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Book Review: War! What Is It Good For? As A Metaphor, A Lot

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Book Review: War! What Is It Good For? As A Metaphor, A Lot


A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars by Andrew Hartman; University of Chicago Press (384 pages, $30.00).

Blame it on “the Sixties.” So Andrew Hartman argues at the start of A War For the Soul of America, his thoughtful survey of the so-called culture wars. In the United States during the 1980s and 90s, liberals and conservatives not only clashed over issues of economic inequality or political rights, but also over symbolic representation: whether the federal government should sponsor scandalous avant-garde art or censor obscene popular music; what children should be taught in public schools or whether or not they should be encouraged to pray in the classroom; what the standard American family should look like; whether abortion was moral; how films should portray Jesus; and how to remember American history. These were a few of the controversies that took center stage.

The claim that the Sixties fundamentally shaped the culture wars is not new. Hartman’s position is that, “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.” Many invoked all this Sixties newness, rupture, and transformation during the culture wars themselves. Even the very idea of a domestic war over culture perhaps comes from Lyndon Johnson’s use of the term in his war on poverty programs during that tumultuous decade. More daring is Hartman’s contention that the culture wars are now over. Hartman, an intellectual historian who teaches at Illinois State University and has written previously about education during the Cold War, seeks to distinguish the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s from the divisive atmosphere of America in our own times. (Full disclosure: We are acquaintances and have worked together on projects for the Society of United States Intellectual History). In his view, a break has occurred: the victories of the cultural left in recent years—the election of an African-American to the presidency, the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana, the incursions of women into the workplace—are substantive; so too is the resurgence of struggles between right and left over more material matters such as income inequality. 

Yet at a time when the nation is collectively aflutter over figures who change genders or identify across racial classifications, contentions that the culture wars are over will raise eyebrows. Many Americans continue to filter issues of economic justice, police violence, and international affairs through cultural notions of race, gender, and regional identity. So too, symbolic icons such as flags become proxies for much larger disagreements. Perhaps culture matters as much as it did during the 1980s and 90s. Nonetheless, Hartman’s much-needed historicization points to how the culture wars did not end so much as mutate. If the original culture wars are over, we live with what is no doubt a very uneasy truce. It might even be the case that as the United States moves from clear distinctions among culture, economics, and politics to a far more murky interplay between symbolic representation and material, governmental concerns, it is a nation in which a new and even more disturbing war is afoot: not a cultural one, but a new kind of civil war. In the 1980s and 90s, Americans battled over whether it was appropriate for the African-American rap group N.W.A. to sing “F*** tha Police”; today, the concern is whether the police are now literally waging war on African-Americans. In the 1980s and 90s, Americans debated whether sex-ed should be taught in the classroom; these days, it seems like the war is over the very existence of public education at all. A certain kind of culture war may be in the past, but that does not mean peace reigns over the American kingdom. If anything, things have gotten more extreme, more polarized.

Reading Hartman’s book suggests as much because he is more keen on catching the complexities of the culture wars in the 1980s and 90s than emphasizing their cartoonishness. A War for the Soul of America, which takes its title from an overwrought speech by Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention, is itself quite careful and balanced. It does not lampoon sides in the culture wars but rather tracks the twists and turns of alliances that often cut across political and cultural divisions. This makes for a funny kind of war, not the hardening of lines between left and right so much as a period of quite sophisticated debate—and, at times, even strange alliances and intersections. 

Forsaking chronological drama for thematic investigation, Hartman delves into the nuances of how anti-pornography feminists teamed up with religious fundamentalists to try to quash businesses that both viewed as smutty and immoral. He examines how liberal university professors fell in line with neoconservative politicians in efforts to preserve traditional liberal arts education against relativism. He documents the ways in which home-school Christian fundamentalists eventually identified themselves as another marginalized identity group right alongside the minorities and women they viewed as ruining public education. And he notices the surprising switches of figures such as Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who started out as a conservative Reagan appointee, but eventually endorsed quite liberal notions of sexual education in response to the AIDS crisis. The more Hartman inspects details below the hyperbolic rhetoric, the more it seems that the culture wars did not consist of two distinct enemies exchanging ideological artillery fire across a clearly drawn line; rather, they become a blurry tale of shifting coalitions and concepts in which politics made for strange bedfellows (especially when it came to matters of the bed).

Historian Daniel Rodgers, chronicling much the same period as Hartman, named this era the “age of fracture.” Rodgers located this social fragmentation in the triumph of the free-market model, whereas Hartman pays more attention to the many cultural events of the 80s and 90s themselves. We learn of Senator Jesse Helms’ outrage over NEA funding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. (Hartman humorously notes that Helms kept a small print of one of Mapplethorpe’s more shocking images in his pocket). Senator Al D’Amato rips up a photograph of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ sculpture in the chambers of Congress. Vice President Dan Quayle critiques the single-mother protagonist of Murphy Brown in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. Tipper Gore tries to place warning labels on popular music recordings with risqué lyrics. Secretary of Education William Bennett and Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney politically maneuver over the reform of educational curriculum. Philosopher Allan Bloom receives surprising publicity for his cantankerous conservatism while cultural critic Camille Paglia gains notoriety for her pagan theories of sexuality. Molefi Kete Asante uses Afrocentrism to repudiate objectivity while Charles Murray advocates for the return of racist Social Darwinism. And the outcry over Martin Scorsese’s earthy, concupiscent Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ generates lots of revenue for a rather mediocre film. 

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