Dear Readers: Attempts to put the 2008 presidential campaign in the context of U.S. intellectual history are, if nothing else, a good test of the relevance of our sub-discipline. We have had numerous such discussions at this site lately, especially relating Obama and Niebuhr. Using a short piece by historian Leo P. Ribuffo on Obama’s race speech, we asked why Niebuhr has become more relevant, again.
In a recent e-mail discussion I had with Professor Ribuffo (who, by the way, was my dissertation advisor), he attempted to answer our question. Ribuffo writes:
“Niebuhr is or should be of interest to American intellectual historians because he was an influential religious thinker in what remains the most religious big rich country. Walter LaFeber called Niebuhr in his Cold War phase the most influential American theologian since Jonathan Edwards. OK, that’s hyperbole but he is certainly in the top five or six. He really did influence Jimmy Carter and seems to have influenced Obama (this strikes me as the case in Obama’s major statement on religion, to Sojourners about 2 yrs ago).”
Ribuffo continues: “I agree that the current revival of interest in Niebuhr among some pundits is part of an effort to rehabilitate the ‘vital center.’ But (like Niebuhr himself) you can build just about any sort of politics on his basic ‘Christian realist’ conception of human nature–except maybe a kind of unserious hippie politics of Abbie Hoffman. Niebuhr the Christian realist was in sequence a Marxist Popular Fronter, a social democrat, a New Dealer and pre-WWII interventionist, a more sophisticated than average Cold Warrior, and a (still Cold Warrior) Vietnam War dove. On one level, the problem with figures like Niebuhr, Hofstadter, Bell, etc. is NOT that they tried to move away from the mushy 30s celebration of ‘the people,’ but that they tied this rejection of ‘sentimentality’ (a favorite word) to smug centrist liberalism, Cold War orthodoxy and (in varying degrees) what C. Wright Mills called the ‘new American celebration.’ None of that necessarily followed.”
More recently, in an article for the History News Network titled “What Underlies Obama’s Analysis of the People,” Professor Ribuffo places Obama’s recent comments about “bitter” Americans in a larger intellectual-historical framework, writing, “Obama’s second sentence calls to mind the ways in which ‘consensus’ historians and ‘pluralist’ social theorists fifty years ago interpreted the behavior of angry Americans, especially residents of rural areas and small towns.” Ribuffo does not claim that Obama is elitist or condescending, but rather that his analysis has an intellectual genealogy. I would like to further this line of thinking.
I am very interested in the intellectual-historical framework of the “culture wars,” so -called, which Obama’s “bitter” comments have enjoined, intentionally or not. I pose these questions to the readers. Do you think the economically displaced are more likely to involve themselves in the politics of guns and God, as Obama, Thomas Frank, and the 1950s historians contend, or are upwardly mobile suburbanites our more likely culture warriors, as historian Lisa McGirr has argued in the context of the 1960s Orange County grassroots right? Or some of both?
In a new book on the Christian Right by religious scholars of the Continental-theoretical bent (especially Lacan) titled The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in America (a title and subtitle that display an amazing lack of historical awareness), Slavoj Zizek has an interesting “postface.” He smoothes over some complex history, but his theory is compelling nonetheless. He seems to be returning to the psychological determinism of the consensus theorists, not to ridicule fundamentalists, but to say that they’re the only ones in America resisting the dominant social order–which is a good thing for him, of course.
Here are some snippets:
“The fundamentalist does not believe, a fundamentalist knows; the proper tension and anxiety of an authentic believer are lost there” (223).
A theory of culture war as class war: Zizek argues that if Republicans were to actually impose a fundamentalist cultural order, the economy would falter. “The outcome is thus a debilitating symbiosis: although the ‘ruling class’ disagrees with the populist moral agenda, it tolerates their ‘moral war’ as a means to keep the lower classes in check. The ruling class enables them to articulate their fury without disturbing their economic interests. What this means is that culture war is class war in a displaced mode. So much for those who claim that we live in a postclass society” (223).
“It is clearly not enough to say that the ‘primitive’ lower classes are brainwashed by the ideological apparatuses so that they are not able to identify their true interests. If nothing else, one should recall how, decades ago, the same Kansas which is today the focus of fundamentalist populism was the hotbed of progressive populism in the United States” (223).
“The first thing to recognize here is that it takes two to fight a culture war: culture is also the dominant ideological topic of the ‘enlightened’ liberals, whose politics focus on the fight against sexism, racism, and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance” (224).
“While professing their solidarity with the poor, liberals encode culture war with an opposed-class message. More often than not, their fight for multicultural tolerance and women’s rights marks the counterposition to the alleged intolerance, fundamentalism, and patriarchal sexism of the lower classes’” (224).
Ideological positions are articulated in multiple ways. “For example, feminist struggle can be articulated into a chain with progressive struggle for emancipation, or it can (and certainly does) function as an ideological tool of the upper-middle classes to assert their superiority over the ‘patriarchal and intolerant’ lower classes” (225).
Zizek is arguing that class struggle gets inscribed in other struggles, gets sopped up by other antagonisms. He wants a return to an explicit class struggle, by which it is necessary “to recognize the fundamental difference between feminist, antiracist, antisexist, or other struggle and class struggle. In the first case (struggle over specific issues), the goal is to translate antagonism into mere difference (peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups). The goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite: to aggravate class difference into class antagonism” (225).
“What the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while the antiracist and antisexist struggles are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming, subduing, even annihilating the other” (225-226).
“The paradox here is that the populist fundamentalism retains this logic of antagonism, while the liberal Left follows the logic of recognition of differences, of defusing antagonisms into coexisting differences.” (Now this is an overstatement lacking in historical specificity—it smoothes over the complexities of the grassroots right, such as in McGirr, which shows that many climbing the ladder are part of this grassroots): “In their very form, the conservative-populist grassroots campaigns took over the old Leftist-radical stance of the popular mobilization and struggle against upper-class exploitation.” This is the new ironic meaning of “better dead than red!” (in that Republicans are red staters). (226)
“We should reject the very terms of the culture war.” Zizek implores the radical left to, in the end, see that the fundamentalists, like John Brown, are our allies, even though we should side with liberals on issues like abortion and racism. Fundamentalists have yet to make the proper connections: “In all their anger, they are not radical enough to perceive the link between capitalism and the moral decay they deplore. Recall how Robert Bork’s infamous lament about our ‘slouching towards Gomorrah’ ends up in a deadlock typical of ideology: ‘The entertainment industry is not forcing depravity on an unwilling American public. The demand for decadence is there. That fact does not excuse those who sell such degraded material any more than the demand for crack excuses the crack dealer. But we must be reminded that the fault is in ourselves, in human nature not constrained by external forces” (228).
“What moral conservatives fail to perceive is thus how… in fighting the dissolute liberal permissive culture, they are fighting the necessary ideological consequence of the unbridled capitalist economy that they themselves fully and passionately support” (229).
Zizek is nothing if not infuriating! Your thoughts?