U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept”

culture-warI am happy to publish the formal comments from the American Historical Association (AHA) panel that I chaired, titled, “Are the Culture Wars History? New Comments on an Old Concept.” (For a summary of the panel see Brantley Gasaway’s post here at John Fea’s blog.) Before I begin I would like to thank Mark Edwards, who teaches history at Spring Arbor University, and who put this panel together even though he was not on it, simply because he wanted it to happen. As a way to introduce our topic, let me briefly quote from the proposal that Mark wrote:

There is a lot still don’t know about one of the most familiar analytical concepts of the past twenty-five years. What precisely is a ‘culture war?’ If culture is always contested terrain, how is it possible to periodize just one or a set of battles?  Assuming that we can find beginnings, middles, and ends for America’s contemporary culture wars, is it possible to establish and prioritize causation? For example, are the culture wars mainly about religion, race, gender, sexuality, science, or something else? Finally, how do we situate America’s culture wars within larger structural contexts such as the Cold War, consumerism, deindustrialization, and suburban succession? Considering those questions altogether, we might ask: Is it even possible for historians to narrate the culture wars?

Given that four of the historians on this panel wrote books on topics related to the culture wars, the panel consensus answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” But since we welcome debate, we invited a commentator who thinks the “culture wars” should always be prefaced by a diminishing qualifier. So we will have four short book talks on thinking about the culture wars, followed by comments about the “so-called” culture wars from our resident skeptic. Let me briefly introduce the five panelists in order.

The first post (below) is from me. Readers of this blog already know me. I will be talking about my second book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.

The second post in the roundtable will be from Adam Laats, associate professor of history and education at Binghamton University. Laats is the author of two books: Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars, and the book he discusses here: The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education, published last year by Harvard University Press.

Next up will be Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, assistant professor of history at the New School and currently S-USIH treasurer. Mehlman Petrzela is one of three stars of the great new history podcast, “Past Present,” and she is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, published in 2015 by Oxford University Press.

Fourth up will be Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University. Prothero is the author of several books, including Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, and God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. His contribution to this roundtable will focus on his brand new book, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections), out with HarperOne.

Last will be comments from Leo P. Ribuffo, professor of history at the George Washington University and author of several books and articles, including The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War, which won the 1985 Merle Curti Award for best book in US intellectual history, awarded by the OAH. Ribuffo has two recent pieces out that are relevant to this panel: “Intellectuals Versus Scholars,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which is based on his comments on a plenary at the recent S-USIH Conference); and “The Forebears of Trumpism,” out with the History News Network.

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Book coverA War for the Soul of America

by Andrew Hartman

Our panel’s commentator Leo Ribuffo (my former teacher and current friend) once told me that our main job as historians is to have something to say about change and continuity. Ribuffo may disagree with my book’s stance in relation to change and continuity, but I would hope he’s somewhat pleased that I foregrounded such a discussion in my argument. For one of my central arguments is that the 1960s were a period of transformation. In other words, on the question of the sixties and recent US history, I come down on the side of change. Building on this, I argue that the “culture wars” are less a way to describe an ongoing feature of American political life, and more a term for an era—the roughly 25 years after the sixties. In short, my book makes an argument about the appropriate way to periodize recent US history.

I will demonstrate this by way of a discussion of how I position my book against three writers who have made very different arguments about the culture wars: Thomas Frank, James Davison Hunter, and Daniel Rodgers. Let me start with how I disagree with Thomas Frank.

Unlike Frank I assume that the issues at stake in the culture wars were real and compelling. Such a straightforward notion defies Frank’s well-worn argument that he put forward in his bestselling 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas. In that book he argues that the culture wars were superficial and helped make our politics irrational. For example, Frank relates the controversy over the artist Andres Serrano’s blasphemous Piss Christ, a 1987 photo of a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine, to his thesis that “culture wars get the goods.” He writes, in his typically pithy fashion: “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, USA.” Frank’s argument goes as follows: religious conservatives often vote against their own economic interests due to their illogical obsession with the culture wars. Republican politicians cynically lend rhetorical support to culture wars issues as they focus on more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the rich.

Now, Frank is a liberal who grew up in Kansas and is disturbed by these developments in his home state, and in the larger nation. Indeed, he wrote his book with the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush in mind. Franks’s fellow Kansans—his fellow Americans—defied his populist expectations that they direct their anger at the wealthy—at those responsible for making their economic lives so precarious.

This might be compelling logic, but by this logic alone, the culture wars are mere sideshows, bread and circuses.

My argument is different. The history of America, for better and worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America. Ever since the nation’s founding, Americans have wrestled with Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s famous 1782 riddle: “What then is the American, this new man?” Disputes over this knotty question have served as the battleground of American cultural conflict. And such disputes intensify during times of rapid change. The “sixties” were just such times. There has been a lot of back and forth lately among historians about the degree to which the sixties were indeed transformative. I side with those who argue that the sixties were a cultural revolution of sorts.

The sixties gave birth to a new America, more open to new peoples, new ideas, new norms, and new, if conflicting, articulations of America itself. This fact, more than anything else, helps explain why the nation grew more divided during and after the sixties than at any period in American history since the Civil War. As such, the history of the culture wars offers insight into this genuine transformation to American political culture. That in a nutshell is the larger purpose and argument of my book. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties, which we can collectively call the New Left—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—these movements destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many Americans, particularly conservatives, recognized the threat to their once great nation.

I make my argument about the sixties forcefully, but it is not necessarily a new argument. So this raises the question: what is new about my book relative to the scholarship?

Most historians assume that the culture wars boiled down to a growing divide between religious and secular Americans. James Davison Hunter has a lot to do with such an understanding thanks to his formative 1991 book, titled, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Hunter’s book has long been the standard-bearer in the literature.

Hunter’s thesis, which has proven convincing to most, 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, to name the most obvious example—had joined forces in their recognition that secular forces were the real threat. This is correct as far as it goes—indeed it’s a remarkable development considering that many conservative evangelicals had only recently considered the Catholic JFK’s election akin to welcoming the antichrist into the White House. So Hunter’s argument is good, but not sufficient. My book revises it by emphasizing the ways in which the more secular “sixties” gave shape to the culture wars.

On the whole Hunter avoids historicizing the divide born of the sixties. He works from the assumption that the divide 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 polarization is admirable. But Hunter does nothing to shed light on how the sixties 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 had less to do with Hunter’s religious divide than most assume. I relocate the origins of the culture wars by focusing more on the mostly secular battles between New Leftists and neoconservatives. These shouting matches represent what I call the dialectic of sixties cultural revolution. The New Left had disturbed normative America to an unprecedented degree, stirring a group of reactionaries who came to be called the “neoconservatives,” Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz chief among them.

Neoconservatism, a label applied to a group of prominent liberal intellectuals who moved right on the American political spectrum during the sixties, took form precisely in opposition to the New Left. In their reaction to the New Left, in their spirited defense of traditional American institutions, and in their full-throated attack on those intellectuals who comprised, in Lionel Trilling’s words, an “adversary culture,” neoconservatives helped draw up the very terms of the culture wars.

Focusing on this revolutionary-counterrevolutionary dialectic goes against the grain of a growing trend among intellectual historians that downplays the political distinctions of left and right. For example, Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture contends that the politics of left and right had little to do with post-sixties intellectual shifts. Rather, Rodgers argues that everyone, from left-wing feminists to Christian Right activists, had to contend with new vocabularies that revolutionized American political sensibilities. As Americans organized their thought patterns into smaller and smaller units—as they increasingly thought about individuals instead of society, decentralized markets instead of centralized states—a cohesive sense of the nation became less legible.

Rodgers as such offers an exciting reinterpretation of recent intellectual history, particularly in showing how people enmeshed in seemingly disparate conversations were using the same new words. A contagion of metaphors, including “fracture,” reshaped our sense of self and society. But by deemphasizing the political sources of fragmentation, Rodgers’s book fails to capture the more profound sources of recent historical change. By downplaying political difference, Rodgers downplays the sixties. The “fracture” metaphor grafts onto neoliberal market logic that deemphasizes power and demystifies politics. As Corey Robin argues in his review of Age of Fracture, fracture is always a symptom of political reaction.

In my view we can’t think about fracture without thinking about the sixties liberation movements and the reactionaries who arose in opposition. We must take into account the dialectic of sixties cultural revolution. Which is why the culture wars metaphor works well to describe the 25 some odd years that came after the sixties.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,

    I’ve been hesitant to weigh in at all on this excellent forum, because 1) you already know what I think about this stuff and 2) I don’t want to seem like a stick in the mud. And I guess maybe I should wait to see Leo Ribuffo’s comments go up, because he will doubtless express better (and more colorfully!) than I ever could the (limited, to be sure) ways in which “culture wars” may be an unhelpful metaphor.

    Anyway, I know it doesn’t come as news to you (or any regular writers/readers of the blog), but I do think that “culture wars” is a perilously fraught interpretive frame — too fraught for me, anyhow.

    “Culture Wars” has a great deal to recommend it as a term of periodization, in the same way that “the Gilded Age” has become convenient historical shorthand for the time period in which that term gained popularity — it seemed an apt metaphor at the time, so it captures a lot of what people were feeling/thinking about their own moment. I think “culture wars” works the same way — it bears (and conveys to us) the timestamp of the moment in which it became a buzzword.

    But if we adopt a “culture wars” framework for understanding the historical moment in which “culture wars” became a wildly popular way of understanding that moment that was then “the present” — well, does that give us enough room to maneuver between the then and the now? (Maybe I should be putting that part of my comment on Adam Laats’s excellent post about not using the framework as a periodization tool.)

    Of course, I say this as someone who shamelessly used “canon wars” in my dissertation title and in my public writing about my project, because that metaphor is quick shorthand to evoke a particular set of controversies from the 1980s that were so labeled at the time. (Also, I had exactly ZERO mental energy to spare on coming up with a really good title that would only need to be junked later). It’s a periodization shorthand more than anything. But even if I could get away with the same title, it’s arguably best to drop the “canon wars” terminology somewhere between dissertation and book. (To be honest, I’m not altogether sure which half of the term is more problematic, “canon” or “wars.” Following on Robin Marie’s fascinating post from earlier today, perhaps the same thing might be said about “culture” and “wars” — hard to know which is the more fraught/laden term, or if it’s just their combination that’s volatile.)

    What makes me suspicious of the metaphor is the fact that “culture wars” seemed the most apt way for people at the time to frame their differences. So the framing device seems to me less a tool for now than a text from then. (Maybe I’m just not adept enough to handle this kind of metaphor as both tool and text — I am still trying to keep the peas of the past and the carrots of the present separated on my plate. I thought I was a lumper, not a splitter — but maybe not!)

    Anyway, I think “Culture Wars” is good — and, after the success of your book, absolutely ensconced — as a term to periodize the 1980s and 1990s. (Though “Age of Fracture” should give “Culture Wars” a run for its money, and vice versa.) But I think it’s very much the light of that time still reaching us in that terminology, showing us a way back to the past but also casting shadows ahead of it that darken our present field of vision.

    Again, not telling you anything that you haven’t already heard or thought about before. Just wanted to plant a little flag of (futile!) resistance to this hegemonic metaphor, for the sake of some poor contrarian soul down the road who stumbles upon this discussion. (And maybe because I’m feeling ornery, but in the friendliest possible way — no wars for me!)

  2. LD: yes we have had this discussion many times, but I appreciate you planting your flag here.

    This might sound funny since I wrote a whole book on the thing, but I feel weird being the defender of the term culture wars. In the end, whatever!

    But seriously, for me it’s an appropriate shorthand for an era because there are some particular features of that era–features that I wanted to isolate and analyze–that everyone thinks about in relation to the culture wars signifier. For me to write a book about these particular features but with a title or label that did not include the culture wars signifier would have confused readers out of gate. The book likely would not have attracted readers, or even connected with them. So all the baggage that comes with that term–and in this I somewhat agree with you (and Leo Ribuffo–just wait for Leo’s comments) helped me draw readers in. That was my goal. That’s your goal, too, so I suggest you stick with the “canon wars.”

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