U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Theorizing The Culture Wars: Jacques Barzun, Politics, And Fostering Intellectual Life In A Democracy

by Tim Lacy

Jacques Barzun predicted the Culture Wars. Well, maybe not. He was both a historian and a product of his times, not a prophet. But there is little doubt that the Culture Wars of his early years, the 1940s and 1950s, bear at least some resemblance to today’s battles over books, religion, the arts, and education.

As such, passages in Barzun’s 1959 book, The House of Intellect, both describe his times and explain something about the causes of political and cultural skirmishes of the last quarter of the twentieth century, as well as first decade of the current one. If we read his book with the last 40 or so years in mind, we see the outlines not only of an explanatory theory for the problems of mixing culture and politics, but maybe also some potential solutions. With Barzun in mind, this essay both thinks historically and philosophizes about the present. He will help me demonstrate the usefulness of U.S. intellectual history today.

House of Intellect begins by outlining three primary enemies of the intellect, at least as Barzun saw them in the late 1950s. They were Art, Science, and Philanthropy. These separate but inter-related combatants work against the intellect by: demanding exclusive allegiance (art), garnering intellectual prestige and fearing the so-called regressive effects of the humanities (science), as well as fostering a demeaned equality and psychology of help (philanthropy).[1] Barzun provides much more, of course. For instance, he dedicates an entire chapter (seven) to the insidious generosity of philanthropy.

Barzun defines the “intellect” as neither raw intelligence nor the accumulation of credentials. Rather it is a love for “order, logic, clarity, and speed of communication.” The intellect is characterized by a high degree of literacy (not mere reading skill) and a “feeling of mystery and awe” in learning.[2] His notion of the intellect is not about compromise, material interests, public service, or social peace. The intellect might inform things considered practical and pragmatic, but practice and pragmatism will only be hampered if the intellect alone leads the way. Intelligence, cunning, craftiness, and industriousness work well in a democracy, if ordered toward comprise, but not the intellect. …

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4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice piece, Tim! A few questions:

    1) Do the culture wars really still rage? Or have they subsided? I feel echoes of them whenever I see a youtube clip from Fox News, but generally, haven’t the wars of the late 80s/90s subsided? Could you explain more about what you mean by the culture wars now as compared to 15 years ago, or even during the Bush years? Same culture wars? Different ones?

    2) Your comments about Barzan on politics made me think about Obama. Here’s someone who seems to engage with various big ideas and is also politically pragmatic. He seems to be inventing new combinations of ideals and practicalities, and in the process rearranging the political game somewhat, as well as the cultural mood in the country and the world? Like in the press conference last night, where he turned a potentially divisive question about abortion into a brief, powerful rhetoric about respecting disagreements but still searching for common projects across ideologies, such as bringing down the number of unwanted pregnancies. Obama’s presidency is still an unfolding story, but what do you think? A new cultural and political era on the horizon?

    3) I keep seeing students at both undergraduate and graduate levels who would benefit from better ways of moving between specialized knowledge and general, interdisciplinary, applied, or maybe the word is holistic approaches. Like a course in which students work with each other and an instructor to think about how all the specialized courses they are taking bounce off each other. The big picture comprised of all the littler details? Something like that. Just an idea from what I’ve seen.

    4) Now the big, abstract question: what is ideology exactly, in your piece? What I mean to ask is isn’t even Barzan’s idea of the intellect itself an ideology: one which is grounded in various principles about power, public/private distinctions, mid-20th century consensus history, even conservatism? Is there such a thing as not having an ideology, or is the concept of “no ideology” really here a particular sort of liberal ideology of pragmatic, open-minded pluralism (which might indeed be a *better* ideology than others, but certainly not “no” ideology)?

    Thanks again for the essay!


  2. Michael: Thanks for the extended comment. Here are some more immediate thoughts and reactions to your points:

    #1) I do think that the flames of the Culture Wars still burn, even if they’re not exactly raging. And it may be the case that President Obama becomes the first of a line of presidents to change the terms of those battles, or at least end the current the paradigm. Culture Wars might be an ongoing thing, with intermittent periods of peace or ceasefire. Presently I do think that culture and social policy warriors are battling under the same terms, and over the same topics, as in the late 1980s: abortion being the headliner, followed by gay lifestyle tussles, sex education, multiculturalism, vague debates over the size of government, pop culture “improprieties,” attention to affairs in Africa, etc. Some of the arts skirmishes (i.e. rap music lyrics, canon debates, film interpretations of sacred topics, art exhibits, museum exhibits) have lessened. I guess we could legitimately debate whether the Culture Wars have morphed into some kind of Social/Political Wars, but in common parlance today, both styles are often generally lumped together.

    #2) I agree that Obama’s election has changed things somewhat. The war terrain has shifted—so much so that the culture warrior wings of ~both~ parties have trouble adjusting, but particularly with Republicans here in early 2009. Both parties are trying to find, and hold onto, that ever-precarious and mythical vital center along the treacherous mountainous path. Obama’s pragmatic aims and (Quixotic?) quest for the center are moderating the cultural war-time rhetoric. He’s forcing the opposition to change things. And Obama’s rhetorical moderation is, I think, a desire of the electorate also. There seems a mood out that there that these squabbles have taken our eyes off of some larger, necessary, foundational goals. Dare I forward that citizens are now concerned again about making enlightened Progress, even if we’re skeptical about all of the outcomes of our efforts?

    #3) I do believe that undergrads and grads need either informal or formal—but still assisted—means of reconciling and applying knowledge. This might come through a core curriculum, but it could also be given through yearly seminars or projects that provide a wide degree of intellectual latitude. I believe this is why the champions of the great books idea stuck to their enthusiasm for so long. The great books, as implemented in college curricula, often helped provide synthesis, or at least a larger strand to follow while one necessarily aimed his or her degree toward a specialty. The great books provided a sense of the “liberal arts”—at once useless but also practical in that they helped one to intellectually unify his or her learning. Rather than rehash great books type solutions (no matter their merits), in this essay I proposed a practical-oriented curricular addition (or substitution) that forces students to see the consequences of political debates at the ground-level. This could come by volunteering or paid employment, but it should also be accompanied by some contact with political history. My dream is that this would moderate Culture Wars rhetoric. For it is true, I believe, that the Culture Wars must necessarily have a political component. Cultural warriors follow ideologies that often wreck political processes, or at best cause unacceptable delays to solving problems.

    #4) I think politics are the difference. Ideologues hold onto a few problems (cultural, social, etc.) with attendant “solutions” (based on assumptions agreeable to a minority of the electorate) and seek to impose their vision on the majority (i.e. others). Barzun, on the other hand, has a vision of the intellect (not a more particular cultural or social problem) and poses that some degree of the ancient virtues (temperance, wisdom) in relation to the intellect might help us avoid ideological pitfalls. In addition, Barzun is against ~anti-intellectualism~ rather than being opposed to any one position held by potential anti-intellectuals. If anything, Barzun might at times confuse being an intellectual with being virtuous. Of course he would reply that anyone not virtuous is more often than not being less than an intellectual. Barzun is a kind of anti-modernist in that he abhors the unmooring of the intellect from virtues that he sees as more established than the overly detailed “prudence” of the Victorian English-speaking cultural world. In sum, I guess you could say that I believe there exist intellectual positions that transcend ideology. Ideology to me, and I think Barzun would agree, is about false limits on reason, appeals to emotion, destruction of the person, and letting the ends justify the means. Ideology is also about the process as much as the end point or one’s solutions to various cultural/social problems.

    Leo: Thanks for the reference.

    – TL

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