Origins of “Culture War”


I’m typing this since I’m on the upstairs computer with no microphone. And honestly I’m questioning whether dictation is actually a net time saver for an activity where, if I’m being honest I’m SHOULD slavishly edit the text anyhow because I care about it. It’s great for spouting off a first draft of a letter of demand or a report in my company’s CRM, because it needs to be “good enough.” But I would hope blog writing is more than “good enough.” I want it to be solidly, “meh, fine,” thank you very much.

RESEARCH! I’ve been wanting to do research for a long time. About what, I can’t ever say with consistency. I did some access to information stuff last spring regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in Ottawa; the data that I got back is now probably woefully out of date, but if someone wants it I’ll happily share it. I was dismayed at how I e-mailed a few journalists asking them about their worded their ATIP requests, and they ghosted me.

My feelings notwithstanding, I got the itch, and I really wanted to talk about “the Culture War.” Jace Avery is a webcomic artist I follow on IG and he had drawing that went viral:

The caption, if it doesn’t render properly, is “they got you fighting a culture war to stop you from fighting a class war,” with some purple hair chick yelling at a MAGA dude in a terrarium while some Mr. Monopoly looking guy smokes a cigar and watches on with delight.

This, coupled with the zeitgeist of our time, between freedom convoys, BLM, and everything in between, made me wonder what the fuck is actually a “culture war?” Who came up with this idea, and where are its origins?


Like any good scholar, I started with Wikipedia, which basically says that the German term “Kulturkampf,”—a 19th century term denoting a fight among the Catholic Church and its adherents for power in the newly formed German Empire, with Otto von Bismarck going toe to toe with the Vatican—was the origin, and that it got imported in its original German form into the United States. Then, it has some vague poorly cited bullshit about rural/city values, which explains away sixty years of American history, and then all of sudden in 1991 Evangelicals and Homo-Judaic abortionists were locked in the throngs of a new conflict dividing America along battlegrounds for a new civil war. As though by magic.

So I got a free trial to and wanted to go about and see if I could find something more concrete. I pulled 38 relevant or dubious hits between 1914 and 1978 (why I stopped at 1978 will be apparent later on). I made the decision to omit hits that were “culture of war,” since that means something decidedly different. I believe I was wishy washy when it came to “culture’s war,” and other derivatives. I’m not going to go through them one-by-one, but rather give a vignette of the kind of stuff I found. My search geography was Canada, the U.S., and Great Britain, though the vast majority of hits I found were American.


The first hit I found was from October 12, 1914. Camille Saint-Saens, the French romantic composer, was refusing to conduct Wagnerian works after the outbreak of the First World War. The Chicago Tribune writes that it is a real “Culture War” in its headline, though obviously this is a proxy to an actual war that is raging on. Similarly, quoting another (unknown to me source) in a November 26, 1915 issue of the Calgary Albertan, it goes that “The World War is a culture-war; Sweden is tied up with Germany; and in helping Germany, Sweden is helping her own civilization.”

In the context of WWI, “Kulturkreig” (a literal “culture war,” meaning a culture glorifying war), and “Kulturkampf,” meaning a cultural struggle, are both translated as Culture War into English. So some hits talking about Nietsche and Thomas Carlyle are, similarly, not of much interest to me. In contrast to Wikipedia’s assertion, I couldn’t find any good use of the term in the 1920s or 1930s.

The next relevant hit seems to come in August 22, 1940. A German refugee, Hans Frei, gave a talk to the Canton, NC YMCA about the war raging on in Europe, as reported in The Canton Enterprise. He opined that this was the “end of Capitalism,” and that Nazi Germany, should they be victorious in Europe, would “transfer their culture war to South America rather than attempt direct invasion of the United States.” Again, German Culture? Nazi Culture? For me, this still sounds like a state mechanism imposing its will on another nation. It becomes less clear in a slew of articles talking about the Japanese “Culture War” against “Occidental Culture,” which I think also implies a parallel racial element.


The Gettysburg Compiler, of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, has one of the first hits that I think hints at the evolving use of this term. In an article from December 14, 1946, Philosopher Norman Richardson talks to the American Association of University Women’s local chapter at the YWCA:

“One of the more obvious facts about our contemporary situation is that we are living in a culture which is divided against itself, a culture at war with itself,” Dr. Norman Richardson…said…typical reactions included more education, more government, fatalism, and the feeling of a need for a deeper analysis of both education and culture. He said democracy was at war with dictatorship; private business with public ownership; management vs. labor, free enterprise against planned economy and the personal and spiritual against material things.

The 1940s talk about the “cultural war” for Alsace-Lorraine, as the French sought to establish their language and culture in these German areas. We also see the late 1940s and early 1950s talk about “culture war” meaning “high culture war,” or a fight to get people to listen to properly “high brow” forms of art on radio and television, or to woo a new orchestral hall to a given journalist’s locale. In a similar vein, fights over whether the U.S.A. or the U.S.S.R. had the finest orchestras and ballets were similarly labelled at Culture ‘War’ at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.

Yet at the same time, an article from March 23, 1961 about the influence of “Peiping [sic] and Moscow” in propagandizing by way of radio broadcasts, with the headline “Red Chinese Stepping up Culture ‘War’” clearly goes the other way. Culture is understood to mean popular culture. An article on November 12, 1966, in the Corpus Christi Times talks about a new cultural fair in Taiwan to celebrate Sun Yat-sen’s birthday, which for Chiang Kai-shek represented “a means of countering what he called Chinese Communist efforts to destroy China’s 5,000-year-old culture.” This is a curious one, since again, we are getting closer to this idea of a civil war among a nation in culture, insofar as Taipei and the PRC can be said to be “one people.” Otherwise, how can the Chinese eliminate Chinese culture? “Culture” here clearly means “tradition.”

By the 1970s, a fascinating trend is the vary casual use of the term “drug culture,” to mean a sub-culture organized or encircled around the use of narcotics. In an articles from July 29, 1972, in the Redlands Daily Facts, S.I. Kayakawa, the President of San Francisco State College, writes:

The drug culture declares war against thoughtful citizenship, against civic virtue. As opposed to the responsibility of the self-governing citizen “to transcend the habitual pursuit of self-interest and devote himself directly and devotedly to the common good,” the drug culture urges you to “to do your thing”—in dazed autistic self-absorption, even if the world may be crashing about your ears.

In a local flavour for me, the Ottawa Journal writes on April 4, 1973, about a drug “rip-off” between speed dealers, in which the local crown laments that “sub-culture wars will lead to more violence in which someone could wind up dead.”

And this might very well be the needle that threads this all together. A doctor interviewed in a March 21, 1976 issue of The Commercial Appeal of Memphis Tennessee, Dr. Herbert Hendin, states we are a “Culture At War.” Citing rising alcohol and drug abuse, as well as suicide rates, the article goes:

“This culture is at war and young people are in the front lines,” says Hendin. “Young people are a barometer of social change. They can give us a reading fo the future. Doing this study has convinced me that this profound emotional distress is not only growing but also is accepted, adopted and to some extent reinforced by our culture.”… “Our culture accepts and stimulates a sense of egocentricity, of what’s in it for me. We are seeing a new hunger for experience, an envy not just of other people’s things but of their very lives. I think one reasons there is less interest in the young today than there was five years ago is that older people are now becoming more preoccupied with themselves.”

Lastly, I ended this survey with an article by Pat Buchanan, published in the Chicago Tribune-N.Y. News Syndicate on October 23, 1978, titled “culture war raging here.” There is no doubt in my mind that this is the fully realized form of what we talk about now in common parlance, some 45+ years later. He writes that “beneath the surface calm of public life, there is taking place a historic struggle between separate, competing and hostile cultures.” He of course references homosexuality, prostitution, and marijuana, but also freely ties in that “the root cause of crime is [not poverty, but rather] criminals,” and that radical counterculturalists—in contrast to Buchanan’s “traditionalists”—are obsessed with re-distribution of income, suddenly conflating economic policy with crime and punishment, and public morality.

He quite presciently describes the coming generational conflicts: “Suffice it to say that we are dealing in areas where this little room or desire to compromise on matters where one side views the other not as wrong headed but as morally reprehensible or morally blind.” I could write more about this article alone, but by all means read the monographs or dozens of articles Buchanan penned on this subject. You’ll get the idea.


So yeah, that was a thing I did. And I wrote this up while watching Sunday Mass on my computer, for added irony. It’s interesting how Buchanan seems to have ultimately coined the term in this modern sense, and I think it has really held up in this usage. I’m happy to be challenged if there’s an earlier usage that I missed, perhaps in an academic context. I know that newspapers are at best a barometer for what is going on around, but the tendrils of “high culture,” “tradition,” “drug sub-culture,” and Nationalism all seem to be lurking in parallel, only to be synthesized together into an all encompassing “us versus them” narrative that we still grapple with today, where the State is but a mere casual observer. I can take any of the annoying hot button issues of the past decade—global warming, the Law Society of Ontario’s “Statement of Principles,” the Ottawa Truck Convoy, getting vaccinated—and if I can gleam a person’s opinion on any single one of these issues I know which camp they fall into.

And that for me is fascinating. At a time when “culture” in the artistic sense is more and more fractured—individualized spotify play lists for obscure indy bands, self-published novels and zines and podcasts, a bazillion streaming channels subsuming the hegemony of cable TV and broadcast radio—we seem to still largely be ruled by two political monoliths, as identified by Pat Buchanan. He gets a lot of spotlight for having fought against George Bush Sr. in 1992 with his “culture war speech,” despite the fact that by that time, it must have been old hat for him.

I’m not sure if this was useful to anyone, but I had a lot of fun thumbing through newspaper archives.