Recently, an amusing bit of news came out of an obscure front in the culture war: the world of video games. The latest Spider-Man game had a “mod” created for it that replaced the various Pride flags festooning its digital landscapes with the Stars and Stripes. This, in turn, led to a massive controversy, as the owners of various database sites hosting video-game mods banned the creators, banished all who expressed support for them, and then asked anyone dissatisfied with this decision to delete his account and move on.
Interestingly, the mod in question clocked in at a measly 14 kilobytes in size, far too small to contain even a simple flag texture in a modern video game. The reason for this is that it didn’t actually contain any new content—it merely allowed users to access the international version of the game. In other words, the game developers themselves had replaced Pride flags with American flags, in order to sell it to a wider audience. The modders simply allowed users in the United States to play the version of the game that featured their national flag.
The media storm around this case of putative anti-LGBT hatred focused entirely on the morality of the modders and those who downloaded the mod, without stopping to ask why this “hatred” was contained within the game files from the start. It wasn’t exactly an oversight; the developers wanted to sell the game in the Middle East, China, and other parts of the world where Pride flags wouldn’t be tolerated, and so they simply removed them to stay out of trouble. Most people denouncing the gamers know that this is how the business works, but to say that openly is to grab the third rail with both hands. Censorship of Pride flags must be construed as an evil act forced upon the innocent by Trump-loving modders. But the call is coming from inside the house.
Though the details of a passing gaming brouhaha might seem irrelevant, the case illustrates the contradictions inherent in the culture war as we perceive it in 2022. Some on the right speak as though capital has always been “woke,” and is inherently so. In a similar way, many on the left still speak as though capital has always been opposed to “progressivism,” and is inherently “conservative.” Yet the fact is, big corporations are now onside with full-spectrum progressivism—an uncomfortable turn of events that radicals simply prefer not to think about.
Consider the removed digital Pride flags. Wouldn’t the maximalist progressive position be to first get angry at the modders, and then get angry at the developers themselves for removing the Pride flags for non-Western audiences? Wouldn’t the truly progressive thing here be to stage protests and put pressure on the developers to include Pride flags in every version, no matter the financial consequences? But there is no appetite for that in 2022. Instead, everyone lets sleeping dogs lie, rather than pick a fight with real stakes.
Progressives are now seen on the right as a completely hegemonic force, drunk on power, knowing no moderation. You would hardly expect such powerful people to tip-toe around the truth. But deference to the bottom line is a defining feature of the culture war. The Disney Channel was running patriotic ads in the wake of 9/11 glorifying the American flag; 20 years later, it’s hoisting the rainbow banner.
Both the left and the right have seemingly agreed to pretend history doesn’t exist, that the battle lines as they are drawn in 2022 must be Eternal, because neither side wants to grapple with a reality that these things can change on a dime.
In an old joke, a man comes across a friend feverishly searching for his dropped keys under a streetlight. When the man asks his friend if he is sure he dropped them there, the man replies, “Oh no, I dropped them in the bushes over there, but here under the streetlight is the only place where it’s bright enough to search.” In a way, the culture war acts as that streetlight for both the right and the left. The left acts like the removal of Pride flags came from outside modders, rather than as a business decision by otherwise “progressive” game developers; the right acts like Disney would be immensely better if it flew a different flag. These distortions are necessary. They are necessary because they reflect distortions inherent to the various political coalitions now fighting proxy battles while the American Empire falls apart around them.
To put it another way, those angry about this particular video-game mod have to trick themselves into thinking these flags came from the modders, because they don’t want to face the fact that their cultural project is quite limited in power—and precariously dependent on contingent support from the business community. Similarly, the right has to present the left as powerful beyond measure, because the thought that the left is, in fact, quite weak—and the suggestion that its current cultural dominance is but a temporary byproduct of an empire in rapid decay—would make everyone equally uncomfortable.
Let’s say the right “won” tomorrow, and the Disney of 2022 was replaced with the Disney of 2001. Peace again reigned in Florida; the tax carve-outs returning in a spirit of amicable cooperation for the common American good. Would that even feel like a victory, once the dust settled and people looked at the country around them? In a way, the flag waving, enthusiastic-but-mandatory “patriotism” of that era was the social lubricant that allowed America to go through with the project of destroying itself, socially, economically, militarily.
In 50 years, we will not be performing mastectomies on 12-year-olds or bickering about Pride flags in games. The energy crisis, the rapid collapse of our economies, the disintegration of the empire, and the decline of trust in US institutions will be far more pressing problems.
The bushes are dark and thorny, while under the streetlight it’s bright and clear. For a while yet, both the left and the right are likely to tacitly agree to keep searching under the latter and avoid mentioning the former, if only because it’s more comfortable to do so. Soon, however, it’s likely that hunger, despair, and crisis will force most of us to move on, into the darkness.