- Theorizing the Culture Wars
As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., suggests at the beginning of Loose Canons, the “political correctness debate” or “culture wars” came as something of a surprise to what Gates calls the cultural left. The right was first off the press with a series of books such as those by Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, David Lehman, and Dinesh D’Souza. Progressive academics replied as best they could in a variety of media, from television to the popular press to academic articles. Now enough time has passed for responses at greater length, such as the three books I am reviewing here.
Since political terms are slippery at the best of times, but especially so in the context of debates about culture, I should begin by briefly explaining my use of the terms “conservative,” “left,” and “liberal.” This is additionally necessary because as a Canadian I would use these words somewhat differently to describe the political situation in my own country, and some of the subtleties of the American usage remain mysterious to me. I have tried to follow Gates in referring to people like Allan Bloom, William Bennett, and Roger Kimball as “the right,” “conservatives,” or sometimes, more specifically, “neoconservatives”—but I do not follow the usage of some on the cultural left who would also refer to them as “liberals” or “liberal humanists.” By the “cultural left” I mean the coalition of literary theorists, feminists, and scholars in various fields of ethnic studies who have reshaped the study of the humanities during the last fifteen years, and who are sometimes closely connected with movements for social change beyond the walls of the academy. The cultural left thus includes both liberal pluralists like Gerald Graff and those on the radical left like William Spanos. I have used the most elastic of all these terms, “liberal,” in two senses: first, joined with “pluralist” to refer to those intellectuals whose stance is to some degree oppositional, but who combine that stance with an allegiance to certain traditional humanist values, and second, as a political label in the narrow sense, to refer to views characteristic of the part of the Democratic Party generally described as its liberal wing. My main reason for not using the term in such a way that it would overlap with “conservative” is a strategic one: part of my argument is that the most promising way to defeat the conservative cultural initiatives of the last few years is to build a coalition between liberal and radical scholars who can work for change on a variety of fronts without needing to agree on every issue.
It would be easy for a Canadian academic to feel smug while contemplating some aspects of the culture wars that have been fought on campuses, on the air, and in the reviews and popular press in the United States in the last few years. Just as we sometimes feel smug—when looking south— about our national health care programme, we can point to the fact that our country is officially bilingual, and that multiculturalism is the law of the land under the Multiculturalism Act of 1988. We might also feel alternately amused and annoyed that amidst all of their theorizing of postmodern difference and of curricular change, American literary theorists still affirm the goal of shaping the American mind in a manner that strikes us as rather unselfconsciously nationalistic, especially when such theorists, as is often the case, are ignorant of the multicultural nature of Canadian society, writing as though multiculturalism were an American invention. But smugness is often misplaced. Our health care system has problems of its own; similarly, bilingualism and multiculturalism are among the most contentious political issues in Canada. Moreover, American academic politics have a way of spilling across the border, which is why as a Canadian professor of English I have taken a strong interest in the culture...