‘A War for the Soul of America’

The “next American movement for liberation” will have to reckon far more with class and capitalism

“In recent months, campuses across the country have exploded with such conflicts, with Yale and the University of Missouri prominent among them. Then as now, questions about race, gender, and sexual orientation were at the forefront.”

 

In some ways it is a mixed blessing for a book to be timely—and not just in the sense that the phrase “may you live in interesting times” is not exactly a benediction. Timely books are the envy of every author because they are actually read and discussed—or discussed, anyway. But they are also more easily refuted and harder to judge on their own merits. They are too often praised, vilified, or misread for transient reasons.

So it is simultaneously a compliment, a criticism, and a caution to observe that, in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Andrew Hartman has written a very timely book indeed. To a number of recent observers, the current cultural and political climate bears a close resemblance to the 1990s, another period in which left-right cultural clashes and “identity politics” both figured prominently. In recent months, campuses across the country have exploded with such conflicts, with Yale and the University of Missouri prominent among them. Then as now, questions about race, gender, and sexual orientation were at the forefront. Of course the issues have changed to some extent; there are bound to be differences between on- and off-campus controversies separated by twenty years. And the rise of social media has rendered public debate over these and other issues more democratic, more passionate, and more transient. Still, the tenor of both periods is remarkably similar. In this sense, any book, like Hartman’s, that carefully revisits the culture-war heyday of the 1980s and ’90s just as we enter another such moment is timely and worthwhile.

It’s precisely because the period we are living in now seems to involve a continuation, or even a dramatic resurgence, of the earlier culture wars that Hartman’s eloquent closing declaration seems so startling and untimely: “This book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history,” he writes. “The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.” It’s understandable that reviewers have fastened onto this assertion like lampreys. There is good reason to be skeptical of such a claim. If Hartman is right in agreeing with the old saw that “the history of America, for better or worse, is largely a history of debates about the idea of America,” then it is hardly likely that the history of wars over what Pat Buchanan called “the soul of America” is at an end, or even that a temporary cessation of conflict can be so nicely punctuated by the historian’s placement of periods. In any case, Hartman’s book has hit the shelves at exactly the moment when any claim that the culture wars are “over” seems outlandish.

This does not do Hartman justice, however. His real argument is not that the culture wars are over, but that, while “cultural conflict persists,” it has come to partake of a highly ironic flavor. Across a range of issues characteristic of the long cultural conflict between the 1960s and the end of the twentieth century, all Americans, “even conservatives,” were forced to “acknowledge transformations to American life.” The flashpoints of controversy over race, gender, sexual orientation, and similar matters were hard steps on the way to a more just and egalitarian culture.

But a deeper justice has eluded us. Feminism, for example, has “transformed American attitudes about women.” But it has left unresolved a deeper paradox: that class, as much as gender, continues to play an outsized role in denying all men and women the wherewithal to exercise their rights, fulfill their needs, and express their selves. Similarly, the civil-rights movement “to a certain extent had been successful in changing American racial attitudes,” but “was ill equipped to ameliorate the economic inequality that attached itself to the color line.” The “next American movement for liberation” will have to reckon far more with class and capitalism, not “just” culture, identity, and ethnicity. It must concern itself with creating a society in which equal welfare is as important as equal respect.

Surely there is much to agree with in that, and any reader who subscribes to the notion of justice as a seamless garment will be broadly sympathetic to Hartman’s conclusion. Nonetheless, that conclusion colors the whole of the book that precedes it—and not in a way that is wholly supportive of his argument.

For Hartman’s tale, up to the ending, has been about the conflict and not the ambiguities, the punches and counterpunches and not the sober second thoughts or regrets. His categorization of the players has been slashing and Manichaean, subsuming vast and varied movements—some explicitly political and some decidedly phenomenal and Dionysian—under the rubric of the “New Left” on the one hand, and under the the label of “neoconservatism” on the other. And his depiction of the clash between these “two” sides is equally broad-brush, focusing entirely on power—the power to advance or resist various kinds of liberation.

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