Book Review

Nickerson on Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of America[Introduction: This is review number four, from Michelle Nickerson, in our weeklong roundtable on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Nickerson is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. She is probably known to S-USIH readers for her two books, Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton, 2012) and the co-edited collection (with Darren Dochuk), Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Space, Place, and Region (Penn Press, 2011). Nickerson is currently studying the Camden 28, a Catholic anti-war group of the Vietnam era apprehended, brought to trial, and acquitted after raiding a draft board office in 1971. In the meantime, look out for her essays in the Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History (forthcoming, Oxford) and Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in the Twentieth Century (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Press). The roundtable’s first review came from Bob Hutton, the second was by Vaneesa Cook, the third by Peter Kuryla, and tomorrow’s will be from Amy Kittelstrom. Hartman’s reply comes on Saturday. Enjoy! – TL]
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What is the “culture” in “culture wars” supposed to mean? As Andrew Hartman demonstrates with the breathtaking range in A War for the Soul of America, there were plenty of battles in the latter half of the twentieth-century over art, film, and rap music, but there were also plenty of disputes about the tax code, abortion, and public school curricula. Should the influence of religious institutions or political lobbying groups be lumped into the category of “culture?” What seems to unite all of the episodes recounted by Hartman are politics. The book shows over and over again that Americans made ideological fodder out of most every aspect of their daily lives: from the living room, to the workplace, the principal’s office, church pews, the doctor’s office . . . up to the Supreme Court. So, I am curious, why do we call this “culture” and not “politics?”

As Hartman points out, sociologist James Davidson Hunter coined the phrase in 1991 in his book Culture Wars, declaring that, “Our most fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans are now at odds.” The following year Patrick Buchanan declared that the Republican Party was in a “war for the soul of America.” That speech, observes Hartman, “punctuated a series of angry quarrels . . . [over] . . abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, family values, feminism, homosexuality, intelligence testing, media, multiculturalism, national history standards, pornography, school prayer, sex education, the Western canon.”

So what, then, makes it “culture?” The answer might be: “hullabaloo.” I will explain how I came to that word in a minute, but Hartman shows how more groups of Americans participated in the political landscape that grew ever more fractured over the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the social movements that came to the fore in the sixties. As I read the book, though, I could not help but notice the incredible skill with which Americans on one side learned to diminish, really skewer, the other side. Perhaps, it was in that process that they…made…the “culture” of the “culture wars.” Culture, in other words, came to mean less-than-politics. Hartman asserts that “the issues at stake in the culture wars were real and compelling.” Yet, one almost gets the impression that “culture” came to describe disputes that got in the way of real politics, which a leftist critic might define, by contrast, as the fight for a living wage, universal health care, or campaign finance regulation. As much as I love this book as a documentary of the era’s political history, I would charge that “culture wars,” as a framing device, minimizes both intentions of historical actors and impact of those controversies.

Hartman relates a part of Thomas Franks best-selling What’s the Matter With Kansas?, where Frank talks about the outrage over Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo. “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine,” writes Frank, “the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party.” Anything, in other words, that seems either illegitimate, superficial, or fringy can fit into the category of culture. Frank calls this “hullaballoo.” But conservatives are not the only producers of hullabaloo. Historians, literary scholars, feminists, museum curators—framing disputes of the 1980s and 1990s within the culture wars paradigm makes liberals just as complicit in the production of superficial politics that amount mainly to bickering. It’s just that conservatives would call the work of academic radicals “hullaballoo.” It almost doesn’t matter which side makes the noise—everyone looks like toy soldiers or wrestlers in a mud pit.

Andrew Hartman does not dismiss his political subjects as they do each other. The reason why people need to read this book is that you may already know of the many episodes he recounts, but Hartman furnishes all the details in living color stitched together with tight analytic threads. I would add that this is the best distillation I’ve found on the subject of neoconservatism.

I will conclude by asking if Hartman does not share some of Thomas Franks’ disdain for the “culture wars.” He ends the book on a “pessimistic” note, declaring that the “cultural revolution” was a victory for capitalism and a defeat for the left and right. Liberals lost because the New Deal welfare state disappeared and conservatives lost because “Mammon more than Leviathan—has rendered traditional family values passé.” It is certainly hard to dispute what has been lost by both sides, but I’m not sure that we can pin the influence of capitalism on the success of the “culture wars.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “It is certainly hard to dispute what has been lost by both sides, but I’m not sure that we can pin the influence of capitalism on the success of the ‘culture wars.'”

    I enjoyed the questions raised by this post, but just by way of clarification, wouldn’t we be pinning the success of the culture wars on the influence of capitalism?

  2. I had a similar series of thoughts about Professor Hartman’s book as I was reading it. Though I think I was coming to a similar (identical?) point, I might have looked at it from the other direction. To me, it seems reasonable enough to describe debates about art, music, history and the like as existing in the realm of culture. But people are always having those kinds of arguments. Disputes between continental and analytic philosophers, abstract and realist painters, Red Sox and Yankees fans, or what have you, have long been with us and will not be going away any time soon. But these arguments do not always break out of the relatively narrow communities of discourse in which they typically take place: groups of artists, critics, intellectuals and the like. In the 1980s and 90s, a broader than normal range of people saw themselves as having a stake in what might have heretofore been considered fairly esoteric issues (what students should learn in history class, Allan Bloom’s interpretation of Nietzsche, etc.). I wouldn’t say such interest was unique to the period (the Scopes trial always comes to mind) but it was certainly rare enough that it made the culture wars a phenomenon in need of description, if not explanation. To me, then, the interesting question about the subject of “A War for the Soul of America” was not so much “Why should these heated debates be considered culture?” as much as “Why was the culture of this period so politicized?”

    By “politicized,” I understand something broader than what I understand Professor Nickerson to invoke. “One almost gets the impression,” she writes of Hartman’s book, “that ‘culture’ came to describe disputes that got in the way of real politics, which a leftist critic might define, by contrast, as the fight for a living way [wage?], universal health care, or campaign finance regulation.” I did not share this impression upon reading the book, so was a little confused as to whether Nickerson was criticizing the author for an inadequate view of politics, or the historical actors themselves for not taking culture seriously enough. But the leftist definition of politics she invokes is clearly, at minimum, an alternative she wants us to consider.

    Having done so, I am not wild about this understanding of politics. It strikes me as hardly being a coincidence that leftists would believe that the issues that are most important to them are the ones that define the political space. But that doesn’t make this the right definition, any more than would the claim of a religious conservative that no real politics can fail to address the role of Christ in our lives. I don’t think a proper definition of politics can have any limitation as to subject matter. So I would understand “the political” (in this context) to mean something like, “that which involves the attempt to influence the behavior of the state.” Thus in a democracy any subject, practice, event, policy, etc. that people use to that end is political. In the broadest sense, then, any time one side or another uses a cultural controversy to motivate people to vote a certain way, then that issue is a political one.

    On this understanding, partisans in this period politicized culture, and so culture became political. Yet the culture wars were clearly not about wages and the like. Thus anyone proceeding from the leftist framework that Nickerson mentions will have no choice but to end up at the Thomas Frank position: the culture wars were clearly not about economic issues, so they were nothing but hullabaloo and sideshow. This conclusion flows just like a syllogism in freshman logic. That is why it doesn’t really tell us very much.

    Regardless of whether this leftist understanding of politics is a good one, it does not appear to be the one that Hartman employs in his book. (Again, this might be exactly what Nickerson was saying. If so, I apologize for being repetitive.) The whole thrust of its introduction is to argue that Thomas Frank is wrong in his characterization of the culture wars. Thus Hartman cannot be operating under the leftist understanding of politics that Frank presupposes and Nickerson invokes. “The culture wars,” Hartman explains, “were fought on this terrain where the Left was successful.” (6) If leftists had a defined cultural position, then it cannot be the case that politics, even leftist politics, is strictly focused on economic issues. Thus Hartman’s view must be that cultural issues were “real” political issues. What this boils down to is that I do not share, on my own particular reading of the book, the impression that he demonstrates “disdain” for the culture wars. But I did enjoy reading Nickerson’s provocative criticism, and look forward to Hartman’s response to it.

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