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These 7 culture wars dominated 2021 and will haunt the years ahead

In a year of PTA fights and Potato Head panic, here are the most prominent wars people waged this year to reaffirm their cultural identities.

These 7 culture wars dominated 2021 and will haunt the years ahead
[Source Images: Creative Thinking/Getty]

It’s amazing, the all-you-can-eat buffet of things people are willing to perform rage about. Almost as amazing as what’s not on it.

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During the Trump era, as economic inequality deepened and mass shootings rose, the majority party ramped up its artillery for the culture wars. The kinds of things Republican leaders had previously consigned to necessary dirty work—the gross, nativist whisper campaign against John McCain in 2ooo, for instance—were now shouted loud, proud, and often. It was hard to keep up with. Meanwhile, terrifying new aspects of the future that liberals want could always be counted on to gobble up greedy globs of the country’s finite attention. Lady ghostbusters. Drag Queen Story Hour. Who has time for the opioid crisis or climate change when there are debates over Starbucks cups to be had?

Now that the Trump era is over—well, at least for the moment—it all seems to have been a warmup for what would follow. Inflamed by the “theft” of the 2020 election, conservatives have lately burned off all parts of their platform that aren’t grievances. They seem to have no agenda beyond perpetual victimhood. It’s all culture war, all the time.

The term “culture war” doesn’t have a fixed definition, but you know it when you see it. And in 2021, you saw it every day. It’s essentially any tension around an issue related to cultural identity, where the tension is an end unto itself. It could be something as trivial as the introduction of a nonbinary Gonzo, or something as monumental as a woman’s right to choose. Potential culture war issues need not even be rooted in fact, as long as they provoke a response from the Loony Left that restocks the rage buffet for yet another helping.

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Actual policy changes may or may not be the ultimate goal. For many culture warriors, it’s a victory just to be seen on the front lines, planting flags that express what you stand for.

These were the culture wars that most controlled the conversation in 2021—and they aren’t going away anytime soon.

The pandemic is overhyped

The only thing people hate worse than dying a slow, gasping death is being told what to do—especially by people they hate. We’ll never know what percentage of vaccine-holdouts would have gotten on board had a reelected Trump gone all in on vaccine messaging. What we do know, however, is that many millions of people responded with vocal, boastful noncompliance with President Joe Biden’s efforts to stop the spread. Red state governors competed over who could be more avidly against mask and vaccine mandates, going so far as to bury studies proving their efficacy. Ornery elder guitar god Eric Clapton released songs about facial freedom, while country star Travis Tritt refused to play concerts at any venue requiring masks or vaccination cards. Meanwhile, Nicki Minaj’s vaccine hesitancy earned her kudos from Tucker Carlson, whose seal of approval is crucial for any successful culture war. Airlines were full of disruptive, maskless passengers, and the airwaves were filled with ivermectin recommenders. When Big Bird stepped in to help explain vaccines to children, he was shouted down by the junior senator of the second largest state in the U.S.

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Of course, that wasn’t the only uproar around a Muppet in 2021.

Everything I liked in my childhood should never change

The only constant in the world is change. As language evolves and societal norms shift, those changes are reflected in art and entertainment. Nobody seems to have told a shocking number of adults as much, though. In 2021, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of beloved children’s characters adapted to some new standards, followed by a convoy of clown cars honking in furious protest. The estate of Dr. Seuss announced that it would stop selling some lesser-loved titles like And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which featured some crude stereotypes, and conservatives like Rep. Jim Jordan lost their minds. Hasbro dropped the “Mr.” from its Mr. Potato Head line, and it was as though a sovereign nation of gender studies professors declared war on cismen and dropped a nuke, as far as folks like Matt Gaetz were concerned. High-level conservatives got mad when Disney Plus slapped an advisory warning before The Muppet Show (thus canceling them, apparently), and they got madder still when Pepé le Pew was left out of Space Jam 2. It was enough to make one want to issue a press release assuring conservatives that characters like Foghorn Leghorn, the Southern gentleman rooster, and brain-dead hunter Elmer Fudd, have not been altered in any way, let alone “canceled.”

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Woke corporations are destroying America

It wasn’t just beloved cartoon characters who were in danger of cancellation in 2021, though: It was everyone. No sooner had Big Tech banned Donald Trump from social media for no reason whatsoever, then “woke corporations” became one of the defining bogeymen of the year. They cost insurrection-enabler Josh Hawley his book deal with Simon & Schuster, even though book deals are, apparently, guaranteed by the First Amendment. (Hawley’s book was picked up three days later by a conservative publisher, perhaps aided by his I’ve Been Canceled tour of major media outlets.) They fired Gina Carano from the Star Wars universe merely for being an anti-mask Stop the Steal-er who compared the treatment of Republicans to that of Jews in the Holocaust. They also ruined Disney World. Most gallingly, that famous bastion of wokeness, Major League Baseball, moved its annual All-Star Game out of Atlanta, just because Georgia governor Brian Kemp introduced brazen new voting restrictions in response to the state going blue in 2020.

Could each of these instances be isolated acts of justifiable consequences? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. According to the Federalist Society, which seemingly exists just to groom right-wing SCOTUS candidates, “Massive corporations are pursuing a common and mutually agreed upon agenda to destroy American freedom.” Maybe it was this effort to destroy American freedom that led a woke corporation to cancel the Kentucky Derby-winning horse that failed a drug test.

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Schools are teaching white children to hate themselves

The only threat more insidious than woke corporations is woke schools, which mold the impressionable children of today into tomorrow’s woke industry leaders. After the civil uprisings of 2020 led more teachers to implement lessons on racial injustices like the Tulsa Massacre, something had to be done. Conservative activists began to intentionally conflate any teaching about the history of racism in America with something called Critical Race Theory. What is Critical Race Theory? It doesn’t matter. Some of the people who are most angry about it admittedly had no idea what it actually entails. In May and June of 2021, though, Fox News mentioned Critical Race Theory at least 1,900 times. Not coincidentally, around that same time, nine U.S. states passed legislation against teaching it. (Arizona’s bill was overturned in November by the Arizona Supreme Court.) Nearly 20 other states are in the process of introducing similar legislation, and some of them are banning books that they feel promote CRT, as well as other ideas that conservatives find uncomfortable. Oddly, the congressmen like Marco Rubio who exploded over the Orwellian crackdown of Dr. Seuss’s estate pulling its own books from circulation seemed less troubled by this flagrant censorship.

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Trans athletes are ruining high school sports

When students weren’t being indoctrinated by the Marxist notion that America’s Got Structural Racism, they were learning that the easiest way to “cheat” at sports is to become trans. Or at least that was the message that several red-state lawmakers wished to send earlier this year. According to lawyer and trans-rights activist Chase Strangio, more anti-trans bills became law in just the first half of 2021 than in the previous 10 years combined. Several states enacted bans on trans students competing in athletics, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis signing his on June 1, the first day of Pride Month. (Between this and the COVID denialism, DeSantis really seemed like he was gunning to win at America’s Next Top Trump.) What are these lawmakers even ostensibly afraid of? These aren’t Vaudevillian strongmen in sundresses trying to sneak into women’s wrestling at the Olympics; they’re kids who just want to participate in school sports and possibly get scholarships. Between the stigmatization of trans athletes at schools and Dave Chappelle’s portrait of the trans community as humorless bullies, 2021 often felt like The Year of the TERF.

Let’s go, “Let’s go, Brandon”

While some performed anxiety over how to directly address a trans person, many others found comfort in a way to address President Joe Biden indirectly. In early October, an NBC Sports reporter at a NASCAR rally misheard a large swath of the crowd chanting “Fuck Joe Biden,” and suggested the crowd might be cheering on the race’s winner, Brandon Brown. It was exactly like The Simpsons‘ immortal “I was saying ‘Boo-urns'” moment, only real. Folks like Ted Cruz seized the moment to pretend it wasn’t merely a reporter trying to avoid dropping an F-bomb on national television, but rather an insidious example of the Fake News Media propping up Sleepy Joe before a duped nation’s eyes.

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Mostly, though, people seemed to find it an amusing, useful, and lucrative meme.

Ever since the incident went viral, critics of Joe Biden have been falling over themselves to find ways to inject a “Let’s go, Brandon” into all aspects of public life. A Southwest Airlines pilot was heard signing off with the catchphrase, prompting debates over whether he actually said something else, and what it would mean if he didn’t. Florida Rep. Bill Posey closed a speech on the House floor with it, and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert led a crowd in a chant of it while wearing a dress with the words emblazoned on its back. Multiple hit songs have incorporated it, and a Let’s Go, Brandon store even opened up in Massachusetts in December. It’s as if all these people don’t know that they are allowed, like that NASCAR crowd, to just say, “Fuck Joe Biden.” Of course, the conservative newspaper The Washington Times suggested that the inherent appeal of the “Brandon” sobriquet is that saying the real phrase online would never make it past “technology censors.”

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Everyone should have more guns, at home and in public

In addition to sneaking presidential insults into the Capitol, though, some politicians also wanted to smuggle in guns. Or at least they certainly objected to walking through metal detectors as well as a bill that would prevent them from packing heat on Capitol grounds. All the same, conservatives made a public spectacle of the right to bear arms in 2021, even as threats of violence swirled around 2020 election workers and school board members. Congresswoman Lauren Boebert kicked off the year walking around the city while carrying a Glock and ended 2021 with a Christmas card featuring her children brandishing that same heavy metal. (She was imitating her colleague, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who tweeted a similar photo days before, just after a teenage gunman shot and killed several classmates in Michigan with his father’s gun.) Perhaps all the outward gun worship has to do with signaling to a Democratic administration that they cannot take away citizens’ guns, despite Biden never signaling any intent to do so. Whatever the reason, it’s a little unsettling to see all those guns at a time when Kyle Rittenhouse became a right-wing folk hero for using his to deadly effect—and beating the case. It’s not at all clear whether the people cheering him on, including several politicians, just want a culture war, or if they want the real thing.

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