Magazine article The Christian Century

Culture War Fatigue?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Culture War Fatigue?

Article excerpt

A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars

By Andrew Hartman

University of Chicago Press, 384 pp., $30.00


IT PAYS TO RECALL that American conservatives once regarded Lynne Cheney as at least as important a guardian of national security as her husband, the redoubtable Dick. During her tenure as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, George Will named her the "secretary of domestic defense." He continued: "The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick, must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal."

The context for this encomium was, of course, the culture wars--the fierce battle over the ethical well-being of the republic in which Lynne Cheney was a leading commander of the forces of moral certainty, bourgeois domesticity, and feel-good Americanism. The early 1990s was a particularly intense period in these conflicts, and many people at the time shared the conviction of erstwhile presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan that the struggle against feminism, homosexuality, multiculturalism, atheism, ethical relativism, pornography, feel-bad anti-Americanism, and other maladies afflicting the culture had become "a war for the soul of America."

Andrew Hartman's book is the first to tell the story of this war in all its diversity. He ranges widely over its many battlefields in the 1980s and 1990s, from struggles over the identity politics of African-Americans, Chicanos, feminists, and gay rights activists, to controversies over sex and violence in mass culture, to contests over interpretation of the American past. His account of debates in education is particularly acute, addressing struggles over school prayer, sex education, Darwinian evolution, national standards, university humanities curricula, and campus speech codes. Readers of a certain age will be reminded, often painfully, of arguments that raged over Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's book The Bell Curve (1994), Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing (1989), the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork (1987), Tipper Gore's assault on explicit lyrics in popular music (1985), N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police" (1988), the National History Standards (1994), the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibition (1994), Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987--"the culture wars' uber text"), and much more.

Some have dismissed the culture wars as a sideshow or, even worse, an instance of the false consciousness of working-class cultural conservatives who are manipulated by right-wing populists and thereby made blind to their economic class interests. Hartman, to his credit, insists that the issues at stake in cultural politics are "real and compelling."

Hartman argues that the origins of the culture wars lie in the revolt of the New Left in the 1960s. (He defines the New Left broadly to include the antiwar movement; campus radicalism; Black, Brown, and Red Power advocacy; feminism; and gay liberation.) He writes:

   The sixties gave birth to a new America, a nation more open
   to new peoples, new ideas, new norms, and new, if conflicting,
   articulations of America itself. This fact, more than anything
   else, helps explain why in the wake of the sixties the
   national culture grew more divided than it had been in any
   period since the Civil War. Americans split over how to
   think about this new America. The gulf that separated those
   who embraced the new America from those who viewed it
   ominously--those who looked to nurture it versus those
   who sought to roll it back--drew the boundaries of the culture

In the early 1970s neoconservatives--Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Moynihan, and others--forged the cutting edge of the anti-'60s backlash, which recoiled from affirmative action, campus radicalism, feminism, black identity politics, and other manifestations of late '60s "adversary culture. …

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