By David Trend:
Throughout its existence the United States has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity, economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and “outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature? Or is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.? Could it be that prejudice is the real legacy of the “American Exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of immigrants, and more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of normalcy?
I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency. Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession. Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization. Opinions varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those asserting the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in the middle of the curve on most issues. My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem” shouldn’t be regarded problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand. But as a book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience America’s compulsive divisiveness.
Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where months before law enforcement officers had killed an unarmed black teenager. “We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.” Continue reading “Belonging Where?”
Worries about a “divided” America are no secret. In the wake of several evenly divided election campaigns and polls showing vast public disagreement on vital social issues, fears are arising that the once “united” states are being riven apart by conflicting views on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and the war in Iraq. As a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press put it, “The red states get redder and the blue states get bluer, and the political map of the United States takes on the coloration of the Civil War.”A lengthy debate on the subject has been taking place in American society for much of the past two decades, touched off by a handful of books published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most influential of these were Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, and E.D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know in 1987. Both books argued that America had been weakened by a declining cultural values, specifically by the abandonment by schools of the great books and traditions of Western Thought.
These debates were summarized in James Jefferson Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars. Hunter’s book, whose title gave the conflicts a name, asserted that a new and expansive discontent had taken over the country. “The contemporary culture war is not just an expression of different ‘opinions’ or ‘attitudes’ on this or that issue, like abortion,” Hunter wrote. “The culture war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.” Several years later, Hunter warned the controversies might even trigger violent conflict. With the dawn of the 2000s the culture wars moved from the margins of academic discourse to the center of mainstream debate and concern. Search the term “culture war” at the Harvard University library and you’ll come up with 1308 entries. The Library of Congress posts over 10,000 books with titles like Culture Wars, Culture War? Beyond the Culture Wars, Is There a Culture War?, Culture Warrior, etc.
A Culture Divided explores both the symptoms and causes of these contemporary divides in the United States, illustrating how differences of perspective and opinion have persisted throughout the nation’s history––from the earliest days of the revolution to the most recent events in international diplomacy. A Culture Divided takes the somewhat contradictory position that the divided character of the American nation is both a curse and a blessing, giving rise to some of the nation’s most vexing social and political problems, but at the same time imbuing the United States with a freshness and vitality that have kept its values relevant––or at least potentially so. Continue reading “A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)”
We live in an era of democratic contradiction. As the Cold War recedes into history and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy spreads around the globe, the domestic state of democracy within the United States continues to erode. Rather than a nation where citizens feel empowered in their common governance, the US has become a land of where the vast majority of citizens hate their leaders yet never vote. Massive anti-incumbency sentiments and resentment toward representative government parallel the rise of grassroots militia movements and media demagogues. Clearly something has gone wrong with democracy in the US–or more precisely with the way democracy is understood and exercised.
Nowhere are these difficulties more pronounced than in battles over cultural issues. Debates about canonical values, revisionist curricula, artistic censorship, and freedom of expression have moved from the margins of public debate to its center. Increasingly, people across the political spectrum recognize the strategic role of the arts and humanities in shaping human identities and influencing politics. At a historical moment lacking in superpower conflicts, ideological debate has become internalized as it did in the 1950s. Once again battles that were waged with guns and bullets are now fought with ideas and symbols. And once again access to the debate is a crucial issue, as attempts are made to exclude voices that would contest the status quo.
This book is premised on the regrettable fact that the US has nothing even approaching an egalitarian realm of public communication and civic ritual. Although identity politics and the so-called “culture wars” have done much to expand the national conversation about pluralism and values, these issues have also induced heightened levels of divisiveness and antagonism. As television and computers have made more information available to people than ever before, the electorate finds itself increasingly uninformed and confused. And while democracy is a word that politicians and media personalities bandy about with great alacrity, its usefulness has become all but exhausted by divergent interests it has come to serve.