The Aughts were cringe. Dane Cook was one of the most popular comedians. Carlos Mencia had a television show. You couldn’t enter a movie theater without being forced into seeing the trailer for ‘Stealth’ at least once. The United States had invaded Iraq as part of a rage-induced post-9/11 pathos despite that country having literally nothing to do with those attacks. Heritage Foundation interns then attempted to reconstruct the Iraqi government from a hermetically sealed governing pod called ‘The Green Zone,’ no doubt while listening to the rapidly degenerating solo career of Gwenn Stefani as she told the world that her shit was bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.
Shit may have been bananas elsewhere, but one area where the culture was decidedly on point was on the immense strides made by the gay rights movement in that decade. Successes which, in retrospect, could not exist in today’s utterly homogenous and moralistic dominant culture.
One of the advantages afforded by the period of chaos unleashed by 9/11, Iraq, The Great Recession, and the calamitous collapse of the Bush regime from top of the world to leaving office with around a twenty percent approval rating was that cultural norms were questioned. Not in some superficial issue-by-issue basis like we have now, but in a way that fundamentally interrogated the very foundation of our concepts of morality. Public opinion went from decidedly hostile to homosexuals and bisexuals (Jerry Fallwell even blaming them for 9/11 on live television) to overall societal ambivalence with young people moving firmly into a generally positive disposition towards such minorities over the course of roughly a decade. It is worth remembering that this change occurred in a time when both political parties were at least somewhat hostile, and no major politician willingly embraced the cause of gay rights. The rhetoric of gay rights had little to lose, so could be suitably mean. Politicians were bullied relentlessly. The endless numbers of homophobic closet cases in the GOP became a running gag. It was about asserting divergence from the norm as a point of pride rather than spreading a gospel of gay. It worked not in spite of lacking decorum but because it had no such performative scruples. No one wanted to be a “good person”, they wanted to be effective advocates. Sometimes, that meant being bad.
Compare this record to the recent dip in the growth of acceptance of sexual orientation minorities. Considering that religiosity among the young is not increasing right now, it is hard not to see this as a result of the woke culture war backfiring. Being for gay rights is no longer an anti-moral values alternative, but part and parcel of integrating into the moralistic politics of a country whose first settlers were Puritans and whose dominant culture has never broken out of their mold. The secularization of politics did not change the unchallenged assumptions of the missionary that still lurked within. The liberal adoption and promotion of a very specific and suburban subset of LGBT issues focused on marriage and personal expression rather than addressing critical disparities in homelessness and housing security shows how these issues have become just another liturgy.
This enables social conservatives to pretend to be a brave counterculture when appealing to people neutral on social issues and thus to make gains using the same methods used by gays last decade. This is a ridiculous farce that shouldn’t even be possible as there is nothing rebellious against an ideology about the maintenance and defense of the status quo, but in the Woke Era, it is gaining traction under the auspices of the liberal establishment. The neoliberals are the dominant establishment of the discourse now and anyone too close to them will be painted in the same brush as their declining socio-economic system.
How did we get here?
The final and drawn-out collapse of the decades-long power of the theocratic Moral Majority, which was one of the dominant trendsetters of cultural commentary in the 1980s, became a power vacuum where straight people could declare independence from a dying order by adopting causes such as equal legal rights for gays. But as more people raised within the confines of conventional American morality adopted these causes, these causes, in turn, became reflections of the morality with which the gay rights movement had made so much success opposing in the first place.
The turning point for this resurgence of cultural reaction had to have been around 2012. While the world failed to end according to the then-popular misreading of the Mayan calendar, the Era of Edge gave way to the Era of Woke. The world may as well have ended, so far as oppositional subcultures were concerned. The reason for this was simple, the establishment realized that the new hip cause of gay rights had now become popular enough that it could be co-opted in support of maintaining their entrenched power, supplanting the role culture war had played for conservatives until this point. 2012 would go on to give us Upworthy and Kony2012 among many other imitators, the former being an example of the coming Breitbart-style degeneration of liberal media over the course of the 2010s and the latter the first go at weaponizing progressive caremongering for the facilitation of further military interventionism. Both of these would become mainstream trends as the new decade ticked on. Woke evangelism would expand part and parcel with these new trends. A social credit prosperity gospel that exists to assure its followers that they are protagonists of their own story, and all they had to do was have strong opinions on social issues. If you believe Burkean conservatism laundered through a progressive HR department is the best way to combat the forces of reaction and entrenched power, I suppose it is a success.
A movement propelled to success by being offensive, contrarian, and against the (then) cultural zeitgeist is now held up to be the very model of our intersectional empire with much of its history sanitized for mass consumption by being presented as an inevitable outgrowth of cautious patience and faith in progress. In fact, it has so much cache that it’s increasingly common for de facto heterosexuals to call themselves ‘queer’, usually for just having a bad haircut and gangrene-tinted dye job. But being an agoraphobic nerd is not a sexual orientation. The hijacking of the discourse around sexual orientation by what are effectively Habanero Heteros is precisely why the contrarian gains of the past have been watered down into nothing more than a public performance and recycled versions of old-timey moral panic. What better way to keep ideological competition from piercing the bubble of establishment media than a new and obscure litmus test?
What is to be done about this?
While no future will ever be identical to a past era, these types of moralistic fads do tend to come and go. But rather than just wait for the woke tide to recede out the way of its evangelical predecessors (who can even tell when that will be?) we could learn from one of the few good things of the Aughts…its delightfully oppositional and contrarian rhetoric. Reject unity with the discourse and embrace divergence and rebellion, even if that makes you, gasp, an edgelord. Have the courage to have views based on knowledge and experience rather than the dogmatism of trendy and ephemeral alliances and established ideological camps. Minorities do not do well under forcefully homogenized societies and it is our task to create a new subversive counterculture to this bloodless liberal pantomime whose only purpose is to stroke its own ego as society decays around it. Woke techno-neofeudalism vs an empowered and invigorated far right as its only opposition is not an acceptable choice, but it is the only choice left if we do not break with the pieties of the present era for something else entirely. If we do not provide an alternative our enemies will do it for us.