Book Review

Shadowboxing: Kittelstrom on Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of America[Introduction: This is review number five, from Amy Kittelstrom, in our weeklong roundtable on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Kittelstrom is an Associate Professor of History at Sonoma State University. About his time last year Kittelstrom’s well-received book, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition, was published by Penguin Press. The roundtable’s first review came from Bob Hutton, the second was by Vaneesa Cook, the third by Peter Kuryla, and yesterday’s from Michelle Nickerson. Finally, a change! Hartman’s reply will arrive on Tuesday after a surprise, sixth-and-final installment from Christopher Shannon on Monday. Enjoy! – TL]
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Shadowboxing

Andrew Hartman’s history of the so-called culture wars of the late twentieth century admirably represents a wide range of American thinkers from a pivotal period. The reverberations from the rights revolutions and countercultural developments of the circa-1968 seismic blasts were rippling from sea to shining sea, disturbing fixed ideas and alienating children from their parents, voters from their parties, and neighbors from one another. The resulting conversation, conducted in shrill tones and exaggerated rhetoric, helped create the cripplingly polarized political landscape Americans live in today, which makes Hartman’s work important to know and to teach.

Having read no prior review of this vital book, I will assume that my readers understand its basic structure, arguments, and method, and that they are prepared to be patient if I touch on points raised by other critics. When I wrote “so dumb” in the margin sometimes, I was not referring to Hartman himself—nor to his analysis—but to the incredibly ignorant or mendacious statements of the culture warriors from the so-called right quoted in the book, such as Jerry Falwell, Norman Podhoretz, and Phyllis Schlafly, whom Hartman treats with laudable seriousness. He is right to include pundits, gadflies, and anti-intellectuals in his intellectual history of their cultural production, thereby continuing to broaden the field as other intellectual historians such as Daniel Wickberg have practiced and urged for some time. Hartman writes with great clarity, sharp organization, and catholicity—indeed, his tender treatment of historical figures with whom he most certainly disagrees personally is one of the hallmarks of his professionalism and among the most striking features of the book. His evident commitment to objectivity sometimes led him to replicate neoconservative talking points too uncritically for my taste, as I will explain later, but his strong stomach for their rhetoric and his unflinching willingness to represent their opinions will allow future readers, too young to remember the culture wars themselves, to encounter those opinions and develop their own judgments. This is very sound work.

Hartman’s treatment of race deserves special notice. He made an important choice by not only devoting his fourth chapter to “The Color Line” but also paying consistent attention to how controversies over the problem of racism and the place of African Americans in American society affected every other facet of the so-called culture wars. From the fallout of the ‘60s to the status of religion, public schools, higher education, and history itself, Hartman’s research demonstrates that Americans who identified with neoconservatism and the so-called religious right tended toward white supremacy. Hartman does not say this in so many words, but the pathologization of the black underclass, the alleged concern for merit, the association of American blackness with criminality, and many of Hartman’s other findings clearly point to a comprehensive identification of conservative culture warriors with whiteness and a sense of entitlement to racial privilege.

Digesting the centrality of race in the culture wars invites a clarification. One of the words that occurs most frequently in the book is “traditional.” Hartman seems to use it interchangeably with one of his key analytical categories, “normative America,” which he defines as “an inchoate group of assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans during the postwar years” (5). He specifies that such Americans valued the Protestant work ethic, the confinement of sex to heterosexual marriage, strict gender roles, and American exceptionalism. I think race belonged in this section; I also think Hartman should not take such Americans at their word. “Normative Americans,” Hartman writes, “prized hard work, personal responsibility, individual merit, delayed gratification,” and so on. I would say they claimed to prize these things. Hartman says that for “conservative Americans like Nixon and Gingrich, the America they loved was in distress” (6). I would say that the cunning Nixon and philandering Gingrich claimed to care about the moral majority and family values because they were manipulating a public and using the specter of black criminality, among other things, to do it. Hartman says that conservatives “rejected deconstruction as an attack on the very idea of meaning, and therefore on the very idea of America” (239). I would say that they used it as another instrument in their long campaign to brand academics as dangerous to America because they wanted to defund higher education.

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. Indeed, Hartman’s findings make me want to invert the argument of James Livingston that Hartman helpfully cites in his notes. In Livingston’s book, The World Turned Inside Out (2009), which I have not read, “the culture wars were largely an ‘intramural sport on the left’” (328n28). Hartman lent some support to this point of view in his able treatment of divisions among leftist academics. But because the framework and vocabulary of the culture wars in his book are drawn so largely from the architects of the modern Republican party, it appears to me that the drama was another weapon in the hands of the so-called right, just like the concept of right/left itself, and conservative/liberal, religious/secular, and so many of the other potent manufactures of the powerful few commentators who liked Jim Crow America better than a country of uppity blacks, ambitious women, and loud and proud queers.

Recently I was looking through old issues of the Intellectual History Newsletter (1979-2003), the informal predecessor of today’s journal of record for our field, Modern Intellectual History (2004- ). I came upon the syllabus for a summer seminar at the National Humanities Center that Charles Capper co-taught with Robert Ferguson in 1996. It was called “Culture Wars and American Democracy,” and it started with the Puritans. The culture wars of the late twentieth century that Hartman traces have a venerable history in American intellectual life. Whether their arguments have actually been over culture or other matters is debatable, but in a society ostensibly ruled by consensus, such arguments and debates are not crises. They are democracy at work.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have much appreciated the review essays posted this week. This essay in particular teases out the feature of Andrew’s book which is also a bug (at least for me): the imputation of a little too much sincerity to the “generals” of the culture wars. The rhetoric of panic about how deconstruction or Toni Morrison would bring down the very pillars of Western Civilization, for example — the part of the story I examine most closely — was cynical and calculated, frequently subsidized by the Olin foundation and circulated/magnified by right-wing think tanks whose aim was to delegitimize the professoriate and defund the humanities. Jason Stahl’s new book, which I am now reading, provides some crucial background to the organized assault on expertise that has been so crucial to the entree of the right in the so-called “marketplace of ideas.”

    This is not to say that many Americans were not sincerely worried about loss, about fracture, about a retreat from notions of common good, or even commonly-shared criteria of truth or morals. The anxiety among the common people, if you will, was real enough — but this is partly a testament to the success of a well-funded agenda-setting campaign. Even among the liberal elites (e.g., tradionalist university professors), anxieties about what would be lost with the “loss” of the canon (never mind that there was no such thing) were real, and didn’t need the exertions of a Bill Bennett to call them forth. But those anxieties too were often about more than the rhetoric in which they were couched mught lead one to believe.

    Anyway, this, like all the essays this week, is a good review of a good book. I have enjoyed the roundtable immensely, and am looking forward to Andrew’s response.

    • Cynicism is definitely a concept that needs to be taken into account for understanding political culture after the sixties, not only in the US but across the globe. From my very limited understanding of this period, I think the politics of cynicism goes hand in hand with the rhetoric and positions of not only so-called neoconversatives culture, but also the neoliberal turn in the Democratic Party and its mainstream exponents.

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