As both wild eyed mystics and sober historians appear to agree, one of the only constant things is change. In recent decades, folks seem to be more interested in history than ever before. While in the opinion of the present author this "history mania", if that is the correct formulation, takes the often debased forms of cheap historical docudramas, fetishistic reenactments of this or that major historical event, pet revisionist theories, and pathographies replacing hagiographies, there is still a great need for the professional historian as "public intellectual".
The need is perhaps the greatest now: Americans struggle to make sense of some of the overwhelming changes that have remade the United States, especially since the revolutions of the 1960s and the battle over ideas that is often called "the culture Wars" of both the 1980s and 1990s.
The best example of such an historian I can think of is Andrew Hartman. He has written a new history of some of these changes: A War For The Soul Of America: A History Of The Culture Wars. Whether it is called the Left or Right, or Red State-Blue State polarization, "culture war" is not as new as we might initially think; neither is it as powerful a force now as it once was.
I had the good fortune to ask Professor Hartman, who teaches at Illinois State University, some questions about those decades, and about his must read new book, and politics and history in general.
Mitch Hampton (MH): As I prepared to discuss the many issues you raise in this marvelous work of American history I happened to gaze at this month’s Vanity Fair, and, looking inside, reluctantly passing the Sofia Vegara article, I come across a name straight out of your book: Dinesh DeSouza, who was evidently in some kind of financial legal trouble, even doing time. Also there is a piece on another Bloom - Harold - and his defense of a traditional artistic canon. Some of the issues raised are still with us. I understand that you conclude in the book that the “culture wars” are “history,” about a periodization involving something that occurred in the 80s and 90s, and therefore is in at least one sense past. What are your thoughts on the world the culture wars made, the legacy of those years? What strikes you as anachronistic and what strikes you as still relevant?
On the other hand to call the culture wars history is to say something about them being of a past world, not our world. And indeed I argue in my conclusion that the logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course. I will use two examples to illustrate this point.
First, religious conservatives are more hesitant to conflate their values with national values. Whereas Jerry Falwell argued throughout the 1980s and 1990s that homosexuality was not only a sin but an affront to the values that animated the nation—he spoke on behalf of America as he imagined it when he criticized the gay rights movement—few major conservative figures are inclined to do this today. Rather, religious conservatives have sought to create autonomous zones wherein they might live out their religious and cultural values free from intervention from a secular federal government. This is the underlying logic of Indiana’s recent attempt to create a zone of “religious freedom” that would allow private citizens to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Such separatism also undergirds the approach that many conservatives take to public schooling. Millions of them have abandoned the battlefield of educational and curricular politics in favor of sending their children to private Christian day schools or even more commonly they have taken to homeschooling their children. They may have dreams of retaking the national culture one day, but few people in the mainstream take such dreams seriously. The secular left largely won these culture wars.
Second, think about one of the major fronts in the culture wars: the struggle over the canon, or the university humanities curriculum. Those battles are now rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised to reflect a multicultural society or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.
MH: As a moderate reading your book I find myself as frustrated with some of the Left as I am with the Right. It was particularly odd to see the Right resurrecting points of view that were the laughing stock of jokes in the early 60s like the movie Dr. Strangelove. Any thoughts on that?
AH: There is no doubt that the culture wars had a polarizing effect. I would say that this was partly structural—increasingly the left and right had their own institutions and constituencies to speak to and on behalf and thus there was less of a felt need to convince the unconvinced, which is the logic underlying moderation. But polarization was also historically grounded in what I call the dialectic of sixties liberation. Pre-sixties American culture was stultifying to those who did not live within its norms, and as such the New Left movements against normative America seemed immoderate. In response, the forces of reaction framed their defense of the old order in equally intemperate terms. But I caution against nostalgia for moderation because rarely has American political and cultural history been defined by what we might call moderate rhetoric—the United States is not Canada! Second, the postwar age of consensus might only seem moderate in retrospect because the spectrum of political and cultural possibilities was so narrow.
MH: I was struck in reading this book at the philistinism and lack of culture to the whole lot of the Right in the 80s and 90s. It appears that the Left had the better minds and the better prose. Do you think some of the hostility could be a kind of unconscious jealousy at the intellectual powers of some for those figures? I can't imagine Lynne Cheney being unaffected by a basic realization that she just isn't as deep a thinker along the lines of a Fred Jameson or Joan Scott, for example.
AH: Actually, as I indicated above, conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s were more about “culture” than they are now. William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities, specifically, the Western Canon. He wanted all Americans to read Socrates and Shakespeare. Compare that to someone like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who apparently thinks an education based in the humanities is a luxury good that American taxpayers should not have to fund. Many conservative critics, those like Alan Bloom and Roger Kimball, were quite learned in a very classical way and I doubt they were motivated by intellectual insecurities about philistinism. In fact they likely believed their left-wing counterparts were the philistines for thinking the canon could be revised to include more recent works by women and minorities—works that conservatives believed had not stood the tests of time and tradition.
That said you are correct that, more generally, conservative culture warriors often appeared to be hostile to higher learning, especially if such learning threatened those values they held dear. It has perhaps been this way for a long time since universities have been the great engines of secularization since the late 19th century.
MH: In general you have an uncanny empathy and sympathy for all of the minds you cover in this book. You seem to get inside the minds of all the different interest groups and make their feelings and thoughts come alive for the reader, making this history book read like a novel. You also are able to focus on what was at stake for all of the principles and principals involved. Is this gift you have simply part of what it is to be an historian and where do you think this deft skill comes from in your own experience and in your scholarship? I'd imagine teaching a lot of conservative students, say, could be one experience that could strengthen that. Putting experience aside, you just might have this gift of empathy and it is a mysterious thing. Not all writers of history have it however.
AH: Well, thank you for the generous compliment!
"Although I am on the left, and have always been on the left, I try my best to empathize with those whom I write about. Nothing bothers me more than the tendency among American historians, most of whom are on the left, to not take our illiberal or conservative or reactionary historical subjects seriously as thinking human beings whose ideas had a certain logic to them. Richard Hofstadter was a brilliant historian and gifted writer—I still love reading him—but his dismissal of conservatives as psychopaths will forever count against him.
How did I learn how to become empathetic? I did grow up among a lot of conservatives, and continue to have a lot of conservative friends and students. But more important is historical imagination, which I take seriously. As historians we have to imagine worlds different from our own—worlds both utopian and dystopian; worlds as they were understood even by people we find disreputable."
MH: One of the things that struck me most about this story and made it a sad one for me (and again, this might be an effect of me being hopelessly, helplessly moderate) is how extreme and partisan those years were. It seems there were so few moderates. Everybody was always working for the team and have this loyalty to the team and the side, even if the team got out of hand or appeared to cross some kind of line. The Left seemed to be stuck in a kind of Marxist tradition - in a kind of anti-liberal or illiberalism, however new their ideas may have been and however critical they may have been of orthodox Marxism. The Right seemed completely unwilling to depart from the most patriotic and propagandistic mindset and unwilling to concede to the empirical discoveries that challenged an a priori American greatness and just kept digging in more. Certainly the Right wing continues to be quite extreme in tone and style.
AH: Everyone in the culture wars does indeed take an illiberal approach, in tone if not in content, to political discourse. In part this is because the postwar consensus was grounded in a narrow, stripped-down version of liberalism such that when both the left and right attacked the center they attacked liberalism. An early right-wing culture warrior like William Buckley, Jr hated the postwar liberal consensus nearly as much as any given New Left activist, although Buckley hated the world that came after the sixties had shattered the consensus even more! (For a brilliant analysis of this I recommend Kevin Schultz’s great new book, Buckley and Mailer: The Brilliant Friendshipthat Shaped the Sixties.) That the right continues to take an extreme tone speaks to the fact that American culture has indeed changed in ways they find disagreeable.
MH: Could you say further on the issue of current capitalism and culture? Is a world where everybody watches Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite more congenial to economic equality? What is your opinion, if you have read it, of Benn Michaels’ The Trouble With Identity?
AH: You pose one of those classic chicken-egg questions: is a common culture a prerequisite of a society committed to some degree of economic equality? Indeed in my conclusion I pose similar such questions. Perhaps the conservatism of mid-twentieth-century American culture is what made possible the New Deal? Can we have cultural revolution and social democracy? It seems unlikely, which is a sad conclusion for me to make because I would like both and see both as necessary if justice is the goal. The New Deal and its concomitant culture (“Judeo-Christian America”) were hostile to the aspirations of millions of Americans: some women, gays and lesbians, racial minorities (especially African Americans). But on the other hand, growing economic inequality has undercut such aspirations with as much force as anything else. So, yes, I have read Benn Michaels and am sympathetic to the class-based analysis that identity politics empowers neoliberalism. But it’s not as simple as merely shutting down identity politics.
MH: Why do you think the neoconservatives turned so far to the Right?
AH: To understand the early neoconservatives (Kristol and Podhoretz of the late 1960s and early 1970s) I think it’s important to downplay their attitudes about the state and American foreign policy and instead to emphasize domestic political culture in relation to the many movements of the New Left.
(Norman Podheretz, Irving Kristol)
The neocons had by then come to terms with the America of the liberal consensus. They really, really liked it, in large part because it had been so good to them and it made so much sense to them. It seemed like the ideal form of meritocracy that hard-working bright Jews from working-class backgrounds could thrive in. So when Black Power activists and feminists and others critiqued the American meritocratic consensus as a façade the neocons went further and further to the right in their defense of traditional American values. Eventually this played on the world scene as well but originally it was more about affirmative action and student unrest and crime and feminism.
MH: I know I wrote earlier that the intellectual quality was low in Right Wing writing as compared to the Left. One might consider these figures an exception. Yet even the neoconservatives seemed to fall into a kind of dumbing down. Were they simply desperate to appear populist and in touch with common folks? I mean if you compare some of these writers' early output it is quite intellectually challenging and then in the late 70s and 80s some of them end up writing sort of hokey hymns to America. I know this is my own opinion but was this trend another expression of the war model? Once the neoconservatives joined a particular team they had to pay on that team and make common cause with a Schlafly?
AH: I think you are right to spot a certain dumbed down quality to later neoconservative writings. They joined the larger conservative movement and became spokespeople for that movement, which was often crudely anti-intellectual. Even more than the devolution of any one writer, we can detect right-wing declension through the generations. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz were highly original thinkers. Their sons Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz often seem like party hacks. I mean Bill Kristol shilled for Sarah Palin! This speaks to something that needs further exploration: the decline of the conservative intellectual.
MH: What is your vision of intellectual history? What are its promises and special skills? Where do you see it going?
AH: My favorite history to read, research, and write about is Big Ideas. What were the major animating ideas that motivated people to do the things they did, especially in terms of political behavior. But the great thing about intellectual history right now is its capaciousness. It is vibrant in terms of close readings of philosophical discourse, in terms of the history of sensibilities, in terms of political culture, etc. Intellectual history is alive and well and this is never more evident than when I click on the Society for US Intellectual History (S-USIH) Blog or attend the annual S-USIH Conference (disclaimer: I’m actively involved in both endeavors). It’s a great time to be an intellectual historian! (Now if only there were good tenure-track jobs for all of the great intellectual historians I know.