Sean Bell: Talk of ‘culture wars’ obscures the real conflict on our streets

“If a culture war scares you, what will you do when confronted with a real struggle?”

THIS WEEK, fascism made itself known in Glasgow.

Your definition may vary; mine is wide enough to encompass the motley troop of far-Right loyalists (forgive the redundancy) who assembled under the banner of the ‘National Defence League’ in George Square on Wednesday evening. Then again, discussions of what precisely constitutes fascism are a natural luxury for those able to consider racist violence from behind a keyboard in a different city. Those who found themselves targeted in Glasgow lacked the opportunity for such reflection.

Ostensibly, the protestors were there to defend the city’s apparently beleaguered Cenotaph from the “extreme left’s rent a mob Antifa” – and by a fascinating coincidence, chose to do so at a time which coincided with a nearby demonstration by No Evictions Glasgow. That group’s campaign on behalf of asylum seekers over their detention and treatment by housing provider Mears has been long-fought and peaceful; by contrast, the NDL contingent reportedly managed to remain non-confrontational right up until the point the rival protest hove into view.

The window-dressing was predictable: renditions of ‘Rule Britannia’, accompanied by a familiar salute which some on social media have gamely defended as merely waving in a curiously rigid fashion; the surely unerring ability of loyalists to vocally identify a “Fenian bastard” on sight; the coaction of sectarianism, racism and fascism – distinct, many would argue, but amenable to each other, especially when they’ve decided on a shared target.

In a subsequent statement on behalf of the Scottish Police Federation, their chairman David Hamilton grumbled that blame for the violence ultimately lay with all those who had failed to comply with Coronavirus restrictions on public assembly, drawing an equivalency between attackers and attacked: “Right or left, green or blue, unionist or nationalist, statue wrecker or statue protector, your side is as guilty as the other. There is no hierarchy of culpability.”

The statement, as the indefatigable sister of Sheku Bayoh expressed last night, was no surprise. Hamilton’s fulminations only confirmed what many of those inspired to protest by the death of George Floyd have long suspected: the police, in Scotland and beyond, will not and cannot offer a bulwark against fascism.

The events in George Square were not the week’s only example of violence spurred by those seeking to protect historical monuments from contemporary controversy. On 15 June, New Mexico activists attempted to topple an Albuquerque statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate; a counter-demonstrator, after facing off with several of the protestors, brandished a handgun and opened fire, hospitalising one person before being arrested. The vigilante militia the ‘New Mexico Civil Guard’ – out in force during the demonstration and reportedly referred to by local police as “armed friendlies” – were seemingly unable or unwilling to prevent the statue’s self-appointed protector from defending the bloodshed of the past by inflicting it on the present.  

Oñate, after overseeing the slaughter of hundreds of Acoma men, women and children who dared to stand in the way of the colonisation of ‘New Spain’ in the 1599 Acoma Massacre, ordered that every Acoma male over the age of 25 would have their right foot cut off, before being enslaved for 25 years. It is worth noting, given how splenetically some in the UK have condemned recent statue protests as a “neo-Maoist war on the past”, that many of the Acoma Pueblo tribe today do not consider such an edifice necessary to remember their own history. Some things have a way of sticking in the collective memory.

Events such as those in Glasgow and Albuquerque have rendered much of the discourse surrounding the question of statues and what they represent even more fatuous than it originally appeared. In the far-off days of a week ago, ominous warnings were made – almost exclusively by professional media commentators – that the ongoing international struggle against institutional racism, rising fascism and oppression both historical and contemporary might devolve into that nebulous creature, a ‘culture war’.

Often, those who most frequently employ the term ‘culture war’ are also those most reticent about defining what exactly constitutes one. A cynic might suggest that is because dismissing something as a culture war is a convenient way out for anyone facing political terrain they find difficult to exploit. Far easier then to gesture towards this vague spectre – with the inevitable and unquestioned addendum that this strange phenomenon has been ‘imported’ from the United States, as if our own nations could never produce such discord – and sternly instruct us to get our priorities straight.

Personally, I was not overly dismayed when the British Right decided to once again collectively piss itself over insufficient levels of reverence for Winston Churchill, because it’s an argument that always goes so well for them. How could renewed scrutiny of Churchill’s life and legacy do anything other than reflect well on those who have invested so much in it? Some may remember the last time the issue cropped up, and the psychic damage inflicted upon poor souls like Piers Morgan by a few choice remarks from Green MSP Ross Greer.

Others, however, have worried that such debates could derail a noble enterprise. Earlier this week, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland mourned the apparent misstep of the UK’s Black Lives Matter movement in rising to the bait of Boris Johnson’s characteristically blustering defence of Winston Churchill. “Let’s imagine the initial focus had remained instead on a demand to tackle discrimination in policing and criminal justice, expanding to include the higher death rates from Covid-19 among black Britons,” he wrote. “Johnson and others in power would now be on the defensive, forced to promise action.” I admire Freedland’s optimism, if nothing else, but Tories are not famous for their willingness to engage with the demands of mass protests.

Elsewhere, the Herald’s Neil Mackay wrote plaintively: “A culture war is what happens when a society hollows out and dies politically. And a culture war destroys the left and liberals. The right – especially the far right – thrives on culture wars. The left doesn’t, the left splits, and as a result loses. Often the left spends more time hating itself than it does the right. We seem to prefer purity purges to taking power and changing the world.”

Such opinions, as should be obvious, denote a typically British insularity: I would pay money to see any of these hand-wringers in the UK press explain to American BLM protestors that they should spend less time focusing on Confederate statues. I’m sure they’d appreciate such informed perspectives.

To be fair, Freedland, Mackay and those who share their fear of culture wars are not entirely wrong when they identify right-wingers’ affinity for this kind of conflagration. The Right’s approach is straightforward, albeit completely dishonest: bemoan culture wars, while simultaneously doing everything they can to instigate and encourage them.

As perfectly articulated by Sarah Jones in New York magazine this week: “When reality contradicts the tenets of culture war, they [the Right] bend it to make it fit. Outlandish persecution fantasies are a staple of the right-wing culture war narrative… The lie services a specific function. It’s a screen, made to hide the way power really works.”

If the Daily Telegraph can be taken as a barometer for the state of British conservatism (and if it can’t, then what is its purpose?) its recent coverage offers an appropriate demonstration of this. Over the past ten days, its headlines have included: ‘Extremists speak for no one in this unwanted culture war’, ‘The government can’t run away from this poisonous culture war’, ‘Our freedom is under threat from an American-imported culture war’, ‘Don’t mention ze culture war!’ and ‘Real issues are being ignored in this farcical culture war’. The hacks doth protest too much, methinks.

The last example is a common refrain from both Right and Left: the fear that matters of consequence – material conditions, present realities, issues which impact real people’s lives – will be overlooked in favour of superficial, performative and unproductive debate. A valid concern, one might think – but one which has been proven completely unfounded in recent weeks.

Since the protests began in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, there has been absolutely no indication that the Black Lives Matter movement in the US has been diverted or distracted by the concerns of so-called culture wars: amongst the many thousands who have joined BLM in its efforts, there is no evident confusion between toppling a statue and defunding the police. In fact, as the usual suspects within the Democratic Party have learned to their cost, the movement will not be fooled by attempts to shift the conversation away from police and prison abolition, two radical aims which BLM has placed at the centre of the discourse with far greater speed and ease than any of the finger-wagging milquetoast commentators complaining about divisive slogans anticipated. Meanwhile in the UK, despite much doom-mongering, questions of racism within British policing and politics have not taken a backseat to debates over a crappy 1970s sitcom.

All of this demonstrates what should already have been clear: the ‘culture war’ is either a paper tiger, of far greater concern to navel-gazing columnists desperate for something to file than to the disciplined movement which has proven repeatedly their eyes remain on the prize, or a concept designed to delegitimize valid and necessary struggles by framing them as indulgent and irrelevant.

The number and nature of those causes which have been cynically tarred with the designation would indicate the latter interpretation holds true: matters of LGBT+ rights, immigration, multiculturalism, abortion and yes, racism have all, at one point or another, been dismissed in this manner, not least by a coterie of grifters ever-ready to warn that the Left will never attain power or secure lasting change if it pursues “vindictive” and “parochial” culture wars – which, quite by coincidence, concern the lives, rights and liberation of groups these con-artists couldn’t care less about.

As David Wearing observed in Novara Media yesterday: “Frequently, what happens on the cultural or symbolic terrain plays a vital role in enabling physical and concrete injustices… Ultimately, there is no route to success for our various liberation struggles that does not pass through the cultural battlefield, amongst others. And the idea that the left is at a disadvantage in this area is a major misperception.”

The developments of this week have exposed what a dangerous misreading it is to presume that ‘culture war’ controversies such as the statue protests are divorced from immediate material concerns; doing so can, with perilous ease, lead to the abandonment of the very real struggles that lie behind the media-friendly narrative.

Yes, fascists rally around bullshit – this is not breaking news. They will see more value in statues of dead colonisers and slave-owners than those living people who live under the systems which are their legacy, and they will cynically employ the controversies surrounding them to target the vulnerable. It will all seem very silly, right up until the point it becomes terrifying.

There is cause for optimism: with admirable speed, the Scottish Trade Union Congress recognised the events in George Square for what they were, and who was responsible: “The trade union movement is in solemn solidarity with all those targeted by the far-right. Just as we condemn the overt racism witnessed yesterday, we condemn the dog-whistle politics and misjudged policing which has given it oxygen, and the institutional racism which hinders an effective society-wide response… Trades unionists will be continuing to monitor and prepare for the proliferation of organised racism in Scotland’s streets, and calls on communities across the country to do the same. We also say that now is time for solidarity and support.”

A united front in Scotland is not only capable of demonstrating opposition to fascism and racism on our streets, but of effectively resisting it; history – of the kind so many have been slandered in recent weeks as wishing to erase – teaches us that nothing else has ever successfully done so. But that will only be possible if our enemies are confronted on every battleground, including those they prefer to exploit.

Because if a culture war scares you, what will you do when confronted with a real struggle?

Those concerned by the issues raised in this article may be interested in the following campaigns:

Justice for Sheku Bayoh –

Migrants Organising for Rights and Empowerment & Unity Centre –

Ubuntu Women’s Shelter –