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.
Pick up any newspaper and it’s clear that the United States is facing a democratic crisis. Conventional definitions of citizenship and national identity have been thrown into question by ruptures in the global political landscape, changing post-industrial economic relations, shifting racial demographics, and new attitudes toward sexuality and religion. In a post-cold war era lacking in superpower conflicts, old fears of foreign insurgency have been supplanted by anxieties about trade deficits, declining educational standards, and a loss of common purpose. As social inequities continue to increase, citizens are losing faith in the government and the master narratives supporting it.
Few could have predicted the speed with which Europe would be reconfigured by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Yet rather than easing international tensions, these events have triggered new forms of national chauvinism and regional antagonism. Complicating matters further is the so-called post-Fordist restructuring of global capitalism. As the world evolves into a transnational marketplace and the production of goods and services has become more fluid and decentralized, the distance between rich and poor nations has continued to widen. Meanwhile, within the U.S. a once dominant white majority is quickly being diminished by communities of color. Factor in the growing influence of feminism, challenges to the traditional nuclear family, and more recent activism supporting the rights of lesbians and gay men, and it becomes clear that a massive movement—indeed, a majority movement—is rising to confront the reigning order.
Not surprisingly, these shifts have produced considerable public tension, along with a disturbing tendency to reach for quick and easy ways to settle disputes. Witness recent social unrest in cities from Los Angles to Atlanta, the broad-based hostility toward legislative and judicial figures, and the remarkable popularity of such reactionary personas as the self-proclaimed “doctor of democracy” Rush Limbaugh. Claiming to appeal to populist sentiments this new breed of would-be demagogues has emerged to promote a xenophobic politics of fear and hatred propped up by an ever more puritanical set of cultural standards.