War! What Is It Good For? As A Metaphor, A Lot

the culture wars are over. or are they?

X-posted from National Memo.

  • Andrew Hartman, A War For the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Blame it on “the Sixties.”

So Andrew Hartman argues at the start of A War For the Soul of America, his thoughtful survey of the so-called culture wars. In the United States during the 1980s and 90s, liberals and conservatives not only clashed over issues of economic inequality or political rights, but also over symbolic representation: whether the federal government should sponsor scandalous avant-garde art or censor obscene popular music; what children should be taught in public schools or whether or not they should be encouraged to pray in the classroom; what the standard American family should look like; whether abortion was moral; how films should portray Jesus; and how to remember American history. These were a few of the controversies that took center stage.

The claim that the Sixties fundamentally shaped the culture wars is not new. Hartman’s position is that, “The Sixties gave birth to a new America, a nation more open to new peoples, new ideas, new norms, and new, if conflicting articulations of America itself.” Many invoked all this Sixties newness, rupture, and transformation during the culture wars themselves. Even the very idea of a domestic war over culture perhaps comes from Lyndon Johnson’s use of the term in his war on poverty programs during that tumultuous decade. More daring is Hartman’s contention that the culture wars are now over. Hartman, an intellectual historian who teaches at Illinois State University and has written previously about education during the Cold War, seeks to distinguish the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s from the divisive atmosphere of America in our own times. (Full disclosure: We are acquaintances and have worked together on projects for the Society of United States Intellectual History). In his view, a break has occurred: the victories of the cultural left in recent years—the election of an African-American to the presidency, the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana, the incursions of women into the workplace—are substantive; so too is the resurgence of struggles between right and left over more material matters such as income inequality.

Yet at a time when the nation is collectively aflutter over figures who change genders or identify across racial classifications, contentions that the culture wars are over will raise eyebrows. Many Americans continue to filter issues of economic justice, police violence, and international affairs through cultural notions of race, gender, and regional identity. So too, symbolic icons such as flags become proxies for much larger disagreements. Perhaps culture matters as much as it did during the 1980s and 90s. Nonetheless, Hartman’s much-needed historicization points to how the culture wars did not end so much as mutate. If the original culture wars are over, we live with what is no doubt a very uneasy truce. It might even be the case that as the United States moves from clear distinctions among culture, economics, and politics to a far more murky interplay between symbolic representation and material, governmental concerns, it is a nation in which a new and even more disturbing war is afoot: not a cultural one, but a new kind of civil war. In the 1980s and 90s, Americans battled over whether it was appropriate for the African-American rap group N.W.A. to sing “F*** tha Police”; today, the concern is whether the police are now literally waging war on African-Americans. In the 1980s and 90s, Americans debated whether sex-ed should be taught in the classroom; these days, it seems like the war is over the very existence of public education at all. A certain kind of culture war may be in the past, but that does not mean peace reigns over the American kingdom. If anything, things have gotten more extreme, more polarized.

Reading Hartman’s book suggests as much because he is more keen on catching the complexities of the culture wars in the 1980s and 90s than emphasizing their cartoonishness. A War for the Soul of America, which takes its title from an overwrought speech by Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention, is itself quite careful and balanced. It does not lampoon sides in the culture wars but rather tracks the twists and turns of alliances that often cut across political and cultural divisions. This makes for a funny kind of war, not the hardening of lines between left and right so much as a period of quite sophisticated debate—and, at times, even strange alliances and intersections.

Forsaking chronological drama for thematic investigation, Hartman delves into the nuances of how anti-pornography feminists teamed up with religious fundamentalists to try to quash businesses that both viewed as smutty and immoral. He examines how liberal university professors fell in line with neoconservative politicians in efforts to preserve traditional liberal arts education against relativism. He documents the ways in which home-school Christian fundamentalists eventually identified themselves as another marginalized identity group right alongside the minorities and women they viewed as ruining public education. And he notices the surprising switches of figures such as Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who started out as a conservative Reagan appointee, but eventually endorsed quite liberal notions of sexual education in response to the AIDS crisis. The more Hartman inspects details below the hyperbolic rhetoric, the more it seems that the culture wars did not consist of two distinct enemies exchanging ideological artillery fire across a clearly drawn line; rather, they become a blurry tale of shifting coalitions and concepts in which politics made for strange bedfellows (especially when it came to matters of the bed).

Historian Daniel Rodgers, chronicling much the same period as Hartman, named this era the “age of fracture.” Rodgers located this social fragmentation in the triumph of the free-market model, whereas Hartman pays more attention to the many cultural events of the 80s and 90s themselves. We learn of Senator Jesse Helms’ outrage over NEA funding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. (Hartman humorously notes that Helms kept a small print of one of Mapplethorpe’s more shocking images in his pocket). Senator Al D’Amato rips up a photograph of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ sculpture in the chambers of Congress. Vice President Dan Quayle critiques the single-mother protagonist of Murphy Brown in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. Tipper Gore tries to place warning labels on popular music recordings with risqué lyrics. Secretary of Education William Bennett and Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney politically maneuver over the reform of educational curriculum. Philosopher Allan Bloom receives surprising publicity for his cantankerous conservatism while cultural critic Camille Paglia gains notoriety for her pagan theories of sexuality. Molefi Kete Asante uses Afrocentrism to repudiate objectivity while Charles Murray advocates for the return of racist Social Darwinism. And the outcry over Martin Scorsese’s earthy, concupiscent Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ generates lots of revenue for a rather mediocre film. 

Just below the surface of these skirmishes, Hartman implies, the Enlightenment idea of the social contract gave way to a far more Hobbesian view of the world. This time, however, culture as well as nature resembled a state of war. Whether one blamed the situation on the market or government, on those in power or those vying for that power, it was every man for himself, even if that man could now become a woman.

The collision of culture with metaphors of war put me in mind of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, a figure who first gained popularity among the Anglo-American New Left of the 1960s and went on to become influential among certain conservative political strategists as well. Gramsci famously distinguished between “wars of maneuver,” or direct conflicts, and “wars of position,” which are efforts to control the social terrain by more subtle symbolic means. The latter is the kind of war that Hartman describes in his book: not a Manichean battle between good and evil but a guerrilla war among a continually evolving plurality of factions. 

To characterize the culture wars in this manner, Hartman almost always goes for the astute qualification over the exaggerated polemic. This makes for a study quite different than, say, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Tom Frank’s best-selling book that bemoaned how conservatives substituted meaningless cultural issues of “family values” for economic realities to dupe white working-class voters into voting against their interests. In Hartman’s history, there are no dupes or suckers who swap cultural Pyrrhic victories for economic misery. Instead, there is the sense that while social norms have fundamentally shifted toward the left, no real victor has emerged from the culture wars. The left continues to squabble over distinctions between culture and economics—one wing substitutes advancements in cultural diversity for the maintenance of a social safety net; the other refuses to recognize the legitimacy of cultural issues at all when it comes to economics or politics. Conservatives (as distinguished from the super-rich) have not fared much better. While once they could command attention with wars on crime, drugs, and finally, terror, now they mount far more feeble outcries over things like a secular “war on Christmas.” This does, as Hartman contends, seem like the dying gasps of breath by the final combatants on the fields of the culture wars.

Which does not mean that the legacies of the culture wars are not still troublingly alive. Turning to our contemporary moment, Hartman wonders about an American culture that has become more tolerant and inclusive yet also, oddly, has developed a much thinner middle ground of commonality. Many Americans place a premium on the ceaseless search for individual self-realization, but they done so at the expense of forging a sense of national belonging. They demand the right to be culturally free, but many are wary of the obligations and commitments necessary to support these freedoms. While there is acceptance of difference in some quarters, the fading of a culture of conformity has also unleashed an intensification of rage and violence by both official and vigilante entities. Meanwhile, the culture wars may be over, but the political gridlock between left and right has not been broken.

At the close of his book, Andrew Hartman asks a poignant question: “Can we have both cultural revolution and social democracy?” He has no immediate answer to the dilemma of whether Americans can have both radical individuality and a shared commitment to economic and social justice. His historical survey does suggest, however, that culture continues to matter to the project of defining what it means to be American. If the culture wars are indeed over, it does not mean that culture is now irrelevant. If anything, the links between symbols and substance, meaning-making and material factors, will become even more intertwined in whatever new wars are on the horizon.

X-posted from The National Memo.

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