Friday, 1 May 2020

Pink Floyd's 'Us and Them': Group Mentality and the Death of Politics in the Culture War

'Us and Them' is a famous anti-war anthem from what is Pink Floyd's most popular album, The Dark Side of the Moon. The song is quite epic, one of Pink Floyd's best, with a subdued verses that have soothing sax and watery guitar licks, before an utter explosion in the bridges, complete with female vocal choir, clashing symbols, distorted guitar. It's a fantastically well-composed and musically effective song.

The lyrics of the song quite explicitly explore the futility of war and how soldiers on both sides of any conflict are mere pawns for generals and the powerful, their battles reduced to mere "lines on the map" that move from side to side. Since the message of the lyrics is so starkly clear to anyone who gives them a glance, it would be rather foolish to use them to comment on something else.

So naturally I'm not going to explore the obvious anti-war message of the song in any way but instead will pivot hard to discuss something Roger Waters definitely was not thinking about when he wrote the lyrics, the current Culture War between liberals and conservatives in the Western democracies.

What a great song.

Wait, what? How can I just use the lyrics of a song from 1973 with an obvious anti-war message to comment on the current political climate of 2020? That seems like a stretch and rather disingenuous.

Like any piece of art, song lyrics can accumulate new meanings over time and as people interpret them within different contexts. And the sentiment expressed in 'Us and Them' seems to me to relate perfectly to the current political moment we find ourselves in and the artificial divide between the two sides of the Culture War.

Or at least enough so that I want to use the lyrics to frame my discussion of our current moment.

So let's get into it.

Here are the aforementioned lyrics in full (that I will cherry-pick from to make my argument).

Us and Them

Okay, so what is this Culture War anyway? The Culture War is this ideological conflict where every issue is reduced of its material conditions into a 'battle' between liberals and conservatives. While conservatives tend to more explicitly weaponise these cultural battles, liberals are not immune to its effects.

Within the Culture War, both sides succumb to the division caused by treating issues less as problems that require solutions but as a way to indicate your political team. The way this starts is through the creation and spread of "wedge issues".

A helpful definition from this Renegade Cut video.

Now, these 'wedge issues' often have no bearing on reality or even impact people's lives in any meaningful way but still people feel incredibly passionate about them since they signal their political identity or affiliation.

As stated in the definition of a 'wedge issue' above, manufacturing wedge issues has two effects. One effect is to manipulate people into a Culture War such that they turnout in order to defeat the other political party. The other is to distract and divide the working class.

A great example of how a wedge issue can be used for both is the "War on Christmas".

As this informative article by Media Matters details, the War on Christmas is a completely manufactured cultural battle. A wedge issue created by propagandists on Fox News, such as noted sexual harasser Bill O'Reilly, to fracture objective reality along political lines.

As the article states,
Imaginary culture war issues like the War on Christmas make for good politics, as the people arguing that these are real issues can at any time simply dust off their hands, declare victory, and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
According to the article, the creation of a fake issue like the War on Christmas provides "right-wing media a convenient way to manufacture divisions between the left and the right" in order to ignore real issues.

To be honest, looking at how the right in American has weaponised the War on Christmas victim narrative every year for the past 15 years or so while ignoring the real problems facing America's poor and most vulnerable, it's hard to disagree.

Up and Down, And in the end it's only round 'n round

However, I would go further than the Media Matters article and say that the Culture War is no longer limited to fake battles such as the War on Christmas but has infected all aspect of politics.

Every issue, real or imagined, is now a wedge issue, reduced to a political stance. All politics has become an aesthetic affect that signals which 'side' you are on - Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, Labour or Tory, NZ Labour or National, Red or Blue.

No where is this clearer than in how people on different sides of the Culture War believe governments and countries should response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instituting a shutdown or quarantine in the face of a pandemic shouldn't be a political issue but simply a health issue.

When you have a pandemic, you need to institute a quarantine of some kind or people will die. And yet...

See this Reddit thread for more examples of people getting corona to "own the libs".

The tweets above show what happens when you turn every issue into a culture war.

It no longer becomes about health or what's the right response, or even the issue itself, but simply opposing the other team. This is how right-wing media trick people into thinking that ignoring doctors and health professionals to break quarantine and go out during a pandemic is simply "expressing their freedom" to own the libs.

People have been convinced that blind opposition to the other side, regardless of whether the other side is right or wrong, is a win in the battle for the 'soul' of their country.

This thinking affects liberally minded people too, as they often get a sense of superiority and can dismiss whole swaths of the populace as uneducated backwater hicks or rednecks, ignoring how that population has been misled and manipulated by politicians, media companies and rich assholes.

Their smug superiority often blinds liberals to completely ignore how they themselves are also manipulated on 'liberal' wedge issues by politicians, media companies and rich assholes on the other side. This is why liberals will often fall for hollow moves towards 'progress' that don't actually progress anything but protect the interests of the elite.

An example of this is the "girl boss" phenomenon.

Aw, yeah. Lean in!

Before we go further, let me state for the record that representation is incredibly important and it is vital that we address the decades of systemic gender discrimination in the workplace and politics. However, where liberals get tricked into a Culture War is that they are told representation in and of itself is what is important. This is regardless of whether this representation actually helps the marginalised group in question or is just tokenism designed to placate criticisms of discrimination.

That's how some liberals start thinking that simply putting women in positions of power will right the world because women are just intrinsically better than men because uh, feminism? Liberals such as former US President Barack Obama, who said last year that "if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything".

However, as this article by The Guardian points out, "Women, you’ll be amazed to know, are not a monolithic group". What is the point in electing a woman leader if she is will simply continue the systems of exploitation that currently exist?
Having more female leaders is also completely meaningless if those women simply “lean in” to exploitative systems of power. It’s not old white men that are the problem, it’s patriarchal capitalism.
Liberals will sometimes even defend far-right figures like Margaret Thatcher because of her "girl power" and how she had to break through the glass ceiling of misogyny to become the United Kingdom's first female Prime Minister, but come on.

You all know the Eric Andre bit, right?

We stan an imperialist murder queen.

The "girl boss" trope is a recuperation of feminism by capital, stripping it of its radical systemic critique of patriarchal structures, until it is a shallow husk of progressivism. An mere aesthetic signally change while providing nothing of substance. The idea that if one women is able to succeed, that is a win for all women, even if she only did so by playing by the rules of the patriarchal system.

This is how identity politics is weaponised in the Culture War to manipulate liberals into supporting candidates based solely on their gender, race or sexuality. Think of Hilary Clinton's "I'm with Her" campaign slogan.

Again, please don't mistake me, representation is incredibly important and having a government that actually reflects the diversity of the constituents they represent is only a good thing. But here's the thing, they should also support policies which serve the interests of that diverse constituency, not lobbyists or the status quo.

Can we claim we have made any progress to celebrate the election of someone from a marginalised group if they pull the ladder up behind themselves? Is that a gain for equality? Is it a feminism to replace a male warmonger with a female warmonger? Is it a win for gay rights when a gay mayor ignores the issues facing the LGBTQ community?

I dunno about you, but that doesn't look like progress to me.

Haven't you heard, it's a battle of words?

Let's talk about the "Death of Politics" mentioned in the title. What do I mean by the "Death of Politics" anyway? That seems rather ominous and melodramatic.

Like in any war, at the end of the day it often is a battle of words. What is said about what happened is often far more important that what actually happened. Words are what bring meaning to things, they provide the framework for understanding. Indeed, the choice of words can often frame an incident one way or another, depending on how they are used.

What am I going on about? Well, how do we talk about those on the other side of the Culture War? What words do we use to describe them? How are those words used? Do those words even mean what they are supposed to or are we using them devoid of meaning in order to get an emotional reaction?

Let's take a concrete example, and a local one if you're from New Zealand like me, about a NZ Labour MP Deborah Russell who said some dumb things about personal responsibility for small business owners who were struggling during the Covid-19 shutdown. Russell said,
We are seeing a number of small businesses really struggling after only a few weeks in a difficult situation, which must speak to the strength of those small businesses going into this lockdown. It worries me that perhaps people went into small business without really understanding how you might build up or capitalise it in the first place so you have the ongoing strength to survive a setback.
Now, to me that seems like typical "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" type nonsense which you typically see from right-wing libertarianism or conservatism. It's kinda sad to see from a Labour MP, who are supposedly centre-left, but what you gonna do?

Well if you are David Seymour, you try score some cheap political points.

Got them.

If you're not from New Zealand and don't know who David Seymour is, you might not understand what I'm getting at. David Seymour is the leader of the libertarian ACT party. He is literally the personal responsibility "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" guy in New Zealand politics!

Yet hee's taking a jab at Russell, and by extension the NZ Labour party, for espousing views which are completely in line with his own political ideology. Which is weird enough on the surface but then Judith Collins, a member of the right-wing National party, chipped in with a little Red Scare, "Thank you for this little gem about socialist thinking against small business."

Essentially, she proclaimed that libertarian philosophy applied to business owners was actually socialism. Which makes no sense right? Nothing Russell said could be considered socialist in any way, shape or form. It's kind of directly opposed to socialist principles like social welfare, solidarity and anti-capitalism.

However, this is the "Death of Politics" in the Culture War. Actual awareness of political ideology or theory is discarded and replaced with empty name-calling for points scoring. There is no understanding of politics apart from "my side = good, other side = bad".

Within this false understanding, ACT and National will purposely say Labour are socialists so when a Labour MP has a bad take, they can pull out the "see communism is cancer" card, even when the take they apparently disagree with is actually in line with their own right wing ideology.

This is a common tactic the world over. How often has a left-leaning candidate or politician been labelled a 'communist' in order to dismiss them or make their ideas seems scary and invoked the scaremongering of the Cold War? Such claims were swung at Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and deliberately.

Oh, by the way, remember those people protesting the shutdown in the States? Well...

Yeah, okay. Sure.

It doesn't matter that saying social distancing equals communism makes little no sense to the point of absurdity. It doesn't matter that the claim is self-contradictory. The only thing that matters is the emotional plea. What the claim invokes for people on your side that hear or read it.

If your side thinks that communism is cancer. then that is the plea you make. If your side thinks that conservatives are all uneducated rednecks, then that is the plea you make. The emotional plea of the claim is far more important than whether the claim is true.

After all, it is all just a battle of words and words have power even when they are meaningless.

Black and Blue, And who knows which is which and who is who

So, if both sides can become ensnared by wedge issues that either distract from real issues or superficially seem like progress but are actually hollow, which side actually wins in the Culture War?

Neither side. They are both being played.

As stated in the lyrics of 'Us and Them', the soldiers are just victims in war, pawns to be sacrificed in the front-lines while the generals are safe from the violent consequences of their decisions. (I mean, unless there is another way to interpret, "Forward he cried from the rear/And the front rank died". If so, please let me know. I'm genuinely interested.)

So if people are the "soldiers" in the Culture War, then who are the generals they are being sacrificed for? Whose interests are best served by perpetrating wedge issues that only serve to divide the working class from achieving solidarity due to their shared material conditions?

Why, those in power of course.

I'm not going to hammer this too much since it's obvious and I've pointed out how obvious it is, but keeping the populace distracted by non-issues or politicizing real issues into wedge issues, only benefits the capitalist elite and those in power.

Working class conservatives getting angry at the "liberal shutdown" only helps capitalists who want to 're-open the economy' at the expense of those same working class conservatives health and lives.

College educated liberals supporting a female candidate for office simply because she is a woman, without really evaluating her political ideology or policies, only helps that specific woman and maintains the status quo of exploitation under capitalism.

Speaking of capitalism...

And who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about?

Within the current system, politicians, the media and rich assholes uses wedge issues to blind people to the shared solidarity they should have with each other. This is done in order to keep the powerful in power and to protect capital.

"The two parties need wedge issues to motivate their voters and distract them from the fact that both parties wish to maintain the system that has the most to do with their oppression." - Leon Thomas

Capitalism, baby! It's a problem. Maybe we should do something about it.

Maybe we need to avoid unnecessary Culture Wars and focus on what is really important - building solidarity and improving the material conditions of people everywhere.

Just like how the generals don't want the soldiers of either side talking to each other and recognising their share humanity, the politicians and media who manufacture these wedge issues don't want voters, particularly the working class, on either side to recognise that they have more in common with each other than these wedge issues would suggest.

They do not want you to realise that dismantling capitalism, and other systems of division such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, will result in a better society for everyone.

Since "after all, we're just ordinary men," women and non-binary folks caught in an never-ending cycle of pointless political battles where nothing ever gets better or changes and "God only knows it's not what we would choose to do".

I dunno, it's just a thought.


Us and Them (song) - Wikipedia

Misinformation for Fun and Profit | Renegade Cut

A War on Christmas Story: How Fox News built the dumbest part of America's culture war

r/ownthelibs - Getting Corona to Own the Libs

You're not helping, Obama – just reinforcing myths about men v women