Culture Wars

  • Hartman, Andrew. A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Rodgers, Daniel T. Age of Fracture. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press, 2012.

In our final week of readings, we are reading two monographs that address the latter half of the twentieth century and the drastic changes taking place. Both are relatively recent texts (Hartman was published in 2015 and Rodgers in 2011) address the cultural changes that came in the wake of the New Left and the long sixties.

Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture is an intellectual history of the final quarter of the twentieth century. He is interested in exploring the ways “understandings of identity, society, economy, nation, and time were argued out” and how through that process and struggle, society and culture itself changed. He does this by focusing on the language and rhetoric of influential individuals. His first chapter on presidential rhetoric and its transformation in the 1970s and after is fascinating. Here Rodgers is able to illustrate the transition from Cold War language “thick with a sense of society, history, responsibility” and replaced with this optimism and “we the people” individuality. Rodgers discusses a plethora of issues including “the economic crisis of the 1970s, the new shape of finance capitalism and global markets, the struggle to hold identities stable where race and gender proved unnervingly divisive, the linguistic turn in culture in an age of commercial and malleable signifiers, the nature of freedom and obligation in a multicultural and increasingly unequal society, and the collapse of Communism.” Within each of these conflicts, Rodgers illustrates the tensions surrounding established paradigms and the recrafting of new ones. One such example is Rodger’s discussion regarding “power” and the changing understanding of “power” in academia. He notes the works of E.P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, and Michel Foucault as power was challenged and reworked. Rodgers notes that “the search for words and analytics for power and domination, which began so confidently, seemed ultimately to have found fragments, traces, and infinitely receding horizons.”

Hartman’s text, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, is a much broader and s sweeping approach to the culture wars. Whereas Rodgers is much more acute in its focus and framework, Hartman opens up the analysis to various topics and sources coming out of the culture wars. Hartman argues that you can identify which side of the culture war an individual subscribes to by their view of the sixties. He notes that “After the sixties – and during the culture wars – whether one thought the nation was in moral decline was often a correlative of whether one was liberal or conservative.” As such, Hartman understands the culture wars as offering “insight into the genuine transformation of American political culture that happened during the sixties.” He does this by exploring a plethora of topics and areas of engagement between liberals and neoconservatives. Hartman delves into the rise of the Christian Right and the religious foundation of the neoconservative movement. He touches on Engel v. Vitale and the issue of “secularization” in society and in schools. As Hartman discussed the issues of secularization, he mentions that twentieth-century Americans became more secular due not to a lapse in numbers of religious people but rather to a waning in the scope of religious authority. This prompted flashes to David Hollinger’s article “The ‘Secularization’ Question and the United States in the 20th Century” which argues that there can be a difference between secularization and dechristianization. Furthermore, this prompted questions of how Hartman understands religion (largely institutional and political) and religion’s argued opposite, secularization (the lack of that institution and influence). Hartman’s ensuing chapters each take on an arena of debate, contest, and struggle. Each of Hartman’s ensuing chapters delves into a different arena of contest, struggle, and debate. He discusses race and the color line, gender, popular culture, religion in public education, academic thought, and the construction and interpretation of history. A good companion text to Hartman would be Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God as it would provide context to the rise of the religious right in politics and the entrenching of religiosity in various presidential administrations.

Discussion Questions;
1. How does Rodgers’s argument about changing language and structures relate to other texts we have read? What is the power and influence that language carries?

2. How does Hartman frame or define “religion” and “secular” in his text? Is there a blur between the two?


Culture Wars

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