The Culture Wars Are Over—And They Aren’t Coming Back

The movements of the 1960s challenged the Leave It to Beaver values of American life, producing the culture wars. But those wars are now finished.

Micah Uetricht June 11, 2015

The culture wars were a reaction to the upending of Leave It to Beaver-style norms in America. (richardzx / Flickr)

Andrew Hartman’s new book A War for the Soul of Amer­i­ca (Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press) is an insight­ful — and, per­haps unavoid­ably in a book that details polit­i­cal bat­tles like the fight over a pho­to of a cru­ci­fix dunked in urine, often enter­tain­ing — his­to­ry of a peri­od he argues is unique to the Unit­ed States: the cul­ture wars of the 1980s and 90s.

These movements of the 1960s confronted the nation with new peoples, new ideals, new articulations of the idea of the nation itself. There was a lot of upheaval in how Americans conceptualized what it meant to be an American.

Hartman’s most provoca­tive argu­ment, which has been the focus of many of the book’s review­ers, is that now is a good time for reflec­tion on the cul­ture wars — because they’re over. While plen­ty of fig­ures on the Right con­tin­ue to fight bat­tles sim­i­lar to the ones Hart­man chron­i­cles in the book — over alleged­ly pro­fane speech or LGBTQ issues or gen­der norms — the over­all log­ic of the peri­od, he argues, has been exhausted.

Expand­ing far beyond the era’s great­est hits” like the bat­tle over the misog­y­nist lyrics of the hip-hop group 2 Live Crew or Piss Christ,” which pro­voked a fight led by con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian groups over pub­lic fund­ing of alleged­ly blas­phe­mous art, Hart­man sit­u­ates the cul­ture wars in the assaults by 1960s lib­er­a­tion move­ments on the nor­ma­tive val­ues” deeply held by many Americans.

Hart­man recent­ly came to the In These Times offices to dis­cuss the book. The con­ver­sa­tion has been edit­ed for length and clarity.

Can you give us a basic def­i­n­i­tion of the cul­ture wars? And what was their rela­tion­ship to the pre­ced­ing peri­od, the 1960s?

Andrew Hart­man: The cul­ture wars rose out of the 1960s. They are spe­cif­ic to the 1980s and 1990s, when nation­al debates about what it means to be an Amer­i­can took on added empha­sis, mean­ing and anger as a result of the social move­ments of the 1960s. We’re talk­ing about Civ­il Rights, the Black Pow­er Move­ment, the oth­er iden­ti­ty move­ments like the Chi­cano move­ment, the fem­i­nist move­ment, gay rights, the anti­war move­ment — all of these togeth­er in the 1960s chal­lenged what I call nor­ma­tive Amer­i­ca.” For short­hand, just think of the val­ues exem­pli­fied in a show like Leave it to Beaver.

This may be sim­plis­tic, but I think it’s a good way to think about the type of cul­ture that many peo­ple dur­ing the 1960s reject­ed and formed move­ments against. Those move­ments were very suc­cess­ful, per­haps not always at the polit­i­cal lev­el, but def­i­nite­ly at the cul­tur­al lev­el — so much so that var­i­ous right-wing move­ments came togeth­er to resist the changes to that cul­ture. This is where you have the polar­iza­tion that defines a lot of the pol­i­tics and cul­ture of the 1980s and 90s. And that’s what I call the cul­ture wars.

At the cen­ter of the book is this idea of nor­ma­tive Amer­i­ca: the cen­tral­i­ty of the white, het­ero­sex­u­al, patri­ar­chal fam­i­ly. And many of those who fought these cul­ture wars see those val­ues as the only thing hold­ing the coun­try togeth­er. There was this real exis­ten­tial pan­ic about the coun­try’s abil­i­ty to sur­vive in the face of these lib­er­a­tion movements.

Yes. And you see this in the rhetoric not just of con­ser­v­a­tives and the Chris­t­ian Right, but also in neo­con­ser­v­a­tives. They had a very nar­row con­cep­tion of democ­ra­cy and prob­a­bly would have been more com­fort­able talk­ing about defend­ing small‑r repub­li­can val­ues; that you could only have a soci­ety with demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tices if the peo­ple are some­how held in check. And they believed that con­ser­v­a­tive cul­tur­al norms and reli­gious val­ues held peo­ple in check and kept them from act­ing out what they would have called their more ani­mal­is­tic” instincts. And cer­tain­ly the way they con­ceived of these norms were very lim­it­ed by race, gen­der and religion.

You men­tioned the reli­gious right and neo­con­ser­v­a­tives. When peo­ple talk about neo-cons now, they think about the Iraq war and the Bush era, but neo­con­ser­vatism meant some­thing else in this period.

When we think about neo­con­ser­v­a­tives, we think about the most recent iter­a­tion of the neo-cons, which sup­pos­ed­ly had all this influ­ence in the Bush admin­is­tra­tion and whose ide­o­log­i­cal impulse was to reshape the world, espe­cial­ly the Mid­dle East, in our image. But the neo­con­ser­v­a­tives in their ori­gins were peo­ple like Irv­ing Kris­tol, Nor­man Pod­horetz, Gertrude Him­mel­farb, Daniel Patrick Moyni­han and Nathan Glaz­er, who were at var­i­ous times in their life on the Left. But by the 1960s, most of them were Cold War lib­er­als. And they moved to the Right in reac­tion to the New Left — in reac­tion to cul­tur­al and domes­tic pol­i­cy issues like wel­fare, crime, affir­ma­tive action.

Dur­ing the 60s and 70s, they did not write much about for­eign pol­i­cy, and when they did, it was pret­ty stan­dard Cold War stuff — they were intense­ly con­cerned with Sovi­et pow­er, only tan­gen­tial­ly wor­ried about Israel. And even when they did voice con­cerns about Israel, like dur­ing the wars of 1967 and 1973, it was often through a domes­tic lens. For exam­ple, neo­con­ser­v­a­tives fret­ted that black Amer­i­can activists like Stoke­ly Carmichael sided with Pales­tini­ans out of anti­colo­nial sol­i­dar­i­ty — an align­ment that they saw as con­sis­tent with a grow­ing black-Jew­ish rift over domes­tic issues like affir­ma­tive action. This is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the way we now think about neoconservatives.

So my argu­ment is that the neo­con­ser­v­a­tives, more than even the Chris­t­ian Right, gave Con­ser­v­a­tives the lan­guage of the cul­ture wars — espe­cial­ly over the major issues of race and gender.

Take a fig­ure like Irv­ing Kris­tol — a sec­u­lar Jew, nev­er very reli­gious. But he came to the con­clu­sion that Amer­i­cans need­ed Chris­t­ian val­ues in the mid­dle of the 1970s when the Amer­i­ca he under­stood seemed to be crum­bling around him. He came to this con­clu­sion on this bedrock of repub­li­can notions that democ­ra­cy only worked if peo­ple were sub­ject­ed to checks. For him, the best kind of checks were those of cul­ture, like the con­straints of Christianity.

Talk about the issues of race and gen­der and how the move­ments of the 60s and 70s fit into the upend­ing of nor­ma­tive America.

These move­ments of the 1960s con­front­ed the nation with new peo­ples, new ideals, new artic­u­la­tions of the idea of the nation itself. There was a lot of upheaval in how Amer­i­cans con­cep­tu­al­ized what it meant to be an American.

You see this espe­cial­ly with chang­ing con­cep­tions of race that came out of the Civ­il Rights and Black Pow­er move­ments. If you were a lib­er­al on race issues in the mid­dle of the 1960s, you would have seen the pas­sage of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964, which grant­ed equal rights regard­less of race; the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, which abol­ished restric­tions on the abil­i­ty of African Amer­i­cans to vote, espe­cial­ly in the Jim Crow South — and you might have thought that we final­ly have achieved equal­i­ty, enough said.

But as we get to the 1980s and still see mas­sive lev­els of racial inequal­i­ty, which in many ways were actu­al­ly get­ting worse — this caused tur­moil for intel­lec­tu­als all over the polit­i­cal map. Peo­ple had to think about what race meant in terms of Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty in new and dif­fer­ent ways.

Peo­ple like Charles Mur­ray, who was a neo­con­ser­v­a­tive on social pol­i­cy and informed the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion’s ideas on race and affir­ma­tive action and wel­fare, argued that there were defi­cien­cies in black cul­ture, that wel­fare was enabling peo­ple to be lazy — very stan­dard for con­ser­v­a­tives today, but this emerged out of these cul­tur­al debates.

But then you have peo­ple on the oth­er side, like Der­rick Bell from Har­vard Law School, who was argu­ing that racism was endem­ic to Amer­i­can life, and per­haps there was no over­com­ing it. There was this very pes­simistic left-wing ver­sion of race and Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty, as well.

The issue of mod­ern, Enlight­en­ment val­ues were cen­tral to these fights. Peo­ple were increas­ing­ly con­ceiv­ing of these nor­ma­tive val­ues as a straight jack­et. While peo­ple on the right were fight­ing against many of these Enlight­en­ment ideals, many peo­ple on the Left were them­selves start­ing to reject Enlight­en­ment val­ues themselves.

Nor­ma­tive Amer­i­ca, in this per­va­sive­ly con­ser­v­a­tive cul­ture of the 1950s, was a cul­ture of Cold War lib­er­al­ism. Every­one who was either align­ing them­selves to the Cold War Left or the Right was reject­ing in some fash­ion Enlight­en­ment val­ues. Cold War Lib­er­als were inter­est­ed in empir­i­cal solu­tions to prob­lems, and peo­ple on both left and right were much more inter­est­ed in expos­ing all of that as a mask for white, patri­ar­chal pow­er; and you have peo­ple on the right say­ing it’s a cov­er for the bureau­cra­cy of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that they were reject­ing. So this polar­iza­tion in many ways moves the right and the left away from cen­tral­ist lib­er­al­ism, or takes on a rejec­tion of enlight­en­ment val­ues, to a degree.

A Cold War lib­er­al like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the long­time Har­vard his­to­ri­an and mem­ber of the Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion, was the clas­sic lib­er­al who comes to be seen dur­ing the cul­ture wars as a very con­ser­v­a­tive fig­ure, because he writes this book in the 1980s called The Dis­unit­ing of Amer­i­ca, in which he’s argu­ing against mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism as a rejec­tion of Lib­er­al Enlight­en­ment values.

He’s wor­ried about what he describes as a kind of cul­tur­al Balka­niza­tion of the U.S.

That’s right. Just as Irv­ing Kris­tol would have said the nation needs these Chris­t­ian val­ues as a bedrock that binds us togeth­er, Schlesinger would have argued that we need com­mon prin­ci­ples locat­ed in, say, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence and the Con­sti­tu­tion: com­mon Amer­i­can val­ues to bind us togeth­er. And he was very con­cerned that many peo­ple to his Left were reject­ing those val­ues, argu­ing that they served as a cov­er for racism or sexism.

You write about peo­ple on the Left real­iz­ing that, in addi­tion to restric­tive ideas about gen­der and race, per­haps the whole Amer­i­can project is rot­ten to the core, and they need a dif­fer­ent way to define them­selves. And so there increas­ing­ly was no uni­fy­ing project for the Left to feel a part of any­more — while the aver­age Amer­i­can still prob­a­bly want­ed to be a part of that kind of project.

There were some peo­ple from the 60s onward who saw the whole Amer­i­can project as irre­deemable: racist, sex­ist, impe­ri­al­ist. But for the most part that was a very small minority.

Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists, the peo­ple who Schlesinger was argu­ing against, just want­ed the U.S. to reflect what it actu­al­ly was: a very mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety. Peo­ple want­ed to stop the U.S. from think­ing of itself as bet­ter than oth­ers, reject Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism. But most of these peo­ple weren’t giv­ing up the project of the U.S., they just want­ed the project to look dif­fer­ent. Der­rick Bell, the crit­i­cal race the­o­rist and law pro­fes­sor who I write about in the book, was argu­ing that Amer­i­ca was irre­deemable; can nev­er be any­thing oth­er than racist. But the major­i­ty of say, social move­ment activists and pro­fes­sors in Eng­lish depart­ments were not going so far as to say that we need to burn the Amer­i­can project to the ground.

But most crit­ics of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists and oth­ers lumped them togeth­er with many oth­ers much far­ther to the Left. To con­ser­v­a­tives in gen­er­al, there was no dif­fer­ence to them between mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists and Afro-Cen­trists. In their eyes, both were reject­ing Amer­i­can ideals.

You say that the most rad­i­cal upend­ing of these nor­ma­tive val­ues was in terms of gen­der and sexuality.

Per­haps the most per­va­sive aspect of nor­ma­tive Amer­i­ca in the 1950s had a lot to do with gen­der. Women and men were expect­ed to behave in cer­tain ways. The fem­i­nist and gay rights move­ments just com­plete­ly oblit­er­at­ed that in a very quick fash­ion. That, more than any­thing else, was alarm­ing to many peo­ple, espe­cial­ly on the Chris­t­ian Right, who ground­ed their view of the world in very strict gen­der norms.

Let’s get into some of the great­est hits” of this era. You say that The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ was per­haps the key bat­tle of the cul­ture wars.

The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ was a Mar­tin Scors­ese-direct­ed film that came out in 1988, based on a nov­el from the 1950s, that tried to reimag­ine the life of Jesus and make him much more human than many peo­ple want­ed him to be. In the New Tes­ta­ment, before Jesus is cru­ci­fied, he has all these temp­ta­tions and Scors­ese thus want­ed to depict a Jesus tempt­ed by what most 27-year old men are tempt­ed by: sex. But many reli­gious con­ser­v­a­tives in the U.S. have deem­pha­sized these temp­ta­tions because they envi­sion Jesus through their nor­ma­tive polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al visions, which empha­size that sex out­side of het­ero­sex­u­al mar­riage is sinful.

Scors­ese spent a decade try­ing to get this pro­duced, which was so hard because it was so con­tro­ver­sial, because he empha­sized Jesus’s indis­cre­tions, which did not go over well. To me this is a key moment in the cul­ture wars because it demon­strat­ed the cul­tur­al gap between main­stream Hol­ly­wood and many Amer­i­cans who com­plete­ly reject­ed the film.

The stu­dio was receiv­ing some­thing like a mil­lion pieces of mail per week about this, right?

James Dob­son, a Chris­t­ian Right radio leader, said on his Focus on the Fam­i­ly” radio pro­gram that it was the most anti-Chris­t­ian movie ever made, before admit­ting that he had­n’t seen it. They had sent out this ear­ly ver­sion of the script that was very graph­ic sex­u­al­ly, and this made its way into mil­lions of Amer­i­cans’ homes through direct mail sent by Chris­t­ian Right groups like Moral Major­i­ty, and it became ammu­ni­tion for them to mail let­ters to the stu­dio to try to con­vince them not to pro­duce the film. The first stu­dio, in fact, dropped the film, even though they were all set to begin film­ing, because of the con­tro­ver­sy. When it opened, it was only in about 12 select cities, and you can imag­ine the cities: Chica­go, New York, San Fran­cis­co. And even then there were these mas­sive protests out­side the theaters.

And Piss Christ”?

Piss Christ is a piece of art from Andres Ser­ra­no; I think he made it in 1987. It’s a pho­to­graph­ic image of a jar of the artist’s urine and blood in which a cru­ci­fix is sub­merged. The big con­tro­ver­sy emerged when it was dis­cov­ered that the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts had fund­ed it. These funds go through Con­gress. When it was dis­cov­ered that the NEA had fund­ed an exhib­it that had allowed Piss Christ to be shown at exhibits through­out the coun­try and had allowed Piss Christ to trav­el around, that was pret­ty dis­turb­ing to peo­ple like Jesse Helms, per­haps the most con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber of the Sen­ate, from North Car­oli­na, who waged war on the NEA for about five years

Piss Christ,” you say, was not crit­i­cal­ly well-received. This kind of art seems to be what we would con­sid­er trolling” today, right? It’s like, Hey Chris­tians — look at this pic­ture of Jesus in a jar of urine! Are you mad? Are you?!’

Right. And if there was one guar­an­tee to gen­er­ate con­tro­ver­sy, Piss Christ” was it.

You argue, pret­ty provoca­tive­ly, in your con­clu­sion that the cul­ture wars are large­ly over.

To me, the log­ic of the cul­tur­al wars seems large­ly exhaust­ed. The Chris­t­ian right in many ways is kind of a lost cause. You have an increas­ing num­ber of con­ser­v­a­tive reli­gious fig­ures who are argu­ing the need to with­draw from pub­lic cul­ture and cre­ate their own autonomous cul­tur­al zones, where they can pre­pare for when the U.S. is once again ready for its ideals.

Many con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians, for exam­ple, still believe that homo­sex­u­al­i­ty is not only an abom­i­na­tion in the eyes of God but also a threat to nation­al val­ues. But they are less like­ly to make that argu­ment pub­licly and polit­i­cal­ly; instead their main tac­tic is reli­gious free­dom.” To me, this is a recog­ni­tion that they are los­ing the nation­al bat­tle, and they’re try­ing to cre­ate small­er zones in which they can dis­crim­i­nate in the name of reli­gious freedom.

It does feel like we’re see­ing the last gasps of some of these forces. On the oth­er hand, there are plen­ty of exam­ples in Amer­i­can his­to­ry of when forces on the Right are seem­ing­ly defeat­ed, and then just a few years lat­er, they are ascendant.

I’m not argu­ing that the Right is van­quished — far from it. But I think that the eco­nom­ic right is just much more where the focus is right now. Cul­tur­al con­ser­v­a­tives and the Chris­t­ian Right are not at the fore­front of conservatism.

You write in your intro­duc­tion about Thomas Frank’s What’s the Mat­ter with Kansas? Part of the the­sis in that book is that the Right has car­ried out this great swin­dle and has con­vinced large­ly rur­al, fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians to be the foot sol­diers of a right-wing eco­nom­ic agen­da that ulti­mate­ly screws them. The silent majority’s” cul­tur­al anger gets used to achieve eco­nom­ic ends for the elites. How is Frank’s argu­ment wrong?

I think it’s a lit­tle too dis­mis­sive of how impor­tant these cul­ture war issues were to mil­lions of peo­ple. Politi­cians by their very nature will be oppor­tunis­tic. Many con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians were oppor­tunis­tic when it came to issues like abor­tion. But that does­n’t mean that the peo­ple who were vot­ing Repub­li­can because of that issue were just duped. If you were liv­ing in Kansas, and you were con­ser­v­a­tive cul­tur­al­ly, are you going to vote for the par­ty that is going to speak to your deeply felt cul­tur­al val­ues, or for the par­ty which maybe can get you an extra $200 in your pay­check? You are going to vote for the par­ty that rep­re­sents you cul­tur­al­ly and religiously.

What’s the les­son to take from that for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty? Or the Left as a whole?

If you think about the Left­’s vic­to­ries in the 1960s, you see that the nation is far less sadis­tic than it was, in terms of race and gen­der from the pre­vi­ous decade. We can point to many, many suc­cess­es. These are suc­cess­es wrapped up in cul­tur­al val­ues and cul­tur­al rights. Peo­ple now can say they are part of the com­mon cul­ture in ways they pre­vi­ous­ly couldn’t.

I spent a year liv­ing in Den­mark while fin­ish­ing writ­ing this book. Den­mark is a coun­try of 5 mil­lion peo­ple, most­ly white Danes. They have a lot of immi­grants, and that’s increas­ing­ly an issue. Com­pared to the Unit­ed States, it’s a homoge­nous cul­ture. Per­haps one of the best five social democ­ra­cies in the world. Do these things work togeth­er? Can we have this cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion that was so suc­cess­ful in the 1960s, and also have a social democ­ra­cy in the Unit­ed States? I want to be opti­mistic and say yes, but that’s also the prob­lem we have to think about.

Have oth­er coun­tries expe­ri­enced their own cul­ture wars? Is there any ele­ment that is international?

I don’t think there is an ana­log in oth­er coun­tries. This is a pecu­liar­ly Amer­i­can thing. It’s not that oth­er coun­tries don’t have heat­ed debates about cul­tur­al issues. But I don’t think you can talk about France from the 1960s through the 21st cen­tu­ry as being riv­et­ed by these cul­tur­al wars.

The Unit­ed States has always been about an idea, much more so than oth­er nations, and this idea is debat­able. It is unsta­ble, and lends itself to cul­tur­al conflict.

This is the kind of ques­tion that his­to­ri­ans hate to be asked, but: Could it have been done dif­fer­ent­ly? Politi­cians like Ronald Rea­gan rode these cul­ture wars into pow­er and car­ried out an incred­i­bly dam­ag­ing eco­nom­ic and social agen­da. Was there any­thing that the Left could or should have done in the 1960s or 70s that would not have engen­dered this mas­sive backlash?

The com­mon white lib­er­al argu­ment is, if we would have just toned down our rhetoric, we could have got­ten these achieve­ments with­out the con­ser­v­a­tive back­lash. That’s fan­ta­sy. Any time the Left wins any vic­to­ries what­so­ev­er, there’s going to be a back­lash from the Right. Peo­ple aren’t going to give up their priv­i­leges with­out a fight.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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