Culture War: What Is It Good For?

By Jacqui ShineAugust 17, 2015

A War for the Soul of America by Andrew Hartman

IN THE PANTHEON of unexpected bestsellers, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind surely warrants a place. “A book that included a seventy-page chapter titled ‘From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede’ was not designed to sell eight hundred thousand copies in its first year,” the historian Andrew Hartman comments in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Yet Bloom’s book — which makes “a rigorous but eccentric case for a classic liberal education rooted in the Western canon” — spent a year on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, with 10 weeks in the number one spot, ultimately selling some 1.2 million copies. Bloom himself became an unlikely cultural avatar, a dour elitist who nonetheless appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and found his book reviewed in Rolling Stone.

Hartman’s explanation is that The Closing of the American Mind was an urtext of the culture wars, an important salvo for Americans “struggling to make sense of the ruptures that had been altering social arrangements since the sixties.” Bloom “believed relativistic thought had spread through American culture like a cancer,” and that American intellectuals had come to embrace “nihilism without the abyss.” Hartman casts the culture wars as a contest over the meaning — indeed, the very possibility — of truth: between a post-sixties moral relativism and an older fundamentalist belief that, as he writes, “the truth is universal, no matter the circumstances.”

A War for the Soul of America, which takes its title from Pat Buchanan’s infamous speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, is Hartman’s detailed accounting of what he calls an extended “shouting match” about America’s identity. The book’s index is a who’s who of the end of the century, uniting Jello Biafra with Judith Butler, Fatal Attraction with Susan Faludi, Phyllis Schlafly with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gloria Steinem with Sister Souljah. In the course of his narrative, Hartman revisits a range of famous and infamous episodes, from the disastrous confirmation hearings of Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork (a Constitutional originalist whom Senate Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, painted as a dinosaur who would roll back civil rights by 50 years), to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s landmark report on AIDS, which shocked and outraged his Republican backers with its candor about the need for comprehensive sex education and a more robust government response to the disease. (An eight-page condensed version was sent to every household in America.) He describes the heyday of the Promise Keepers, the Christian fellowship for men that offered a “gentler antifeminism” than the sort branded by Christian Right warriors like Jerry Falwell, and the Congressional porn rock hearings, in which Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center faced off against Frank Zappa over warning labels on record album covers.

While the recreation of such legendary arguments is the main concern of the book, Hartman has an argument to make himself. Specifically, he is concerned to refute the claim that the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s were merely an ideological sideshow without “real and compelling stakes,” a view he attributes to Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas. “Frank’s argument,” according to Hartman,

goes as follows: religious conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their illogical obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the rich … In this schema, debates about the idea of America are sideshows.

Hartman, on the other hand, seeks to put those debates front and center. The culture wars, he asserts, were the “defining metaphor for the late-twentieth century United States,” as a “more pluralistic, more secular, more feminist America” began to be constructed atop “the ruins of normative America.”

What launched the culture wars, Hartman says — and this is an utterly unsurprising claim — were the liberation movements of the 1960s, which dismantled “normative America,” an “inchoate group of assumptions and aspirations shared by millions of Americans during the postwar years.” He catalogs the political and cultural fractures of the 1960s in a breakneck first chapter, characterizing the decade’s upheavals as “the demise of intellectual authority and traditions.” Relativism, by then a well established intellectual tradition but not yet part of the cultural mainstream, fueled the Left’s ideological shift from colorblind to race-conscious liberalism. Out of the identity movements of feminism, gay liberation, and Black Power emerged a new progressive counterculture, which “revolted against rationalistic explanations of human experience.”

Whether one saw American society as in moral decline or as newly open in the wake of these seismic shifts was “often a correlative of whether one was liberal or conservative.” The culture wars, by extension, followed this political pattern. Accordingly, the first third of Hartman’s book is heavily weighted toward probing the origins of neoconservatism, "the New Left’s chief ideological opponent.” Hartman’s neoconservatives — Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz — were alienated liberals who began to abandon the Left in the mid-1960s in the wake of its harsh response to Daniel Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Known more familiarly as the “Moynihan Report,” the 1965 paper argued that “blacks lacked the cultural conditioning necessary to compete with whites,” in part because, Moynihan wrote, “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” When left-leaning critics blasted the report as racist pathologizing, Moynihan responded by arguing that it had become “necessary to seek out and make much more effective alliances with political conservatives.” (Among the gems Hartman uncovers is the fact that William Ryan coined the phrase “blaming the victim” in his blistering critique of the Moynihan Report.)

George McGovern’s nomination in the 1972 Democratic primary was another watershed moment. McGovern had headed “the reform commission that overhauled the demographic composition of the Democratic Party delegation,” creating a New Left coalition that forced out, and angered, longtime party loyalists. The resulting party platform proposed an immediate end to the war in Vietnam and jobs for every American. In response, Kristol, Himmelfarb, and 44 other “incipient neoconservatives” placed a full-page ad in the New York Times endorsing Richard Nixon. Valuing religious institutions as central to the maintenance of “normative America,” the neoconservatives began to make common cause with evangelical Christians engaged in efforts to push back against secular relativism and the decline of White Protestant moral authority, which had been eroded through, among other things, court decisions on school prayer.

The book’s middle third takes on identity and cultural politics, with dense chapters devoted to race, feminism, and gender. Though the allegiances of the culture wars tend to fall along predictable political lines, Hartman gives special attention to surprising moments of reversal and repetition. He notes, for example, that colorblind conservatism actually marks something of a reversion to an earlier colorblind liberalism, rather than the invention of a new ideological stance from whole cloth. After 1965, Hartman argues, a “reconstructed racial liberalism favored a proactive government that would guarantee black Americans not only ‘equality as a right and a theory’ but also, as the nation’s leading liberal Lyndon Johnson famously put it, ‘equality as a fact and a result.’” The fruit of this strategy was the rise of affirmative action, and “the line that divided opponents in the affirmative action debate … was the line between an older colorblind racial liberalism and a newer color-conscious racial liberalism that had incorporated elements of Black Power into its theoretical framework.” Thus, when conservatives took up the rhetoric of colorblindness to oppose racial quotas, they were repurposing an earlier liberal position. Hartman likewise stresses the peculiar politics of the national debate over pornography, in which “the logic of anti-porn feminism influenced the Christian Right,” and William Buckley Jr. found himself agreeing with Andrea Dworkin that pornography should be banned, though not about why.

In Hartman’s analysis, the U.S. education system — primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities — was the major venue for the battles of the culture wars. The action of the last third of the book describes the contested expansion of multiculturalism across curricula at all levels of education, battles over literary deconstruction, postmodernism, and cultural literacy, and struggles over the objects and events that Americans have imbued with patriotic meaning.


Little about this narrative will be surprising to any reasonably astute observer of postwar U.S. politics and culture. As with Hartman’s first book, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, A War for the Soul of America relies on a well-developed corpus of secondary literature, which calls into question his grand assertion, in the conclusion, that “this book gives the culture wars a history.” This is not to demean the book’s contribution to that literature; Hartman has done important work in assembling the genealogy of the culture wars. In some ways this book seems intended to challenge a series of ahistorical shibboleths and collective memory lapses, both about the seriousness of the struggles over culture and about the details of how they played out. Such correctives are much needed.

Ultimately, Hartman thinks, the culture wars were a necessary part of a process of acculturation to tremendous transformations in American life; that, in his phrase, “the nation struggled over cultural change in order to adjust to it.” Rejecting changing mores and ideologies was “also the first step to resignation, if not outright acceptance.” But Hartman doesn’t quite declare a clear victory for the Left; at best, the one he declares is Pyrrhic. “The ethos of the sixties liberation movements has merged with new constraints,” he says:

American culture — American capitalism — discovered a new dynamism by incorporating the oppositional themes of the New Left … Antiauthoritarian individualism, so important to shaking up normative America, has become a commodity, no more, no less. Such are the cultural contradictions of liberation.

But in his haste to make this point — which is hard to disagree with — Hartman also makes the somewhat surprising claim that the culture wars have ended, and that “identity politics had their place in an earlier historical moment.” I can see his point: it’s true that a whole host of “racist, sexist, homophobic, and conservative religious [cultural norms] have been dismantled in favor of a “more tolerant society.” He concedes that “many” culture warriors are “still waving the bloody flag” (one wonders if it’s a Confederate flag), but these skirmishes “feel less poignant and more farcical.” Hartman points to the 2009 incident in which Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested by a Cambridge police officer for breaking into his own house as an example: “The national media was momentarily abuzz with a controversy reminiscent of earlier culture conflicts that pitted an elite ‘new class’ cosmopolitanism against a white working-class provincialism,” he concedes, but “the hullabaloo seemed absurd” in the larger context of the 2008 financial crisis, which widened racial income disparities after “black households lost twice as much median income as white households.”

I’m not sure why Hartman suddenly argues, at the conclusion of a book that does not go out of its way to analyze the culture wars of the 1980s in the context of that decade’s recession, that economics are more important than culture. Nor am I entirely sure I’d call a national discussion about racial profiling a “hullabaloo,” especially in light of the recent rash of police killings of unarmed African Americans. That the nation has become, as a whole, more tolerant does not necessarily imply that this tolerance is uncontested. The Confederate flag no longer flies in front of the South Carolina statehouse, but a debate over that flag’s meaning only came about in the wake of the mass murder of nine African Americans by a white supremacist who proudly embraced it. Earlier this year, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, but LGBT people are still not protected against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation in most of those states. Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 banned gender discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance, but the law is now at the center of a nationwide controversy about sexual assault on college campuses.

The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. Hartman's culture wars were fought in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, cable news shows, and in the halls of Congress: all venues with some degree of gatekeeping. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints. Whether the internet is simply a new, more broadly accessible forum for old debates about the meaning of America, or whether it is facilitating a new kind of culture war altogether, is not entirely clear. Nor are online spaces any less susceptible to the imperatives of capitalism than any other part of American culture. But if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.


Jacqui Shine is a writer and historian. She lives in Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Jacqui Shine is a writer and historian. She lives in Chicago.


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