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Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas

Irene Taviss Thomson

Publication Year: 2010

Irene Taviss Thomson gives us a nuanced portrait of American social politics that helps explain both why we are drawn to the idea of a 'culture war' and why that misrepresents what is actually going on. ---Rhys H. Williams, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Loyola University Chicago "An important work showing---beneath surface conflict---a deep consensus on a number of ideals by social elites." ---John H. Evans, Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego The idea of a culture war, or wars, has existed in America since the 1960s---an underlying ideological schism in our country that is responsible for the polarizing debates on everything from the separation of church and state, to abortion, to gay marriage, to affirmative action. Irene Taviss Thomson explores this notion by analyzing hundreds of articles addressing hot-button issues over two decades from four magazines: National Review, Time, The New Republic, and The Nation, as well as a wide array of other writings and statements from a substantial number of public intellectuals. What Thomson finds might surprise you: based on her research, there is no single cultural divide or cultural source that can account for the positions that have been adopted. While issues such as religion, homosexuality, sexual conduct, and abortion have figured prominently in public discussion, in fact there is no single thread that unifies responses to each of these cultural dilemmas for any of the writers. Irene Taviss Thomson is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, having taught in the Department of Social Sciences and History at Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than 30 years. Previously, she taught in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Contemporary Political and Social Issues


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Title page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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1. Culture Wars and Warring about Culture

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pp. 1-30

American culture appears to be deeply divided: those who believe there are absolute moral truths contend with those who place moral authority in individual judgment. Armed with these competing visions, "orthodox" versus "progressive" culture warriors clash on issues of abortion, homosexuality...

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2. Respect for Religion but Uncertainty about Its Role

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pp. 31-57

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he observed that the American case belied the eighteenth-century philosophers' assumption that religious faith would decline in the face of broader freedom and knowledge: "In America, one of the freest and most enlightened...

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3. Moral but Not Moralistic

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pp. 58-83

Observers since the time of Tocqueville have noted Americans' propensity to "see the world in moral terms" (Robin M. Williams 1957, 397). The dominant Protestant denominations have called on people to follow their consciences, and even agnostic and atheistic reformers have tended to be "utopian moralists who believe in the perfectibility of man and...

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4. Individualism but Not to Excess

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pp. 84-109

In the American cultural lexicon, individualism is always good. When it is "excessive," however, it becomes "selfishness," which is not good. Contrary to culture war stereotypes of individual licentiousness being advocated on the progressive side and deference to larger purposes on the orthodox side, elite opinion on both sides of the cultural...

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5. Pluralism within One Culture

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pp. 110-144

The debate about multiculturalism had a precursor in the much less contentious discussion of cultural pluralism beginning in the 1910s. In the early decades of the twentieth century, assimilation or Americanization was so much the dominant idea that cultural pluralism hardly received notice. While Horace Kallen claims to have...

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6. Antielitist but Respecting Achievement

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pp. 145-166

One staple of American political discourse is defining one's opponents as elitist while portraying one's own side as reflecting the will of the people. All sides in the culture wars manifest this tendency. What is unusual here is only the number of elites at issue, since every sphere of culture wars contention is characterized by splits between the leadership...

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7. Moderation, Plain and Simple

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pp. 167-174

Unlike the other American cultural themes that occupy the culture warriors, moderation is seen as an uncomplicated good. The American admiration for it contains no ambivalences or ambiguities. In his 1979 study of American journalism, Herbert Gans suggested that "moderatism" or distaste for "excess or extremism" was among...

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8. Culture, Class, and American Exceptionalism

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pp. 175-216

While this volume argues that there is no culture war, just newer iterations of long-standing American cultural dilemmas, the rhetoric and the social movements associated with the "culture wars" raise questions about the nature of the divisions within contemporary American society. Why is a culture war perceived to...

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9. Concluding Comments

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pp. 217-220

Defenders of the culture war idea contend that despite the moderation embraced by the American population, the "deep culture" that frames our understanding of social reality is divided into orthodox and progressive camps. This public culture, enunciated by elites, must be studied separately from public opinion. Examination...

Methodological Appendix

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pp. 221-222


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pp. 223-250


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pp. 251-270

E-ISBN-13: 9780472022069
E-ISBN-10: 0472022067
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472050888
Print-ISBN-10: 0472050885

Page Count: 284
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Contemporary Political and Social Issues
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OCLC Number: 613205847
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Moral conditions.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 21st century.
  • Culture conflict -- United States.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 21st century.
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