A War for the Soul of America is a history of the culture wars, and a quite good one at that. As we rev up for another spectacle of an election cycle (Ted Cruz announced his presidential bid the day before I write this) and 24-hour news channels show no sign of developing self-awareness, it might seem premature to say that the culture wars are a thing of the past. But as Andrew Hartman argues, American history, “for better or for worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America,” and the culture wars names one specific episode in this ongoing, hotly contested conversation — the political and cultural transformations of the sixties and the subsequent three decades of fitful adjustment to new realities. Over email I asked Hartman, a professor of History at Illinois State University and one of the founders of the consistently excellent S-USIH blog, how these debates rippled through the right and the left, how many of these debates turned on the status of knowledge, and why we can comfortably say the culture wars are a thing of the past.
Michael Schapira: In the Introduction you write that the “culture wars were the defining metaphor for the late-twentieth-century United States,” and it is the sixties that set these wars in motion. In essence a new “normative America” is taking shape in that decade, and the consequences ripple through subsequent decades. Though we often associate the culture wars with the ’80s and ’90s, this book is essentially about the ’60s, and the readjustment to new cultural and political norms that followed. Can you say a little more about your periodization of the culture wars, which you claim we can now view as history?
Andrew Hartman: Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to discuss how my book revises James Davison Hunter’s 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, the standard-bearer in the scholarship of the culture wars. Hunter’s thesis, which proved convincing to most observers, was that American society had become increasingly divided between mostly secular “progressives” and mostly religious “traditionalists.” Hunter’s smoking gun was the fact that conservative Americans who had previously been pitted against one another over different religious traditions — Protestants versus Catholics — had joined forces in their recognition that secular forces were the real threat to their values. This is correct as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.
As an aside Hunter mentions that the tumultuous events of the 1960s played some role in constructing this new polarization. But on the whole he avoids historicizing this divide, working from the assumption that it is merely a byproduct of the much longer history of evangelical pushback against modernist forms of knowledge that fanned the flames of religious skepticism, such as biblical criticism and Darwinism. That Hunter gave us a vocabulary and an analytical model for understanding this new cultural and political polarization is admirable. But Hunter does nothing to shed light on how the 1960s gave birth to the culture wars. As a sociologist of religion, he focuses his attention on those who frame the debate in solely religious terms — militant Christian Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell, and militant secular liberal leaders such as Norman Lear.
My book argues that many of the battles of the culture wars — battles over divisive issues such as affirmative action, multiculturalism, intelligence testing, and the canon — had little to do with Hunter’s religious divide. These debates were often secular reactions to the secular social movements of the 1960s that made up the New Left. As an intellectual historian I noticed that New Left thinkers and activists had disturbed normative conceptions of American identity to an unprecedented degree. I also noted that those who challenged such New Left sensibilities most vociferously were those whom came to be called “neoconservatives.” By focusing on the sixties, my book relocates the origins of the culture wars away from debates about religion and towards the mostly secular shouting matches between New Leftists and neoconservatives.
None of this is to say that religion did not factor into the culture wars. The growing alienation that religious conservatives felt at living in an increasingly modern, secular nation was a crucial factor in their fighting the culture wars. But many such conservative Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced the chaos of modernity as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. The radical political mobilizations of the 1960s — civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement — destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the 1960s that many conservatives recognized the threat to their once great nation. And it was the neocons who first recognized this threat, first taught Americans how to be afraid, first taught Americans, including religious conservatives, how to fight back. That’s why the 1960s are central to my historical framework.
Instead of focusing exclusively on conflicts between the right and left (e.g. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas or the jeremiads of Newt Gingrich or Pat Buchanan), you spend a great deal of time on the fissures that develop within political blocs. The New Left and identity politics marks a split with the old, progressive and Trotskyite left, and shifts the locus of discourse away from New York intellectuals and their favored publications to universities. On the right you have the neoconservative ex-liberals who challenged the New Left and outlined a conservative Cold War ideology, but they eventually split from the Evangelical Christian Right, and again the tension is between New York intellectuals and other locales of power (e.g. Southern Baptist conventions in Texas). Were these internal fissures something that you thought was not receiving enough attention in our understanding of the culture wars?
Not only did Hunter’s progressivist-traditionalist bifurcation elide the new cultural stratifications that arose from the 1960s, it carried with it the implication that each side was monolithic in its orientation. To underscore how important Hunter has been to our larger understanding of the culture wars: this might help explain why our political discourse as a whole suffers from such monolithic and simplistic understandings of political identity. To this I offer another revision. For example, I show how many on the left were as interested as conservatives in challenging what they deemed the baleful effects of identity politics. I show how liberal and left intellectuals had a diverse range of views on issues such as race, poverty, intelligence testing, pornography, and literary deconstruction. I also show fissures on the right, such as disagreement between neoconservative educationists like William Bennett and anti-statist religious conservatives about the proper role of the federal government in relation to school and curriculum.
I analyze these internal fissures not only because they have largely been ignored, but also because they demonstrate the ironic legacies of the political and cultural reconstructions that took place during and after the 1960s. One of the consequences of the left’s cultural turn towards identity politics is that some people who continued to prioritize old left priorities such as economic redistribution were alienated from their erstwhile allies. Similarly, one of the consequences of a right-wing coalition of neoconservatives and religious conservatives is that they had fundamental disagreements about the proper balance between church and state. The ways in which these fissures played out is key to understanding the specific history of the ’80s and ’90s — the specific history of the culture wars.
Another important fissure is epistemological. Both within and across party lines you saw a conflict between those comfortable with contextual knowledge (e.g. historicism, cultural relativism, or deconstruction) and those who traded primarily in universals (e.g. in moral claims, or the claims of justice). As the culture wars went on it was the liberals that referred more and more to context and the conservatives that gestured primarily to universal concepts. Do you think this hardening of epistemological stalemate is something that we’ve done a better job moving past in political discourse?
It might be argued that epistemology — a theory of how we know something in terms of scope and validity — is not a correlative of political ideology. Indeed for much of modern intellectual history conservatives and liberals could be found on both the contextual and universal sides of the epistemological spectrum. Following in the tradition of Edmund Burke, who criticized French Revolutionaries for rationalizing their actions as having emanated from universal values, and who theorized that the good was only relative to the many “little platoons of society,” many conservatives latched onto epistemologies of uncertainty. Conversely, even a contemporary left-wing intellectual like Noam Chomsky hails universal concepts like “human nature” as central to liberation.
But indeed one of the effects of the culture wars, I argue, is that epistemology increasingly became a political marker. Liberals grew more and more relativist and perspectivalist, and vice versa, conservatives grew more and more anti-relativist and absolutist. Conservatives believed society was best organized around neutral principles that people could aspire to as individuals; liberals thought that society was weighted down by historical patterns that could only be overcome by finding solidarity in groups.
This politics of epistemology probably matters less now, except to a few conservatives who continue to fret about the morass of relativism, and to a few cultural theorists who continue to fret about the “totalizing” effects of absolutist epistemologies like Catholicism and Marxism. Otherwise, such concerns, like the culture wars in general, are history.
Your book bears strong similarities to Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture. His book is primarily a work of intellectual history, which yours is as well, though with more cultural history included. One could also write about this topic and period as an economic historian, or with a more straightforward political thesis (which we see for example in Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, which reads the culture wars as an ideological struggle from the right to counter the gains made by new entrants to the power structure through the public university). How did you go about building your archive for this history, and were there any struggles you faced in deciding what to include and what to leave out?
The problem with political histories of the culture wars — whether it’s Newfield’s history of higher education, or the more general political histories of the era, such as David Courtwright’s No Right Turn, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, and Rick Perlstein’s trilogy — is that it treats culture and ideas as inconsequential except insofar as means for power-hungry conservatives to distract the masses from their plutocratic designs. This bait-and-switch theory of power is unconvincing when close attention is paid to the actual historical sources of the culture wars.
Take for example the canon wars that were so prominent at Stanford University and elsewhere in the late 1980s. The terms of the debate were over what kind of humanities would best serve a democracy. Both sides in this debate believed wholeheartedly in the values of the humanities, but had different ideas about what the humanities were and how they should serve society. A growing number of academic literary theorists believed that studying the humanities was the best way to help people learn how to decode power and its manifestations. They thought that their innovative new techniques for interpreting texts — deconstruction, for example — would help usher in a more progressive society by freeing “people from ideological mystifications and aberrancies,” as one prominent English professor announced. Conservatives, on the other hand, held a traditionalist vision of the humanities. The humanities were best represented by the Western canon, which conservatives defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience.” William Bennett and other conservative intellectuals criticized the academic left on the grounds that it had destroyed the humanities with its newfangled relativistic theories.
This history is compelling in that it demonstrates that the culture wars often hinged on questions about national identity: how should Americans think? It defies bait-and-switch notions that the left “marched on the English department while the right took the White House,” as Todd Gitlin put it with his pithy metaphor for academic solipsism in the face of conservative triumph. This is why intellectual and cultural history are better approaches to understanding the culture wars.
In a related question, many of the positions people took during the culture wars are on reflection (and probably were at the time), ridiculous. Do you find it valuable to treat the most extreme polemics as symptomatic, and extract a piece of the story from them? I’m thinking of things like the 20/20 program on heavy metal and Tipper Gore’s PMRC crusade of moral outrage. Is there a debate amongst contemporary historians about the value of taking seriously an argument that is on the face of it ridiculous (perhaps similar to the way many political journalists contort to take someone like Sarah Palin seriously, while others think it’s best to ignore her)?
History is not punditry. What might seem ridiculous to us in retrospect, for example Tipper Gore’s argument that heavy metal and rap were contributing to violence and moral disintegration, was deemed respectable by many at the time. It’s incumbent upon the historian to understand why such a seemingly ridiculous argument carried weight in a given era. This is what helps explain historical change and continuity — the main job of the historian. That said, most of the views I analyze in the book were mainstream insofar as they had a large number of adherents. I largely ignored so-called extremist views that did not attract much of a following, such as the radical Afrocentrism of Leonard Jeffries, Jr. or the theocratic philosophy of Rousas John Rushdoony. Both Jeffries and Rushdoony are briefly mentioned in my book but are not central to the narrative precisely because their views were deemed ridiculous at the time even by many would-be allies.
In reading your book one might feel nostalgic for the old world of print journalism, as many of these ideological battles were waged on the editorial pages of magazines, as opposed to on television. Perhaps this is being romantic, but it bestows a certain dignity on the debates. Do you think the proliferation of media sources has anything to do with the dissipation or diffusion of debates over specific culture war topics — those you suggest like “abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, evolution, family values, feminism, homosexuality, intelligence testing, media, multiculturalism, national history standards, pornography, school prayer, sex education, [and] the Western canon?” Do you think it is harder to command the kind of attention amongst serious thinkers and broad political constituencies with a more diffuse media landscape?
Certainly the proliferation of media has changed the game. The culture wars used to be played out in the pages of National Review, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Now insofar as they persist the culture wars take place on Twitter, where it attention spans don’t last much longer than 140 characters.
But something else is afoot that is more difficult to pinpoint. While researching this book I spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress in the archives of powerful people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, where I found heated letter exchanges on such things as Lynne Cheney’s handling of the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy, and other crucial cultural controversies. I suppose future historians might find similar such evidence in the archives of our current power elite, but somehow I doubt it. The cultural turn that took place in the 1960s and ensuing decades not only reshaped higher learning. It also reshaped the things that were considered political by politicians. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I could be proven wrong. But I think we’re post-cultural turn in this sense. Another reason why the culture wars are history.
In a recent piece on the reception of American Sniper you suggested, contra E.J. Dionne, that we are not seeing a new front being opened in the culture wars. Those, as you claim in your book, are now a historical artifact, albeit one with lingering effects on American society. The key difference seems to be that the touchstone of the ’60s have receded, and while there are significant and divisive political issues to be worked out — our immigration policy and involvement in military conflicts — these lack the focus on the “values and virtues” of American identity and social arrangements that the ’60s put at the center of national discourse. If the period of the culture wars have ended, with the specific flash points over “the soul of America” that they injected into public life, do you think that current debates about American identity have a new touchstone?
The national debate over American Sniper is playing out much like a photographic negative of the controversy that engulfed Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which I analyze at length in the book. Everyone has an opinion about American Sniper, no doubt including those who have yet to see it, much as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, after admitting he had not seen The Last Temptation, told his massive radio audience that it “would appear to be the most blasphemous, evil attack on the church and the cause of Christ in the history of entertainment.” The actual content of the film is far less important than what it stands for in the larger political culture. Should we question the nation’s wars in the Middle East? Are you for or against the troops? Is Chris Kyle an American hero or an American psycho? Do good Americans have to like this film? The main difference between the 1988 debate about The Last Temptation and our current dispute over American Sniper might be that whereas the former was about religion and sex, the latter is about war and the American role in the Middle East. Perhaps this difference signifies a new culture wars frontier?
The other new touchstone might be more economic. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently wrote that the new culture wars conflate economic concerns with questions about national identity. Dionne poses a rhetorical question to highlight this new touchstone: “Why is the hard work of the many, those who labor primarily for wages and salaries, rewarded with increasingly less generosity than the activities of those who make money from investments and capital?”
On this Dionne is aligning himself with his fellow Catholic Pope Francis, while optimistically predicting that many Americans — perhaps even the white working-class Americans who tended to be conservative culture warriors of old — will align against the vampiric, anti-American one percent. This new culture war that Dionne is predicting sounds a lot like the older struggles that pitted populists against monopolists during the late nineteenth century, or workers against “economic royalists” during the 1930s.
That said, Dionne forgets that “values and virtues,” even when couched in economic terms, were integral to the “old” culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, if from the opposite perspective. Neoconservatives argued that the cultural radicalism of the sixties made for both bad culture and bad economics. The movements of the sixties, in their eyes, were both hostile to traditional American values and dangerously anticapitalist. In this, like Dionne but from a different vantage point, neoconservatives tapped into a powerful American political language that separated those who earn their way from those who do not. During the Populist uprisings of the late nineteenth century, or during the great union drives of the 1930s, a rapacious corporate elite was assigned the role of leeches. Neoconservatives, in reverse, argued that sixties movements enabled a parasitic culture.
In short, there will always be conflict about what it means to be American — about normative Americanism — even as the terms for such conflicts shift ground.
You end your book by claiming that economic forces may be the primary agent in ending the culture wars. You write, “it has become increasingly clear that capitalism has done more than the state to pitilessly destroy the values [cultural conservatives] held dear. Capitalism, more than the federal government — Mammon more than Leviathan — has rendered traditional family values passé.” I find this a very convincing conclusion. Just as the ’60s scrambled political allegiances, pushing old liberals hard to the right, do you think capitalist forces will lead to significant political movement, or is political entrenchment one of the enduring legacies of the culture wars?
I’m not necessarily good at such prognostications. But for those of us who would like a political movement to arise from our new Gilded Age, there are perhaps reasons to be optimistic. Occupy Wall Street, and the immense popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital, though both fleeting phenomena, represent instances of possibility.
One thing about which I’m certain: any new movement will more likely have success if it is aware of the recent history I analyze in my book. As I conclude the book: “Capitalism sopped up sixties liberation and, in the process, helped dig the grave of normative America. The next American movement for liberation — and those who resist it — will have to reckon with this historical irony.” This is the dilemma of all American movements. The more such movements are pitched as “American,” the more traction they gain, but also, the more easily they are sopped up. You might call this the dialectic of American liberation.
I just read Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man, which serves as an interesting pre-history to your book. In the mid 20th century there were serious debates about education (e.g. Dewey vs. Hutchins), nationalism (e.g. advocates of human rights and world government vs. communitarians), and progressive vs. declension narratives — all equally important topics in the culture wars. What I find interesting is that many of those debates, at least in the early part of Greif’s account, were conducted by philosophers and social scientists coping with the World Wars and questioning the values of the Enlightenment. The framing metaphor there is crisis, whereas in the period you are studying it is war (as in “culture war”). Now we seem to be returning to crisis discourse, especially in areas like education and the environment. Do you think the metaphor, how we characterize the most intense disagreements of contemporary society, has significant effects on the way these disagreements are framed and approached?
I’ve not yet read Greif (it’s on my short-list of books to read), but it sounds like he is putting another spin on the intellectual history dealt with in Edward A. Purcell, Jr.’s important book, The Crisis of Democratic Theory, and also in my first book, Education and the Cold War: the Battle for the American School. The intellectual battles of the early to mid twentieth century were indeed similar to the debates that played out in the culture wars, with one major difference. Those earlier debates did not take place on a post-1960s landscape in which more and more people had a stake, thus making the stakes seem that much higher (which is saying something since the earlier debates took place against the backdrop of world war). “Crisis” worked well as a metaphor in the earlier debates because it assumed broad agreement on fundamentals. When a growing number of people began to question the fundamentals, a crisis resulted. The metaphor of “war” works from the assumption that there is no consensus, that there never was agreement to begin with. Indeed, the 1960s shattered the postwar American consensus, making “war” a more powerful metaphor.
It’s an interesting question whether the metaphors we choose shape our understandings — a chicken-and-egg type question. Daniel Rodgers argues that a contagion of metaphors, including “fracture,” reshaped our sense of self and society. I’m not sure. Although I’m no fan of militarized metaphors in general — “war on poverty,” “war on drugs” — “culture wars” is more attuned to post-1960s political culture than “crisis.”
Michael Schapira is the Interviews Editor for Full Stop.