Bill Fine’s long response to my post on the Culture Wars deserves a post of its own.
The figure of “culture wars” seems to illustrate what Rodgers calls “an age of… contagions,” when “some words and phrases began to seem more natural than the rest — not similes or approximations but reality itself.”  For me, a problem with his book is that such carefully-hedged statements leave room for a wide variety of understandings of exactly what he’s claiming.
In your project, a central issue seems to be whether the culture wars are your subject matter, and/or your historiographic framework — a metaphor persistently deployed by the historical actors you examine, or the basis for your interpretation, or perhaps explanation, of what went on. These might converge or even be equivalent, but they might be quite different. You say that “the culture wars…are the defining narrative of postmodern America,” but I wonder, whose narrative, theirs or yours?
You imply a difference, without spelling it out, when you limn a process by which culture wars functioned as a way of accommodating or working-through social and cultural change. The difference is almost a paradox: how, after all, while people perceived themselves to be fighting culture wars, were they actually, or ultimately, adapting to social and cultural changes? It’s a distinction between intention or perception, and objective [as you might see it] consequences. You write: “fighting the culture wars allowed people at all points of the cultural spectrum to adjust to the altered moral, racial, and gendered realities.” You’ll have to show how this function operated, as it were, behind the backs of the social actors. I think one of the criticisms of Moreton was that she doesn’t describe the agency that produced the adjustments she describes.
Of course the political interpretations of Dionne, Gitlin and Courtwright that you criticize also depend upon and exploit a distinction between perception and reality, but for them the realities are political and economic interests, with culture reduced to “mere escapades in exuberant irrationalism.” Instead of reading the culture wars as “merely as a tool of the political class,” you want to take them seriously as “something real in their own right.”
Okay, but what sort of reality? It seems that the subject matter is, first, that many people across various issue-spectra were drawn to the metaphor as an organizing framework for thought and action. [And I’m not sure “it” is behind us, since I’m continually running into commentaries on whether the culture wars are over, have started up again, etc.] Whatever the real or perceived differences gave it such resonance, if you follow Lakoff and others, such metaphors have great power to shape thought and action.
The rhetoric of “war” suggests a high degree of organization and mobilization, extreme polarization, a kind of ultimacy of difference and antagonism. Perhaps the Cold War was the occasion, leading to the war against poverty, and later the war on drugs, war against terror, etc. I’ve seen references to wars against illiteracy and obesity. War may be the health of the state, but also perhaps of culture — at least in a milieu pre-saturated with wars and rumors of wars.
The other term in the phrase seems important as well, since the metaphor presumes a prior cultural turn, and of course culture has often been a substitute for race, suggesting essentialized characteristics seen to underlie and account for diverse behaviors, closely linked to identity, i.e., having to do with “who we are.” In this way, culture wars suggests a kind of fundamentalization.
So, the subject might be how differences of people and issues came to be constructed as culture wars, and what that meant in terms of rhetoric and mobilization, how contention was framed. But you might argue that it was “just” a metaphor, one which resonated because it had real, representational bite, because it captured actually existing, deep differences of social position and culture, values, religion, etc. In this case, it might be more challenging to show its accommodative functions.
Some people describe a single culture war, while others see a plurality — and Rodgers describes it in both ways. At one point, describing his view, you suggest “the culture wars were a battle between those who celebrated cultural fracture with those who…sought to piece the national culture back together out of an older stock.” This implies a single, master culture war that recurs across various sites and issues, perhaps a latter day reprise of the old traditionalist vs. modernist divide. Hunter seems to adopt this position, though he makes religion the original site of difference. [On another matter, it seems arbitrary to say that he “altogether ignores intellectual history.”]
Then you ask which “older cultural stock” was most fundamental, noting that Rodgers emphasizes issues raised by the women’s movement, while Szefel stresses changes in gender, and Moreton treats the challenges of reconciling the neo-liberal economy with traditional institutions and values, including the family.
But instead of a single culture war, perhaps there were many, linked by little more than use of the war metaphor. Do you actually find individuals and groups aligned in parallel fashion across the various battle sites, or are the similarities and differences more issue-specific?
I wonder what it means that Rodgers doesn’t seem to make the culture war theme central in his narrative, since he might have presented it as a sort of civil war working toward disaggregation. Perhaps the culture war theme can’t finally be folded into the fracture narrative.
Finally, apropos of the theme that the culture war may be continuing, I think the following letter to the editor of my local paper deserves to be blogified:
Well, there they are. All of the public school teacher’s union leaders bonded together to sound the alarm that the Republican Governor may actually sponsor a program to give parents of school aged children the right to choose the school to which their children might attend. Lordy, lordy we can’t have that. Listen to all the reasons they spout why such a program is horrid. What they don’t tell you are the real reasons they are opposed to school choice. They might lose their ability to pound the theory of evolution into the brains of the kids as if it were fact. The theory of global warming could be exposed as a hoax. Sexual immorality might very well be taught as something to be avoided. Multiculturalism might be examined as an un-American concept. Protection of underperforming teachers would be harder to do. But most importantly, they might not have as much union dues to funnel into the Democrat party. I can see where those union leaders deserve to be alarmed.
These forgoing reasons are supported by the union leadership nationally but I pray are not in the minds of the rank and file public school teachers here in Bedford County.