U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Intentional Use of Anachronism

Historical thinking is inherently anachronistic, is it not? The past cannot be encroached upon, no matter how much we seek to understand it. And yet, anachronistic is something historians seek to avoid being labeled, so we steer clear of blatant forms of anachronism, such as describing the First Barbary War as part of the Global War on Terror (to use the first ridiculous example that came to mind). So what then is to be done when our very object of study is an obvious anachronism? Here, of course, I refer to the “culture wars,” the topic of the book I am currently researching and writing.

In the primary sources, as far as I can tell, the first use of the term “culture wars” to describe the ideological conflict over the cultural direction of the nation was by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a 1970 classified memorandum he wrote to his boss President Nixon. (This might not even count, since Moynihan used the German equivalent, “kulturkampf.”) A Lexus-Nexus search of all major national publications since 1960 reveals that the term first appeared, in reference to the United States, on November 14, 1987, when Todd Gitlin and Ruth Rosen, in a New York Times op-ed titled, “Give the 60s Generation a Break,” argued, in the context of battles of judicial nominations: “The traditionalist side of the culture war wants our authorities—our politicians and judges—either squeaky clean or impeccably discreet, either saints or good liars.”

Still, even after that, the phrase did not get much use. A February 22, 1988 opinion piece on abortion in the Financial Post (Toronto, Canada) by Conrad Black referred to the “Manichaean culture war between promoters of life and advocates of choice,” the first mainstream use of the term in the context of debates over abortion. But that was the only such use of the term that year and there was absolutely nothing in reference to the culture wars in 1989. On July 15, 1990, E. J. Dionne wrote an essay in the Washington Post titled “Who’s Winning the Culture Wars? Censorship: Redrawing the Lines of Tolerance.” Dionne argued that, despite the alarm over censorship, the liberals were winning the culture wars. He wrote: “But all the anxiety about censorship, say close students of the culture wars, obscures what is a more powerful reality: In our nation’s cultural life, the modern, the cosmopolitan and, yes, the tolerant have won. What strikes many historians, sociologists, theologians and legal scholars is not that Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and 2 Live Crew‘s music provoked such outrage—they were designed to do just that—but that they won so many influential defenders.” Dionne cites James Davison Hunter as the foremost expert on the culture wars. His 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, which remains, two decades later, the authority on the topic, made the term household.

The recent growth in the use of the term is reflected in this Google N-Gram.

In short, for me to employ the term “culture wars” to describe anything that happened prior to the late 1980s or early 1990s is to intentionally resort to an obvious anachronism. I honestly feel no compunction allowing the label to define this project, since the two words, strung together, have become a national signpost. Is this in any way problematic?

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting post. I totally agree with your last paragraph and find nothing problematic at all about restricting the use of the term exactly as you do.

    But who would find your restriction problematic? That’s not a rhetorical question, but rather an inquiry into actual usage. I certainly have seen people (though not historians) use the term “culture wars” to describe older phenomenon (for example, the blogger Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon). But I’m wondering about the history of these less historically specific usages.

    When the term appeared in the late 1980s, Andrew, was it only applied to contemporary conflicts?

    I’m reminded a bit of the arguments of “totalitarianism” in the 1930s and 1940s. Everyone knew that it was a new term; most felt that it designated a new phenomenon. But some insisted that it could properly be applied to, e.g., the Incan Empire or the kallipolis of Plato’s Republic.

    I’d also love to hear what you’ve found about its migration from the German. The original Kulturkampf was a series of anti-Catholic policies pursued by Bismarck’s government. State actions were much more peripheral to the US “culture wars.” What was Moynihan referring to in his memo?

  2. Thanks for the comments and questions, Ben. To be honest, I’m not really defensive about writing a book on the culture wars dating back to the 1960s, even though the term didn’t come into common usage until the 1990s. I just thought it made for a somewhat interesting post. But yes, as far as I can tell, when the term first appeared in the late 1980s, it was only used in a contemporary context, not to describe past conflicts. But eventually, once the “culture wars” gained traction and became a commonplace reference, it began to be used to describe things like the Scopes Trial and the cosmopolitan-provincial divide of the 1920s. I’ve even seen it used to describe 19th century anti-Catholicism.

    I don’t think the migration of the German Kulturkampf to the U.S. English culture wars was conscious. Moynihan’s usage anticipates the later American use of the term (and also demonstrates the beginnings of the neoconservative adaptation of “new class” thought). He was probably demonstrating his intellectual chops for Nixon. Here’s the full quote:

    “No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.”

  3. I think proper use of anachronism has a lot to do with how accurate the term is. For instance, it can be short hand to describe any resistance on the part of African Americans as fighting for “civil rights,” whereas in fact that only refers to a small handful of very definite demands for equal legal status. I think this happens more in the classroom than it does in publications, but that is one of the reasons that some authors have begun to use the “African American Freedom Struggle” and other synonyms to describe what happened over decades rather than the “Civil Rights Movement.”

    If “culture wars” fits what’s going on, then you are illuminating rather than being anachronistic. If, however, you are using the term for convenience to describe something that is markedly different in the 60s than in the 90s (I doubt that you are), then there is a problem.

  4. To me, Lauren is right to suggest that “culture war” may be a legitimate anachronism if you are using it to describe something not “markedly different in the 60s than in the 90s.” In this case too you can make an especially strong case, since there are continuities between the two “periods” in the perceptions of historical actors; or, you might adapt Eelco Runia and argue that the past is not in this instance a very foreign country at all, since the 60s have “presence” in our own time. On this, you might take a look at Berber Bevernage, “Time, Presence, and Historical Injustice,” History and Theory 47, 2, 2008.

    You may be part of a process by which “culture war” becomes an analytical term, to a degree de-contextualized and applied in a variety of settings. One thinks of “status anxiety,” “counter-culture,” “identity politics,” and the examples suggested by Ben and Lauren – “totalitarianism” and “civil rights movement.”

    Some of your key players have engaged in such analogizing, comparativizing or genericizing. For instance, E.J.Dionne remarked in The Atlantic, Jan-Feb 2006, that “there always has been and always will be” culture war in the United States. And in Culture Wars, James Davison Hunter, who you say was and remains the leading authority on the topic, argued that the culture war “evolved out of century-old religious tensions — through the expansion and the realignment of American religious pluralism.” [67]

    I would guess Moynihan used “Kulturkampf” because it named an important episode in German history widely known about in this country, but doesn’t the term literally mean “cultural struggle,” perhaps comparable to Huntington’s “clash of civilizations?” Culture war is more literally “Kulturkrieg.”
    D.A. Boxwell, in “Kulturkampf, Now and Then,” WLA 12, 1, Spring/Summer 2000, distinguishes the kampf and the krieg by contrasting, among others, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Pat Buchanan. Buchanan for him was most responsible for “ratcheting up the rhetoric to invoke kulturkrieg.” His “magnetic demagoguery articulated for the right a more aggressive and combative rhetoric that transferred the suppressed violence inherent in the Cold War…to the domestic realm of cultural production.” By about 1990, “the metaphorization of perennial cultural conflict as all-out war, became entrenched in the American imagination.” (125, 127)

  5. Forgot to include – In a quick search, I ran across American Heritage Dictionary definition of Kulturkampf – the first meaning listed refers to the specific “struggle” in Germany, while the second defines it as “a conflict between secular and religious authorities” and then quotes a sentence from Hofstadter: “The 1920s proved to be the focal decade in the Kulturkampf of American Protestantism.” [it can be found in Anti-Intellectualism, 123] It wouldn’t be surprising if Moynihan – and maybe Buchanan too! – had read the eminent historian.

  6. Anachronism is what you get when non-historians decide that that anyone write about the past, and then try to put their delusions into practice. To wit: Ancients against Moderns, by Joan DeJean.

    DeJean applies the concept of “culture wars” to France at the turn of the eighteenth century and in so doing produces a (late) textbook example of the kind of mind-numbing rot one expected from literature departments in the ’80s and ’90s; and, sadly, those of their colleagues in other humanities departments who were incapable of resisting their meretricious charms.

    I’ve mentioned the book to you before, Andrew. You will have to check it out at some point, if only for thirty minutes or so to get a handle on how DeJean uses the concept of “culture wars,” which will be the only thing in the book of interest to you. I reckon you’re not going to care much about the Querelle des anciens et des modernes.

  7. I found your post to be very interesting and to be honest, I probably spent more time reflecting on the word “anachronism” itself than I did writing this post. I am sure you are aware of the etymology of the word, from the Greek word ana meaning against and khronos meaning time. Having grown up during the era of the culture wars, I began to think about my own personal experiences and what I remembered from them. My own personal conclusion was that the phrase “culture wars” aptly describes the era in question and does not go against the time/years it is intending to describe. Having not performed any significant research into the primary sources of the era, my personal experiences were all I had to fall back on. What evidence I do have comes from the little research I have done into the music of the 1980s, particularly punk rock and hip hop, two movements I both witnessed and experienced during that decade. The rhetoric and message of groups such as Bad Religion and Public Enemy are clear depictions, in my modest opinion, of a significant shift in the cultural values expressed by musicians and artists from the lesser abrasive music of the 1970s and early 1980s. A question I have is to what extent do you think music and other forms of popular culture might have helped either ignite or fan the flames of the culture wars, especially in the 1980s. What about the conflict surrounding the P.M.R.C.? (My apologies for the digression away from the original conversation over anachronism.)

  8. I appreciate all the smart comments. I especially like Bill’s reading suggestions and the distinction between “kampf” and “krieg,” though as overstated and hyperbolic as Pat Buchanan is, I think it’s a mistake to think his rhetoric is in fact a ratcheting up of the stakes. I’ve always maintained that culture wars is a bit of a misnomer, an unnecessary militarization of language–even though I use the term. Writing an entire book that reckons to be 350 pages on on a topic that I would surround in ironic scare quotes would be strange to say the least. In this sense, kulutrkampf is more accurate.

    Varad: Yes, I remember you suggesting the DeJean book to me some time back. It’s on my list but I’ve yet to get to it. I agree that, by the sounds of it, that would be an anachronistic application of the term way beyond where I’m willing to go.

    Robert: I definitely agree with you that some forms of popular music represented a shift in cultural consciousness every bit as much as, say, the historical discipline’s turn to social and cultural history. And that is precisely why music gets caught up in the culture wars. The PMRC debates play a role here, as do the censorship cases surrounding 2LiveCrew. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was important to helping explain the politics of the canon, went so far as to notoriously defend the blatant misogyny of 2LiveCrew as an authentic black representation. So music was part and parcel of the culture wars, sometimes enflaming them, other times betting brought into them.

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