Are the Culture Wars History?: A Conversation with Andrew Hartman

The following is an interview with Andrew Hartman, author of the new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago, April 2015).  You may also be interested in Hartman's recent talk with The Boston Globe.  Hartman is the founding President of the Society for U. S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) and a regular blogger there.  He is also chair of S-USIH’s upcoming conference in Washington DC in October.

1. You mention in your Acknowledgements that Leo Ribuffo gave you the topic for this book.  Could you say more about how and why it came about?

After one of Professor Ribuffo’s seminars that I took in graduate school, Leo offhandedly suggested that I should write my dissertation on the battles over education during the 1950s. A few years later I had a dissertation, which he directed, and a few years after that I had my first book, Education and the Cold War. Leo seems to have a knack for knowing how to match my interests to the gaps in the literature. So in 2008, just as my first book had come out, Leo once again offhandedly suggested in an email that perhaps my second book should be a history of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. He knew then, and I soon discovered, that no historian had ever written a monograph about the culture wars. And the topic really did match my interests since it allowed me to explore education, politics, and culture—all through the lens of intellectual history.

But Leo suggesting that I write a history of the culture wars was also deeply ironic, because he doesn’t think that historians should take the “culture wars” label seriously. He always prefaces the “so-called culture wars.” He thinks it’s hyperbolic and that Americans have always had shouting matches related to the national identity.

2. You write that “the history of America, for better and worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America” (p. 2).  In seeing the culture wars as struggles over normative American identity, you seem to be hinting at a “long culture wars” argument to be made explicit by Stephen Prothero in his forthcoming book, Why Liberals Win.  Of course, culture is always a contested space, but do you think that broadening the scope of the culture wars (as you and Prothero seem to be doing) risks losing what made the cultural contests of the 1980s and 1980s unique?

Actually I argue that, yes, the struggle over a normative American identity is as old as the nation itself, but that what we call the “culture wars” is specific to the 1980s and 1990s and that what makes that era’s cultural struggles unique is the cultural revolution otherwise known as the “sixties.” You’ll note that my argument, and the entire book, hinges on the sixties as a sui generis decade. So although I can’t judge Prothero's book until I read it, my guess is we’ll differ on this question of change and continuity. I don’t think the cultural conflicts of the 80s and 90s bear that much resemblance to earlier conflicts—and this is because of the sixties, which served to fracture American political culture.

Many American intellectual historians argue that the forces of modernity altered the landscape of American culture well before the sixties. For many, 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.” In short, the fractures associated with the culture wars are old.

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’s antifoundationalist position that “‘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.” 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, an indication that perhaps part of American political culture had fractured well before the sixties.

But as I argue in my book, the sixties universalized fracture. Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly white, middle-class Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” those modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to the lens of suspicion. Put another way, prior to the sixties, many Americans did not yet recognize the hazards of a world freed from tradition. They did not yet realize their sacred cows were being butchered. Many Americans only felt their worlds coming apart once they experienced such chaos as a political force, as a movement of peoples previously excluded from the American mainstream. They only grew wary of “an assault on Western civilization” after the barbarians had crashed the gates. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many, particularly conservatives, recognize the threat to their once great nation. This recognition was the motor force of the culture wars.

3. Speaking to the “uniqueness” question, what about the Cold War?  Your first book looked at American education in light of geopolitical conflict, yet this new work hardly mentions international developments at all.  Where they not a significant part of the culture wars?

The Cold War might not have ended until 1989 or 1991, but the Cold War as the pervasive shaper of American political culture had ended by the early 1960s. So the Vietnam War not only helped destroy the Cold War liberal consensus, it and the movement that arose to stop it ended the power of the Cold War to determine the fate of political culture. So whereas I dramatically concluded my first book—an intellectual history of education up until the early 1960s—by stating that Americans had created an educational system to aid the nation in fighting the Cold War, such international conclusions did not reveal themselves to me during my research into the culture wars. The debates that riveted the nation during the culture wars had very little to do with fears about a foreign enemy.

Ironically it was when the Cold War officially came to an end that the nation’s role in the world became a major culture wars anxiety. I deal with this in Chapter 9—“The Contested American Past”—where I contend that the frenzied national debate over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit was a significant barometer of the confusion regarding the nation’s role in a post-Cold War world. The history wars of the 1990s challenged the legacies of old frontiers—the West, the Cold War—precisely because new, unknown frontiers were on the horizon. When Bob Dole complained about the exhibit’s message—that “the Japanese were painted not as the aggressors but as the victims of World War II”—he was expressing discontent with the lack of agreement over what he considered an exalted national purpose.

4. Were religious issues, institutions, and persons central to the culture wars?  You write that evangelicals “formed the demographic bedrock of the conservative culture wars” (p. 101), but you also suggest that the culture wars began as a “shouting match between the New Left and the neoconservatives” (p. 69).  Were Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell not as important as others have made them out to be?

I’ll repeat what I wrote in an earlier guest post here at the RiAH Blog because it serves as the best way to answer this important question.

5. Are the tools of intellectual history the best way to make sense of the culture wars?  How do you see your work relating to sociological or cultural studies accounts of American disunion?

There is more than one way to skin this cat. Certainly Hunter’s sociological approach or, say, Michael Berube’s cultural studies approach in his excellent book Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994), or the more political historical approach taken by David Courtwright in his excellent No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America (Harvard, 2010) have all added important dimensions to how we conceptualize the culture wars. But ultimately the culture wars are a heated national debate about the idea of America and its relation to ideas about human nature, freedom, tradition, identity, and history. So yes I do think intellectual history is the best method for understanding the culture wars.

6. You conclude that “the logic of the culture wars has been exhausted.  The metaphor has run its course” (p. 285).  Are the culture wars really history?  If so, are you ready to declare a victor?  And, if so, are we heading toward a new period of national unity?

I absolutely do not see national unity anywhere on the horizon. Cultural polarization will remain the order of the day. But our current conflicts have ever so slightly begun to have a different feel to them. I think this is evident in the recent national debate about Indiana’s religious freedom law. The nation’s attitudes about homosexuality have become radically more tolerant. Homophobia is on the wane. A rapidly growing majority of Americans favor the legalization of same-sex unions. The courts have followed suit by upholding the legality of same-sex marriage in state after state. Even a majority of Republicans under the age of 50 now support same-sex marriage. Leaders of Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention have recently admitted defeat in the gay marriage debate.

And yet, I would not rule this an unadulterated victory for the left. The almost singular focus on marriage equality signifies a narrowing of a vision elaborated by gay liberation activists of the sixties, and later by queer theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who radically challenged what they saw as heterosexual norms like marriage. As the cultural historian Lisa Duggan argues, the marriage agenda complements conservative economics. “In the broadest sense,” Duggan writes, “‘marriage promotion’ in welfare policy aims to privatize social services by shifting the costs of support for the ill, young, elderly and dependent away from the social safety net and onto private households.” In other words, more radical or queer notions about kinship rights—which would afford those bound together in complex, often non-nuclear ways with basic legal protections—have been forgotten in the push for gay marriage.

This is what I mean by the conflicts seeming more different. Freedoms and rights have been vastly expanded. In some ways this signifies a victory for the left. But in other ways, in terms of our mutual obligations to the larger society, which have largely eroded, I think this has meant that the right has won. So we’re in a very paradoxical moment, and the history of the culture wars helps make sense of this paradox.


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