U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are the Culture Wars History? Part V

The following guest post, by Leo P. Ribuffo, is the fifth and final entry in our AHA roundtable on culture wars historiography. For an introduction to the roundtable and the first entry, by me (Andrew Hartman), click here. For the second entry, by Adam Laats, go here. For the third, by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, here. And the fourth, by Stephen Prothero, here.  Thanks for reading along!  (Also be sure to read Ribuffo’s essay “The Forebears of Trumpism,” which makes connections between the long culture wars–“so-called”–and contemporary political events.)


Leo P. Ribuffo

The term “culture war” should be buried in a deep, deep hole with nuclear waste alongside Jacksonian democracy, populism, progressivism, isolationism, paranoid style, late capitalism, political correctness, neoliberalism, the other, American exceptionalism, and “and the rise of the right.”  All of these terms have either outlived their usefulness or were worse than useless to begin with.  Since the time “culture war” became trendy via James Davison Hunter and Pat Buchanan I have argued that we should conceptualize instead a series of cultural shouting matches over the centuries to define a normative American way of life. [1] 

My complaint is not just another of those linguistic turns and twists that academics have come to cherish.  Rather, as Michael S. Sherry showed in his great book, In the Shadow of War, the hyperbolic metaphor of war has distorted American understanding of economic crises, international trade, poverty, drug use, medical research, and culture broadly conceived. [2]  Of actual wars, more anon.

Having gotten that off my chest, I will adapt to this forum’s title by referring to culture wars without such prefatory adjectives as “so-called” and “alleged.”  Even so we should recognize that, except for Stephen Prothero and Adam Laats (in one chapter), the authors considered here deal almost entirely with nonviolent ideological shouting matches.  A forum on the recent culture war would look different if it dealt with matters of life and death–abortion, AIDS, and urban order.  Indeed, Pat Buchanan ended his “cultural war” speech at the 1992 Republican convention with a celebration of the police in the Los Angeles riot/uprising earlier that year.  Perhaps these conflicts should be called social “wars.”

For readers who have encountered versions of my remarks two or three or twenty times, I apologize–sort of.  That happens when you sign up a 70 year old.  Since three of the books focus on education, there was a quiz at the AHA session with results reported here.

My former student Andrew Hartman is so nice to me in his acknowledgments that I will merely repeat two suggestions I made about A War for the Soul of America when I read it in draft.  First, he should pay more attention to non-intellectual history.  For instance, his account of the controversy about displaying the Hiroshima bomber, Enola Gay, at the National Air and Space Museum would have benefited from a deeper understanding of the actual World War II.  I belong to a minority of historians that thinks the United States might have–and should have tried–to avoid war with Japan.  But once Japan began hostilities, no end was possible, not even a negotiated peace, without some sort of horrendous attack on the Japanese home islands–which in fact began with air raids five months before Hiroshima.

Second, greater interest in the culture war of the 1920s, especially in its religious aspects, would have made the late-20th century events look less distinctive.  In this respect we can learn much  from Laats’s The Other School Reformers and Prothero’s Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars.  For instance, the 1920s dispute about teaching evolution in the public schools was revived by creationists in the 1970s (albeit with tactical modifications).  More important, old and genuinely hard questions remain relevant, notably those relating to the conflicting rights of parents, students,  tax payers, mobilized minorities, and oblivious majorities.

Hartman, Laats, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela are among the fine historians who have recently restored educational history to the high level it enjoyed during the heyday of Richard Hofstadter, Paul Rudolph, and Lawrence Cremin, scholars who wrote during a previous era of national controversy about schooling.  Laats begins The Other School Reformers with the Scopes trial and essentially ends with the 1970s Kanawha County, West Virginia controversy where cultural and political conservatives denounced textbooks as insufficiently religious, patriotic, and rigorous.   In Classroom Wars Mehlman Petrzela focuses on bilingual and sex education, primarily in California, during the 1960s and 1970s.

Both books are excellent.  Laats and Mehlman Petrzela not only “complicate the narrative,” as the compulsory saying goes, but they also analyze complications that were actually there.  Both know when racial issues were decisive and when not.  Both know a grassroots right when they see one and don’t dismiss it as “astroturf” created by antecedents to the Koch brothers, as Thomas Frank would have us believe.  Nor is a defense of cherished beliefs and ways-of-life derided by cosmopolitans reduced to a “paranoid style” even when it is an aggressive defense.  At the higher brow level, why would we expect philosophical absolutists to like John Dewey?

As Laats and Mehlman Petrzela show, local conservative activists mobilized around concerns affecting everyday life and then dramatically connected them to other local issues and ultimately to national ideological/political movements.  Saul Alinsky and C. Wright Mills would have understood.  And patronage of the conservative side in local shouting matches by the Daughters of the American Revolution and Heritage Foundation would not have surprised John L. Lewis, who used United Mine Workers money and personnel to help autoworkers and steel workers unionize.

Cultural conservatives and cultural liberals appear in these books as plausible human beings.  The Hispanics in Classroom Wars have mixed feelings, change their minds, and disagree among themselves.  Some of the 1930s progressive educators discussed by Adam were so  “shockingly” naive (121) that they didn’t expect many Americans to reject their liberalism or radicalism.  Of insular academics, more anon.

As a remnant of the tiny band that studied conservatism broadly conceived before the topic became cool two decades ago, I particularly like Laats’s close attention to the activists of the 1930s and 1940s.  This now forgotten right taught more lessons to post-World War II era conservatives and far rightists than is usually acknowledged.  These movements cannot be understood simply by invoking the buzz words “Father Coughlin.”

Finally, Laats and Mehlman Petrzela seem properly skeptical of the venerable American belief in the capacity of schooling to mold students’ lives–let alone to change society.  After all, Ben Carson became an excellent surgeon without believing in evolution.  The question of actual classroom influence deserves more attention.

Since Prothero’s book covers the most ground, from the Jeffersonian-Federalist culture war to the present plus a few predictions about the future, it was probably inevitable that I would disagree with him most often.  I’ll restrict myself to two points, both intended to underscore the importance of pre-1970s culture wars.

First, Prothero’s overall framework with a few caveats–liberalism versus conservatism, the party of the future versus the party of the past, and so forth–is unconvincing.  Indeed, such frameworks were unconvincing when I read “old progressive” historian Vernon Louis Parrington’s Main Currents of American Thought as a Rutgers undergraduate in the 1960s and when I wrote my first review, of pluralist sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset’s The Politics of Unreason, in 1971.  Linguistic turns and twists aside, problems do come, go, and sometimes get resolved; people do get born, die, and move around; and so conditions, issues, and political coalitions do change–occasionally with great rapidity.

I’ll elaborate on this complaint with a brief  look at Prothero’s treatment of pre-Civil War Catholicism.  By no stretch of the imagination can the nineteenth century Catholic Church be considered a culturally liberal institution, even in the case of the American Church, which was the branch most accommodating to democracy until a Vatican crackdown began in 1899.

Institutional affiliation aside, millions of American believers and cultural Catholics were in practice open to democracy, even raucous democracy.  As is often the case, these immigrants and their descendants appear in Prothero’s book primarily as victims of the Know Nothings and other white Protestant nativists.  His evidence includes, as is often the case, the St. Patrick’s Battalion, Irish-American Catholics and others who fought on the Mexican side during the Mexican-American War.

This picture is incomplete.  The Mexican-American War was the first in which the United States military included Catholic chaplains.  At the AHA session I then posed the first quiz question for the panel and audience.  What was the highest rank held by a Catholic on the American side during that war?  No one knew or even wanted to guess.  There was at least one brigadier general, Lincoln’s frenemy James Shields.

My second complaint about Prothero’s book is that he ignores one of the most consequential culture wars.  Anti-Semitism rose more-or-less steadily from the 1860s to the late 1940s.  A favorite anti-Semitic theme was that Jews used the entertainment industry to undermine wholesome behavior and perhaps all of Christian civilization.  A discussion of this culture war would certainly complicate the usual rosy picture, a hope more than a reality, of white ethnics getting along just fine as they struggled together against Protestant red necks and the WASP elite.

What are some of the broader implications of culture wars past, present, and maybe future.  While interring “political correctness” in a deep, deep hole with nuclear waste, we do need to acknowledge that professions create orthodoxies.  As I am hardly the first to note, this is their main purpose. The dubious orthodoxy at hand is the one favored, often without a second thought, by insular academics in the humanities and soft social sciences–including historians.

Two years ago, Organization of American Historians (OAH) President-elect Patricia Nelson Limerick, presiding at the awards ceremony, addressed the audience several times as “comrades.”  Limerick,  renowned for her humor, assured me by email that she was merely trying to lighten a formal occasion.  But the connotation of lefty solidarity in the OAH would have been clear to any conservative who happened to drop by in the absence of a trigger warning.

Or consider a standard example of orthodoxy prevalent at the level of classroom and textbook babble:  “The United States is one of the most diverse countries on earth.”  Anyone vaguely familiar with Quebec, Scotland, Catalonia, Belgian Flemings and Walloons, and Turkish Kurds should be able to see that the United States isn’t even one of the most diverse countries in NATO.

I know that Americans came from–and continue to come from–many different places.  But their assimilation into a very strong nationalist sensibility, especially in the next generations, can be illustrated over and over again.  For instance, in 1960 roughly three quarters of Catholic voters chose pro forma Catholic Democrat John Kennedy over Richard Nixon, the quasi-Quaker, quasi-evangelical, quasi-positive thinking Protestant Republican.  In 2004, a majority of white Catholics chose a Republican evangelical, George W. Bush, over Democrat John Kerry, a former Catholic altar boy.  Any historian who considers 44 years a long time should find another line of work.

Among historians, the lack of interest in nationalism is reinforced by a misunderstanding of the American brand of multiculturalism.  Since multiculturalism was conceptualized as a fact and worthy goal starting a century ago–at that time under the label “cultural pluralism”–both multiculturalists and nativists have typically exaggerated the staying power of minority mores.  Yet, as Randolph Bourne, one of the smartest cultural pluralists, noticed during World War I, cultural pluralism is the American version of nationalism.  For evidence of this point in popular culture, look at the typical platoon in a typical World War II movie.

Current classroom and textbook babble about an imminent “majority minority nation” stresses the growing population of Hispanics, a census category conceptualized (initially in very sloppy fashion) way back in the Nixon administration.  Nathan Glazer, 1950s pluralist sociologist turned neocon turned born again multiculturalist, has astutely countered that we can’t even predict what the prevailing categories will be in a generation or two.

We do know that the current out marriage rate of native born Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans is higher than the out marriage rate of Jews in 1960.  Perhaps the California Republicans who supported bilingual education in the early 1960s were correct in their intuition that Hispanics might follow the rightward political trajectory of Italian-Americans.

At the AHA session I illustrated my argument more vividly with a second quiz question.  I asked the audience and panel to raise their hands if they could identify two well-know Mexican-Americans from the 1960s, Cesar Chavez and Ernest Medina.  Everyone knew Chavez but nobody had heard of Medina.  Captain Ernest Medina was the army commander during the American massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai.  Without relitigating his court martial, suffice it to say here that Captain Medina did not intervene to protect his fellow “people of color.”

Is the culture war over?  Prothero more-or-less hopes so and makes a plea for civility that would have warmed the hearts of the consensus historians and pluralist social scientists of the 1950s.  The United States, he writes, has a “tradition of turning down the volume” (261).  Nor is Prothero unique.  In an ironic twist, the white intellectual left, such as it is, has gone from celebrating conflict in the 1960s, when it expected to win, to denying the legitimacy of conflict, even rhetorical conflict, when the outcome looks less bright.

Even so, the United States also has a tradition of “big talk,” to borrow one of my favorite phrases from one of my favorite pluralists, David Riesman.  This propensity is unlikely to disappear any time soon.  Linguistic turns and twists aside, no moderately diverse and free population, let alone people living in a world power, is likely to stop shouting about the best ways to socialize the young, the proper level of social order, and the merits and menace of nationalism.  Nor will the conceptual and ethical issues become easier.

[1]  Leo P. Ribuffo, “Afterward:  Cultural Shouting Matches and the Academic Study of American Religious History,” in Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart, Religious Advocacy and American History (Grand Rapids:  Eerdman’s, 1997)  221-233.

[2] Michael S. Sherry, In the Shadow of War:  The United States Since the 1930s (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1995).

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I sympathize with Leo’s impatience with modern ideas, such as culture war, the paranoid style, political correctness; but avoiding them altogether is probably impossible because every cliche has an equal and opposite twin, even if at any given time, the alternative may be in pretty deep shade or be mistaken for an insight. Is Trump a novel phenomenon? Are we living through a time of unprecedented political polarization? Nope on both counts, but lurking in these correct judgments is the dangerous idea that all will be well this time because what’s happening is just one of those normal features of American political life and that it can’t have a different outcome in a different world. The sky isn’t falling, etc. I plain don’t know, of course, and I’m not assuming that Leo takes it for granted that countervailing forces will protect the nation from a really disastrous ideological spasm this go around or that a Trump administration wouldn’t be too bad. Still, if Millard Fillmore had won on the Know Nothing ticket, he wouldn’t have had been followed around by the guy with the football. Anyhow, if Trump runs, he won’t run as an independent but as a Republican, which means we’re only a coin flip away from from some mighty interesting times.

  2. It seems to me that Ribuffo is not reacting to “modern ideas” but to what he sees as perhaps once-apt labels that have since lost their usefulness as ways of drawing distinctions. Part of the challenge is the plain-speech tradition/commitment of much professional historical writing. Our “technical terms” are easily adapted to non-technical uses, and (or because) we often turn terms and phrases that are already in wide circulation into technical terms. Maybe this is not just a problem for professional historians; maybe this is just a problem with speech/discourse more generally.

    • Yes, this is the way I read it, how “cultural wars” is a very limited and loaded figure of speech to think through the historical processes of conflict, negotiation, resistance, and accomodation that Prothero’s narrative encompasses. Fair enough, but one might say the same of the notion of “shouting match”: “shout” and “match” also have their very particular resonances, which might not help us in grasping the gray areas of discursive practice. I cannot help but continue to contemplate how our uses of the idea of “culture”–which even in pluralist models suggests the idea that each ethnic community has its own “culture,” as if cultural production was a static object–might ellide other prominent issues, particularly race, as Robin Marie’s post on the culture wars hinted.

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