Eugene McCarraher
Are the culture wars of the last two decades a bogus conflict? Do the debates about abortion, gender, sexuality and aesthetics amount to a series of shadowboxing matches? Intellectuals appear increasingly divided. For some, they’re a genuine combat; for others, they’re something for the intelligentsia to do in the absence of world-historical struggle; for others, they’re a massive distraction from the real issues of wallet, paycheck and workplace power.

All of which sets the stage for another round of chin-stroking and brow-furrowingoh, sorry, an edited volume. Sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and published by the Brookings Institutionthe Eden of centrist policy wonksthis slim volume features a dialogue about the reality of the culture wars. I would think that Pew and Brookings certainly hope they are real, because if they’re not, a lot of time and foundation money has been squandered on phantoms. At the very least, they aspire, as E. J. Dionne and Michael Cromartie write in their introduction, to move the nation’s conversation on politics, culture, and religion forward.

To lead it off, the sociologist James Davison Hunterauthor of Culture Wars (1991)contends that cultural warfare is indisputable, even if the conflicts are not as openly ferocious as they were a decade ago. Hunter draws the battle lines between traditionalists and progressives, a division that, when traced in religion, cuts across rather than between denominations. Traditionalists look to the moral and intellectual inheritance from the past as the surest guide through contemporary life and seek deliberate continuity with the past. Progressives embrace the flexibility and experimentalism of modernity and embrace the ideal of an inclusive and tolerant world. While these differences do not have to be abrasive, they are aggravated by what Hunter calls, in exquisite sociologese, the polarizing tendencies of competing fields of cultural production and the technologies of public discourse. (Translation: culture warriors hurl too many sound bites on television, radio, etc.) Hunter predicts that cultural conservatives will lose in their attempts to enforce their visions of tradition by legal and political means. As St. Paul could have told them, the law cannot save: What political solution is there to the absence of decency? To the spread of vulgarity? To the lack of civility?

With friends like the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hunter needs no enemies. In a rant so inane and relentless that none of her interlocutors even bothers to address it, Himmelfarb grouses about South Park, Friends, video games and other threats to Western civilization. Conservatives, she rues self-importantly, are losing the soul of America by default, by sheer, willful inattention. As primly vicious as the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, Himmelfarb shows her hand when she condemns egregious materialism. Apparently acquisitiveness is fine, as long as you are tasteful about it.

Against Hunter and Himmelfarb, Alan Wolfe, director of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life, believes that the culture war is on its last legs. Reprising the argument of his 1998 One Nation After All, Wolfe insists that ordinary Americans are noncombatants in the culture wars or, perhaps better, diplomats who have brokered innumerable private peace treaties between traditional values and everyday realities. Suspicious of zealotry or extremism, most Americanseven those who consider themselves religiousinhabit a messy but peaceable moral order, one poised between unbending orthodoxy and unbridled relativism.

As Morris P. Fiorini of the Hoover Institute demonstrates, this cultural consensus undergirds Americans’ more pressing worries about health care, jobs, education and national security. Coming more from the kitchen than from the bedroom, these unsexy concerns receive little attention from cultural warriors. Moreover, Fiorini complains, the ratio of casual generalization about religion, culture, and politics is higher than it should be. (In other words, culture warriors do not know what they are talking about.) Joining writers like Thomas Frank and Walter Benn Michaels, Fiorini concludes that intellectuals’ lavish attention to culture has served to obscure the persistence of economic inequality and class war.

To the extent they ever occurred, the culture wars, Wolfe maintains, have been fought mainly within a small and contentious universe of activists, intellectuals and politicians. Agreeing with Hunter about the bleak long-term prospects for conservatives, Wolfe asserts that the most numerous casualties of the culture wars will be among Republican legislatorsa judgment vindicated by the 2006 congressional elections.

As informative as this volume can be, I still cannot help thinking that we need to re-examine our entire conception of the culture wars. For one thing, it is pretty obvious that the culture wars have a lot to do with sex, especially for conservatives. Why not just call them the Sex Wars? It is not pointed out often enough that conservatives embrace almost everything about modernitycapitalism, advanced technology and political democracyexcept the sexual revolution. Reactionary modernists, conservatives displace onto sex everything they find fearful or loathsome about modernitythe incessant turbulence, the leveling of traditional hierarchies, the maelstrom of cultural and intellectual hybriditybut which they cannot reject without forswearing what they like.

But even if we still accept the term culture wars, it is profoundly misleading to separate culture and economics in the way that cultural warriors, and many of their observers, so often do. You do not have to be a devotee of Parisian intellectual fashions to think that battles over economic justice are not straightforwardly material. Economics is as cultural as sex (which is itself, we might recall, deliciously embodied and therefore material). And besides, even Marxists have never considered economic issues to be merely material. It was the great historian E. P. Thompson, after all, who gave us the term moral economy to denote the constellation of ideals, assumptions and practices that governed work and exchange in a given time and place. Conflicts over the distribution of wealth, not to mention the nature of property or the meaning of labor, are cultural as well as social struggles.

So the real problem with the culture wars is that they perpetuate impoverished conceptions of both culture and material life. By disembodying culture from daily experience and practice, culture warriors preclude discussion of what people do. (Values is, I think, a word that should be retired from our moral vocabulary.) By the same token, they relegate material life to some apolitical and amoral necessityand hence to the ministrations of managerial and technical specialists whose claim to something called expertise can be insulated from scrutiny and dissent. Take, for example, the nation’s conversation, brought to you by Pew and Brookings, that Dionne and Cromartie grandly assert will move us forward. (Full disclosure: As a hungry scholar, I have taken Pew money, and I am unashamed.)

Over the last generation, Americans have heard a lot of this neighborly palaver: Sheldon Hackney’s call for a national conversation about the arts, Bill Clinton’s national conversation about race, etc., ad stupidum. In both cases, the nation was a menagerie of public intellectuals selected from within a limited ideological circle. As Hunter admits dryly, there are elites who are enormously influential for the sway they have over the content and direction of cultural production within specific institutions. While they supply a distinctly highbrow market, Pew and Brookings are no different in this regard from Newscorp, The New York Times or Disney. So, however populist Pew and Brookings can sound about our national conversation, Is There a Culture War? is just as much an artifact of the corporate economy of culture as a summer Hollywood blockbuster.

If the culture wars are indeed as spurious as Wolfe believes, one enormousand apparently unmentionablereason might be the corporate sponsorship of public intellectual life.

Eugene McCarraher is a professor of humanities and director of graduate liberal studies at Villanova University. He is writing a cultural history of corporate business.