The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Unbinding a Nation

A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars

Andrew Hartman

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted,” concludes Andrew Hartman at the end of his comprehensive blow-by-blow account of the battles over God, race, gender, art, music, and education that have roiled American society and politics during the last five decades. Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University, makes his own position clear. As he sees it, whether the issue was civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s or gay liberation following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, the New Left eventually obliged “the nation’s cultural gatekeepers” to open up America to racial minorities, women, gays, and the non-religious. Those who resisted these changes—people whom Hartman defines as “normative America”—have been obliged to come to terms with “a new America, a nation more open to new peoples, new ideas, and new, if conflicting, articulations of America itself.”

But if Hartman largely endorses this outcome, he differs with others on the Left about the substance and ultimate consequences of the struggle. In his influential polemic, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), for example, critic Thomas Frank argued that the culture wars were little more than a distraction to keep working-class whites in states like Kansas from paying attention to their economic interest. Not so, Hartman argues. The culture wars were real, and they were about ideas. And while the Right did well in “economic policy and electoral power,” Hartman believes “the Left was successful” in matters of culture.

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Johann N. Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University, is a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of Creating a Nation of Joiners (Harvard University Press, 2008).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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