The University of Pittsburgh, like most educational institutions throughout history, is on the front line of a culture war. This war has been ongoing since the flourishing of capitalism in America after the end of the Civil War. But why has this culture war been fought? Why have Americans been locked in constant infighting for decades? The answer can be found in an analysis of class and capitalism in society. Throughout human history, humanity has been divided into distinct classes. Feudal lords ruled over groups of medieval peasants, much like how today’s employers rule over hired workers in their own personal fiefdoms: which today are known as workplaces. The goals and methods of these different classes often contradict one another, and class conflict is the result. Today’s workers desire shorter working hours, an increase in wages for the work they do, and better working conditions in their places of employment in order to create more comfortable and sustainable lives for themselves. Today’s employers desire the extension of the working day, having to pay their workers as little as possible, and reducing spending on comforts and safety in the workplace in exchange for making more profit off the labor of their workers.
It is incredibly obvious that each individual member of the working class holds the same objective, that being the attainment of a comfortable and sustainable life free from the fear of one day losing it all due to forces outside of their control. But that begs the question: what stops the working class of the United States from achieving this goal? The legions of American workers dwarf the puny army of employers that represent American capital, so why doesn’t the working class use its superior numbers to get what it so desperately wants? The answer is that the working class is a very broad label, one that encompasses many different groups who all want the same thing, but differ on how they are supposed to achieve it. Simply put, there are divisions within the American class that big business knows how to exploit.
This is where the culture war becomes important. Historically, Americans have always been divided along racial, religious, and geographical lines. A white, rural southerner felt very little solidarity with a black, urban northerner, despite both being members of the same class and wanting the same thing. The reason for this is because these divisions cause different members of the same class to have different ideas on what is acceptable and worthwhile, and what is not. For example, Community A might think that going into trade school and learning a practical skill is a more sustainable and profitable venture than going to college in order to educate oneself on a more niche skill set, while Community B might think the opposite. Enter the culture war. These disagreements between these two groups eventually create animosity between them. Community A will begin to regard members of Community B as uptight and snobbish because they think they are smarter than them, even if they aren’t. On the other hand, Community B will begin to regard members of Community A as backwards and uneducated, who can only perform menial tasks because that’s all they have been taught to do. Even though these two groups have the same goal, attaining a sustainable and profitable lifestyle, the differences in their culture destroy any solidarity between the two.
Now where does the employer class fit into all of this? The employers recognize these conflicts exist among the working class, and seek to exacerbate them in order to keep their workers divided. They do this through a manipulation of public opinion as well as the tacit support of people and organizations that influence public policy. Media plays a major role in this regard. US media has a long and storied history of collaboration between business interests and authority. Newspapers and radio talk shows owned by elites will often work with local and national law enforcement entities in order to discredit activist groups and movements. For example during the Civil Rights movement, newspapers would focus on the fact that those who fought for civil rights were supported by those on the political left, particularly focusing on the support coming from the Communist party. This allowed the media to portray members of the Civil Rights movement as closet communists, twisting the image of the movement from one that was fighting for racial equality to one that was fighting for communism. This served to boost opposition to the Civil Rights movement among the general population, even though members of both camps were members of the working class and would have benefited from working together.
The employer class will also utilize politicians, political parties, and NGOs in order to manipulate public opinion as well. The two major parties in the US receive massive amounts of investment from wealthy donors, for the simple fact that they both preach the same message: that being the defense of neoliberal capitalism and US hegemony. The only difference between the two in this regard is how they want to protect capitalism and the nation’s global power. The divide between the two on key social issues is utilized to drive an even greater wedge in a working class that is already divided along racial, religious, and geographical lines. NGOs also play a role in this by hosting events and protests that seek to promote their support or opposition towards a certain issue. The issues that get the most attention however are social issues that have a lot of bitter debate around them (gun control, immigration, abortion, gay marriage, etc.) with the intent of fostering nonconstructive debate about those issues which take away time for conversations about inequality in our current economic system.
One particular NGO that has become particularly meddlesome is Turning Point USA (TPUSA). Officially, TPUSA is a nonprofit group that receives millions of dollars in donations from conservative groups and politicians (such as the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, the Rauner Family Foundation, the Dunn Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, etc.) with the goal of targeting college campuses in order to promote their values among impressionable university students. Unofficially, the organization purposefully seeks to antagonize students and educators at these universities in order to further perpetuate the culture war in America. TPUSA has made it their mission to root out anti-American biases among college education, even going so far as to maintain a public list of college professors that have been deemed to advance “leftist propaganda in the classroom” (their words). To TPUSA, an anti-American bias is any academic work that seeks to challenge the status quo or is remotely critical of the domestic or foreign policy of the United States. The organization is designed to inflame the culture war in the US by propagating the false narrative that colleges are educating their students to be anti-American, creating a debate about how much academic freedom universities should have as well as silencing voices critical of US style free market capitalism.
TPUSA will also host events featuring controversial politicians and activists as speakers to fuel opposition and anger towards them. Nowhere is this more obvious than the reaction of Pitt students to the Pitt branch of TPUSA announcing that they were bringing Michael Knowles (an anti-transgender speaker who called for the elimination of “transgenderism”) onto campus to give a speech. They will then point to this anger as an accusation that their freedom of speech is under attack by radicals influenced by left wing professors. This creates a further divide in the working class, where those who are on the political right feel as if they are being oppressed and censored by those on the political left. Again, this just serves to create senseless debate among different segments of the working class so that they don’t enter into dialogue concerning common issues that can be solved through cooperation. Cooperation which would threaten the power of the elites in the economy and politics.
The arrival of TPUSA on Pitt’s campus creates another battleground in the culture war that the American working class has been fighting among itself for so long. While the fight for transgender rights (now embodied by the coming arrival of Michael Knowles) is an important one, it is also important to remember that directing attacks against members of the working class in pursuit of winning this fight is only giving the oligarchs of America what they want. True opposition to transgender rights, as well as rights for the working class more broadly, come from the elites and elite institutions. People like Knowles and the donors behind him who drive opposition to transgender rights are the people that must be fought, not the people who have been fooled by them through fear mongering and falsehoods. Transgender rights go hand in hand with workers rights, and only when Americans turn the weapons they have been using to fight the culture war against each other on the elites who have propagated it will the American working class finally achieve its independence from capital and have the freedom to pursue its own destiny.