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Nobody Won the 'War for the Soul of America'

Andrew Hartman’s engaging exploration of the culture wars confirms that the conflicts will never be resolved because both sides are too extreme for America's moderate middle-ground.

A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Length: 342 pages
Author: Andrew Hartman
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-04

In his informative book A History of the Culture Wars: A War for the Soul of America, Andrew Hartman investigates the impact of the culture wars, which were waged by artists, academics, public intellectuals, and politicians in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. On one side, radical progressives wanted to subvert normative America, and on another side, conservative traditionalists wanted to preserve it. Hartman argues that the history of America is largely a history of debates about the idea of America.

The book is fascinating because it demonstrates how much American culture has progressed, as well as how drastically the culture wars have shifted since the final decades of the 20th century. The culture warriors as described by Hartman focused on important issues and often used intellectual reasoning, whereas today every Twitter user turns a mild grievance into a national crisis. If the culture wars have lost their significance in the 21st century, it’s because the important battles worth fighting have been settled, and they ended in a draw. Hartman offers a fair and balanced portrait of these turbulent times, and he wisely leaves his opinions out of it so that the information can speak for itself.

Hartman claims that the first shot was fired in the ‘60s by the New Left, a “loose configuration of movements that included the antiwar, Black Power, feminist, and gay liberation movements.” (10) Members of the New Left mostly convened at college campuses, and they sought to subvert normative American values, which privileged God, country, and family. They viewed identity politics as a revolutionary ideology, and aimed to transform America with their actions as well as their ideas. Their primary goal was to take the power away from white heterosexual males and put it in the hands of disenfranchised minority groups like women, African-Americans, and the LGBT community, among others. In addition, the New Left wanted to rid America of its obsession with traditional institutions, including but not limited to religion.

The traditionalists viewed the New Left as a threat, and as a result, they fought to hold on to their culture. As Hartman explains, “one of the primary assumptions made by a conservative partisan in the culture wars was the idea that American culture was in decline.” (38) In contrast to the young students at universities, neoconservatives were mostly New York intellectuals. They believed in the importance of the traditional family, and a vast majority of them subscribed to a Christian fundamentalist theology. In addition, they stressed personal responsibility, and denied that the problems of the disenfranchised were caused by a broken American system.

One of the most contested issues in the culture wars was religion. As Hartman writes in the chapter “Taking God’s Country Back”, “by the 1970s, conservative white evangelicals were confronted with a perfect storm of secular power that they deemed a threat to their way of life and to the Christian nation they believed the United States once was and ought to be again.” (71) In defense of traditional family values, the Christian Right argued with the New Left over feminism, abortion, divorce, premarital sex, and gay rights. Not surprisingly, they believed that women belonged in the home, abortion should be illegal, divorce was a sin, premarital sex led to promiscuity, and gay rights represented the downfall of the Country. Hartman presents an in-depth account of how the Christian Right framed its arguments.

The next chapter, “The Color Line”, turns to race and the many theories that emerged in the ‘80s and ‘90s “to explain why the civil rights revolution had failed to relegate racial inequality to the dustbins of history.” (103) Hartman explores the tension between “colorblind conservatism” and “color-conscious liberalism”, and how each ideology influenced opinions about affirmative action (106). The former rejects affirmative action for its ideology of victimhood, whereas the latter promotes affirmative action to alleviate America’s institutional racism. The chapter concludes with various modes of thought, including the influential emergence of Critical Race Theory.

Chapter five, “The Trouble with Gender”, focuses on feminism and gay rights. Hartman investigates the conservative belief that traditional gender roles guarantee America’s stability, and that female and gay liberation would threaten its survival. Hartman writes, “Identity politics was not just about group solidarity… it was about how one viewed power and hierarchy in America.” (143) In order to assert their authority in what they perceived to be a patriarchal society, female and LGBT communities formed identity-based movements, including Women’s studies and Queer studies departments at universities.

The most interesting chapter of the book, “The Sacred and the Profane”, includes arguments about art, and in particular, “hostile portrayals of religion and people of religious faith” and “favorable portrayals of extramarital sex and homosexuality” (172). Hartman highlights the heightened response to heavy metal music, hip-hop, Madonna, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”, the infamous photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and the NEA four. It’s an intriguing chapter because it illustrates the widespread influence of art on American culture, and that artists like Madonna and Mapplethorpe had as much cultural influence as politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Hartman devotes the remaining chapters to education in America. He analyzes arguments about prayer in public schools, the western canon, post-structuralism in the humanities, and creationism vs. evolution. As these issues take center stage, both sides express different viewpoints that are at once fascinating and frustrating.

By the end of the book, we’re not sure what to make of the culture wars. It’s fair to say that the radicalism of the New Left impacted America, and after the various identity-based movements, normative America lost some of its power. Despite the conservatives’ best efforts, 21st century America is more secular than ever before, and equality for African-Americans, women, and the LGBT community is not just the ethical position to take, it’s also smart politics.

However, despite the progress, Americans have not exactly embraced the radicalism of the New Left with open arms. We fight for marriage equality, for example, so that gays can assimilate into traditional society. We believe in equal pay for equal work, but only if women “lean in” and work "the way that men do". There’s a sense that America hasn’t changed, it’s just made a little more room for those who were previously ignored. Now that they have a seat at the table, the question remains: what’s it all for?

The series finalé of Mad Men is a useful place to turn here, since it reminds us that "a ha!" moments of spiritual awakening at a hippie commune are nice, but they eventually give way to more traditional modes of living. That is, Don Draper doesn’t meditate on a hill forever with a serene smile on his face. Eventually, he returns to Madison Avenue to sell another product.

At best, normative America acknowledges the counterculture to capitalize on its ideas for profits. When Coca-Cola promotes a vision of peace, love, and harmony to sell soda, all is well, so long as you buy a bottle. At worst, the cool images of the hippies are appropriated by normative America and placed in a commercial, while the radical ideals that the hippies personified are pushed aside. Mad Men implies that these two opposing ideologies will always be in conflict with one another, and that this conflict will never be resolved.

Hartman’s engaging exploration of the culture wars confirms this. Although the issues about American life were worthy of debate, it’s appropriate to assume that both sides were too extreme with their approaches. Normative America clutched too tightly to tradition, while radical America strayed too far from it. Conservatives wanted America to go back to the way it was at the expense of equality for others, whereas progressives had a more aggressive vision of America that didn’t include traditions of any kind.

As a result, we’re left with a mundane middle ground, in which moderate forms of both sides can coexist, but extreme forms of either side are contained. Hartman doesn’t conclude if this is a good or bad thing, and maybe it’s not clear. One thing that is clear, however, is that you can only be a hippie in America if you have a Coca-Cola in your hand. The minute you drop the Coke and grab a bottle of Bovonto, all bets are off.


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