This week was my spring break, which finally allowed me enough time to read Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture in as much depth as it warrants. This post does not serve as a review of the book. I plan to roll out a long review here alongside the panel on Age of Fracture that I’m assembling for the Fourth Annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference. (If you want to read a review now, check out these three: Robert Westbrook’s at Book Forum; Lisa Szefel’s at the History News Network; and Nemo’s at PhD Octopus. Also, be on the lookout for a roundtable discussion of Age of Fracture in the next issue of Historically Speaking.)
Let me just say for now that, despite some disagreements I have with Rodgers—some major, some minor—the book is very good. In fact, I think anyone who wishes to write about recent U.S. intellectual history will now have to go through Rodgers. In this sense, I see Age of Fracture catapulting to canon-like lists like the one put together by David earlier this week. In other words, I agree with James Kloppenberg, who writes in a blurb that Age of Fracture is “the most wide-ranging and ambitious interpretation of late-twentieth century American history available.” But like I said, this post is not a book review.
Rather, how Rodgers deals with the culture wars, the topic of my current book project, reminds me that one of my biggest obstacles in writing this book is defining the culture wars. Related to this major hurdle: How do I impose boundaries on a topic that seemingly relates to almost everything of consequence that happened during the 1980s and 1990s? And, of course, none of this even speaks to causation. I’m finding these tasks daunting—it’s given me a clue as to why no historian has yet to write a book specifically on the culture wars.
Rodgers does not define the culture wars that differently from common understandings, though his points of emphasis are somewhat unique. He writes that, in contrast to those who celebrated cultural hybridity and the destabilization of identity, such as avant-garde artists or postmodern English professors:
To release and destabilize not merely goods and fashions but “everything”—tradition, certainties, truth itself—was, for other Americans, a source of fear an outrage. Not until 1991, when James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars put the title phrase on every op-ed page, did that unease acquire a general name. For the next decade the term served as a banner for partisans, a verbal crutch for journalists, and the focus of a flourishing industry among academics seeking to explain its novelty and dynamics. In fact, cultural wars in which highly polarized moral values flooded into partisan politics had a long history in the American past. But that did not make their effect in the age of fracture any less important. They helped to mobilize conservative churchgoing Americans into new alliances and new political battles. They split university faculties into feuding intellectual camps. They stoked strident school board contests. They made the fortunes of best-selling books. Across the last quarter of the twentieth century, the emergent talk of fluidity and choice grew in tandem with contrary desires for centers and certainties, each drawing on the other’s energy” (145).
In other words, for Rodgers, the culture wars were a battle between those who celebrated cultural fracture with those who, against all odds, sought to piece the national culture back together out of an older stock. What was this older cultural stock? Many argue race figures foremost. Others point to religious changes that brought more Americans into cultural conflict. But Rodgers contends changes in gender relations, though hardly mutually exclusive from other cultural shifts, were paramount. The culture wars were “above all, in ways that historians of these culture clashes have only begun to realize… a battle over women’s acts and women’s and men’s nature” (145). “The women’s movement and the culture wars,” Rodgers continues, “were to be inextricably bound together. In complicated ways, they were parts of the same story” (146).
I tend to agree with Rodgers here, though like Lisa Szefel I think Rodgers under-emphasizes sexuality more broadly construed, since he only dedicates a little over one page to homosexuality, AIDS, and conservative backlash to gay rights. I also think he might have made more of the ways in which cultural conservatives adjusted to shifting gender norms even as they seemingly rejected such transformations. One of Bethany Moreton’s cleverest points in her award-winning To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise is that Wal-Mart was a key site for men to learn that an ethos of service, framed as an explicitly Christian attitude, was the best adjustment to deindustrialization and the loss of manly work, while still allowing them to maintain patriarchal relations with women, however softened. This ethos spread out nationally, and even internationally, with the Promisekeepers. I contend, similarly, that fighting the culture wars allowed people at all points of the cultural spectrum to adjust to the altered moral, racial, and gendered realities, even if such adjustment often came in the form of rejection or nostalgia.
Although I am still working all of these moving parts out in my mind, one thing seems clear. It’s time to move beyond James Davison Hunter, who set the original terms for how we came to frame the culture wars. This is not to say that his book is anachronistic or beyond use. His exhaustive account of the mutually antagonistic “progressive” and “orthodox” worldviews is crucial in relating the culture wars to changing religious-political affiliations. He usefully demonstrates that Catholics and Protestants (and to a lesser extent, Jews), historically unfriendly almost as a rule, found common cause across faiths on culture war issues such as abortion and homosexuality. However, Hunter altogether ignores intellectual history, a serious omission given that the culture wars were largely fought on terrain forged by intellectuals, whose understandings of contemporary debates were attached to longstanding epistemological disputes over truth, justice, and identity. Here Rodgers offers an important intervention. I hope to offer a substantial one as well.
I also think it’s high time we move beyond the simplistic reading of the culture wars offered by left-liberals like Thomas Frank, E. J. Dionne (Why Americans Hate Politics), and to a lesser extent, Todd Gitlin (The Twilight of Common Dreams). This interpretation has come to operate like conventional wisdom. Take Frank’s popular jeremiad, What’s the Matter with Kansas (now a film, too), where he argues that “culture wars get the goods.” In his typical pithy way, Frank relates the Andres Serrano Piss Christ controversy to this larger point: “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.” Frank’s thesis goes as follows: cultural conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their irrational obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the economic royalists.
Similarly, Gitlin argues that the culture wars were a great distraction from more universal problems, such as economic inequality, that should have spoken to everyone, especially left-leaning intellectuals. This paradigm endures. In last year’s Dissent symposium dedicated to the subject “Intellectuals and Their America” (which I analyze at length here) Dionne continues his longstanding critique of the cultural left. “While the political right spent the 1980s and 1990s preaching the gospel of privatization and the virtue of pursuing individual satisfactions,” Dionne writes, “many in the progressive academy engaged in their own form of withdrawal. An aesthetic radicalism replaced political radicalism, and a battle over texts and canons displaced the fight over whose interests would be served by government and whose ideas would define mainstream politics.” Whether blaming a cultural left for fetishizing “identity,” as Gitlin and Dionne do, or accusing a cynical right for baiting and switching their way to power, as Thomas Frank does, this dismissive narrative has proven convincing to many observers, including several historians.
The historiography of the culture wars, though sparse, has begun to move way from What’s the Matter with Kansas oversimplifications, but only to a degree. David Courtwright’s excellent new book, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, adds historical weight to Frank’s more impressionistic study. Courtwright convincingly argues that, although the cultural right entered the political arena with a vengeance, it failed to reshape the national culture due to the pervasiveness of countercultural values, which touched most members of the baby boomer generation regardless of ideological orientation. He also shows that where the cultural right failed, the economic right succeeded. This is true as far as it goes.
But in thinking of the culture wars merely as a tool of the political class, and not as something real in their own right, Courtwright adheres to Frank’s thesis that the culture wars should simply be understood as a successful yet cynical Republican tactic: marshalling the spectacle of cultural controversy helped Republicans achieve their more mundane political and economic objectives. Read at the strictly political level, there is merit in this argument. But Courtwright’s political focus is too narrow. In avoiding cultural and intellectual history, Courtwright ignores the issues that I think define the culture wars: the controversies over education, art, museum exhibits, and popular culture. This cultural and intellectual history illuminates the ways in which the culture wars represented something more than mere escapades in exuberant irrationalism.
James Livingston offers a very different perspective in The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. (For my essay review of this book, go here, and for Livingston’s response, here. I think future graduate seminars on U.S. Intellectual History will, or at least should, assign Livingston alongside Rodgers.) Livingston posits that the left won the ideological battles that have carried over from the Sixties, made evident by its domination of the commanding cultural heights of the university and by its hegemony over popular culture. The left “was never in danger of losing the so-called culture wars.” Here Livingston offers an important intervention: by expanding the interpretative terrain of the culture wars to the realm of intellectual history, his book is a necessary corrective to Courtwright’s narrow political focus. However, Livingston’s intellectual history is too narrow in its own right. He places too high of a premium on the power of the cultural left, as if control over humanities departments and Hollywood was sufficient. Livingston ignores that those cultural realms dominated by conservatives—Congress, evangelical churches, AM radio, conservative think tanks—were equal in influence. In sum, the national culture, what Patrick Buchanan memorably referred to as “the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power,” was up for grabs.
I have yet to settle on a definition or thesis. But I’ll conclude by pasting the thesis statement I wrote in my book proposal—which one reviewer loved, another, not so much. I’m hoping that your comments will help me out! (Remember, the book proposal format calls for grandiosity!)
Most scholars understand the culture wars to have been ephemeral. I argue against that consensus. Although the culture wars were emotional, overstated, and often hyperbolic, they were not necessarily a proxy for more important developments. Rather, I contend that the culture wars are best understood as the terrain that allowed Americans in the 1980s and 1990s to acknowledge, if not accept, the transformations to American life wrought by the tumultuous developments of the 1960s and 1970s. Most explicitly, the culture wars granted Americans space to articulate new understandings of American life in the context of the altered landscapes of race, gender, and religion. Through the culture wars, Americans found new forms of solidarity in the face of an increasingly rudderless and fragmented culture that threw into doubt all foundations. I contend that the culture wars, then, are the defining narrative of postmodern America.