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Scrapping Over America’s Soul

ISSUE:  Winter 1993
Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. By James Davidson Hunter. Basic Books. $25. 00.

Among the brickbats likely to be thrown at Hunter’s study of why we are so embroiled in battles about the family, funding for the arts, education, law, and politics is the accusation that Culture Wars turns out to be a balanced book. Imagining the outrage of such evenhandedness is likely to provoke, I am reminded of the wedding guest who knocks everything from the food to the musicians, but who saves his best shot for last: “also, the bride is too beautiful!” The quip is meant to show how easily, and foolishly, a virtue can be undermined, but I suspect that this bit of Yiddish humor will fall on deaf ears in 1993. For what advocates on both sides of our cultural divide want is confirmation rather than complication, ammunition rather than information. Cultural Wars has the nasty habit of giving half a loaf to each side.

All of which makes Hunter that rarest of avis rara— namely, a professor able to put a human face on intellectual disputes. That is why his book begins with a series of portraits: Chuck Mcllhenny, a 43-year-old minister from San Francisco, who opposes Proposition S (a referendum that would permit unmarried couples—including gay and lesbian couples—to register their “domestic partnership” with the city clerk and thereby gain certain hospital visition and bereavement rights) and Richmond Young, a 38-year-old editor who has come out of the closet to work on behalf of its passage; Yehuda Levin, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from Brooklyn, who engages in acts of civil disobedience (called “rescues”) at abortion centers and Bea Blair, an Episcopalian whose “liberation theology leads her to work for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL); Mae Duggin, founder and president of the Citizens for Educational Freedom, who works to put God back into our schools and their curricula and Harriet Woods, a secular humanist, who insists that tolerance be the cornerstone of democratic life. Hunter’s profiles not only suggest that the disparate positions on matters of public policy are reflections of deeply held, albeit inalterably opposed, value systems, but also that each merits a measure of admiration:

All six people are basically middle-class Americans who are actively involved in their own neighborhoods and cities. In each case, their involvement is born out of a deep concern for the character of life—first and foremost in the places where they live, but also very much within the country as a whole. Each of them was able to draw out the implications of the particular controversy at hand for the character of life in the nation. In the very best sense of the term, then, each is a responsible and engaged citizen; words and phrases such as truth, justice, the public good, and national purpose have important personal meanings for them.

How, then, does one decide who is speaking rot? And, perhaps more troubling, how does one distinguish the actions that preserve our national fabric from those which undermine it? If there is a legitimate frustration with Culture Wars it may be in the patient, methodical way Hunter ducks these questions until his final pages. Granted, historical analogues have their place and Hunter drags us through a good many of them, but again and again his point seems to be that the configurations that once pitted Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons against one another no longer quite apply:

. . . the cultural hostilities dominant over the better part of American history have taken place within the boundaries of a larger biblical culture—among numerous Protestant groups, and Catholics and Jews—over such issues as doctrine, ritual observance, and religious organization. Underlying their disagreements, therefore, were basic agreements about the order of life in community and nation—agreements forged by biblical symbols and imagery.

For better or worse, these agreements have largely unraveled, and what we now face is a profound difference in world views. The result is what Hunter calls a “cleavage” at the very heart of contemporary culture created by a clash between “the impulse toward orthodoxy and the impulse toward progressivism.” Central to those of the orthodox perspective—whether they be Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, or Orthodox Jews—is a “commitment on the part of adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority.” Share a sense that God defines consistent, unchangeable values, and it is not hard to see how everything from prayer in the schools to stands against publicly funded “pornographic art” can become the stuff of “common cause.” By contrast, those in the progressivist camp share a “tendency to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.” For such people— who run a wide gamut from the vaguely religious to the openly agnostic or atheistic—fundamentalism no longer has a binding authority on their lives; rather, various strains of secular humanism (a term of progressivist pride and orthodox scorn) are the arbiters of conscience. The struggle to define America’s soul takes place as one flashpoint issue after another widens and deepens this polarization. Indeed, Hunter argues that we have not suffered through a period of such basic disagreement since the Civil War.

Collecting evidence to support the view that a kulturkampf of shivery, apocalyptic proportions lies just around the next bend is not difficult, especially if one concentrates on the fringes rather than the mainstream. Here, Hunter apparently wants to have it both ways. He packs his study with vivid, eye-catching examples of cultural extremism from direct mail campaigns and the more celebrated cases paraded through the public media (e. g., Stanford’s curricular troubles with its “Western Culture” requirement or Jesse Helms bringing his legislative muscle to bear against the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA]); at the same time he insists that most Americans shy away from politics in general, and extremist politics in particular.

Granted, it’s hard for John Q. Citizen to watch the clashes that unfold regularly on everything from ABC’s “Nightline” to “Geraldo” without choosing up sides—and this is doubly true when a controversial issue camps itself outside his door. Stir his righteous indignation—by insisting that Creationism be taught in the local high school or by erecting an abortion clinic in the neighborhood—and you will discover how dated Thoreau’s notion about most people living “lives of quiet desperation” has become. As one brouhaha after another makes clear, outraged people are not only “noisy,” but all of them, orthodox and progressive alike, know the words to “We Shall Overcome.” Indeed, never have we been so bombarded by appeals to “conscience” and by the recycled tactics of the Civic Rights Movement. And Hunter is surely right when he sees such clashes—whether they be for or against gay rights; for or against abortion; for or against multiculturalism—as essentially cast in religious terms.

Nonetheless, my hunch is that when most Americans think of “fanaticism,” pictures of Iranian fundamentalists dance inside their heads. Our traditions, however wide the gap between ideal and reality, still speak to tolerance, to the give-and-take essential to the democratic process. However thrilling visions of Armageddon might be to some, it is an anathema to far more. And it is here where Hunter knows enough to know that what sets hearts aflutter in the universities—rarefied talk about death of God theologies, deconstruction, and the like—has very little to do with the public discourse set into motion by what he calls “knowledge workers”: public policy specialists located in think tanks, independent writers and ideologues, journalists and editors. But even this latter group, influential as they are, barely touch the private concerns of private citizens: “Public discourse is largely a language of elites. This is the reason why the vast majority of Americans who are somewhere in the middle of these debates are not heard. They have little access to the tools of public culture that elites have.”

As to those in the trenches, Hunter sums up their situation this way: “In the final analysis, each side of the cultural divide can only talk past the other”:

Extremes on each side of the cultural divide, in other words, engage in a strange form of double talk: each side insists that the other has a right to exist and to exercise free speech; at the same time, the opposition is judged illegitimate by virtue of the substance of its message (for example, the opposition is “unpatriotic,” “un-American,” or “undemocratic”) and, by implication, it should not exist and should not voice its opinion. To put this more sharply, the implication is that since the opposition is a danger to society, the social order would be better off if it did not exist or at least if it were not a significant player in public life.

Who has the edge? My hunch is that Hunter feels the nod must go to the progressives, not only because the Religious Right has largely self-destructed as a string of scandals often involving TV evangelists depleted their coffers and weakened their influence, but also because progressives continue to dominate the urban centers that significantly affect the ethos of public culture. Indeed, it is far more likely that the orthodox alliance will, in Hunter’s words, “become so assimilated to the progressive political (and linguistic) culture that they will not be capable of offering any effective opposition to the world view that currently plagues them.”

Finally, what does Hunter propose we do to insure a genuine and peaceable pluralism? First, we must change the environment of public discourse to create the possibility of genuine debate, one in which all sides receive a fair hearing; and then we must not only recognize that the “sacred” means quite differing things in different moral communities, but also that there are inherent weaknesses, even dangers, in our own moral commitments. A tall, idealistic order? Absolutely, but if Hunter is even half right about the world percolating outside the ivory tower, I suspect that a splash of cold, common-sensical water— dousing both sides—is called for. As things now stand, the orthodox alliance may well be the last unprotected minority on college campuses; heap derision on a “creationist” and no Dean will blink, much less take an official complaint about p. c. misconduct seriously. On the other hand, progressivists grow weary of being consigned to hell’s outer circles because “secular humanism” is equated with devil worship. There must be a way to lower the temperature without giving up either our national ideals or our collective soul. Culture Wars strikes me as an important step in opening up precisely this crucial debate.


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