The Culture Wars

Daniel Rodger’s Age of Fracture is “a history of the ways in which understandings of identity, society, economy, nation, and time were argued out int he last decades of the century, and how those struggles of books and mind changed the ways in which social reality itself would be imagined.” (2) The first chapter of his book–which is perhaps his best and most interesting–examines the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. Throughout the majority of the Cold War years, presidential rhetoric had focused on dedication, courage, responsibility, self-scrutiny, and sacrifice. Chronologically, Reagan’s speeches initially emphasized confidence, then momentary despair, and finally a revolution of hope. The idea of restoration moved to center stage in Reagan’s speeches, and rather than relying on a rhetoric of society, history, and responsibility, Reagan chose to be optimistic about the future. Helping Reagan’s positive outlook was his experience as an actor and his overwhelming popularity among a large majority of Americans. Rodgers discusses changes in the market, and the impact of monetarism and the Coase theorem. He also analyzes changes in scholarship within the academy and references the affects social history had on historical practice, particularly EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll. The culture wars also involved a new racial assertiveness, which Rodgers contended included a claiming of collective African American pride and place in American culture and politics. He discusses the emergence of works by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, as well as the opening of Oprah’s talk show and the Roots, which became a pop culture phenomenon among African Americans and whites. When analyzing gender during the culture wars, Rodgers discusses the Equal Rights amendment, the impact of Joan Scott and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision and its ensuing backlash. He ends his work by studying changes within political theory and the study of history.

Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars is a much easier and more entertaining read on the culture wars than Rodgers’s work. He defines the culture wars as a series of struggles surrounding abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, evolution, family values, feminism, homosexuality, intelligence testing, media, multiculturalism, national history standards, pornography, school prayer, sex education, and the Western canon. “This dramatic struggle, which pitted liberal, progressive, and secular Americans against their conservative, traditional, and religious counterparts, captured the attention of the nation during the 1980s and 1990s. For a period of about two decades, the culture wars, like a vortex, swallowed up much of American political and intellectual life. The culture wars were the defining metaphor for the late-twentieth century United States. This book tries to make sense of the war,” writes Hartman (7). He begins by examining the radical changes that occurred in American society during the 1960s–much of which we were already familiar with as we’ve read Gosse’s Rethinking the New Left. Hartman then moves thematically through the culture wars, beginning with neoconservatism and then religion. “The Color Line” is his chapter on race, and he examines affirmative action, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), critical race theory, Murray and Hernstein’s The Bell Curve, the politics of crime, the “broken windows” theory of crime, and Afrocentrism. His next chapter on gender was also fascinating, and he contends that because feminism was the most successful of all of the movements of the sixties, general fears about feminism were far from baseless. Because of the activism of feminists during that time, by the late 1970s most states were forced to adopt rape shield laws and liberal feminist groups like NOW had compelled the EEOC to expand its enforcement and thus economic opportunities for women had improved. During the years of the culture wars, there was much debate within feminism regarding “difference feminism.” Whereas in the 60s the linchpin of the feminist movement was equality, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, difference feminism claimed that women and men are significantly different. Some difference feminists argued that women and men had different values and that women’s values were ultimately better than men.  Hartman discusses the EEOC v. Sears (1986) decision and the debates over pornography, abortion, and the AIDS crisis. He also notes that men were equally compelled to adjust to new ideas about gender. Men were more likely to abandon their commitments to family–at least publications like Playboy claimed they were–and their actions were even more responsible than feminism for weakening the traditional family. The combination of feminism and deindustrialization effectively killed the idea that men should be the primary breadwinners for families in America. Hartman also discusses how the culture wars affected art and debates over school curriculum. He ends by discussing how historical practice both within and outside of the academy were influenced by the culture wars, and included a detailed description of the Enola Gay exhibition controversy. Stylistically, Hartman’s work reminded me of Gosse’s Rethinking the New Left–both scholars use a thematic approach and are able to fit in a lot of “stuff” in a relatively short and engaging read.

Discussion questions

  1. How do the two books we read this week on the culture wars “talk to”/complement the books we read last week on the New Left?
  2. Do you see any reflections of the current state of our nation–either politically, socially, or culturally–in the books we read this week?

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