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The Wikipedia wars: does it matter if our biggest source of knowledge is written by men?

Wikipedia is the world’s most popular encyclopaedia, a collaborative utopia. But only one in every ten of its editors is a woman.

The Wikipedia machine relentlessly churns out information over which women struggle to have any influence. Photo: Jonathan McHugh/NS

Wikipedia is “like a sausage”, its founder, Jimmy Wales, told a reporter in 2004. “You might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made.” Back then, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit was an exciting new, scrappy, collaborative utopia. Now it is the most influential source of information in the world. Wikipedia is often the first search result when we google something, our first destination when we want to understand something, and the place where academics, journalists and politicians first brief themselves, even though they might pretend it is not.

Dismissed as dangerously unreliable in its early days, Wikipedia has become more rigorous over the years, with references essential to the survival of any article. We trust the website much more: amid the early panic of the ebola outbreak, the Wikipedia page for the virus was seen as an authoritative, reliable source, receiving as many hits as the World Health Organisation’s online ebola fact sheet. Wikipedia has become one of the most recognised brands in the world and for many people it is the portal to knowledge in the 21st century.

Yet when it comes to how it is made, Wikipedia is a colossal failure. Only a tiny proportion of users now edit articles and the overwhelming majority of those editors are male. The most recent survey by the Wikimedia Foundation, the charity that supports but does not control Wikipedia, found that 91 per cent of the editors are men. More optimistic surveys have put the figure at 84 per cent – but still, Wikipedia has a huge diversity problem. Instead of being the egalitarian “sum of all human knowledge”, as Wales had originally hoped, the English version of Wikipedia is mostly the sum of male knowledge.

The gender disparity has skewed the encyclopaedia’s content – not only which pages are created but also which ones are worked on and improved so that they reach a high standard. Take its “List of Pornographic Actresses”; it is meticulously referenced, with clear sections according to decade. The page is organised, clean and easy to use. Compare it to the “List of Female Poets”: a sprawling dumping ground, organised by name rather than date, unreferenced and of little use to anyone unless they want to know whose name might come after Sylvia Plath in an enormous alphabetical list. The list of poets has been edited 600 times, by nearly 300 editors. The list of female porn stars is a newer page but over 1,000 editors have edited it more than 2,500 times.

Female poets at least get their own list. In areas such as science and technology, women are severely under-represented. If there is not a decent biography of a given woman on Wikipedia, users will assume she cannot be notable because she doesn’t have a proper Wikipedia page, so the marginalisation becomes circular and self-perpetuating. The biographies that do exist often put a woman’s status as a wife, mother or daughter in the first paragraph, before or next to her notable achievements. These personal details are more often an afterthought in biographies of men. Conventionally female interests are also neglected: there’s a single page for all six series of Sex and the City, whereas there are 43 separate articles on Top Gear. And when it comes to articles on topics such as rape and abortion, the gender gap among editors really begins to matter.

Wikipedia knows this is a problem – there is even a Wikipedia article on the subject (“Gender bias on Wikipedia”) – but no one knows what to do about it. Sue Gardner, a former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, set a goal in 2011 to increase the proportion of female editors to 25 per cent in four years. Just before she left her post in 2014 she confessed that she had not cracked the problem. “I didn’t solve it. We didn’t solve it. The Wikimedia Foundation didn’t solve it,” she said.

At the annual Wikimania convention in London last August, Jimmy Wales said the organisation had “completely failed” in its attempts to increase women’s participation drastically. “We’re really doubling our efforts now,” he said. “We didn’t do enough. There are a lot of things that need to happen to get from 10 per cent to 25 per cent: a lot of outreach, a lot of software changes.”

 

***

 

Elsewhere on the internet, women outnumber men on some of the other most visited sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and in many online games. Why do they feel less welcome on Wikipedia? “I don’t want to get into a fight on the internet. Ugh,” says Zara Rahman, 26, originally from Man­chester and now living in Berlin. She trains journalists to use data and technology, so you might expect her to feel at home on Wikipedia. But her experience there left her “really annoyed. Just exhausted.”

The frustration stemmed from her experience editing the online entry for Hedy Lamarr, a 1940s Hollywood star and long-neglected inventor. Lamarr devised a crucial technique that paved the way for wireless communication, but her scientific achievements had barely a mention on her Wikipedia page when Rahman first looked her up. She edited the article to reflect the significance of Lamarr’s invention, referencing it in the first paragraph, but her changes were quickly reversed by another editor, on the grounds that Lamarr’s acting career was more noted by historical sources than her invention. Then someone added a line to the opening paragraph about how a film director had once commented on Lamarr’s “strikingly dark exotic looks”. The editing community allowed that to stay in.

“The page is actually worse than when I first found it,” Rahman says. “As it currently stands, a comment by a man about her appearance is more important than the fact that she basically invented wifi.” Lamarr’s invention is mentioned “something like three screens down. If you were looking for quick headlines about this woman, you’re going to stop at the fact that she appeared nude in a scene. That’s all you’re going to remember about Hedy Lamarr.” Sources matter on Wikipedia – the more references a fact has to back it up, the more likely it is to remain on a page – but that can lead to a systemic bias. “Of course her [Lamarr’s] acting career appears in more sources,” Rahman says. “She was a woman in the 1940s, there were men writing, and the men were writing about her being beautiful and exotic, not about women contributing to science.”

Rahman had dabbled in editing before she arrived at Lamarr, but after this encounter she stopped. “I wanted to edit because it’s fun and I think it’s important, but a Wikipedia editing war is not my style,” she says. Editors can be notoriously brusque, sometimes forgetting social niceties when they change other people’s work. The internet is littered with the blogs of bitter ex-Wikipedians who have been burned by rejection and the often fraught arbitration process the encyclopaedia uses to resolve disputes. Plus, Rahman was aware that she had hardly any clout, in Wikipedia terms, because she had not edited much before.

The conflict and hierarchy specific to Wikipedia may have been dispiriting but it was an internet-wide problem that ultimately put her off. “I’ve seen so many women be trolled and abused online, I don’t even want to dip my toes into that,” Rahman tells me. “I use the same Wikipedia name as I do for my Twitter and my blogs. If things are going to get vicious, it would be very easy for someone to find where I work as well as my email address.”

It is not just new users who feel alienated – even women such as Theresa Knott, who has been editing Wikipedia since its launch in 2001, have stopped contributing. She was once a leading figure on the encyclopaedia, elected to administrator and then arbitrator status, a role akin to that of a high court judge. But gradually she lost interest and she last edited in 2012.

“When Wikipedia was smaller it was a very different beast,” Knott tells me when we meet near the London mixed independent primary school where she teaches science and computing. “I met a lot of people and had great discussions in the early days. I wasn’t drawn to it because of the community but I stayed because of the community.

“Now editing is more of a solitary thing than it used to be because Wikipedia’s so much bigger. I think women like group activities more than men do; women like to socialise, and because it’s bigger I suspect it’s less appealing to women than it used to be.” When the community was smaller it was more collaborative. Editors took time to help each other learn the ropes, Knott says. “Now, it’s got very formal. I feel sorry for people whose articles aren’t the minimum length and don’t have at least one reference in them, because they just get deleted. That would put me off editing in the first place.”

It is hard to know how the gender gap has changed over time – the earliest survey of editors wasn’t carried out until 2010, when Wikipedia was already nine years old – but Knott says there were always many more male editors. “The women who were on there were more likely to be people like me rather than people with interest in . . .” – there’s a long pause while she searches for the appropriate words – “typical women things.” What does she mean by women like her? “Very geeky kinds of females who thought in a certain way and kind of fitted in with the men. There weren’t many women who would not traditionally be in a male sphere. When I did my physics degree, the ratio was 6:1. You kind of get used to it.”

 

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If you’ve ever clicked on the “Edit” tab on a Wikipedia article, you will understand that having a particular kind of conventionally male-brained thinking might help on Wikipedia. Reams of code cascade down the page: curved, square and curly brackets, chevrons and underscores. It looks more like a computer program than a draft of an encyclopaedia entry. If you can see past the symbols to the bit of text you want to edit, it becomes straightforward: you put your cursor in the place you want to make a change and then type, or delete. Then you write an edit summary describing your changes and click Save – though there is no guarantee they will stay. Most edits, particularly changes from new users, will be scrutinised by an army of experienced volunteers and Wikipedia robots, looking out for mistakes, vandalism, libel and things that break the site’s code of practice.

Knott has observed a gender disparity among her young computing students: the boys have embraced coding more wholeheartedly than the girls, and are more willing to do it on their own, outside class. Even if Wikipedia didn’t exist, the highest-ranked pages on Google would still be more likely to have been created by men than women, she says. “It’s not just a Wikipedia thing – it’s an internet thing.” Wikipedia is about creating content rather than websites but all the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that go into creating a page mean it has more in common with coding than editing a Facebook status, where the social network invites you to share “what’s on your mind”.

If there are going to be more female editors, Wikipedia needs to learn from websites where women feel comfortable. Some believe Wikipedia “editathons” might be the answer, where editors meet in person to work on neglected topics together. These are encouraged and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, which sometimes provides tea, biscuits, laptops and trainers to help new editors learn the craft. Recent editathons have focused on topics such as ballet, Australian female neuroscientists and women in Jewish history.

While increasing the coverage of women on the site, these meet-ups are also more likely to attract female editors in the first place. Claire Millington made her first edit at a “Women in Archaeology” editathon in 2013. We meet at a café next to Senate House Library, where she has been working on her classics PhD at King’s College London. Her thesis is on the women who served in the households of Roman auxiliary army commanders, a group of women that has never been systematically studied. “There’s a pattern in what’s written about women and their achievements, and it’s basically that they’re not written about,” she says. “I don’t want Wikipedia to be a place where women are written out of history again, because if it’s not on Wikipedia, it’s not visible.”

Millington sees it as her duty to make sure that her academic field is properly represented on Wikipedia. She creates new articles and nurtures them, keeping them on a watchlist so that she can check on new contributions. So far, she has not yet found any edits that she’s wanted to change. Wikipedia’s genteel classics pages are unlikely sites for bitter editing wars, but Millington has yet to experience the encyclopaedia’s aggressive side, and has organised her own editathon, encouraging her colleagues to participate.

“I think the interface is the one thing that Wikipedia, Wikimedia, really needs to address. It’s not immediately intuitive,” she says. “It’s great if you’re techy – and there are a lot of people involved in Wikipedia who are techy – but the majority of the population are used to getting their phone out of the box and turning it on and using it. It’s not that women can’t do it, it’s just initially it’s not very welcoming.”

Is there another reason why women are less willing than men to contribute to Wikipedia: that women like to feel they have comprehensive knowledge of something, backed up by evidence, before they claim to have the authority to comment on it, whereas men are more prepared to blag? It takes confidence to believe you have the right to write an encyclopaedia entry, something men might have in greater quantities.

“[That’s] not really plausible,” says Charles Matthews, a former Cambridge academic and one of Wikipedia’s most prolific editors, when I put this to him. “To the extent that women have a different working pattern, they are more likely to be patient writers, that’s all. And motivated by different considerations.” The idea of different working patterns has come up before as an explanation of the gender disparity, in another way: several studies have found that women have less free time than men to dedicate to projects such as Wikipedia because they do more of the childcare and housework.

For Matthews, maybe the gender gap is being blown out of proportion. “There are other, similar systemic issues that are also important. Do Hollywood films get better coverage on Wikipedia than Bollywood? You bet,” he says. “We’re beginning to think there’s less of a gap in terms of writing rather than tech maintenance work on the site – which is lost if you treat all edits as equal.”

I can’t help thinking that if women were more confident about asserting their knowledge, they’d feel more at home on Wikipedia. Roberta Wedge, a former gender gap project worker for Wikimedia UK, agrees. “I think far fewer women would describe themselves as experts than men, but you don’t need to be an expert to edit Wikipedia. And there are many ways of contributing, like photography, like labelling and categorising things. Like adding links between articles so that when you’ve found an amazing, obscure woman you can make sure the article can be found from other places.”

Wikimedia UK hired Wedge for four months last year to address the gender disparity. She helped with editathons and attended related conferences. As she told me while she was still in the post, “My job is to say: there are fascinating women out there on the historic record, we need to get them reflected on Wikipedia, and men and women can add to that.”

The focus seems to be on making sure “female” subjects and women’s biographies are adequately represented, rather than recruiting women to edit, but the hope is that once those topics are better represented, ­female editors will feel more welcome.

But there is a limit to what the international Wikimedia Foundation can do. It’s a charity: there is no army of engineers who can make the editing interface more friendly, no funding for focus groups to reveal what women want from Wikipedia. Any intervention beyond that would undermine what makes Wikipedia great: the fact that it is built from the ground up, a collaboration that polices itself. The answer to the problem has to come from within Wikipedia. Ideas from the site’s discussion boards include a Girl Scout achievement badge in Wikipedia, and persuading celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey to ask their audiences to try editing. But ultimately it is up to women to choose to get involved, and up to existing contributors to make them feel welcome.

After several months away from Wikipedia, Zara Rahman met Wedge at a conference, and Wedge persuaded her to give it another try. Rahman has made a few additions to the biography of Marie Tharp, an oceanographer who created the first scientific map of the ocean floor. But she still sounds badly bruised by her experiences on Wikipedia, and is wary of becoming more involved. I ask if she even uses the site for reference any more. “Of course,” she laughs. “Where else do you get your information from?”

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars