Although some of the greatest achievements by Americans lie in the plastic and performing arts and in literature―anything from jazz and musical theatre to motion pictures and abstract expressionism, Herman Melville and Mark Twain―it seems to be an American habit to concentrate energy and imagination in the empirical sciences and applied arts. So, Americans excel in the fields of scientific and technological innovation and in the eminently practical domains of law and philosophy where they may embrace pragmatic solutions to what might otherwise seem to be abstract and ultimately intractable dilemmas.
In the alternative, however, the United States of America is also a land in which both fundamentalist and messianic religious traditions have great caché among a larger portion of the population than any other prosperous modern society. So, the same people who invented personal computers, email, chemotherapy, defibrillator paddles, crash test dummies, traffic lights, carbon dating, swivel chairs, post-it notes, zippers, chocolate chip cookies, dental floss, credit and debit cards and the Ferris wheel also believe in angels, demons and the literal truth of the book of Genesis more fervently than do the populations of any other modern technological society.
The United States is a paradox in many ways, so much so that it fits nicely within the model used by Gregory Bateson (1956, 1972) to describe schizophrenia. Its popular culture and its power centres alike suffer from “double bind.” Its thinkers and doers frequently try to maintain two contradictory ideas at the same time. The US purports to be the “land of the free,” yet it clung to the “peculiar institution” of slavery and fought a hideous civil war over the matter so recently that I vividly recall a news broadcast on the radio announcing the death (of natural causes) of the last registered civil war soldier.
Many Americans once famously welcomed the poor, tired, homeless masses, the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore”; and now cheer Donald Trump, a bizarre billionaire politician who wants to build a 2,000-mile wall along its southern border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico to keep out Latino migrants and Scott Walker, a favourite of the multi-billionaire Koch Brothers who has publically contemplated building another one along the northern 4,000-mile border with Canada as well. With such ideas in the minds of allegedly credible national leaders, the prospects for “cognitive dissonance disorder” are immense.
The problem is compounded in Andrew Hartman’s book by the use of the phrase the “soul of America.” He is not satisfied with an exercise in the history of ideas or the sociology of knowledge. He wants to sort out the spiritual life of a vast, powerful and diverse nation of over three hundred million people.
Full disclosure: I get nervous when I hear talk of collective minds and thoughts, never mind souls. The notion of “national character” seems to me to be just one or two slippery steps away from proclamations of the cultural superiority of one tribe, ethnicity or race and the inferiority of all others. Even the celebration of a particular “way of life” can encourage the denigration of alternatives, the creation of stereotypes and, in extremis, myths made up to promote nationalism and to justify hostilities against other “soulless” or at least less spiritually worthy peoples and sometimes whole civilizations. I need not, I hope, dwell on the horrific implications of cultural narcissism accompanied by the demonization of the “other.”
It is therefore necessary to maintain a cautious scepticism when speaking of Hartman’s subject. Such scepticism, of course, can be justified by appealing to one of the enduring themes in the American narrative itself. A distinctive thread in the American cultural fabric is the realistic, “no nonsense” tradition that is displayed by many American icons. “Down-to-earth” approaches to work and life are present in much that appears to be quintessentially American. In the USA, for instance, people pay homage to the myths and realities associated with Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, Tom Sawyer, C. S. Pierce, John Dewey, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Coca-cola, Andy Hardy, Alcoholics Anonymous, Master Card, Wal-Mart, Steve Jobs and Rocky Balboa.
Americans honour, for example, the indefatigable “can-do” mentality, indomitable fortitude and “stick-to-it” enthusiasm of Dan Cnossen, the Navy Seal who lost both legs in Afghanistan and went on to be a cross-country skier and biathlete who competed with distinction at the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia and Josh Sweeney, the US Marine who endured a similar fate and achieved even greater success by scoring the gold-medal winning goal in Sledge Hockey at the same tournament. Americans likewise praise Aron Lee Ralston, the outdoorsman and (now) motivational speaker who cut off his forearm with a dull knife in order to free himself from a large dislodged rock that had pinned him against a canyon wall. These heroes did not necessarily think much about abstract concepts or dwell on the metaphysical meanings of their tribulations and triumphs. They simply saw problems and sought to fix them.
It’s not that any or all of these characters (real or imagined) and brands had (or lacked) religious convictions, but that each one symbolized practical thought and action over speculative philosophy. They did not epitomize quietism or stoicism, cynicism or irony; they demonstrated personal commitment to getting a job done with little appeal to supernatural intervention. They embodied courage, dogged determination, self-reliance and ingenuity. Such matter-of-fact champions of the much revered “common man” present one admirable model of the putative American personality. They present a dignified and noble (though understated) image. Even at the level of stereotype, however, there is much more to the American temperament than this.
The roots of the “American dilemma” (pace Gunnar Myrdal) are to be found in the enigma of its “revolutionary” past. As the Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant (1995: 4) perceptively observed, the United States is the only society which has had “no history of its own before the age of progress”; indeed, its national conversations are contained wholly within that tradition. As a result, despite the furious debates that occur within it and the often extraordinary personalities whose celebrity it sustains, there are remarkably few serious philosophical differences in the beliefs of its leading figures, whether in politics, business, the arts and sciences, or any other notable human endeavour.
The United States, after all, is a nation founded almost exclusively on eighteenth-century liberal thought. It is a child of the European Enlightenment. Its intellectual forebears can be found mainly in France, Scotland and England. It carries on habits of mind that embrace empiricism and optimism. As its far-famed Declaration of Independence makes clear, it is devoted to the political principle of individual liberty and the economic principle of a free market, both of which are tied to the social goal of what C. B. Macpherson (1962) called “possessive individualism.” No serious candidate for the federal presidency or a seat on a local municipal council would deny this elemental creed. At the same time, no politician would finish an important public speech without a reference to the deity and without intoning the phrase “God bless America!”
On a more mundane level, as historian Louis Hartz (1955) forcefully argued, “liberalism” is the defining political ideology in the USA. All quarrels take place within that singular tradition. Furthermore, as Sheldon Wolin (1976: 6) stressed on the eve of the two hundredth anniversary of the American revolution and the founding of the new republic, the “American consensus evolved as a distillation of Lockean liberalism.” There is therefore next to no ideological diversity or intellectual heterogeneity in the contemporary United States. What passes for American “conservatism” is nothing more than “the defence of liberal principles and practices,” whereas what is called American “liberalism” is simply the extension and adaptations of those same principles and practices to more modern times. There is, therefore, a confluence in foundational opinion that leaves American conservatism “in something like a permanent identity crisis, without a distinctive idiom or vision” of its own.
The (mainly) rhetorical violence and evident visceral hatred of America’s “culture wars” do not arise from fundamental conflicts between different ideologies, but from contrasting interpretations of the meanings, nuances and details of the same dominant dogma and homogenous doctrine. The United States is an archetypal extended family writ large and, in such social formations, internal disagreements and domestic disputes can be harsh indeed.
The focus of Andrew Hartman’s excursion into the blistered soul of America spans a relative short space of time, merely that of my adult life. It begins with the tumultuous 1960s, a decade in which he attributes “normative American fragmentation” to the rise of the New Left. That vaguely defined and disparate collection was inspired by such mildly anarchic and moderately Marxist public intellectuals as Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills. They were a little less sexually repressed, somewhat more pharmaceutically experimental and plainly more devoted to rock music than their parents who had endured the rigors of the Great Depression and World War II and who had congratulated themselves on building a land of power and glory, “the greatest society in the history of the world”―complete with a burgeoning middle class, the status of a global superpower, Disneyworld, Henry Fonda and James Stewart (whether as the definitive cowboy hero, the redemptive George Bailey in “A Wonderful Life” or the amiably eccentric alcoholic Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey).”
The political views of the New Left supported civil rights, opposed the military adventurism in Vietnam and spoke aspirationally of “participatory democracy.” They challenged the complacency of their parents. From Hartman’s perspective, they provoked the remarkable rise of the religious right, the resurgence of uncritical patriotism and stimulated the primeval hatred of the so-called “silent majority” for the moral decline of privileged youth who, they reasoned, had betrayed the sacrifices of the older, greater generation. So, when President Nixon called upon them, they were happy to slap some sense into the pampered youngsters who had dared to spit on Uncle Sam. For Hartman the descent into the “shouting match” across the generation gap was the “dialectic of the cultural revolution that would become known as the sixties.” The cultural fractures and fault lines created then have carried on through the Reagan era, the Clinton era, and the Bush era and remain as jagged as ever in the Obama era.
The culture wars have taken many forms. Hartman is especially interested in the religious dimension and the squabbles over “secular humanism.” They also have to do with “identity politics” which refers to everything from feminism to racism and includes special cases such as the LGBT(Q) movement, aboriginal demands for restitution and simple matters of multiculturalism. It is especially visible in quarrels over education whether in so-called “charter schools” or in the increasingly oversensitive arenas of higher education. Of interest as well, of course, is the ever-present myth of American Exceptionalism.
Looking back on the past half-century, I can almost empathize with Hartman’s claim that the 1960s marked a “perfect storm” made up of technological innovations and economic renovations, racial challenges, the first inklings of the second wave of feminism, a quickly extinguished flame of optimism in projects such as the “Peace Corps” and Lyndon Johnson’s short-lived commitment to the “Great Society,” all mixed together with the newly discovered “other America” of poverty, oppression and despair on the one hand and rise of aggressive neoliberalism under the slogan “greed is good” on the other. It can be seen as “a massing of forces so inchoate that Hartman’s achievement in making clear sense of how the New Left and related groups came to be in alliance is one that ranks alongside the singing of the Homeric catalogue of ships. We see the period for what it was: a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes historical accident” (Palaima, 2015).
The New Left was born at the founding of the Students for a Democratic Society Port Huron, Michigan in 1962 and expired at Kent, Ohio in 1970 when the National Guard opened fire on students demonstrating against the war. John Hiatt (1973) summed up the denouement by chiding the emerging disco culture:
Martha and Vandellas taught you how to do as you please/
Now all of you idiots are dancing with the Bee Gees ...
Now that there’s no more dancing in the street
Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison perished in 1970. Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1976. Abbie Hoffman committed suicide in 1989. Kurt Vonnegut (2005) declared himself a “man without a country” at the age of 83. Some people chose to hold out against the inevitable longer than others.
Andrew Hartman, however, is not one of the casualties of the culture wars. He describes in some detail the (so far) forty-year hold that the right-wing has had on American political discourse. He focuses in on leaders such as Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz and a surprising number of reconstructed former Trotskyites. He explores the influence of University of Chicago academics such as philosopher Leo Strauss (Drury, 1988, 1999) and economist Milton Friedman (Stedman Jones, 2012). He considers the role of acolytes including former US Attorney General John Ashcroft and US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (the brains behind President George W. Bush) that continues to this day (Boyle, 2014). In the end, however, he reveals a mode of thinking with which I cannot agree, and he comes to a conclusion that I do not think is justified.
Tod Lindberg, writing in The Wall Street Journal (2015, June 4) claims that Mr. Hartman adopts an approach that is not in any way new. By analyzing the “culture wars” as a rift within “normative” America, which is to say a battle of will between “left-wing intellectuals and activists who sought fundamental social change and conservative or neoconservative counterparts seeking to resist it,” he puts Hartman in the same camp as people from Irving Kristol to Pat Buchanan. He sees Hartman as an observer who takes ideas more seriously as dynamic forces in history than as reflections of material relations forged by political and economic power structures. My own perspective is that he has the relationship reversed. Ideology and the “great leaders” who seem to shape events are more the products than the makers of their times. They are noticeable and often dramatic, but they are akin to the whitecaps on the surface of the seas or, perhaps, the waves that crash upon the shores; in the longer view, however, they remain mostly flotsam and jetsam or, at most, spectacular ephemera. It is the power of the currents and the tides that determine the nature and effects of the oceans.
That said, my more immediate concern is with the view that the culture wars are all but over, that the forces of reaction are largely spent, and that, again in Lindberg’s words, “the right’s defense of traditional values has been a failure.” Hartman certainly seems to believe that the history of the culture wars is precisely that ... history. As such, his book could be read to good effect by the Millennials who do not seem to know where we are, much less how we got here; so, a review of recent events might provide them with some context and a “lens” through which to gaze back into the past in hopes of seeing a map to the future. On the whole, though, I have trouble imagining that the authorities in government, finance, commerce, industry and education are exhausted. They seem to me to be as firmly in charge as they were before anyone could think of the word “occupy” in terms permanently associated with the division between the “1%” and the “99%”.
Observing the American scene, it is of course possible to interpret the unexpected strength of Bernie Sanders’ early campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination as a sign that the liberal left may be making a resurgence after close to half a century in the doldrums. It is also possible to see the chaos in the Republican Party and the unimpressive array of second-tier politicians or, worse (much worse) seeking to make a credible run at the White House. At the same time, the endemic racial divide, the agony of perpetual war (Vidal, 2002), and the increasing gap between obscene wealth and unsustainable poverty are hardly indicators that the yeasty rebelliousness of the 1960s has prevailed.
This is not to deny that the future may be marginally, if temporarily, brighter. The right is in apparent political distress both in the United States and elsewhere. The improbable but not impossible prospect of Jeremy Corbyn emerging victorious as the new leader of the British Labour Party, the chance that Tom Mulcair might become the next Prime Minister of Canada and the potential of Senator Sanders to influence the 2016 agenda in the United States cannot be predismissed. If any of those possibilities come to pass in the Anglo-American democracies and if the impending global ecological, economic and demographic crises are significantly less catastrophic than we have any good reason to expect, then we might think again.
For the moment, however, I will wager that the potential sources of transformational change, like the sea currents, may be moving slowly but powerfully toward the material conditions that could make a significant political difference; but, as educators, we are compelled to contemplate the foolishness of “trigger notices” in course syllabi as the grinding weight of corporatist education robs the classroom of much of its authentic educational value. Those who espouse emancipatory education are hard-pressed to celebrate a victory and those who insist that traditional values have been undone by pot-smoking hippies have not noticed that college students today seem to be more concerned with their future careers than with political engagement, no matter how many desultory nods they may give to the environment and no matter how enlightened their attitudes toward matters of sexual orientation and racism may appear to be. Andrew Hartman, then, has provided a useful work that summarizes the attitudes and actions, beliefs and behaviour of a variety of fascinating people embroiled in a battle of wits and wills. In the end, however, the enduring lessons of the 1960s and beyond have yet to be fully learned.
Let me then leave the last word on the matter to Tom Palaima (2015):
- I am not sure my country has the soul that historian Andrew Hartman gives it metaphorically in his title. Nor am I sure that there is a God lending support to the factions in the culture wars that claim to practise and promote what they call his political, moral and ethical values. But if both exist, Hartman’s take on how, since the 1960s, different groups of Americans have fought to define and control our way of life convinces me that we should pray for mercy on our souls.
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Bateson, G. (1972). Double Bind, 1969. Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press: 271-278.
Boyle, F. (2014, March 15). University of Chicago neo-nazi neo-cons: Obama, Nuland and Ukraine. Retrieved March 17 from http://www.countercurrents.org/boyle150314.htm
Drury, S. (1988). The political ideas of Leo Strauss, revised edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Drury, S. (1999). Leo Strauss and the American right. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Grant, G. (1995). Philosophy in the mass age. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
Hartz, L. (1955). The liberal tradition in America: An interpretation of American political thought since the revolution. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.
Hiatt, J. (1973). (No More) Dancing in the Street. Lyrics retrieved June 18, 2015 from http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnhiatt/nomoredancinginthestreet.html
Judis, J. (1995). Trotskyism to anarchism: The neoconservative revolution. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved May 7, 2015 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/1995-07-01/trotskyism-anachronism-neoconservative-revolution
Lindberg, T. (2015, June 4). The liberals won the war. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 16, 2015 from http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-liberals-won-the-war-1433459775
Macpherson, C. (1962). The political theory of possessive individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Palaima, T. (2015). Review of A war for the soul of America: A history of the culture wars. Times Higher Education. Retrieved July 3, 2015 from https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/a-war-for-the-soul-of-america-a-history-of-the-culture-wars-by-andrew-hartman/2020236.article
Stedman Jones, D. (2012). Masters of the universe: Friedman and the birth of neoliberal politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Vidal, G. (2002). Perpetual war for perpetual peace: How we got to be so hated. New York, NY: Thunder Mouth Press.
Vonnegut, K. (2005). A man without a country. New York: Seven Stories Press.
Wolin, S. (1976). The new conservatives. New York Review of Books 23(1).
Howard A. Doughty, teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com