U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Beyond the Culture Wars

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of AmericaFacing the World as It Is, and as We Want It to Be

I want to thank my six interlocutors for their generous and smart essays on A War for the Soul of America: T.R.C. Hutton, Vaneesa Cook, Peter Kuryla, Michelle Nickerson, Amy Kittelstrom, and Christopher Shannon. I also want to thank my fellow blogger and S-USIH book review editor Robert Greene, who first decided a roundtable was in order. And I would especially like to thank my colleague and founder of the USIH Blog Tim Lacy, who organized the roundtable. I should note that this is the second time Tim has organized a roundtable for one of my books—in fact the first ever USIH roundtable was one that Tim put together in 2008 on my first book, Education and the Cold War.

Each of the six reviewers raised unique questions about my book. As such my response is long and for that I apologize. To make it easier to follow along, I have provided a list of what I see as the 10 most important questions raised in this roundtable, which I answer in order.

1. Were the 1960s uniquely transformative?

2. Were the neoconservatives central to the conservative culture war?

3. What’s more important: culture or economics?

4. Is “culture wars” an appropriate framing device?

5. What about liberal religion?

6. Does the book fully grapple with the power of metaphors?

7. Am I too nice to conservatives, whose logic seems a cover for racism?

8. Am I too nice to liberals, whose logic seems a cover for anti-religious bigotry?

9. Does my concluding argument—that capitalism has swamped the culture wars—contradict my introduction where I take exception to Thomas Frank’s argument that the culture wars are a distraction to more important economic matters?

10. What about solidarity?

Before my attempt at answering these questions, let me begin with a brief note about why I chose to write a book about the history of the culture wars. The main reason was prosaic: nobody had yet written a book-length account of what seemed like an important recent historical phenomenon. There was also an intellectual rationale: the topic would allow me to write the type of history that I had come to believe was my forte—a history of political culture that foregrounds intellectual and educational history. And there was also political rationale: although I align with the left side of the culture wars, my own political tendencies are socialist and as such I had long thought the culture wars were a sideshow. In this way, writing a history of the culture wars was a personal challenge to understand a whole range of people whose priorities did not match my own.

On a more personal level, although I began researching this book in 2007, my curiosity about the culture wars originated in at least two earlier moments in my life. The first was in 2001, when I lost my job as a high school history teacher in the Denver area for essentially being too left-wing for the school administration. I learned first-hand that teaching history to children is intensely political. That was something I knew in the abstract but needed to experience to truly understand. This sparked my scholarly curiosity about conflicts over education and history, conflicts that form the bedrock of my first two books. Another formative experience was George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. The fact that over 62 million of my fellow Americans voted for a man who represented almost everything I opposed gave me more motivation than ever to learn about this strange country we call the United States of America.

Now to answering the questions raised by this roundtable:

  1. Were the 1960s uniquely transformative?

Leo Ribuffo once told me that our main job as historians is to have something to say about change and continuity. So in the long debate about the 60s, I take the change side. TRC Hutton disagrees and makes that disagreement the centerpiece of his critique.

In making the case the case that the sixties were a rupture, I recognize that such a rupture happened along fault lines a long time in the making. There’s no such thing as “Morning in America” whether your ideal morning resembles Stokely Carmichael’s or Ronald Reagan’s. I also recognize that several historians have argued against the idea that the 1960s were a sui generis era in American history. Intellectual historians have especially given a wide hearing to the position that the sixties are now best understood not as a rupture, but as one point along a more protracted trajectory.

Dan Wickberg consents to this historiographical turn in a recent review essay he wrote for Modern Intellectual History. “Mid-twentieth century American intellectual history is in the midst of a boom,” he writes. “A younger generation of historians, now half a century distant from the era, and less inclined than their immediate forerunners to be committed to a vision of the 1960s as a critical turning point in modern culture, is reshaping what has been an underdeveloped field.” Wickberg argues “that there is a great deal more continuity than an image of the 1960s as cultural watershed would allow.” How so? “Questions of the contingency of all knowledge and values, critique of the claims of all authority, a sense of both the liberating intellectual freedom and the moral danger of a world unmoored from tradition: these characteristically ‘modernist’ concerns came to be articulated in their fullest way in the United States in the decades before and after World War II.”

This historiographical correction is necessary insofar as the epistemological orientation of so-called postmodernity is not far removed from that of modernity proper. Foucault was said to have revolutionized American intellectual life with claims such that “knowledge is not for knowing, knowledge is for cutting.” But by then it had been over a half-century since William James and John Dewey had put forward the antifoundationalist wisdom of philosophical pragmatism. More to the point, perhaps: In the 1940s, all Harvard students were assigned to read Margaret Mead, who did much to popularize the relativistic notion that what we might think is “natural” is actually cultural.

And yet, however necessary, such revisionism goes too far in downplaying the rupture wrought by the sixties. Prior to the sixties, many Americans were largely immune from the fracturing effects of modernity. Many Americans only felt the acids of modernity once they experienced them as a political force: as Black Power, as feminism, as gay liberation, as the antiwar movement, as the legal movement for secularization. Only after the political destabilization wrought by these mass movements—movements that undermined a powerful mid-century normative America—did millions of Americans come to recognize “the moral danger of a world unmoored from tradition.” For instance, one of the defining features of the culture wars was the conservative critique of antifoundationalism, which conservatives almost exclusively linked to the political movements of the sixties, particularly Black Power and feminism.

As Peter Kuryla recognized in his review, to say that the sixties represent a historical transformation is to assent to popular and even conservative wisdom—something that most historians are loathe to do, often for good reason. But in this case such assent is truer to the historical record.

2. Were the neoconservatives central to the conservative culture war? 

Perhaps my answer to this question, which is also raised by Hutton, will support my answer to the first question. Hutton believes that what was called the “New Right,” those millions of conservatives who often lived in the growing sunbelt (as documented by Darren Dochuk in his From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism), is the grouping that matters most in understanding the conservative culture wars. Moreover, Hutton argues that such conservative culture warring can be seen in an earlier figure like Joe McCarthy, who indeed often fulminated against “egg sucking liberals” and who once said that “a true American detested communists and queers.” Since I believe I anticipated this critique in my book I will paste a passage below and let readers be the judge. As I wrote:

Neoconservatives, of course, were not the first Americans to verbally assault intellectuals. As Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1964 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, made abundantly clear, animosity directed at intellectuals was not new. Indeed, the ambiguous “new class” bore some resemblance to the equally amorphous “liberal establishment” scorned by the likes of Joe McCarthy. By the postwar period, a growing number of conservative intellectuals, led by William Buckley, Jr., founding editor of National Review, coalesced to form what Sidney Blumenthal called a “counter-establishment.” Buckley and his fellow counter-intellectuals made a career of lambasting intellectuals well before Kristol and Podhoretz took their fateful turns to the right. Buckley’s 1950 treatise against Yale professors, God and Man at Yale, was a lamentation about professors who subverted the curriculum to their “secularist and collectivist” ends. Buckley, ever the humorist, peppered his essays with delightful anti-intellectual ripostes. “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States,” he famously quipped, “to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

Where “new class” thought differed from previous strains of conservative anti-intellectualism was in how neoconservatives formulated it specific to the task of understanding the New Left. Intellectuals of the older right, in contrast, never worked to get inside the mind of the New Left. More commonly, they understood the New Left, simply, as liberalism followed to its logical conclusion. Russell Kirk, the regular education columnist for National Review and founder of the traditionalist journal Modern Age, even admitted to feelings of schadenfreude when New Leftists violently confronted the liberals who oversaw “what is foolishly called the higher learning in America.” Kirk understood the New Left’s attempt to seize control of the university as behavior consistent with the reigning liberal philosophy of John Dewey—a philosophy Kirk had spent the better part of his life criticizing. As he wrote in 1955: “The pursuit of power and the gratification of concupiscence are the logical occupations of rational man in a world that is merely human and merely natural.” Kirk did not seek to separate New Left thought from the relativistic liberalism that preceded it because, shorn of God, neither was redeemable; neither liberals nor their close cousins on the New Left could abstain from the humanly pursuit of power without the traditional constraints imposed by religiously ordered hierarchy.

Unlike traditionalist conservative thinkers who conflated liberalism with the New Left, neoconservatives believed the New Left had infected the liberal intellectual culture they loved. That they detected such a change was one of the central reasons for their political conversion; it was one of the primary reasons neoconservatives proved so useful to the modern American conservative movement.  (War for the Soul, 52-53)

3. What’s more important: culture or economics?

In her review Vaneesa Cook writes that I see “culture as the driving force of economic and political trends, not the other way around,” and that this explains my argument with Thomas Frank that I make explicit in my introduction, and my unspoken challenge to Daniel Rodgers. I am glad Cook recognized that my argument differs from that made by Rodgers in Age of Fracture. My original manuscript included a discussion of how I disagreed with Rodgers, but it was edited out as a nod to those potential readers unfamiliar with such “inside baseball” historiographical debates. My disagreement with Rodgers has less to do with prioritizing culture over economics and more to do with politics.

As I have written elsewhere, in mapping out a genealogy of the culture wars I focus on the revolutionary-counterrevolutionary dialectic of the sixties—the polar opposites that go by the names New Left and neoconservatism. Such analysis goes against the grain of a growing trend among intellectual historians that downplays the political distinctions of left and right. Rodgers 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 incongruent 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.

4. Is “culture wars” an appropriate framing device?

In her review, Michelle Nickerson charges “‘that culture wars,’ as a framing device, minimizes both intentions of historical actors and impact of those controversies.” In other words, Thomas Frank minimizes anti-abortion activists by lumping their struggle in with the larger culture wars, in the same way that Allan Bloom minimizes Black Power campus activists. Nickerson writes: “It almost doesn’t matter which side makes the noise—everyone looks like toy soldiers or wrestlers in a mud pit.” Nickerson rather thinks that politics is the best framing device to understand the polarization of the 1980s and 1990s.

My book is a history of political culture, which I define broadly. Political culture is the set of attitudes and assumptions that give meaning and structure to our public life and to our social order. It is the ways in which people in a community—Americans—think about and debate the good life, how the good life might be achieved, how the good life might be preserved. The culture wars clearly fall within this capacious definition of political culture, whether the particular issue is school curriculum or affirmative action policies. By framing political liberation in broadly cultural terms—“the personal is political”—the sixties movements opened up the political to new cultural terrain. (Mike O’Connor makes a similar point in his comment on Nickerson’s review.) The cultural turn, in this way, was not isolated to academic discourse. People went to war for culture because culture had become politicized like perhaps never before.

5. What about liberal religion?

My short answer (to Cook’s question): what liberal religion? Or, it’s a nice idea. By that I mean that during the culture wars the main stage was dominated by religious conservatives on one side, and on the other cultural leftists who either adopted explicitly secular arguments or who ignored the question of religion altogether.

To answer the question about liberal religion with more sophistication and rigor, I turn to recent work by David Hollinger. In his 2011 OAH presidential address, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” (published in the June 2011 Journal of American History), Hollinger argues that a better understanding of mid-century liberal, ecumenical Protestant thought helps us come to terms with “the dialectical process by which ecumenical Protestants lost their numbers and their influence in public affairs while evangelical Protestants increased theirs.” It helps us come to terms with the seeming erasure of liberal religion. But Hollinger contends that liberal Protestants should not fret about this. Ecumenical Protestants might have lost their grip on Protestant America, but they helped pave the way for a more diverse multicultural America. That is, liberal religion helped create what came to be defined as secular multiculturalism.

Hollinger expanded on this in his Dædalus article, “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted.” In this essay Hollinger revises the wrongheaded notion that Enlightenment thought in America has largely resided outside religion. The debates about the Enlightenment, the adjustment that Christians underwent in response to the earth-shattering epistemological implications of modernity, were played out within Christian communities of discourse. In other words, the culture wars played out in the churches between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives often won, as Molly Worthen shows in her book Apostles of Reason. Thus in the culture wars, when one thinks about the religious side of things as opposed to the secular side of things, one usually thinks about the Christian Right and not liberal religion. But as Hollinger shows, liberal religion was always hidden in plain sight.

6. Does the book fully grapple with the power of metaphors?

In easily the most original and weird review of my book here at the blog or anywhere else, Peter Kuryla argues that to be more precise in my use of the “war” metaphor we should also think about Max Weber’s famous “iron cage” metaphor. If indeed part of the logic of the New Left, or rather the sixties counterculture, was to break free of the iron cage of the Protestant work ethic and its attendant asceticism, then how do we explain the fact that such asceticism had already been exploded by the culture of consumption that we see in 1950s suburbanization? This is a really smart critique.

It seems Kuryla thinks I agree with neoconservatives like Midge Dector who launched an assault against feminist liberation, in part, because she believed that women joined the “women’s liberation” movement not out of a desire for new freedoms, but rather out of fear that with brand-new freedoms came brand-new responsibilities. “Women’s Liberation does not embody a new wave of demand for equal rights. Nor does its preoccupation with oppression signal a yearning for freedom,” she complained. Rather, it emerged from “the difficulties women are experiencing with the rights and freedoms they already enjoy.” For instance, if women were going to enter the workplace like men, Decter reasoned, they had to be prepared to compete in the cutthroat capitalist labor market that men had long grown accustomed to. In short, Decter believed that feminists were adversarial to the discipline enshrined in American traditions, such as the Protestant work ethic that the mostly Jewish neoconservatives came to adore.

But in response I will only say that I think neoconservatives like Dector overstated this case and that what they really feared was female autonomy, or a large movement pushing for such autonomy. As such the normative America that many Americans went to war against in the 1960s was constraining even and sometimes because of the national orgy of consumption called suburbanization.

I realize my response does not answer the question about metaphors, which speaks to the fact that I’m going to need another few years to think about Kuryla’s treatment of my book!

7. Am I too nice to conservatives, whose logic seems a cover for racism?

This particular criticism is the focus of Amy Kittelstrom’s review. She writes: “Perhaps I have a more suspicious mind than Hartman, but I could not help but come away from my immersion in his capable research more disgusted with so-called conservatives than ever, despite all his effort to treat the two sides of the culture wars even-handedly.”

I am increasingly less fond of political heavy-handedness as a substitute for political analysis. To call out conservatives as racist—“Look at those racists!”—in every single instance where their rhetoric might be construed as racist is boring and does not really treat the reader with respect. Where I do address the racism of conservatives (and sometimes liberals), whether such racism is explicit or coded, I do so not to score points but to make an historical argument. For example, I think it is hard to come to terms with the conservative critique of multiculturalism without addressing anxieties about increasing racial diversity in schools and on college campuses. Allan Bloom’s concerns about relativism and falling standards do indeed need to be related to his experience at Cornell in 1969 when administrators caved to the demands of Black Power activists who brandished guns.

Conservative leaders like William Bennett may have had ulterior motives. Bennett may well have wanted to defund public education rather than defend his traditionalist version of the humanities. But I never found compelling proof of such a connection other than retrospective teleology, and even if I had found the smoking gun it would have been beside the point. Bennett’s rhetoric about the canon, whether spoken in good faith or bad, is historically important because it represents an argument in a debate that mattered in its own right. The debate about the humanities in the 1980s was historically important because it laid bare a crisis of national faith. How should Americans think?

8. Am I too nice to liberals, whose logic seems a cover for anti-religious bigotry?

Seems I can’t win! This is the argument made by Christopher Shannon, who compares the structural racism that I treat with care to what he calls “structural secularism” that he thinks I treat lackadaisically. Even where I do address secularization and the religious conservatives who were concerned about it, Shannon accuses me of “quickly mov[ing] on and generally present[ing] the conservative critique of secular humanistic dominance in education as yet another instance of the paranoid style in American politics.”

Early in Chapter 3 of the book, about the Christian Right, I write: “By the 1970s, conservative white evangelicals were confronted with a perfect storm of secular power that they deemed a threat to their way of life and to the Christian nation they believed the United States once was and ought to be again” (War for the Soul, 71). How could I be any clearer in taking seriously conservative concerns about secularism? I suppose, in Shannon’s view, to do so I would have to equate such concerns to black concerns about racism. This is a huge stretch (as many people pointed out in their comments on Shannon’s post). Secular power, insofar as it is a real thing, has meant that religious people are one group among many vying for power and that they cannot do so in religious terms. Secular power is not the same thing to religious people as white power is to black people.

9. Does my concluding argument—that capitalism has swamped the culture wars—contradict my introduction where I take exception to Thomas Frank’s argument that the culture wars are a distraction to more important economic matters?

This is a point made by Nickerson and has been made by several reviewers elsewhere. Why go to great lengths to counter the Thomas Frank argument about how the culture wars are superficial only to conclude that they no longer matter because even the liberationist ethos of the New Left has been sopped up by capitalism? It’s all about historical valence. The logic that prevails in one era will not be the logic that prevails in another. The irony of history is that liberation can become the new master, or can get co-opted by the old master. My answer to question number 10 about solidarity builds on this. 

10. What about solidarity?

This is the question that Shannon indirectly raised in his review of my book (which I must add originated as his part in a debate that we had a few days ago at the Hauenstein Center that was dedicated to bringing conservatives and progressives together in common cause). Although several of those who commented on Shannon’s post here at the blog see his review of my book as something dishonest or worse, I disagree and in fact appreciate what I take to be honest disagreement from somebody who sees the world much differently than I do. Several conservative venues have reviewed my book, including The Wall Street Journal and Claremont Review. As a whole I can’t complain about these reviews, but none of them were as clear as Shannon about the fact that I wrote this book in good faith. Take for instance Christopher Caldwell, who reviewed my book for the conservative Weekly Standard. Caldwell writes: “Hartman describes an observation the dissident University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom once expressed (about the failure of black students) as having been made ‘with no effort to hide his sarcastic tone.’ Hartman often sounds like a Soviet loyalist, circa 1935, tut-tutting over the variety of things Russian intellectuals were permitted to say in 1905.” So unlike Caldwell, Shannon is not glib in his assessment of my book (which is not to say that he’s not glib about some things more generally–in ways I criticize below).

Shannon highlights an irony that I address in my conclusion and that stands as one of the most important takeaways from my book: “the radical individualism of the cultural revolution directly undermines the solidarity necessary for social democracy.” Indeed. This is a problem that should haunt historians of twentieth-century America into the foreseeable future. It is also a serious problem for our national politics. That is, just at the moment when more and more people were successfully pushing for entry into this “circle of we” that we call America, the circle became less tightly knit together. To put it more directly, as the left won the culture wars over American identity, it lost the battle for the national political economy. The right has been able to chip away at the hard-won victories of the New Deal and Great Society. So this leaves me with a question: to what degree are these historical trajectories—cultural revolution and neoliberalism—part and parcel? Or, are they mutually exclusive? There are no easy answers to these questions, and I honestly say that my years studying the culture wars have not necessarily left me much more equipped to answer them. But I shall try.

Shannon seems incredulous that one of the solutions I proffer is what queer theorists have called “kinship rights,” which would afford those bound together in complex, non-nuclear ways with the basic legal protections that are currently provided people in nuclear families (the definition of which has only recently been extended to include gay couples). I admit this is a fairly meager start to the larger problem of us groping to a new form of national solidarity that is not so restrictive nor sadistic as the form that governed our national culture prior to the 1960s.

I wrote a good chunk of this book, including the conclusion, while living and teaching in Denmark on a Fulbright fellowship. One of my preoccupations while living there was thinking about why a nation like Denmark was able to build a vibrant social democracy, and why nothing of the sort happened in the United States. Living in Denmark made me reflect anew on Werner Sombart’s question: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” Or rather, “Why no social democracy?” What the Danes seem to have that we Americans don’t is solidarity with their fellow citizens—the type of solidarity necessary for social democracy. Danish solidarity is the historical legacy of a large and powerful labor movement, to be sure. But a more cynical assessment might point to the fact that such solidarity is more easily achieved in an ethnically homogenous society where people look around and see their fellow citizens as being “Danes.” Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the modest American social welfare state—the New Deal state—was constructed during an era of unusual cultural stability, an era, for example, with a highly restrictive immigration regime.

Denmark is currently experiencing a crisis of identity in its own right based upon a growing immigrant community that is predominantly Muslim—a crisis that has been exacerbated by the Syrian refugee problem. Many Danes see such immigration patterns as a threat to their beloved social democracy. Perhaps understandably some see this threat in terms of employment and government revenue—as technical problems. But such concerns are also expressed in the form of anxieties about cultural difference. Can Muslims be Danes? So the problem is one of national identity, and if the history of the culture wars has taught me anything, national identity is fraught, but malleable. Surely Danish social democracy can survive Muslim immigration if and when Danish identity is defined in more inclusive ways. Indeed, I saw this happening before my eyes in my students, who were multicultural in composition and attitude. And when I think optimistically about the future of the United States, I think that we have moved beyond the culture wars enough so that we might be ready and capable of a new push for social democracy.

Since Shannon made abortion the crux of his argument about why cultural liberalism is a false solution, I feel compelled to respond. Beyond the absurd notion that being pro-choice is to be an advocate of a “culture of death,” Shannon also seems to think it is to be in favor of dystopian forms of population control. This is severely out of whack with how I understand the pro-choice rationale. That is, to the degree that abortion is a social good, it is so because it is necessary for female autonomy and thus sexual equality. Full stop. But equally important, the reason that over 50 percent of Americans favor legal abortion in most cases, and why 60 percent of Americans favor legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, thus aligning 60 percent of Americans with Roe v. Wade, is because most of them balance out the interests of the fetus with the interests of female autonomy. In other words, a majority of Americans view abortion pragmatically.

Speaking of pragmatism, studying the history of the culture wars has made me more pragmatic. I still hold higher socialist ideals that do not always cohere with pragmatism. But as an historian I have become more and more pragmatist. I would dare say that most historians end up in such a place. When William James made his famous antifoundationalist claim—“‘the truth’ is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving”—he also created the air that most historians breathe.

But the problem with pragmatism, at a political level, is that solidarity often requires higher principles of the sort that pragmatism cannot offer—and that multiculturalism and sexual freedom don’t necessarily offer either. This is our gravest philosophical and political problem, and there are no easy solutions. But one thing seems clear to me. If solutions are to be found, they will be found in the present and the future, not in the past, whether such past is that of the medieval Catholic Church or that of our Founders. The pragmatic injunction is to face the world as it is. I would add to that: face it as we would like it to be!

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I am surprised to find my review characterized as favoring political heavy-handedness or the scoring of points. But as I have made it a rule not to engage with arguments that do not engage with mine, I’ll say no more.

    • I’m sorry I didn’t engage with your argument to the degree that I should have, Amy. I am honored by your praise, think your criticisms have merit, and do not consider you in favor of “political heavy-handedness.” Rather I could not think of a way to write about conservatives that made the history of the culture wars clear without often taking them at their own word. To do otherwise for me would have felt politically heavy-handed.

      Perhaps I should simply state that I don’t think racism is the only motivation for conservatives in the culture wars. Sometimes it is the most important one, sometimes other factors matter much more. For example, the christian day schools that became such a source of controversy in the 1970s when the IRS came after their tax-exempt status. Many such schools in the south that were formed in the wake of Brown v. Board were indeed “segregation academies” as critics have called them. But many others, especially as they spanned to the west–there was a very large network of them in San Diego–are better explained as responses to the perceived threats of secularism. So in this case–and I argued as much in the book–it would have been reductionist for me to claim that the christian day school movement was simply a racist project. This is just one example where I think allowing conservatives to speak for themselves got me closer to the historical dynamics driving the culture wars.

      On the other hand I thought I was pretty explicit that the neoconservative reaction was often rooted in racialized conceptions of the sixties–which is why I describe neoconservatism as the “intellectualization of the white working class.”

      Again, thanks for your review. Cheers. Andrew

  2. Great responses to a remarkable series on a remarkable book. Thanks everyone!

    So this leaves me with a question: to what degree are these historical trajectories—cultural revolution and neoliberalism—part and parcel? Or, are they mutually exclusive?

    I’m thinking the answer is yes. For instance, check out Simon Hall’s chapter on the “tax revolt” in his book American Patriotism, American Protest. A movement emanating from 1960s radicalism quickly became a popular rationale for the limited neoliberal state.

    • Yes I think people are increasingly coming to this conclusion. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela (in her excellent CLASSROOM WARS) contends that her history of California curriculum politics is the key to understanding how two seemingly disparate strands of conservatism (libertarianism and traditionalism) came together. When nearly two-thirds of California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, a law that massively reduced property taxes thus shrinking educational revenues, straightforward anti-tax sentiments were not their sole motivating factor. Rather, if Mehlman Petrzela is correct, many Californians also wanted to starve the government beast responsible for sex education, bilingual education, and other seemingly wrongheaded experimental programs.

  3. Speaking of metaphors, and in reference to Andrew’s response to Peter Kuryla’s review essay, “orgy of consumption” might not be the best way to think about how many postwar Americans felt about their role as consumers: it was as much a Keynesian civic duty (Lizabeth Cohen’s “purchaser consumers”) and a social burden (having to keep up with the Joneses) as it was an occasional source of pleasure. Jackson Lears has argued that, far from being hedonistic, this new midcentury consumer regime was merely “a managerial version of thrift, one more consistent with spending and borrowing than scrimping and saving.” And of course the the dark and antidemocratic nature of the consumer society was the theme of Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book One-Dimensional Man — a favorite of the New Left. Certainly many leaders of New Left movements, like Betty Friedan, saw the consumer society as more oppressive than liberatory, not only in its management of social and gender roles, but even in its relentless demands for consumption. Many contemporary observers noted the anxiety that these economic demands could produce, and an Austrian emigre market researcher whom I study, Ernest Dichter, had a nice phrase for the overwhelming demands of the consumer marketplace: “the misery of choice.” Dichter also obsessed over the asceticism of Protestant America, and he saw his job and the job of marketers as removing the latent guilt that Americans still attached to their *personal* consumption — giving them the psychological permission to take pleasure in buying.

    All of that supports Andrew’s treatment of the sixties as a moment of historical rupture, and the hedonistic consumption of the counterculture was distinct from the *managed* consumption of the postwar years. In an earlier scholarly iteration of Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool), the counterculture’s hedonistic rebellion was quickly absorbed by corporate America as a source of energy and creativity, and in that sense the political movements of the New Left were a much more profound legacy of the sixties, as we see in Andrew’s great book. Ultimately, there was an “iron cage” to break free from (leaving disputes over the use of *that* metaphor to the side for the moment), both for the politicized New Left and the theretofore repressed counterculture.

    By the way, Andrew: I loved the book!

    • I think this is a fair criticism of what was certainly rhetorical excess on my part. It wasn’t an “orgy of consumption” so much as managed consumption with its attendant anxiety. I had no intention of suggesting that consumption was somehow liberating rather than oppressive. So point taken. I overplayed my hand in trying to make the argument. Still, I don’t think this criticism undermines my larger point though, which is that, depending upon how one thinks about the “stahlhartes gehause” metaphor, the fact remains that “normative America” probably could use a little more nuance.

      That is, Parsons’ “iron cage,” because of its probable roots in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, invites conflations between the Protestant Ethic and the iron cage of capitalism, whereas the “shell hard as steel” perhaps better suggests the new human beings created by that capitalism. That the postwar consumer felt guilt or anxiety suggests something closer to what we are now than to what we were in the 19th century. It’s not worldly asceticism that makes me feel anxiety in the grocery aisle as I attempt to “keep up with the Joneses,” but something far more developed. My guilt and anxiety over my choices (Is this salsa really me, though? What will people think if they see this chipotle shit in my cupboard?) is at best the anguished death rattle of worldly asceticism. As I mentioned, this only leads us down the garden path to Lasch and the bitter “war against all” that typified the Culture of Narcissism, the self-obliterating narcissistic self.

  4. It always seemed to me that the idea of the 1960s as a sui generis era was to argue against American history itself. And so I struggle with statements such as “that cry of the heart (heard during the 1960s) was distinctly new,” which Theodore Roszak makes in his book The Making of a Counterculture.

    Do we really mean to throw the Transcendentalists (let’s include Walt Whitman for good measure) out with the bathwater? I don’t believe we do – at least I hope we don’t. We – and Roszak and many of the others who share his opinions and views on this matter – surely know better. Can we really not be aware of the similarities in the paths that the “counterculture” and the Transcendentalists cut out for themselves?

    After all, “it was the quietly desperate Transcendentalists who sounded the alarm (about such things as slavery, an unjust war, and the dehumanizing of the newly instituted factory system) – they claimed that our true Manifest Destiny was to discover our own souls. They told us that the restless anticipation we felt was really for union with our higher selves and that it was a fool’s game to run off to the frontier in search of an illusory El Dorado when the only frontier worth exploring lay inside our heads. Since American Transcendentalism is but a mystical form of Puritanism, it was not surprising that the call was to another, higher, world – a world far removed from the gross bonds of material existence.”

    Oh sure there were greater numbers of people involved in the 1960s (the country was larger and had more people including the Boomers who were born between 1946 and 1963) and the Transcendentalists had no televisions, radios, etc., to help them spread the word. Neither did they have electronic instruments so old Walt couldn’t jam down on “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” through the Wall of Sound, but they managed somehow to be effective. Neither was there any LSD around but there was an awareness of the relationship between available substances and poetic inspiration. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed:

    “For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flow into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. For it is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other promises of animal exhilaration.”

    I don’t know what causes this myopia but I might be persuaded to place a wager on the fact that it comes from seeing things through a lens of oppositions in the “political arena.” Things do not always arise in that arena and are not brought into being as a matter of opposition. Sometimes going a different way is an affirmation of what that choice involves. This is the point Jack Kerouac makes in his essay “The Origins of the Beat Generation?” He does not see the Beats growing out of opposition or anger but rather evolving into existence from joy, affirmation of life, and celebration. They were about the soul. Remember as well that the essence of revolution is going around something rather than through it. As Kerouac wrote:

    “There is no doubt about the Beat Generation, at least the core of it, being a swinging group of new American men intent on joy…. Irresponsibility? Who wouldn’t help a dying man on an empty road? No and the Beat Generation goes back to the wild parties my father used to have at home in the 1920’s and nobody could sleep for blocks around and when the cops came they always had a drink. It goes back to the wild and raving childhood of playing the Shadow under windswept trees of New England’s gleeful autumn, and the howl of the Moon man on the sandbank until we caught him in a tree (he was an “older” guy of 15), the maniacal laugh of certain neighborhood madboys, the furious humour of the whole gangs playing basketball till long after dark in the park, it goes back to those crazy days before World War II when teenagers drank beer on Friday nights at Lake ballrooms and worked off their hangovers playing baseball on Saturday afternoon followed by a dive in the brook — and our fathers wore straw hats like W. C. Fields. It goes back to the completely senseless babble of the Three Stooges, the ravings of the Marx Brothers (the tenderness of Angel Harpo at harp, too).”

    Vietnam was a heavy and dark presence everywhere during those times (think of The Tarbaby or Bartholomew Cubbins and the Oobleck or The Plague), including the music. I don’t believe it was the central factor in making the music what it was. I believe that was a more metaphorical matter.

    It was a matter of “the light – the shining forth of unfettered individual expression, the radiant effulgence of human creativity unchained from external agendas and controls. The light – the brilliance released when, individually and especially collectively, human beings freely partake of inner and outer resources to shape their world according to the dictates of the authentic self. And the numinous glow of the world itself in the eyes of those who exercise this kind of freedom.”

    Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
    Healthy, free, the world before me,
    The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
    Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
    Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
    Strong and content, I travel the open road.

    Heading for and into America.

  5. I’m a little late to this intellectual party but that’s par for my course late.Andrew, a judicious and in ways a fascinating rejoinder to the roundtable. A few thoughts: 1) I really like your response to the issue of grappling with the noble intentions of both left and right. With whiteness studies almost 20 years old, a critical heuristic device seems to be entering a decadent phase with righteous Indentitarian moralism replacing truly radical substantive analysis. Your approach (to me at least with my position of white privilege within a working class background) suggests the strength of Adolph Reed Jr’s criticism of these trends. 2) It is most likely me, but could you expand on the difference between your book and Frank’s? To bend Hayden Whites ideas to the breaking point Is it a case of Frank seeing a conspiracy narrative of reductionistic false consciousness aided republican operatives( i’m overstating here) where in reality it is a more a narrative of complex historical irony? 3) Finally I really really appreciated your conclusion where you map your struggle between your pragmatist principals and socialist ideals. My question or perhaps observation is as pragmatists can we really dismiss the past too eagerly? obviously we can not and do not want to recreate in full either the christendom of the middle ages or the early republic, however can we not find certain basic values in the past? I know my socialism is informed as much by the Christian New Testament and the Hebrew Tanakh as it is by 19th century intellectual thought. In fact so much of the american socialist tradition and some of its mightiest voices have their intellectual tap root in pre-modern thought, and as I would agree with Karl lowith Both Karen Armstrong in her work on world religions and the Skidelskys in their terrific How Much is Enough suggest that certain areas of premodern thought or “wisdom traditions” could serve as conversation starters in the search for sources of what you would consider solidarity in our (hopefully) late capitalist world. In a good Jamesian Pragmatic sense we ought not disregard any idea ( which i dont think you are ) simply on account of it’s age. “to face the world as we would like it to be ” suggests that we have certain pre-conceived ideals of what the world should be. Where do they come from? how do we know these ideals are the stable foundations a just world can be built on. how do we define Just?
    In any event andrew, thanks for a great talk/post and for writing the brilliant book we are all tearing apart and digesting because it is so intellectually nutritious. best.

    • Thanks for this really great comment, Chris, and no worries about being late to the party. In history there’s no such thing!

      I think you already summarized the main difference I have with Frank: he thinks religious conservatives (and he probably means those of the white working-class) are being duped by GOP politicians. I have (as you said) a more ironic approach, but also I take culture warriors at their word (which is something other respondents have had a problem with–See the Kittelstrom review in this roundtable).

      I would be the last person to dismiss ideas taken from history, especially since I think a certain 19th-century, cranky, bearded German thinker still has a lot to offer us in the 21st century. But the pragmatic approach is to think about whether such ideas work in the here and now, and also whether they lead to a more just world. So it’s a matter of “is” and “ought.” I tend to think certain medieval Catholic ideas don’t work for the “is” and also don’t get us closer to the just “ought”–quite the opposite.

      Thanks again.

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