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The Clash of Cultures

Politics nowadays is driven almost entirely by culture wars – zero-sum clashes that feed on tribal identities, fear, and a chaotic confusion of basic terms and ideas. To solve any of today's most pressing problems, we will first need to improve our collective intellectual hygiene.

PRINCETON – The political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis that the post-Cold War world would be defined by a “clash of civilizations” turned out to be off the mark. While there certainly is cleavage and conflict, the cause is a clash of cultures within civilizations. It is this clash that fueled the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Such intra-civilizational clashes ultimately make civilization itself impossible – or at least dysfunctional, as US politics now very much seems to be. From COVID-19 to geopolitics, every issue is now subject to a culture war. A year ago, the increasingly tattered veil of conflict-mitigating political and behavioral norms was ripped away.

Though debates about cultural values are ubiquitous, everyone assumes that his or her own local or national clash is somehow unique, as if Britain and France’s post-imperial hangovers defy comparison or are all that different from America’s own imperial debacle. Are American debates about the legacy of slavery and racial oppression really idiosyncratic? Is the struggle to overcome (or to reassert) national identity really an essentially European phenomenon? In fact, the terms that define these debates are rapidly losing any meaning.

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