In his BBC Radio series “Things Fell Apart,” the British-born journalist Jon Ronson introduces himself as “a writer living in America, the land where culture wars begin.” What are culture wars? Early in the show’s first season, which aired in 2021, Ronson defines them as “almost everything that people yell at each other about on social media”; in later episodes, he refines the definition to “the battle for dominance between conflicting values.” While reporting the second season, which was released last month, an interviewee told him, “America is a class-based society that pretends to be an identity-based society.” “It’s stuck with me ever since,” Ronson said. “I’ve been wondering if maybe a better definition of culture wars would be ‘anything we fight about that isn’t economics.’ ”
Season 1 ranges broadly, examining the contingent origins of rifts that now seem inevitable—the roots of the evangelical church’s fixation on abortion, for instance, or the first major case of Internet censorship. Season 2 has a tighter frame: eight conflicts that culminate within a few weeks of one another, in May and June of 2020. The first episode begins in the late nineteen-eighties, when several African American sex workers were killed in Miami. To explain the killings, the coroner invented a diagnosis called “excited delirium,” a condition that was said to cause spontaneous death in women and “superhuman strength” in men. Years after “excited delirium” was discredited as junk science, it was still used in some police trainings—including in Minneapolis, which is where the episode ends, with the murder of George Floyd. The second episode starts in 2006, in Ventura, California, where a frustrated scientist named Judy Mikovits is working as a bartender at a yacht club. By 2020, she has become the star of “Plandemic,” one of the most popular conspiracy-theory films of all time.