Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hunter - Culture Wars

Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: BasicBooks, 1991.

I've hit a busy stretch with job search reading and grading, but I managed to grind out Culture Wars, so let's get right to it...

Scope & Argument (and connection to Election Night 2010)
Published about a year before Clinton's election and three years before the 1994 Republican Revolution, Hunter describes the cultural tension between conservative Orthodox religious groups (Protestant, Catholic, & Jewish) and Progressivists in America from the late-1970s. On its shallowest level, this is a book about the key political issues contested by the two sides. Going deeper, it is about the core Religious beliefs held by both sides that make it nearly impossible for both sides to engage in a constructive debate. (Using a broad definition, Hunter argues that even the moral framework under which the most secular Progressives act constitutes a Religious belief. p.119)

Hunter levels some criticism at the media, which boils dialogue down to short soundbites and thus adds to the polarity of cultural and political discourse. But most of all, the problems lies with the methods and language of both sides. Admittedly, it is difficult to foster a polite discourse between two sides with such drastically different core values. Nevertheless, Hunter shows how both sides seek to discredit the opposition rather than understand, de-legitimize rather than engage, and describe with hyperbole rather than fairness.

Indeed, it is ironic that I am writing this on the night of the 2010 election, one of the most bitter in recent memory. It feels to most observers that America has never been so divided. The campaigns seemed to emphasize this division, with ever-increasing negativity typifying races across the country. Furthermore in light of the economic woes, there is a strong anti-incumbent mood. The Tea Party seems to have taken advantage of the setting, channeling voter anger towards their anti-government, libertarian message. Conspicuously absent from the main Tea Party (and indeed, Republican) professed ideals is a strong emphasis on Orthodox religion. Their influence, even on the right, seems to have faded somewhat, perhaps after the failure of Bush II. Perhaps 1994 was their pinnacle, a point that supports Hunter's argument in 1991 that, contrary to what some observers believed and in light of the decline of the Moral Majority and televangelist scandals, the Orthodox right had not run out of steam.

Hunter correctly describes the important coalition between neo-conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and the Orthodox (socio-cultural conservatives) that led to Ronald Reagan. I wonder if perhaps this coalition has re-aligned slightly, taking more of a libertarian stance in 2010. We shall see how the Tea Party candidates mesh with the Republican party once tonight's turnover is in place.

Key term
secular humanism - The Orthodox "dirty-word" for the Progressivist agenda which the Orthodox say is anti-religious belief and anti- moral absolutes. The Progressivists respond by saying they are merely upholding American ideals of nonsectarianism and individual autonomy and responsibility. (202-3, 206)

Hunter spends parts I-III describing the historical roots of the conflict, drawing the fault lines, explaining their respective moral visions, and comparing the discourse of the two sides. Part IV describes, in turn, five "fields of conflict" - family, education, media and arts, law, and electoral politics.

This is a splendidly written book, accessible to a wide audience. The introduction sets Hunter's balanced tone brilliantly, with a series of "dispatches" from the culture front, each revealing the background and beliefs of key actors on both sides of key conflicts. Thus, Hunter humanizes both sides, giving the reader a chance to develop sympathy and understanding towards the characters. The balanced tone continues throughout, as Hunter delves into both sides of controversies with fairness and understanding. The book is itself, thus, a model of a better discourse.

Most of my friends, from the more Orthodox who tend toward conservatism to the more Progressive, could learn from this book. I wonder what each side's reaction would be? My gut tells me an Orthodox reader would have a more difficult time with the scholarly tone, detached as it is from the Orthodox conception of a moral authority.

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