U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Divided We Stand

What is the point of remembering the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? I don’t ask that question rhetorically. Is to remind us that we live in a state of insecurity? Is it to remember those who perished on that day? Or is it to inspire a unity among Americans?

Just as his predecessor George W. Bush repeatedly did, Barack Obama has consistently referred to the national unity that existed following the attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden. On the night that bin Laden was killed, the president concluded his brief statement asking Americans to “think back to the unity that prevailed on 9/11.” The tracking down and killing of the world’s most notorious terrorist came as a result, the president suggested, of “American determination”–not Republican or Democrat or Northern or Western determination but American. Obama has desperately wanted to appeal to a sense of the American, to declare without irony or cynicism that the United States is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

As sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote in 1988, that phrase captures a division within America rather than the unity of the nation. Wuthnow suggested that a conservative civil religion sees a nation under God, while a liberal civil religion propounds a nation that promotes liberty and justice for all. The point is, the nation stands divided; even though both sides appeal to the same Constitution, and “pray” to the same national god, the prayers of both will never be answered.

For Obama, that fact appears to be endlessly frustrating. In his inaugural address he made a forceful demand: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture,” Obama declared, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” In short, let’s move beyond the culture wars.

Bush offered a similar appeal in his first inaugural: “Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country.” On that day, Bush pledged to “work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity” and appealed to Americans to find unity of purpose in “ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens.” Like Obama, it was September 11 that provided the touchstone for national unity. In his first major address to Congress following the attacks, Bush delivered many statements to rousing applause, but among the most well-received was when he declared: “as we act to win the war, protect the people, and create jobs in America, we must act first and foremost, not as Republicans, not as Democrats but as Americans.”

Of course, both presidents pine for national unity. And it is not surprising that both look almost wistfully at 9/11 as a moment that seemed to place selflessness above selfishness. But 9/11 unity, as Ben suggested in his recent post, is contested (to say the least). What I find interesting is the way these two presidents view 9/11 as point that separated an era defined by the culture wars from an era that would be defined by a unity that rose above them. And the projects of David Sehat and Andrew Hartman, two USIH colleagues, are quite relevant here. David’s book made me consider that for Bush, 9/11 was suppose to bring an end to a dispute over the moral authority governing the nation and make possible a evangelical Protestant order that rhetorically placed America under the judgment of a God whom only Bush and his supporters understood. Andrew’s work helped me understand that for Obama, 9/11 was suppose to make it possible for the nation to take stock of the progress made during the culture wars but then move beyond them to an understanding of America that no longer needed to fight (or re-fight) battles of race, class, gender, and faith.

That neither president has had his hopes realized is clear. I wonder, though, how we then see 9/11 amidst the culture wars. And whether, despite Obama’s statements, we are a better nation divided for then at least we know where we stand.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    Excellent post, really thought provoking. I wish it was up before my class just met. I am teaching a course on the evolution of freedom in America and we could have spent the entire 90mins. on this post.

    Perhaps you could take my teaching schedule into consideration in the future, you’d be saving me some prep time.

    I just got David’s book yesterday and I am looking forward to reading it once I get through exam week.

    I think that Obama’s third front in the culture wars might be building a bit. Judging almost entirely from the reactions I get in class on a campus that was clearly right of center when I started here nine years ago, my students are more and more interested in understanding multiple sides of an issue and being able to point out what works and does not work on either side than they are in holding their own ideological ground. This was not the case even four or five years ago.

    I used to get course evaluations claiming I was trying to indoctrinate people into socialism, or that I was a sell out because I loved Bush so much (these reactions were clearly predicated on the student’s own biases since I was painted as being too extreme in both directions at the same time). Now I get course evaluations that say things like, “this helped me to understand other perspectives.” I don’t think I have changed as much as the students have become less strident. Isn’t this what Obama is hoping for?

    It is too early to talk about being post-culture wars but if the trend continues might we someday point to the Obama years as a time when the culture wars shifted?

  2. Ray,

    Excellent points. False unity is most certainly worse than genuine pluralism or multiculturalism.

    I see 9/11 as a temporary break in the arc of the Culture Wars. A true break from that narrative must come from an internal source rather than an external attack, terrorist or otherwise. Because the populace has not been mass mobilized as it was during WWII, or against as in the case of Vietnam, the interruption to the Culture Wars arc has not been maintained.

    Did 9/11 interrupt the longer feeder narrative of disruption caused by globalization? No. Did it interrupt the backlash for moral order that has occurred since the Seventies? No. Has it interrupted the rise and sustenance of the Religious Right? No–in fact that has been fed by the clash-of-cultures sentiment out there. What of the anti-New Deal sentiment? 9/11 did not interrupt that. In fact, fears of terrorism have fed the neocon concern for military strength and security through the military establishment (sucking money away from “transfer payments” and towards military expenditures).

    I am forced to conclude that the arc of the Culture Wars has, overall, been catalyzed or buttressed by 9/11. We are only unified protecting the nation state, ironically, as our corporations continually seek to ignore or break down that state mechanisms to equalize economic prosperity in the name of post-Keynesian free market ideologies (whether anchored in Friedman, von Mises, Rand, Greenspan, or whoever).

    – TL

  3. Ray: I love this post (and not only because you refer to me as someone who’s taught you something!) Imagining the United States in fact united at any time ignores that unity has rarely if ever been achieved. I think you’re right in your larger work on civil religion that times of war offer the closest glimpse of such unity. But, the argument central to the book I’m writing on the culture wars is that pre-sixties America was certainly less divided. However, any such return to a time of more consensus is made implausible by the fact that such consensus was predicated not only on fairly wide agreement on the terms of the Cold War, but also on pre-civil rights and pre-feminism coordinates. In other words, there’s no going back. And this doesn’t even account for the sort of epistemological dissolution or disaggregation (fracture) detailed by Daniel Rodgers. In Casey Blake’s concluding essay to the excellent collection he edited, “The Arts of Democracy” (which I reviewed for USIH here, he convincingly shows that the outpouring of artistic unity in Manhattan after 9-11 was quickly replaced by political and cultural animosity over how to memorialize Ground Zero. So although the terms of the culture wars shift, I don’t think there’s any going back to a pre-culture wars consensus. At least, until some new political or cultural earthquake more powerful even than 9-11 occurs.

  4. How can a president both “pine for national unity” and employ Karl Rove as domestic policy advisor?

  5. JJ: Your question made me laugh out loud–fair enough, you are absolutely right, Rove and unity do not make a political couple. However, for Bush (and perhaps Rove) the point was not to _join_ the nation as much as unify it under one type of moral authority.

    Anonymous: thank you for your generous comment–it was nice to see this during my finals week. At this blog, we’ve turned your point about a post-culture wars America into a minor cottage industry. I’d be interested in which essays, writers, pop culture figures, your students respond to.

    Tim: Look at Susan Sontag’s essay in the NYer immediately after 9/11 and the debate that raged over it. I found her remarks relevant in a way that addresses the culture wars from a writer who, one might argue (as I think David Steigerwald did) began the culture wars in 1962.

    Andrew: Well, you know I am first in line for your book. I look forward to your more extensive engagement with Obama, the thinker, and Obama the political era. I have used the essays you sent me recently for a chapter on the 1990s.

  6. How can American politicians import tens of millions of inassimilable settlers from the third world–as they have done since the 1960s–and at the same time expect the US to remain one country? It’s unsustainable.

    The hullabaloo surrounding the WTC attacks was just the latest event designed to unite the increasingly diverse American populace.

    As the US continues to decline and fall apart, thanks to a misguided (treasonous?) immigration policy and the MultiCult, expect more such events at home and abroad.

    Desperate people, desperate acts.

  7. Laguna Beach Fogey: Relative to total population, immigration numbers since 1965 have been much lower than rates were in the late 19th century and early 20th century. And the “inassimilable” (sic) argument was made just as forcefully then as it is now. But when’s the last time you met a fourth-generation Italian-American who seemed unassimilated?

  8. Andrew,

    Just the point I wanted to make, additionally the vast majority of immigrants want to be here and do within a generation or two become more Americanized (in a variety of ways). I see it all the time with my colleague in the next office who is from China and her teenaged daughter, born there but in every way a typical American teen.

    Not only has our country survived waves of immigrants who have wanted to be here but we have thrived as a nation during times of high immigration. We have even endured the condition of people who have become Americans who did not do so by choice. American Indians, Slaves, and Mexicans whose land was taken during the war in the 1840s were all made Americans by force rather than by choice. While the descendants of these groups have not generally prospered as much as some other immigrant groups, I’d say that much of our strength comes from our diversity.

  9. Present immigration trends are unprecedented both in sheer numbers and in the racial and cultural character of the immigrants.

    You can try to intellectualise it all you want, but the US is being colonised by the third world on a massive, unprecedented scale.

    Throughout history ‘diversity’ has been a cause of conflict, misery, and war.

    The country will not, I expect, survive the experience.

Comments are closed.