Andrew Hartman: Occupy Wall Street: a New Culture War?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Andrew Hartman is an associate professor of history at Illinois State University and president of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He is author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He is writing A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, From the 1960s to the Present, to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

American punditry, it seems, needs to make sense of Occupy Wall Street in familiar terms. Highlighting the differences between the movement that started in New York City in September and the Tea Party that has engrossed the nation since 2009, The New York Times recently proclaimed, "It's a culture war, young versus old, left versus right, communal food tables versus 'Don't Tread on Me' flags." Rush Limbaugh's mean-spirited labels for the Wall Street demonstrators—"pure, genuine parasites," "bored trust-fund kids"—however off the mark, resonate because he, too, is speaking the language of the culture wars.

For those of us who support the protesters (I count myself an unmitigated enthusiast), refracting the movement through the lens of the culture wars is a vile misrepresentation. By focusing on caricatures of pot-smoking, drumbeating hippies, instead of on the economic messages related to the "We are the 99 percent" meme, some in the media appear to be redirecting the national debate away from what unites us and toward what divides us.

Of course, conservatives might think such treatment a comeuppance for the liberal condescension that greeted the emergence of the Tea Party. Focusing on cultural differences is often the preferred method for analyzing that movement, a form mastered by Bill Maher, for whom "teabaggers" are the butt of endless sneering jokes. Similarly, if less crudely, the Harvard University historian Jill Lepore, author of The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History (2010), focuses more on how the Tea Party misappropriates the ideas and aesthetic regalia of 18th-century American revolutionaries than on analyzing the historical and ideological foundations of its grievances.

In short, though the culture wars have been pronounced dead on several occasions, such as on September 11, 2001, and again on November 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama won the presidency, the culture-wars paradigm persists in polarizing American political debate. This polarization helps us to understand the response to Occupy Wall Street, or, perhaps more compelling, the differences between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party....

comments powered by Disqus