Penny Lewis’s new book Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Anti-War Movement as Myth and Memory has been the topic of much discussion lately. To get a sense of her argument, check out this interview she did with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano. The gist of Lewis’s contention is that the way we collectively remember the antiwar movement splitting American society along cultural and class lines—between the manly hardhats who dutifully supported the war even as they were dying in it, and the effete hippies who protested the war even as they evaded service—is all wrong. Lewis shows that working-class Americans were far more likely to evince antiwar sentiments than middle-class and rich Americans.
Lewis’s argument is no surprise to me. Perhaps this is due to my being raised on thinkers like Noam Chomsky, who routinely cites poll data that reveals working-class Americans disagreed with US war efforts to a much larger degree than those more privileged. Moreover, the great documentary film Sir, No Sir about the antiwar movement within the military, which I have shown to students several times, clearly demonstrates that the antiwar movement was not isolated to effete college students. Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks is on firm ground.
But the larger implications of Lewis’s argument, that Nixon’s “silent majority” is a mythical construction meant to serve an explicit political purpose, raises some questions for me. Even if working-class Americans were likelier to oppose the war, does this then entail that working-class conservatism was overstated? What do we then make of Jefferson Cowie’s argument in Stayin’ Alive about the conservatism of working-class culture in the 1970s, especially with regards to race and gender? Does Lewis’s argument negate the very premise of the culture wars? Or does it merely shift the analytical terrain? What say you, dear reader?