Culture Wars

This is a book review of “One Nation, Two Cultures” by Gertrude Himmelfarb. She published this book in 1995, her next book after “The De-Moralization of Society” which was mainly a study in the history of ideas. “One Nation, Two Cultures” is more a work of social criticism than history. She looks at why and how the Victorian virtues, which were the foundation of a successful civic culture, became discredited. She looks directly at America, and frames her discussion in the context of what many call the culture wars. She isn’t the first writer to identify the American cultural revolution and the continuing culture war, but her book is one of the most penetrating examinations of the origins and consequences of those events.

American Victorian values were close to the British Victorian virtues that she discussed in her preceding book, although there were some differences. One of the founding myths of America was that American democracy caused people to be better. In fact, the American constitution was written at a time when Americans had a virtuous culture. At the end of the 18th century, Americans believed in hard work and personal virtue, and Americans were reinforced in those values by their religious beliefs. The cultural scene was a little different than the British scene. America was mainly a mercantile and agricultural nation, without Europe’s history of a landed aristocracy, but sensitive to Europe’s history or religious warfare. The religious scene was different. The Evangelical movement was a significant force for reform in Victorian England, with many Evangelicals taking their morality into public life. Religion in America was more individualistic, more personal, and yet highly emotional and public. The notable feature of the late 18th century and the 19th century was revivalism – biblical fundamentalism taught by independent preachers who were more inclined to showmanship than to theology or spiritual teaching. The tradition of revivals continued with the fourth revival of the 1960’s starting with the Billy Graham crusades and continuing with television evangelism and the growth of independent fundamentalist churches and Pentecostal movements. The religious culture of America was and is more emotional, demagogic, and anti-intellectual.

The Victorian culture of virtue endured in America until after World War I, started to come apart intellectually in the 1920’s among educated Americans who had absorbed and accepted moral relativism, Marxist social analysis, and Freudian psychology, the fashionable wisdom of the era. American intellectuals, unlike many European intellectuals, were politically engaged and involved in trying to educate and change the poorest underclass in the hope of relieving poverty and crime. What came out of this was a naive faith that all people were good, a reluctance to judge or to coerce, and a faith that the answer to problems was liberating society from bourgeois values.

She also identifies systemic problems in capitalist economics, with some reliance on Schumpeter. Material improvement does not bring about moral improvement. The capitalist system constantly seeks new ways of making money. She sees the convergence of non-judgmentalism, the politics of liberation, and economics of greed and self-advancement in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the American Cultural Revolution. In the 1950’s, parents and educators were liberating themselves from Victorian values and raising and teaching children a new morality of self-actualization and self-fulfillment. In the 1960’s, the children of the gentry liberated themselves from bourgeois morality. In practice, this was little more than the creation of new opportunities for the newly liberated in work, business, politics and sexual experience. The hippies of the 1960’s started new businesses, selling new countercultural products and services or went into industry and the professions. Established businesses started to offering alternative products or to promote their products by more chic and hip advertising. The cultural industries – publishing, movies, and TV – were on the cutting edge of the commercial celebration and exploitation of the new culture and ethics. Capitalism in the cultural sector is oriented to creating and selling vivid experiences. It is intrinsically hedonistic. The message from the commercial industries and advertising is that people are entitled to gratify their impulses and live large. The culture has become contemptuous of self-discipline and restraint.

The central self-image of an American after the Cultural Revolution is talented, destined for success, liberated, sexually fulfilled – and self-sufficient and selfish. Many still display the Victorian virtues of hard work and discipline, but most have lost the Victorian virtues of modesty and compassion. People attribute their success to their innate talents rather than to their hard work in a supportive economic and social system. Many successful people regard less successful people as losers. Unsuccessful people tend to regard themselves as the victims of external forces robbing them of the success and self-esteem they desire, rather than as simply unfortunate in the lotteries of talents, opportunities and life-decisions.
The new values asserted themselves in social policy, with bad results.

The anti-poverty programs of the 1960’s started with the hope of empowering the poor by improved living conditions, but were sabotaged by the new culture of skepticism, greed and hedonism. Policy makers were handicapped by the broad principle that we can’t judge the poor or force them to make moral and responsible choices. It became impossible, with these ethical principles ruling the debate, to lead the poor to the habits of life that would create self-sufficiency. It has made it impossible for families and teachers to teach young people the values of self-reliance and adult behavior, which is transforming middle-class teens into drug addicts and gangsters.
She explores the way the cultural revolution transformed American cultural ideas about civil society, the family, the law , and religion. Her discussion of the history of the idea of civil society is fascinating. She implies that America had managed to maintain a civil society through industrialization, immigration, civil war and urbanization, two World Wars and the Great Depression but lost it. She doubts that it can be easily restored but suggests that it might be restored by promoting the virtues within the all institutions of civil society including the educational system, the healing professions, urban planning, sports, entertainment and the media. She suggests that Americans should lose their reluctance to legislate morality and start rewarding pro-social moral behavior and disenfranchise immoral and selfish behavior. Her prescriptions sound stern, but she correctly points to a great deal evidence to support the view that the present culture fails to support the public good.

Her chapter on religion argues that religious practice, like sound law and a healthy civil society, is a proper part of a healthy public culture. She thinks that while many Americans profess some kind of religious belief, or some kind of spirituality, the cultural revolution has affected religion too. Religious and spiritual people are found on both sides of the culture wars. Many people who profess to be spiritual in a non-religious way basically take a selfish view of ethical issues. There are significant divisions within the Christian Churches between nearly secular modernists and Christians with a more traditional ethical sense. On ethical and public issues, many religious or spiritual people are allied with secular liberals, and militant atheists. The secular liberals are generally tolerant of syncretized New Age religiosity and liberal religious movements, but deeply suspicious that the American religious right intends to govern America on faith-based principles.

She might have said that the religious right has also absorbed the general culture of choice, liberation and personal experience. Members of the now-conventional fundamentalist churches tend to big on worship and god-talk, but often ptherwise indistinguishable from other modern Americans in their personal habits and ethics.

She sees the so-called religious right as a political paper tiger because it is too internally divided, and each group is too involved with internal theological issues and worship. It is too emotional, superstitious, unsophisticated, and fractious to be capable of governing. She points out that the influence of the Moral Majority movement and other such movements was short lived and that these movements fall apart. She points out that the religious right functions more as a counterculture, promoting moral, educational, charitable and self-help initiatives and interventions that seem to work. She supports the intellectual initiatives of the writers and publishers of First Things magazine and other conservative religious intellectuals to establish religion as a legitimate subject for public discourse and to establish morality as the basis for personal and public action.

She sees the key issue, the dividing line in the culture wars, as being a moral one. Liberal, modernists and post-modernists have become averse to personal or public morality. This is corrosive to a free and democratic society, because a free and democratic society only works if people act reasonably and responsibly. If people are not held to a morality of restraint and altruism by culture, a free society becomes a free-for-all.


One response to “Culture Wars”

  1. garth danielson Avatar
    garth danielson

    I don’t read books like this, I got all these other books that are more fun. I like that you summerize them and I don’t have to read them, which saves me time. I would dumb them down a tad more to save me a bit more time, I have a lot of books to read and a shitload of movies to watch, some of which have good messages. Sometimes I feel I am living the culture war, torn between doing something good for people and kicking them in the nuts. Mind you I work in service jobs and I often get tired of wiping metaphorical ass. As things change, so do I, I’m riding the crest of the wave to the future on the surfboard of hate. I don’t know what that means but there might be something in there.
    I have thought for some time that running your universe based on selling some shit isn’t a very good idea. What if no one needs anything that week. Someone starves, but then again, who cares, it capitalism, someone has to pay the price for free trade.
    American society seems driven to reinvent itself continiously and sell that shiny new version to you as often as they can, greater inventory turns, greater profit. I know that poplular business lingo, I sit up and stay awake at the CEO Quarterly Business Update. I certainly help buying movies for the third time, on a third format, no wonder I’m cynical.
    I think it’s all just part of a natural swing in the way people act, it just flops back and forth, too radical and you reign it in until it gets too tight then you let it out a bit. Looking back in history you see the morality change, it’ll change again, we’re not good learners and people aren’t going to read this lady’s book, there are too many abstract thoughts and big words. I love her name, it’s not as good as my favorite author name…Eva Ibbotson. I think you can get good moral values from books, too bad people don’t read much any more. I believe my sense of fair play and morals came from my mother, my grandfather and Freddy the Pig. I would put more moral value stories on tv, but I would keep the religion out of it. I would encourage people to go to church but I feel too many churches are not very inclusive and not up to my moral standard. People fail me too. There ya’ go. Anyway, ride the wave of change and keep taking potshots at the slow movin’ zombies.

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