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Monday, December 21, 2015

A Review of Andrew Hartman's A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars

Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University, had both fantastic and poor timing in publishing this year his book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Fantastic in that the book turned out to be incredibly timely, due to the recrudescence of the culture wars on and off campus; poor in that the book is labeled as history and he doubles down on that label, writing, "This book gives the culture wars a history—because they are history. The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course." However much they enjoyed the book, reviewers looked around them and disagreed; indeed, they had enjoyed the book because it was so timely. 

Here is my review of the book for Commonweal. Given my field and its close relationship to the subject of the book, I was pleased to read it, although I ended up underwhelmed--by the effect his sympathies have on the analysis, by its over-reliance on a particular definition of power and resistance as the primary subject of the culture wars, and by the recent appearance of a similar but, I think, better book, Age of Fracture, by Daniel T. Rodgers. (As a side note, I would add that this and other histories don't give enough attention to the Dionysian side of 60s culture, which was relevant well into the 70s and which has never figured as much in the legal history/theory literature as it ought to.)

In the end, I think Hartman's claim about the culture wars being "history" is actually subtler and more interesting than other reviewers thought, although his claim--that the previous culture wars ended up neglecting questions of class and capitalism that will have to feature more prominently in any subsequent conflicts--should have altered and enriched both his history and the predictions he offers in the book more than it does. I close on a cheery note:

It cannot be a surprise that either liberatory or reactionary movements of this sort sometimes ended up preoccupied more with who would get to be department chair than with deeper questions of social and economic justice. Yet, early on Hartman does not have much patience for those who argued that the left had forsaken its working-class constituency in what he calls “normative America” for a new brand of emancipatory cultural politics. A more patient engagement with this argument would have allowed him to limn the limits of the “New Left” from the start. It might also have given him a little more sympathy, if not for the leading think-tank neoconservatives, then at least for all those bewildered people drifting within “normative America” itself. As it is, although this is not an especially partial or unfair account, there is no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Sometimes he conveys these very subtly, but even then they distort the overall picture. The left is described in essentially objective terms, allowed to speak for itself, sometimes criticized, but almost always forgiven. The right, by contrast, is psychoanalyzed and subjected to frequent spot-checks for concealed motives.

Hartman is pleased with the victories won by the “New Left,” but now urges us to place our focus on economic and not just cultural issues. But the culture wars he describes in this book have long conditioned us to see the personal as political and to identify justice narrowly with personal liberation. He is right to think that this approach leaves important issues off the table. But then, it always did. Why, the reader may wonder, does Hartman seem to notice this problem only at the end of his story? And why, as we enter a new era of similar conflict, should we doubt that the same mistake will happen again?

 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 21, 2015 at 01:31 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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