U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Dissent, “Intellectuals and Their America": Long Live the Culture Wars


The Winter 2010 issue of Dissent magazine includes a symposium titled “Intellectuals and Their America.” Although I would like to claim that, in putting this panel together, the Dissent editors were seeking to preempt our efforts—the theme for our third annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference is “Intellectuals and Their Publics”—in fact, the symposium is an attempt to repeat the famous Partisan Review issue from 1952 dedicated to the theme, “Our America and Our Culture.” In some ways the Dissent symposium is similar to its renowned predecessor, although that can hardly be considered praise, since the original is mostly remembered for its conformity to the shibboleths of the Cold War liberal consensus, notwithstanding three renegade voices (C. Wright Mills, Irving Howe, and Norman Mailer).

To be fair, the Dissent symposium is too varied in topics covered—from mass culture, to the academy, to politics, to patriotism—for any one discernable trend to come to the surface. But, if a semi-consensus is to be found, it’s that liberal intellectuals should love their country, minus the blinders often associated with jingoistic patriotism. The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne describes this as a careful balancing act between attachment and alienation. The only participant who explicitly challenges this milquetoast position is The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, who, to her credit, argues that, “as Americans, we need to stop living in a Ken Burns documentary…”

Another theme that binds these otherwise disparate essays together, more as an undercurrent than as a consensus, is the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the legacy of which inspires hostility to intellectual elitism, disengagement, and obfuscation. Dionne, for example, revisits the lesson he’s been dictating since he wrote Why Americans Hate Politics (1992): “While the political right spent the 1980s and 1990s preaching the gospel of privatization and the virtue of pursuing individual satisfactions, many in the progressive academy engaged in their own form of withdrawal. An aesthetic radicalism replaced political radicalism, and a battle over texts and canons displaced the fight over whose interests would be served by government and whose ideas would define mainstream politics.” Both then and now, Dionne is not alone in trumpeting this call. In The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked By Culture Wars (1995), Todd Gitlin famously titled a chapter, “Marching on the English Department While the Right Took the White House,” which Dionne describes as a “devastating metaphor.”

In making the case that the academic left needs to return to more important matters, Dionne seems to be living proof of James Livingston’s recent argument that the culture wars were not between right and left, but between two lefts: the defenders of modernity pitted against the clarions of postmodernity; the older political left versus the newer cultural left. Gitlin, in fact, made the same argument in 1995, as did several others involved in the academic culture wars of the 80s and 90s. This is a very limited view of the culture wars, too specific to the world of academics. It ignores issues that animated conservative activists who outnumbered academic culture warriors several times over. Such issues included, to name just a few, abortion and government funding of controversial artwork, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

This is not to argue that this battle for the soul of the liberal academy is unimportant, or uninteresting. In the historical discipline, such concerns have manifested in compelling fashion. I’m thinking specifically of Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion (1995), which I had the pleasure of re-reading alongside my graduate students earlier this week. Kazin connects an eclectic mix of social movements to a demotic idiom or rhetoric he terms the populist persuasion, from the obvious (The People’s Party and the CIO) to the not-so-obvious (the temperance movement and the New Left) to conservative variants (McCarthyism and George Wallace’s backers). The success of these movements, Kazin argues, ebbed and flowed to the degree that their leaders were able to speak for average Americans, as against a greedy, conspiratorial elite. Other groups failed to coalesce into effective national movements due to their unwillingness or inability to speak to Real Americans, such as the internationalist Wobblies. Although Kazin recognizes that populism as a rhetorical device is elusive and often flawed—for example, rarely have blacks and women been viewed as “the people”—he thinks intellectuals of our time will only succeed in influencing the American public once we learn how to frame our issues along populist lines. This is Kazin’s scholarly answer to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when populist rage was turned against the professors—when intellectuals were commonly denounced as an un-American elite.

Of interest to readers of this blog, Rutgers intellectual historian Jackson Lears also contributed to the Dissent symposium. Sounding like Christopher Lasch or Noam Chomsky, who both wrote about the responsibility of intellectuals relative to the Vietnam War—and explicitly modeling himself after C. Wright Mills, who took Cold War establishment intellectuals such as Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger to task for their “crackpot realism”—Lears is more pointed in his criticism of today’s intellectuals than are the other Dissent panelists. That said, he also relies upon the tired culture wars paradigm to explain the intellectual history of the 80s and 90s, which he terms “disappointing.” (Lears, in this instance, is similar to Tony Judt, who makes the overstated assessment, in his mostly excellent Postwar, that European intellectual life after the postmodern turn was worse than it had been in centuries.) It’s worth quoting Lears at length on this issue of leftist intellectuals, post-1960s:

“What was left of the left intelligentsia retreated into the academy, where the tragedy of 1960s cultural politics was replayed as farce. Partly this involved the dominance of identity politics. Its sources were compelling and wholly understandable—the desires of women and minorities to vindicate and explore a separate sense of self, independent of the hegemonic standards established by white males. But one unintended quest for alternative identities was that it created a new kind of fragmented, interest-group politics, unmoored from any larger vision of the good society. Cut off from engagement with actual policy debates (the province of ‘wonks’), the left intelligentsia retreated into academic politics—micromanaging curricular reform with ferocious intensity, debating the finer points of ‘cultural theory’ with scholastic precision.”

This argument, although conventional wisdom, has its merits: none of us should be comfortable with the academy, and we should be leery of the effects of academic institutionalization relative to our political positioning as intellectuals. The problem, however, is that there are severe limits to such an evaluation when extrapolated to account for the entire intellectual history of the 80s and 90s. Lears is critical of postmodernism, or more specifically, a variant of Foucauldian theorizing fashionable in the 80s and 90s, conceived as a “Nietzchean individualism [that] celebrated myriad sites of resistance to repressive authority rather than any larger notion of commonweal.” For Lears, this mode of thought “constituted a mirror image of free-market individualism” or even “a kind-of left-wing Reaganism.” Agreed. But this hardly covers the intellectual history of our recent era.

Slashing, philosophical, mostly Marxist critiques of postmodernism appeared almost upon its arrival. Most famously, I’m thinking of Fredric Jameson’s New Left Review article, later expanded as a book, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (1984), where in naming postmodernism rather than celebrating it, Jameson critiques its inability to be critical of capitalism. I’m also thinking of David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1991). Harvey is scathing in his critique of postmodernism for having foregone meta-narratives in favor of fragmentation, ephemerality, instantaneity, and volatility, and attention to surfaces. In this sense, Harvey’s Marxist—and thus structuralist—treatment of postmodernism “is outrageous by postmodernism’s own standards.” More recently, Perry Anderson, in The Origins of Postmodernity (1998), grounds postmodernism squarely in the epochal defeat of the left. And Nancy Fraser has long been critical of what might be considered a postmodern feminism. Very recently, she reiterated a point that she’s been developing for well over a decade: “The cultural changes jump-started by the second wave [feminism], salutary in themselves, have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society.” All of these authors have gravitated to the New Left Review, which is one of the few international venues that has sought to reconcile Marxism to postmodern ways of thinking, if not postmodernism as a whole. This intellectual history is anything but “disappointing.”

That the “tenured radicals” culture wars theme would be so prominent in the Dissent symposium is rendered more curious by the presence of another article in the same issue, by Richard Wolin, that seeks to delineate how the epistemological turmoil of our recent intellectual history played out in the mind of a single individual: Richard Rorty (“Richard Rorty in Retrospect”). Wolin is genuinely curious as to how Rorty struggled to marry his philosophical nihilism to social democratic politics: “He had come to realize that it was impossible to reconcile postmodernism’s glib philosophical anarchism with the social democratic credo he had imbibed as a youth and which, in his sixties, he belatedly sought to reactivate.” Thus, Wolin asks whether Rorty was successful in fusing his belief in social democracy, enunciated in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in the Twentieth Century (1998), with his most famous work of philosophy, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), which evinced an epistemology “steadfastly averse to strong, context-transcendent, normative claims.” Wolin thinks such a reconciliation was a failure. “Ultimately, Rorty’s aversion to principle jibed ominously with the ‘anti-intellectualism in American life’ so astutely diagnosed by the historian Richard Hofstadter.” But, whether Wolin’s verdict is accurate or not, and in relation to my larger point: Rorty’s torment nicely symbolizes how this recent history resembles the more distant epistemological struggles between pragmatists and rationalists, a history best told by Edward Purcell, Jr., in his brilliant yet often ignored Crisis in Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value. Surely Lears would not also argue that this older intellectual history is “disappointing”?

I came of intellectual age in the 1990s, and little of my reading could be described as postmodern in the depoliticized, ironic detachment sense. My favorite authors back then were Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Adolph Reed, Jr., Michael Parenti, the independent socialists who wrote for the Monthly Review, etc. A number of historians in the 80s and 90s worked in this vein, writing about the political and economic matters deemed important to the Dissent panelists. One such panelist, the historian Alice Kessler-Harris, acknowledges as much, writing:

“In the last generation, historians have refocused scholarly debates to suggest the positive as well as the negative value of government for daily life. We have turned our accounts of movements like progressivism or the New Deal to reveal how effective government programs could and did enhance individual liberty rather than constrain it… We have fostered a wide-ranging debate about the economic and social circumstances that have led to military commitments over the centuries…”

So, by this measure, if we take historians to be intellectuals, perhaps we should be less dour in our assessments of recent intellectual history. Of course, good historians don’t always make good pundits. Witness Kessler-Harris, who introduces her essay by describing her disappointment in Obama’s first year, partly because she expected “an end to the war in Afghanistan.” I am at a loss as to why anyone who followed Obama’s campaign would have had such an expectation, other than suspension of disbelief or flat-out naivety.

The Dissent symposium further convinces me that hardly anyone gets the correct coordinates when analyzing recent U.S. intellectual history. James Livingston is wrong to celebrate postmodernism as radical in the same way as pragmatism. (He’s even more wrong in his more recent assessment that the U.S. military is the vanguard of socialism, or a social welfare state of some sort, because its members learn to give up autonomy. But that’s a discussion for another post.) Lears and the Dissent panelists are also wrong, and not only because they ignore those recent left intellectuals who avoided postmodern trends. They are wrong in their volunteerist mode of interpretation. They seem to think the lack of an effective leftist voice in the mainstream national discourse is due to a failure of academic nerve. In other words, as they see it, left-leaning intellectual voices went unheard because they retreated. In reality, left intellectuals were ignored.

The irony here is that Lears explains the rise of right-wing intellectuals by reference to Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Lears nicely sums up this theory: “The problem was not that ordinary people were brainwashed into accepting policies against their interests, but that certain ideas and values were simply not admissible into the charmed circle of ‘responsible opinion.’” This sounds sensible. The leftist intellectuals I referenced earlier (those like Noam Chomsky), who made sustained critiques of U.S. political economy and foreign policy, were ignored as anti-American crackpots—and still are. But Lears goes on to apply this theory differently, arguing that right-wing intellectuals understood Gramsci better than left-wing intellectuals, and thus found ways, usually through the creation of well-heeled think tanks, to insert their voices into the realm of “responsible opinion.” He seems to have turned Gramsci upside down in his volunteerist application.

Further irony: those liberals considered “responsible” opinion-makers, including Dionne (not to mention the Dissent editors), typically ignored those like Chomsky—those who flanked them to their left. In this light, their complaints ring hollow. On the bright side, with all of this hand-wringing over the intellectual history of the culture wars, the time is right for a book on the topic.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A very smart assessment of the Dissent forum.

    What immediately struck me when I read it was the age of the participants. Michael Tomasky is the only one under 50 (and he’s 49). Katrina vanden Heuvel is 50. Dionne and Leon Wieseltier are in the their late 60s. Kessler-Harris, Lears, Pollitt, and Martha Nussbaum are in their 60s. No wonder they seem stuck in the ’80s!

    Also (at the risk of recapitulating the dreaded identity politics of bygone days) some African American, Latino, and/or Asian-American voices might have profitably been included, too.

    Then again, this is Dissent 😉

  2. Thanks, Ben. The generational point is an excellent one relative to the implicit focus on the culture wars. Two points I’d like to quickly make. 1) Those who read the entire symposium and my post will recognize that I don’t cover anywhere near everything discussed in the symposium. I focused on the culture wars theme, because I am more sensitive to it than most, for obvious reasons. 2) I enjoyed the Jackson Lears piece the most, despite my focus on critiquing it. One is probably related to the other. I found Lears more interesting and provocative than the others.

  3. Perhaps it is because I am not a Ph.D., or a member of the academy – I found this entire issue odd in its choice of participants (to say the least; E. J. Dionne?), boring to the point of passe with its choice of thematic questions; and nonsensical and even predictable in the responses, even of those whom I would deem “intellectuals” (many of those on the panel I would not so deem, which returns us to the first point).

    Maybe I need to read it again, but I found it to be, with only a few exceptions, a bunch of mainstream neo-liberal self-congratulatory hogwash on questions (as posed by the editors) as unclear as they were irrelevant. There wasn’t a single reflection on the current state of cultural politics, or even the state of cultural politics of the past ten years. Fighting stupid battles from 20 years ago, and assigning blame and who won and who lost has little to do with our current state.

    Perhaps I was mistaken but I thought the symposium was about culture today. All I came away with from this particular issue is that the editors of Dissent had no idea what our current cultural issues were, or who the intellectuals best suited to address the topic might be.

  4. Blogger just ate my long, 9-pt comment that I just spent 50 minutes writing. …Why I didn’t compose it in Word first is, well, beyond me. Blame it on a morning coffee deficit.

    So I’m going to reproduce only one of my 9 points.

    Andrew: Most middle-class intellectuals do not know the names of Jameson, Harvey, Anderson, and Fraser. Lears blames this on the fact that the public statements of left intellectuals centered on less worthy social issues. But you say that the quality left-leaning thinkers you mentioned were ignored. In the last paragraph you essentially blame the media (which is interesting, of course, in light of the conventional criticism of this group by conservatives). Citing Dionne and Chomsky, you say that run-of-the-mill media, from the 1970s or so going forward, ignored quality criticism from the left. Is it not possible that they same group was simply ~drowned out~ by conservative think-tank media (i.e. Heritage Foundation, Frum types, etc.)? Is it also not possible that left-academics focused on social criticism (rather than economic-political critiques) really did crowd out, per Lears, the more substantial public analysis made by their brethren? If so, that would support the fight-within-the-left thesis. Or is it a scenario where the left would have to blame schooling for not creating a more tolerant polis that truly listens to a wide range of political and economic opinion? Or is it the rise of mass Evangelicalism from the 1970s going forward that accepted conventional economics (e.g. “the poor will always be with you”)?

    – TL

  5. Thanks for the comment Tim. I wish I could have read all nine of your points. There’s no doubt the right-wing media machine was extremely effective from the 1970s onwards, so this certainly has something to di with why leftist thinking was ignored or crowded out in the neoliberal/postmodern age. And it’s also certainly true that cultural radical chic displaced political economic thinking on the left. But my point with regards to Lears, whose work I generally like, is that, as an intellectual historian, he doesn’t need to replicate this erasure by saying the intellectual history of the 80s and 90s is “disappointing.” I think one of the best parts about being an intellectual historian is to shine light on marginalized thought, which helps to explain the constraints of a given era.

  6. 1. Andrew: To your last comment, maybe for the Dissent symposium Lears was taking off his cultural intellectual historian hat and putting on his relatively unused public intellectual hat? I’m just speculating on why he might’ve neglected the less-popular thinkers in his less rigorous recounting of the culture wars. Something tells me he would’ve included the forgotten a more detailed treatment.

    2. One of my lost points from yesterday—to Geoffrey with a nod to Andrew: I think Dionne was included as a token nod to Catholicism. While Dionne is known as a liberal, he is also known as an active public intellectual in Catholic circles as a writer for Commonweal. I value his citation of Gitlin’s “devastating metaphor.” I’m not sure that Dionne’s citation of intra-left disagreements necessitates agreement with Livingston, however. Noting disagreements is not the same as positing a thesis of the culture wars as a series of inherently leftist battles. But maybe I’m missing something by having not read Dionne’s piece. – TL

  7. Tim: You’re probably correct that Lears was offering a polemic more than a historical analysis. Like I said, I enjoyed his contribution, and most of his work generally, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed problematic in the ways I pointed out.

    Dionne is most definitely coming from a different vantage point than Livingston. Dionne’s take on the culture wars, especially the intra-left split, is taken directly from Gitlin, who dislikes the postmodern turn that Livingston celebrates. Just because Livingston, Gitlin, and Dionne all recognize the intra-left split culture wars divide doesn’t mean they line up on the same side of it. Cheers.

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