Brian Williams and the "Culture War"

On the death of Andrew Breitbart three years ago, David Frum remarked,

He waged a culture war minus the “culture,” as a pure struggle between personalities.

Frum’s assessment is equally fitting for the American right-wing that has come in Breitbart’s wake, which he personified and defined, and parts of which still bear his name. “Conservatives” fight a “culture war”—a take-no-prisoners assault on “liberals”—minus the culture, in other words, minus any meaning and consequence.

Brian Williams was a last bastion of “old media”—not just the cable-news programs that are being displaced by the Web and social media but the three-network monolith, presided over by square-jawed, paternalistic “newsmen.” Lacking his predecessors’ authority, and their Midwestern speaking style, Williams existed as a kind of parody of upper-middle-class Whiteness: the highly imitable and dorky voice; the bearing that might read as snobby, but is the mask of an uptight coward; and the 10-foot pole, perennially lodged. . . To call Williams a “liberal” is to falsely assume that he has a soul. Williams is, like so many high-IQ White people, a high-functioning empty shell, an upper-level manager of a declining system.[1]

You could say that American society is “totalitarian,” in the sense that almost every public event is immediately politicized and “culturalized”—and done so using a repeated Left/Right, Red/Blue, Good Guys/Bad Guys dichotomy. Thus, Brian Williams (or American Sniper or George Zimmerman or whatever) is enveloped, not only in politics, but in unarticulated hopes, dreams, and fears of everyday White people.

How we break through this hegemonic cycle—how we fight a real culture war, and not the endless phony one—remains one of the most important questions for our movement.

  1. The average age of an NBC Nightly News viewer is reportedly 53; I thought it would have been much higher. For what it’s worth, the average age of a FOX News viewer is 68, with CNN and MSNBC viewers only barely younger.