Pity the rookie combatants in today’s culture wars. It can’t be easy to join a battle that’s been waged since before they were born and to think it’s new. I’m talking about free-speech warriors in neatly pressed Fred Perrys and un-scuffed boots, collecting their “blocked by” Twitter designations like medals, and howling their God-given right to make rape “jokes.”
All the young dudes hoping history will judge the video games they play to be as cool as rock ’n’ roll—a cohort of guys who, when they’re no longer young, seconds from sliding toward the great apolitical beyond, will—like dying Confederate soldiers picturing their mothers’ faces — envision Eminem himself laying a cooling hand upon their wrinkled foreheads.
As a veteran of the music-culture wars, I remember Tipper Gore’s denunciation of both the Dead Kennedys and Prince back in the eighties. It was alarming. Moreover, I’ve been engaging in lengthy arguments in defense of some sketchy black metal since the 1990s. I like to think, then, that my take on these rookies—the boys who are proud—has more behind it than the jerk of a knee.
If you’ve never heard of Hollywood’s Hays Code (puritanical censorship of movie sexuality), or Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent (comic books create juvenile delinquents, it argued), or the hysteria about jazz (“It’s the music of drug-using Negroes!”), followed by hysteria about rock ’n’ roll, disco, porn, punk, Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, hip-hop, and more, then yes, it must seem like we’re living in very combative times indeed. And we are! But not more so than any other. It only feels that way if you’re a person who really, really wants to wear that Burzum shirt onstage, or thinks that any episode past the second one of the new Roseanne was funny.
Maybe we’re at war, maybe we’re not. Far be it from me to diminish anyone’s heroic narrative. But this idea that cultural clashing has our country doomed? C’mon, it took almost 200 years for Rome to fall. Unless America peaked in 1812 (and unless you think Tchaikovsky’s famous overture was about the British burning the White House, when it was about Napoleon in Russia), we should be okay at least until the end of Radiohead’s album cycle.
I have perspective—and not because I’m a nerd. While I wear glasses and have weird breath, I’m not really smart enough to be a proper nerd. I’m using the broader, original definition of the word, the one that means being good at science and math, as opposed to being a guy who worships mass-media franchises like Star Wars so much he’ll send death threats about casting. But I’m nerdy enough to have a passing interest in the last hundred years of popular culture and, baby, let me tell you, it was turbulent.
Comedian Lenny Bruce and crooner Frank Sinatra (pre-Republican version) both got fucked with. There were laws against dancing that are still on the books. Weird as it may seem in a world where all moms have terrible tattoos, I remember a time when a mohawk and ripped shirt could get you beaten to within an inch of your life. What made it especially wild was that, for the most part, the culture wars were fought by artists, African-Americans, and gays on one side, and organized religion and the truncheon-wielding state on the other.