While listening to historian Yuval Noah Harari’s webcast with TED on the significance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, something notable jumped out to me. Hariri points out how the moral outrage at Russia’s invasion is unprecedented, and the global condemnation of the war has been stronger than many people anticipated. However, what really jumped out from this conversation, as it came somewhat unexpectedly, was Hariri’s speculation that the gravity of Russia’s invasion and what it means for world politics could spell an end to the “culture wars” in the West.
In the early weeks of the war, much has been said about Russia’s invasion being the final death blow to the “liberal international order” – the set of norms and institutions that were put in place at the end of the Second World War. This “order” has presided over an unprecedented period of relative peace and prosperity that is somewhat of an historical anomaly. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a highly unusual act for the post-war period, which helps explain the rapid series of events thought unimaginable just last month. For instance, Germany has doubled its defence budget, and countries like Sweden and Finland are now seriously considering NATO membership. The threat of war and invasion now feels very real for populations who hardly gave it a second thought for decades.
But what does this shift in world politics have to do with Hariri’s comment on the “culture wars” and what did he mean by this, exactly? Culture wars can be defined as tensions and differences in worldviews that typically exist between people and groups who lean more conservative and those who lean more progressive. This modern definition was first developed by in the 1990s by sociologist James David Hunter who noticed a large difference in how certain groups in the United States viewed particular issues.
The result of these differing worldviews is stark disagreement on a variety of social and political issues — from abortion to immigration — and on how things ought to be. These disagreements tend to boil over into media and mainstream discourse. Contemporarily, this typically means the endless arguments that take place online through the spreading of memes and online activism. Opposing sides argue about the latest viral story that has caused some kind of outrage, usually to only be quickly replaced by the next story in the news cycle.
A good recent example that can fall into the purview of the culture wars was the recent “Freedom Convoy” protest that took place in Ottawa and many other Canadian cities that accompanied the politicization of COVID-19. Protests over vaccine mandates and other COVID-related measures culminated in a weeks-long protest where participants claimed their freedoms had been revoked. Partisan media in favor of the protests chimed in that the government’s response to the protest made them “tyrants” bent on destroying Canada. Conversely, those on the progressive side claimed that the horn honking commonly witnessed at the protest was code for “Heil Hitler,” and similar complaints feared that the protests were a modern-day manifestation of fascism.
Both of these positions on the trucker protests now look foolish and exaggerated on the back of a full-scale invasion of a sovereign country by an actual tyrant, with casualties already well into the thousands. Russia’s invasion has made it all too clear that public health measures or a bunch of suburbanites parking their trucks in the city don’t constitute anything near real tyranny or fascism. Yet in the current political climate, these dramatized claims and others like them are commonplace but have now been made to look trivial given the events that are transpiring in Ukraine.
When Harari points out that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could spell the end of such debates, he is referring to the enormity of the current situation and the comparatively minor nature of a typical culture war spat. The global ramifications of this invasion will likely be felt for many years if not decades to come on issues critical to international peace and security, such as nuclear proliferation, energy security, and multilateralism. Critical issues like this are almost always absent from culture war battles, yet it is these battles that have captured much of the mainstream discourse. Moreover, the endless barrage of controversies like this has contributed to the extreme levels of political polarization now seen in Western countries, where people of different political parties see their opponents as the opposite of how they’d like their country to function.
Going forward, phrases like “great power competition” and “autocracy versus democracy” will play a greater part in everyday conversation, signifying a new period in history that many people a decade ago thought had disappeared for good. These large historical shifts are what Hariri stresses when speculating that the tragic events in Ukraine might put an end to the culture wars in the West. Although we may have fundamental differences in our political opinions, we are still ultimately aligned with the basic principles of liberalism — that of freedom and liberty. Russia’s invasion could lay bare just how inconsequential many of the current debates in Western countries actually are, and that events of true historical consequence can and do still happen. In this vein, Hariri stresses that the values of liberalism must not be taken for granted, but rather they must be maintained and upheld.
Whether or not Hariri’s prediction materializes will remain to be seen for some time.
The current structure of the media that promotes division and sensationalism points to a continuation of this past decade’s culture wars. However, the significance of the present moment should not be underestimated. There is a possibility that the crisis in Ukraine could put a dent in the most absurd culture war rhetoric, or at the very least make some people realize that there are larger, more important events at stake. That in itself would be a tiny victory during this precarious moment.
Edited by Beth Samson