[Introduction: This is review number four, from Michelle Nickerson, in our weeklong roundtable on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Nickerson is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. She is probably known to S-USIH readers for her two books, Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right (Princeton, 2012) and the co-edited collection (with Darren Dochuk), Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Space, Place, and Region (Penn Press, 2011). Nickerson is currently studying the Camden 28, a Catholic anti-war group of the Vietnam era apprehended, brought to trial, and acquitted after raiding a draft board office in 1971. In the meantime, look out for her essays in the Oxford Handbook of American Women’s and Gender History (forthcoming, Oxford) and Beyond the Culture Wars: Recasting Religion and Politics in the Twentieth Century (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Press). The roundtable’s first review came from Bob Hutton, the second was by Vaneesa Cook, the third by Peter Kuryla, and tomorrow’s will be from Amy Kittelstrom. Hartman’s reply comes on Saturday. Enjoy! – TL]
What is the “culture” in “culture wars” supposed to mean? As Andrew Hartman demonstrates with the breathtaking range in A War for the Soul of America, there were plenty of battles in the latter half of the twentieth-century over art, film, and rap music, but there were also plenty of disputes about the tax code, abortion, and public school curricula. Should the influence of religious institutions or political lobbying groups be lumped into the category of “culture?” What seems to unite all of the episodes recounted by Hartman are politics. The book shows over and over again that Americans made ideological fodder out of most every aspect of their daily lives: from the living room, to the workplace, the principal’s office, church pews, the doctor’s office . . . up to the Supreme Court. So, I am curious, why do we call this “culture” and not “politics?”
As Hartman points out, sociologist James Davidson Hunter coined the phrase in 1991 in his book Culture Wars, declaring that, “Our most fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans are now at odds.” The following year Patrick Buchanan declared that the Republican Party was in a “war for the soul of America.” That speech, observes Hartman, “punctuated a series of angry quarrels . . . [over] . . abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, family values, feminism, homosexuality, intelligence testing, media, multiculturalism, national history standards, pornography, school prayer, sex education, the Western canon.”
So what, then, makes it “culture?” The answer might be: “hullabaloo.” I will explain how I came to that word in a minute, but Hartman shows how more groups of Americans participated in the political landscape that grew ever more fractured over the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the social movements that came to the fore in the sixties. As I read the book, though, I could not help but notice the incredible skill with which Americans on one side learned to diminish, really skewer, the other side. Perhaps, it was in that process that they…made…the “culture” of the “culture wars.” Culture, in other words, came to mean less-than-politics. Hartman asserts that “the issues at stake in the culture wars were real and compelling.” Yet, one almost gets the impression that “culture” came to describe disputes that got in the way of real politics, which a leftist critic might define, by contrast, as the fight for a living wage, universal health care, or campaign finance regulation. As much as I love this book as a documentary of the era’s political history, I would charge that “culture wars,” as a framing device, minimizes both intentions of historical actors and impact of those controversies.
Hartman relates a part of Thomas Franks best-selling What’s the Matter With Kansas?, where Frank talks about the outrage over Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photo. “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine,” writes Frank, “the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party.” Anything, in other words, that seems either illegitimate, superficial, or fringy can fit into the category of culture. Frank calls this “hullaballoo.” But conservatives are not the only producers of hullabaloo. Historians, literary scholars, feminists, museum curators—framing disputes of the 1980s and 1990s within the culture wars paradigm makes liberals just as complicit in the production of superficial politics that amount mainly to bickering. It’s just that conservatives would call the work of academic radicals “hullaballoo.” It almost doesn’t matter which side makes the noise—everyone looks like toy soldiers or wrestlers in a mud pit.
Andrew Hartman does not dismiss his political subjects as they do each other. The reason why people need to read this book is that you may already know of the many episodes he recounts, but Hartman furnishes all the details in living color stitched together with tight analytic threads. I would add that this is the best distillation I’ve found on the subject of neoconservatism.
I will conclude by asking if Hartman does not share some of Thomas Franks’ disdain for the “culture wars.” He ends the book on a “pessimistic” note, declaring that the “cultural revolution” was a victory for capitalism and a defeat for the left and right. Liberals lost because the New Deal welfare state disappeared and conservatives lost because “Mammon more than Leviathan—has rendered traditional family values passé.” It is certainly hard to dispute what has been lost by both sides, but I’m not sure that we can pin the influence of capitalism on the success of the “culture wars.”