On Wednesday I said that the United States is at war. Not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, and Somalia (among other locales where the US military now engages its enemies) but in the United States itself. This war is a “cold” war, a culture war, what is called kulturkampf.
In a posthumously published study of warfare titled Vom Kriege (On War) Carl von Clauswitz famously asserted that “War is politics by other means” (he actually wrote that “War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means,” but we won’t let that detain us further).
The same can be said of culture: culture is politics by other means, and Culture War is the quintessence of politics.
Values in American Life entered the curriculum at San Francisco State University in part as a response to a situation of national kulturkampf. As we saw on Friday, some of its elements– specifically the notion of “national providentialism”– have deep roots. As an intrinsic value, providentialism establishes a foundation for the ideology of American Exceptionalism. On Monday we wil begin to examine these themes from a different perspective, using the autobiography and abolitionist tract by Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative, as a point of departure.
Friday we screened a clip about Walleyball (get it?) and threw a short list of key terms on the board from Levander and Levine’s essay. The film clip was intended to emphasize the arbitrary and imaginary dimensions of national borders, as well as a task which confronts us: to violate the boundaries which grid the Western Hemisphere in order to understand its history and culture. Here are a few of the concepts from the essay, all of which will likely come in handy in the course of the semester:
On Friday we talked about some of the defining features of the contemporary period. Remember that this periodization is subject to debate; there are potentially any number of other periodizations. For example, we could move the date forward from the early 1970s to 1989, when the USSR began to fragment, a process culminating in 1991. The causes for that transformation have predictably been bowdlerized for political purposes, usually as a caricature of Ronald Reagan singlehandedly defeating the forces of “totalitarianism” with a frosty glare, after which the Liberal Capitalist West assumed its throne at the apex of human history. Still, given that the world was at one time considered to be politically and economically Three Worlds– a scheme that ended with the dissolution of the Second World (or “socialist camp,” as some have called it)– a compelling argument might be made that the “New World Order” (a phrase from Bush I) functions as a core characteristic of the contemporary, our present. The point, however (one point anyway) is that the way we divide history into discrete and coherent chunks is a critical and political matter. Thinking about those divisions is important intellectual work. Consider for instance, the practice of “decading”– of grouping years into sets of ten, an activity we seldom question even though it seems almost completely arbitrary. Did “the 60s” as a cultural and political moment end in 1970? Did it begin in 1960? Or how about that tired old bromide, “if you’re not a radical at twenty you’ve got no heart; if you’re not a reactionary when you’re thirty you’ve got no brain.” Are things really that simple?