U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fine Responds to Hartman on the Culture Wars

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.” [11] 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.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I want to thank Bill Fine for his lengthy and challenging comments to my original post, The Culture Wars: Notes Towards a Working Definition. I’m not sure I can respond to each and every point raised by Fine, but I think his intervention helps me to clarify the overall thrust of my argument, or at least, given me a lot to think about as I move forward.

    I take the most important question Fine asks to be as follows: is my argument that the culture wars helped people adjust to social change how the people involved in the culture wars themselves intended their actions, or is this my historical imposition? Fine makes a distinction here between how historical subjects perceived things, and the narrative of the historian. He wonders if I might be making the same mistake Bethany Moreton was criticized for—“that she doesn’t describe the agency that produced the adjustments she describes.”

    I think it’s mostly impossible, and rarely desirable, to separate out historical interpretation from historical subject matter. In short, the argument that the culture wars allowed Americans to adjust to social change is both my narrative and the (often unconscious) narrative of culture warriors themselves.

    But attributing unconscious motivations to people is not my attempt to make a simplistic false consciousness argument in the vein of Thomas Frank. As I already argued in my original post, Frank assumes that politicians who accentuate culture war issues like abortion dupe non-wealthy people into voting Republican. This is a vulgar misreading, especially given that the two parties have failed to offer substantial economic alternatives since the late 1970s, when the Democratic Party, especially Democratic presidents, joined Republicans in prioritizing deregulation, free trade, and tax breaks for corporations. Cont…

  2. Second, and more important to my argument, Frank elides the historical foundations of identity politics, rooted in the increasing importance of consumer culture. (This aspect of Frank’s misunderstanding is a sleight of hand, since in his former life as a cultural historian he deftly shows how countercultural values worked well alongside consumer capitalism—see The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism ). In this context, individuals conceptualized the self with more attention paid to identity. In other words, as people came to think of their place in society in terms of market niches, they also came to understand their political participation in terms of identity. Blacks participated as blacks, or evangelicals as evangelicals, not merely because they shared a common position on this or that specific policy. Rather, they aligned because their very identity, or their very sense of self, seemed dependent on it.

    Borrowing here from David Hollinger’s Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity, I believe that a “political economy of solidarity” structured people’s lives. Hollinger writes: “The ‘identity debates’ of the United States of recent decades have been largely driven by this concern to distribute the energies that make solidarities.” This political economic, and existentialist, understanding of identity helps explain the political intensity of late-twentieth-century postmodern American culture: Americans consumed the culture wars; they enjoyed the culture wars; they were defined by the culture wars. The culture wars went all the way down to the soul.

    In short, at the micro level we need to take historical subjects more seriously when they argue cultural issues mattered to them. But at the macro level, we need to understand the shifting terrain that structured their behavior, agency be damned. Now, the devil will be in the details of my book, as to whether I can prove this thesis to be true or at least plausible.

  3. Well, it looks like my points about identity in the comments to the last post have been aptly considered here (without my prodding).

    I wonder if Slotkin’s *Gunfighter Nation* might help with Bill’s suggestion about tracking the idea/metaphor of war/violence for understanding identity. In other words, as Americans we cannot understand our cultural identity without thinking about it in terms of war and competition. Hmm… And this adds something, maybe, to Ray’s points in the last string (as well as Hollinger’s thesis that we are defined by the culture wars, necessarily).

    Perhaps Rodgers’ preference for fragmentation was an attempt to go back to the older problems with modernity—the fragmentation of self that occurred in modern America at the turn of the twentieth century (necessitating therapeutic culture, popular culture as antidote for weightlessness, etc.).

    Bill’s final letter-to-the-editor goes toward my long culture wars theme (disregard for science, especially).

    Now, to stop reading about Rodgers and move on to the book itself. – TL

  4. A lot of things mentioned in the thread above are covered in Charles Taylors’ “Age of Authenticity” chapter in *A Secular Age*. (Taylor doesn’t mention Trilling in that chapter, but he does mention Trilling in *The Ethics of Authenticity*, published in ’92 in response to Allan Bloom, Christopher Lasch, and others.)

    By the way, I think the “disregard for science” provides some of the best evidence for Tanenhaus’s revanchism thesis. This article from the journal Nature sounds like it could have been written by Tanenhaus:


    Also, Tanenhaus’s 2007 speech to AEI (which I linked to in a previous thread) might have been off target about the GOP’s near-term political fortunes, but it’s quite prescient on the tone GOP politics would take, eerily predicting how the David Frums and David Brooks would be battling the rise of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber.

    An opinion Journalist at the New Yorker, George Packer, restated Tanenhaus’s thesis quite nicely (again, bad near-term predictions aside):



  5. Andrew –

    Perhaps I was implying a claim that you don’t want to make, which involves parallel distinctions — between the two ways of construing your subject, and between historical actors’ intentions and macro historical outcomes. I took it that you had in mind not only what might be [psychologically] adaptive or functional for particular individuals, but what the culture war did for the nation as a whole – since you spoke of “people at all points of the cultural spectrum” – and called it “the defining narrative of postmodern America.”

    It’s seems quite common for historians and others to find that the study of individuals and groups yields conclusions about what, say, America “wanted” or “needed,” as if the nation were an individual with the conscious or unconscious intention to adapt to conflict and change in a way to maintain integrity and continue on to fulfill its destiny. I’ve always found that suspect, though it’s an almost irresistible explanatory shorthand. I’m not saying that conflict can’t be functional for society, only that one would need to show how the culture war[s] actually worked that way, instead of imposing a teleology.

    [It strikes me that exploration of this analogy would be a worthwhile project. You mention Hollinger – see his “National Culture and Communities of Descent,” Reviews in Am Hist, l998, which refers to David Potter. “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” 1962. Even more apropos, Jonathan Arac, “Toward a Critical Genealogy of US Discourse of Identity: Invisible Man after Fifty Years,” boundary 2 2003, refers to Potter’s point in People of Plenty that writing national history required a national subject or character, calling it a “compulsion[s] of the medium.”]

    This may be beside the point, since you are more concerned with the behavior of particular Americans, and use the concept of “the (often unconscious) narrative of the culture warriors themselves” to close the gap between subject matter and interpretation. As stated, this seems like a murky notion, but I’m confident you’ll be able to develop and clarify it. continued …

  6. It seems you’ve already made a good start — and what I find really intriguing is your use of identity as a conceptual handle to address the culture wars, and the connection you draw between identity and the rise of consumer culture. Both are very big ideas, especially the latter.

    You may well be right that the concern with identity “helps explain the political intensity of late-twentieth-century postmodern American culture,” since many defined themselves in the terms of culture wars that “went all the way down to the soul.” I’ve felt for some time that identity and identity discourse are much broader topics than usually recognized, since the bulk of attention has been given to race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and so much discussion driven by debates about “identity politics.” Your points help me to see where you’re going in criticizing the instrumentalized, political approach to the culture wars, which I was alluding to indirectly in suggesting that “culture” is often taken in a deep, identitarian sense. Of course the distinction between interest and symbolic expression, or identity, or recognition, goes way back — and was used to cast aspersion on the “radical right” by Bell, Lipset and others, even though at the same time they were trying to carve a conceptual space for what Hofstadter called “cultural politics.”

    To me the link you draw between identity and the rise of consumer culture is more problematical, but as I said, it’s a fascinating idea. I need to go back to Conquest of Cool and other work to think it through. But one would have to be careful not to re-import an overly manipulative view in shifting from a politics- to a market-centered approach, avoiding the trap, say, of Stuart Ewen’s “captains of consciousness.” In other words, how did people come to define themselves around “market niches “in the first place? My sense, perhaps merely my bias, is that “identity” starts and goes deeper, but I don’t know … Hopefully there will be more discussion.

  7. I found *Conquest of Cool* interesting, but unsatisfying. So Madison Avenue was instrumental in forming the counterculture. But I found myself wanting much more context and interpretation than he gave.

    I think I understand Frank’s project. What he wants to do is tie together the counterculture and neoliberalism, and show that they’re not as far apart as they appear. He’s making an argument to rebel against the faux rebels:


    See also, his WSJ review of Nixonland:


    (A bit of trivia: I think Perlstein was an undergraduate at U of Chicago and wrote a few times for Frank’s Magazine *The Baffler* before starting his career as a historian…)

    The problem with the stress on economic populism, says David Frum, is that it misunderstands the kind of populism people respond to:


    (The previous piece that Frum links to at the top of this post (the “Part 1”) is interesting too. He’s commenting on George Packer’s explanation of why he got his near-term political predictions so wrong…)

  8. Frank *is* making a cultural argument, not completely an economic one. But it always struck me as a complicated sell to a general audience. (And I never thought *Conquest of Cool* was completely successful even with its intended audience…)

  9. Quote from Nixonland, P. 277:

    An intellectually ambitious memo by a new kid, Kevin Phillips, a former aide to the right-wing Bronx congressman Paul Fino, “Middle America and the Emerging Republican Majority,” was circulating among the Nixon strategists. The language was new, but the theory was as old as the crusade against Alger Hiss: elections were won by focusing people’s resentments. The New Deal coalition rose by directing people’s resentment of economic elites, Phillips argued. But the new hated elite, as the likes of Rafferty and Reagan grasped, was cultural — the “toryhood of change,” condescending and self-serving liberals “who make their money out of plans, ideas, communication, social upheaval, happenings, excitement,” at the psychic expense of “the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii.”

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