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.
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?