulers of this world to do what they want. Why can't we do the same? If every time a company like Netflix openly disregarded and rejected its Christian customers, we got pissed and flooded their twitter page with angry comments, protested their dumb headquarters, and unsubscribed from their crappy service, they would think twice about doing it. The reason Christians get thrown under the bus, is that Christians are willing to be thrown under the bus.

Christians worship a King that got so angry at money changers that he kicked over tables in the temple (see John 2:13-16). Righteous anger over baby-murder is quite appropriate for Christians.

A big part of winning the culture war is learning to get angry.

The world is obsessed with politics. Everyone is focused on the next election. Everyone is always campaigning. The next election is always the most important thing. But their focus is on a game that has largely been decided long ago. It was decided by culture. It was decided by those countless hours we spent in church as children. It was decided by the TV shows we watched. It was decided by the books we read. It was decided by the music we listened to. Religion is not just what you do on Sundays. Entertainment is not just something to get your mind off the world. These things are the very fiber that holds a society together or tears it apart.

A time traveler coming to see American politics would be shocked at the many things that people simply assume and then bring to the voting both. Many of these things are absolutely nonsensical. And this baggage of presumptions, ethics, and sensibilities are all cultural things. They come from the gods we worship and the stories we tell.   Everyone is fighting about the wrong stuff. If conservatives are serious about truly making a difference in the most important things of our day (ranging for social to fiscal issues), we need to become vocal tellers of stories: the story of history, the stories of entertainment and the story of religion. Without addressing the culture the next election will have little lasting impact.

Recommended Further Reading
 How the West Was Won by Rodney Stark
Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Fergusson


Sources
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(1) The Story Telling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall, page 150


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