Historian hailed for offering a history of the culture wars

Historians in the News
tags: culture wars

Religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas cause a “national uproar.” Supporters of gay rights say they “legislate hate.” The Pro-Life Susan B. Anthony List secures pledges from more than a dozen of the likely Republican presidential candidates to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Pro-choice advocates call the 20-week campaign “deceptive, irresponsible, and dangerous,” yet another provocation in the ongoing GOP “war against women.” A new curriculum framework for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history becomes “the target of intense criticism around the country.” Conservative critics claim it presents “a radically revisionist view” of “America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”  

If historian Andrew Hartman is right, all of these recent developments are merely “lingering residues” of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, leftover skirmishes from a battle that has officially ended.The culture wars “are history,” Hartman emphatically declares in the conclusion to his lively new book, A War for the Soul of America. “The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.”

Hartman’s conclusion is especially jarring given that he does such a fine job demonstrating that the culture wars were much more than “one angry shouting match after another.” There were “real and compelling” issues behind the incendiary debates about hot button issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and homosexuality as well as evolution, censorship, and the Western canon. Indeed culture wars debates, as Hartman writes, were ultimately about the very “idea of America” itself.

Who and what constituted America was up for grabs in the 1960s. This was the decade that planted the seeds of the culture wars, according to Hartman, through a frontal assault on what he calls “normative America.” Before the ‘60s, the irreverent and unsettling sporadic messages of radical artists, academics, and politicians had largely failed to reach normative Americans, who continued to believe in God, hard work, American exceptionalism (“their nation was the best in human history”), and “traditional” gender roles. During the ‘60s, however, conflict, fracture, and dissent were unavoidable. Cultural disruption was no longer the exclusive province of little magazines, the occasional seminar room, and fringe political parties. With civil rights, anti-war protests, and the flowering counterculture, it was broadcast into American living rooms everyday on the nightly news.

The New Left was the most significant force in terms of reshaping American culture. This “loose configuration” of the antiwar, Black Power, feminist, and gay liberation movements may not have achieved their “utopian political dreams” but they did manage to change hearts and minds, fostering skepticism about the government, drawing attention to deeply entrenched racism, and challenging conventional ideas about gender and sexuality. For many on the Right, this cultural shift was an “abomination,” a loud and public denunciation of their most cherished values and beliefs. Hartman’s overarching argument is that the culture wars should be seen as a right-wing backlash against the ‘60s “cultural revolution.” ...

Read entire article at The New Republic

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