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Culture Wars and Criminalization

Absent a politics of solidarity, the cultural erosion of civil rights will lead to more criminalization and punishment for those who claim them.


In July, not long after the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, the celebrated feminist entertainer Bette Midler caused a maelstrom on Twitter when she urged women, reeling from their loss of a fundamental constitutional right, to not let others “erase” their womanhood with the horror of trans-inclusive language. A day later, Midler defended herself against online pushback, noting that it wasn’t her intention to be “exclusionary” or “transphobic” with her comments. Along with her defense, she shared an opinion essay by columnist Pamela Paul in The New York Times that was exactly that: a screed against “academics, uber-progressives, transgender activists, civil liberties organizations and medical organizations” working in concert “to deny women their humanity, reducing them to a mix of body parts and gender stereotypes.”  

As a 73-year-old cisgender, queer feminist whose commitment to a fully trans-affirming world is buttressed by more than five decades of activism challenging structural violence and inequality, I felt my heart sink. For decades, many trans activists, together with their supporters, have fought for abortion rights and more expansive, intersectional visions of reproductive justice and gender justice. But the accusation, once the province of so-called transgender-excluding radical feminists, or TERFs, who now refashion themselves as “gender critical,” migrated years ago into the public pronouncements of some notable feminists whose views are generally regarded as inclusive and progressive as well as into mainstream media. 

However obliquely, and whatever the intentions of these commentators, such allegations reflect the escalating influence of the civil equivalent of war — the popular term is culture war — declared against transgender communities. This culture war has been amassing strength for years, driven by storylines that fuel anxiety, distribute disinformation, incite moral panic, and encourage political violence. But it doesn’t stand alone. No culture war does. Rather, it is one of several campaigns invigorating a larger political project that works to dismantle and replace the framework of civil rights for all with one of criminalization, surveillance, and punishment.

My purpose here is not to focus exclusively on anti-trans attacks, but rather to place them within and illuminate that larger political project and its criminalizing, authoritarian, and increasingly theocratic consequences. Understanding this totalitarian project, and the solidarity needed to oppose it, may yet help us envision and work toward futures where no one’s humanity is disposable — and where various systems of oppression, including the ongoing crisis of mass incarceration, cease to exist.

The modern origins and strategic significance of culture wars are most readily seen in the Republican Party’s efforts, starting in the 1960s, to break the Democratic Party’s hold on the South by appealing to white Democrats disaffected by the civil rights movement. Deploying the power of social fracture to intensify racial and political divisions, the strategy also capitalized on divisions related to religion and feminist demands for change. This “long Southern strategy,” with its embrace of dominionist (and nationalist) Christianity, continues to shape national politics and public discourse.

Within this longer arc, culture wars are not “distractions,” as some people believe, meant to deflect our attention from more serious issues. Rather, they are powerful base-building vehicles for political organizing, fundraising, and media saturation. Culture wars purposefully mark some groups of people and communities as polluting, degenerate, and disposable. Again and again, the profoundly anti-democratic notion of a deserving us and an undeserving, criminal them is distilled into an oppressive worldview and translated into governance. It’s the reason the so-called war on drugs, the war on immigrants, and the war on welfare, to name but a few domestic wars that exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s, have been so effective at growing and maintaining the U.S. carceral state and mindset.

Culture wars purposefully mark some groups of people and communities as polluting, degenerate, and disposable. Again and again, the profoundly anti-democratic notion of a deserving us and an undeserving, criminal them is distilled into an oppressive worldview and translated into governance.

Before they were wars of criminalization, all of these began as culture wars that demonized groups that needed to be subdued and brought under control. Culture wars unfold against backdrops of political, social, economic, and ecological tensions and uncertainties. As precarity, already widespread, intensifies, so does the elastic appeal and power of scapegoating and criminalization. Over the years, culture wars have not abated; leading up to and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings over the murder of George Floyd, they have multiplied, with even greater ferocity. Some hard-won victories — on voting rights, abortion rights, and LGBTQ+ rights and recognition, once thought by many to be secure — are either crumbling or under sustained attack.

None of this should surprise us. Cautionary warnings about the power of the politics of social fracture have long been sounded but little heeded. In 1994, a multiracial group calling itself The Blue Mountain Working Group took stock of the political climate at the time. Their assessment of the political landscape, including complex forms of backlash against demands for social and economic justice, rings as true today as it did almost 30 years ago. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, Jean Hardisty, Loretta Ross, Suzanne Pharr, Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, and others described in detail the mobilization of resentment, the politics of polarization, and their impacts, emphasizing the connective tissue that binds these sorts of attacks into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Today, in addition to focused political attacks against trans people and abortion rights, the contemporary pantheon of culture wars includes assaults on the movement for Black lives and its demands to end police violence, on voting rights and democracy itself, on immigrants and their families, on LGBTQ+ communities, on ethnic studies and multicultural education (often by distorting the meaning of critical race theory), and public schools and teachers.

The architects of these culture wars are the Republican Party and its ideologically aligned institutional supporters. Together, they’ve mastered the art of blitzkrieg — striking in many places all at once, all the time, which makes it more challenging to effectively fight them. This ecosystem includes think tanks and policy incubators like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, and others; producers of conservative, religious, and corporately aligned model legislation such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Project Blitz; billionaire donors such as industrialist Barre Seid and Robert and Elizabeth Uihlein; propagandizing media in the vein of Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN; strategists focusing on shaping the judiciary and legal battles like The Federalist Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom; and anti-immigration advocacy organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies.

Storylines that Animate Culture Wars

All wars need emotionally charged storylines and vividly demonized enemies to sell themselves. While culture wars sometimes appear to address a series of unrelated issues, they are driven by a strategically consistent, mutually reinforcing set of criminalizing storylines and subtexts. Singly and collectively, they create pretexts for rolling back, even reversing, gains made by movements for social, economic, and ecological justice.

The overarching culture war storyline emphasizes scarcity: the illusion that there’s not enough to go around. Not enough civil rights, not enough social and economic goods, not enough cultural pluralism, not enough religious freedom, not enough morality, not enough human dignity. It posits current, unjust attributes of these things as inevitable and eternal; it naturalizes austerity politics that slash social spending and privatize public goods while increasing funding for policing, surveillance, incarceration, and militarization.

The theme of theft adds a criminalizing element to culture war narratives. The expansion of legal recognition and enforcement of rights for communities excluded from same is framed as theft of what rightfully belongs to us by undeserving, even criminal interlopers. So is the actual or proposed equitable redistribution of social and economic goods to marginalized communities. Trans people are accused of stealing not only women’s rights, humanity, and spaces, but also their bodies. And they are accused of stealing themselves to become someone that, in the words of the accusers, they weren’t meant, let alone born, to be. Abortion is the murderous theft of fetal personhood, and criminalization the cure.

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A closely related storyline alleges erasure. The most dramatic example, known as “The Great Replacement Theory,” promotes the conspiracy theory that people of color, particularly immigrants, are plotting to “replace,” even commit genocide against, white people. In this context, the rhetoric of “invasion” is commonplace. This racist theory of replacement, embraced by Republican politicians and their media enablers, is also antisemitic, alleging that Jewish elites are the engineers of the plot. The idea frequently extends to voting rights efforts, also seen as diluting or replacing reliable “white” voting power. As Charlottesville made plain in 2017, the volatile mix of white supremacy, xenophobia, and antisemitism fuels political violence.

In other contexts, culture warriors insist that legal recognition of gender identity in antidiscrimination policies and acknowledgment of gender fluidity erases not only the legal standing of women, but womanhood itself. Some even go as far as to deny trans people the basic courtesy of their preferred pronoun, their appropriate gender identity on birth certificates and other forms of identification, or even access to public bathrooms. For their part, ethnic study programs, or any curricula that critically examine histories of structural racism in the United States and its colonial past, serve as quasi-sleeper cells of erasure. Not only do these efforts inculcate animosities and seek to erase an honest and critical account of U.S. history, but they also obfuscate, if not obliterate completely, the rights of individuals, who are only owed forms of “equality” that are color-blind, class-based, and lacking structural amends for past discrimination.

Another incendiary culture war trope that drives manufactured moral panic is that of sexual predation, or the coerced sexualization and “grooming” of vulnerable children by sexual perverts. It was popularized in 1977 by former beauty queen and orange juice industry spokesperson Anita Bryant, who galvanized a successful “Save Our Children” campaign that removed lesbian and gay people as a protected class from a nondiscrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida. She famously declared, “Since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit.” This storyline, with some modifications, continues to anchor the criminalizing culture wars against LGBTQ+ communities — especially trans people, who are already uniquely vulnerable to state power.

The Criminalizing Consequences of Culture Wars

Culture wars cast their impacts as protective. But waged under the rubrics of morality, parents’ rights, religious freedom, and public safety, they intensify state violence while providing a welcoming environment for political threats and campaigns of harassment.

From their inception to the present, systems of policing, surveillance, and carceral control, together with their public-private proxies — including schools, hospitals, and social services — have enforced and reproduced structural violence and inequality. Culture wars expand and intensify community-based processes of criminalization and surveillance in schools, libraries, voter registration processes and polling places, and medical institutions. Even families are enlisted in various crusades against other families. We’re invited to become a world of vigilantes, informers, and police proxies — reporting on, accusing, even helping to punish targeted others who are our neighbors. Three examples of how this is playing out in communities today help to illustrate the larger reality:

Culture wars expand and intensify community-based processes of criminalization and surveillance in schools, libraries, voter registration processes and polling places, and medical institutions. Even families are enlisted in various crusades against other families. We’re invited to become a world of vigilantes, informers, and police proxies — reporting on, accusing, even helping to punish targeted others who are our neighbors.

Anti-trans attacks, shocking in their vehemence, challenge the very right of transgender people to exist. Influential conservative, right-leaning think tanks provide strong support to campaigns against what they call “gender ideology.” Transgender bans in women’s sports, including sports in public schools, frame trans athletes as deceptive gender impersonators and authorize invasive body searches. “Gender-critical” feminists promote the notion that transgender women are not women but predatory males who present as women. Allowed access to “female-only” spaces, including bathrooms, they are likely to sexually assault cisgender women.

Perhaps the most vicious attacks target trans youth, their families, and their health care providers. While every major medical association in the United States — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, Endocrine Society, and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — supports gender-affirming health care, these reactionary forces work to ban it. In Texas, parents of trans children have been investigated for child abuse, not without challenge, and must sometimes endure accusations that they dismember and mutilate children. Physicians and facilities who provide trans-affirming health care are made targets of violent political threats and sustained campaigns of intimidation.

The criminalization and policing of pregnancy and other aspects of people’s reproductive lives — especially the lives of low-income Black families and other people of color — has a long, grim history. Social service and health care providers, including so-called child welfare systems, have long been enlisted in the policing — raced, gendered, classed, and ableist — of reproductive autonomy. While public discourse tends to focus on abortion rights, the framework of reproductive justice, created by a group of women in color in 1994, more accurately speaks to this complex history, anticipates future challenges, and embraces the reproductive justice struggles of trans and intersex people.

The criminalization of pregnancy, already advanced prior to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, will now accelerate. Republicans have proposed a new federal ban on abortion, as more Republican-dominated state governments enact their own bans. The movement for fetal personhood, in turn, renders the bodily autonomy of pregnant people meaningless and has potential for impacting every possible area of civil and criminal law.

The criminalization of queer people — raced, gendered, classed, and ableist — continues apace in complex ways. So do attempts to roll back or trample on their rights. LGBTQ+ people are targets of organized campaigns of physical threat and intimidation, and they’re singularly exposed to the criminal and carceral systems. Yet many people assume that since they now have the right to marry, the justice struggles for queer people have resulted in triumph. But in the wake of Dobbs, that right to marry is far from safe. LGBTQ+ communities also worry that the 2003 decision that decriminalized private sexual activity between consenting people of the same sex could be reversed.

Beyond that, Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, popularly known as “Don’t Say Gay,” is a vague and unclear law passed to purportedly prohibit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for school children in kindergarten through third grades. The law, which has spawned copycat bills in other states, also includes language barring discussion of such topics in higher grades if the discussion is somehow deemed not “age-appropriate.” It holds the potential to adversely affect counseling services and opens the door to violating the confidentiality of students who want to talk privately to counselors, teachers, and health care providers. It provides parents who feel the law is being violated with the right to sue schools, with the district having to cover the costs. And it places teachers — especially those who are queer or who wish to provide a welcoming environment to queer youth — in jeopardy.

Journalist Melissa Gira Grant, whose reporting often documents attacks on trans and queer communities, has said that in her lifetime, she hasn’t “felt like it has been this dangerous, ever.”

Bette Midler was right, at least in part. Her rights, and almost everyone else’s, are at stake, along with people’s increasingly dwindling hopes for basic social, economic, and ecological wellbeing. What, then, should we do about it? Professional consultants to the Democratic Party say that what’s needed to “win” is a robust tweaking of campaign and media messaging, including more funding for police — already notorious for policing queer bodies. But what we really need is a better, more just, more generous world dedicated to dismantling structural violence and inequality. And we must fight for it while we still can.

That task demands more of us than defeating and replacing culture warriors who hold office, although we should certainly try to do that. And it requires more than trying to staunch the steady erosion of civil and human rights — although we should do that, too. Most of all, it asks us to recognize that, no matter which party is in power at the federal or state level, processes of criminalization and systems of policing are used not only to manage inequality but also outlaw efforts to establish different social and economic priorities.

The strategy of social fracture can only be effectively blunted, and overcome, by a sustained and gritty politics of solidarity. By solidarity, I mean that more of us, individually and organizationally, must commit publicly — across issues, constituencies, and movements — to support one another’s rights, recognition, and social and economic wellbeing. And I mean that we show up, as best we can, in imaginative ways, to support communities under attack, bringing individual talents and institutional capacity to the task. A politics of solidarity doesn’t ask us to abandon issue-based work. It’s not charity. And it doesn’t expect us to all show up for everything. No one can do that. But it does ask us to think about and undertake the work we can do in a larger context of interdependence. That’s already happening in various ways around the country.

A politics of solidarity doesn’t ask us to abandon issue-based work. It’s not charity. And it doesn’t expect us to all show up for everything. No one can do that. But it does ask us to think about and undertake the work we can do in a larger context of interdependence.

A few years ago, organizer and political strategist Suzanne Pharr reflected on the challenges ahead for progressive justice and freedom movements. Musing on how to better align progressive forces to effect change — forces that are numerous and varied but unorganized — she emphasized that didn’t mean everyone should do the same thing or follow the exact same path. Rather, it involves figuring out how to get “this critical mass of people looking in the same direction and moving in that direction, all in their various ways.”

That’s the right focus for our efforts. And it’s a wonderful way to describe the strength that a deeply felt recognition of the interdependence of our lives and struggles can bring to the challenges we face.

Image: Jr Korpa/Unsplash