Bully boy's bunkum

July 28, 1995

I had hoped that Bill Clinton's election to the United States presidency in 1992 would bring an end to the seemingly interminable culture wars ("the crisis of history", "the battle of the books and defence of the canon", "pc"). Yet, I had foolishly underestimated the new right's resources and determination to recapture power and continue the fabrication of a new political hegemony. On November 8 last year - on the very evening I was delivering my Deutscher Memorial Lecture on "Why do ruling classes fear history?" at the London School of Economics - the Republicans were marching to victory in the midterm elections, eager to realise their ambitions.

Indeed, by capturing both houses of Congress, the Republicans have been able to enact most of their "Contract with America". Plus, it has afforded them new "bully-pulpits" from which to pursue their cultural combats. Actually, emphasising budget cuts, welfare reform, and tax reduction, the "Contract" itself contained hardly a reference at all to "culture". However, in the months since November, the right has aggressively renewed the culture wars.

Arguably, such battles have served to distract attention from more important political and economic developments. Most crucially, they have diverted public debate from the concurrent "class war from above" in which the rich have gotten richer and working people and the poor have been made poorer at an unprecedented rate over the past 20 years.

And yet, the culture wars are not simply diversions. Whether we like it or not, for those of us working in the humanities and social studies they place on the public agenda the question of what it is that we are about: What is our social purpose - to serve as a bolster for the status quo or to serve as a critical force in contemporary America? And, beyond that, they pose the questions, "What is the meaning of America?" and "Who is an American?"

Thus, at the heart of the culture wars we find the problem of history and historical education. As it was in Britain under Thatcher, so it was under Reagan and Bush in the United States. It remains so here. For example, the National Standards in History project commissioned by the Bush administration and released last year under Clinton - having been developed by a broad-based committee of historical educators and subjected to diverse reviews - was pounced on by conservatives in Congress and the media for its critical and multicultural approach to America's past. The standards are now being revised - how dramatically, we do not yet know.

Also, the Smithsonian Institution's plans for the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan were forced to be cancelled because of Congressional and conservative opposition to what they claimed was going to be "anti-American historical revisionism". The curators of the planned exhibit at the Air & Space Museum in Washington DC apparently failed adequately to highlight Japanese atrocities and made the mistake of allowing questions about the decision to drop the bomb to be included. At the same time, the Republican leadership announced its intention to terminate the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, the latter of which is the major source of funding both for scholarship and for extra-academic public education in historical and literary studies.

Furthermore, conservatives have reinvigorated their campaigns to portray teachers and scholars in history and the humanities as subversives (leading one to wonder when they will propose resurrecting the McCarthyite house un-American activities committee). The most persistent attack-dog has been "talk-radio" figure, bestselling author, and proud college drop-out Rush Limbaugh who fulminates daily and nationally on AM stations and a nightly television show about "the disease of poisonous liberalism", "commie-libs", "femi-nazis", and how 1960s' radicals have "bullied their way into power in academia" and are "distorting our history and indoctrinating our children and young people".

Considering such assaults, the ascendance of Newt Gingrich to the post of speaker of the House of Representatives and effective leader of the new-right Republicans is most intriguing, for he holds a PhD in history and even taught for several years at university level (demonstrating that while the Republicans may be the stupid party, they are not uneducated).

Thus, I eagerly awaited the appearance of Gingrich's controversial book, To Renew America, (controversial, because of the multi-million dollar advance on royalties he was publicly forced to turn down from one of Rupert Murdoch's publishing houses because it seemed inappropriate in view of legislation pending in Congress affecting Murdoch's holdings). I wanted to know what this champion of the right had to say about history and historical teaching. What I find just goes to show that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. His attacks on academe simply repeat the claims of others and the historical arguments he makes are just plain silly. Unfortunately, given his official station, they cannot be ignored.

In paragraphs a la THES's Speaking Volumes column, Gingrich notes that his childhood anxiety about the rise and fall of civilisations and, especially, the possibility of the US's own demise led him to Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Now, as an adult, his favourite books seem be those of the pop futurologists, Alvin and Heidi Toffler (eg Future Shock), which leads him to say that we are on the verge of the "third wave information age", entailing a world-historical transformation comparable to the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

The challenge therefore, Gingrich says, is to prepare the US to lead this new revolution. The problem is that "for the past 30 years, we have been influenced to abandon our culture and seem to have lost faith in the core values, traditions, and institutions of our civilisation". From the outset, he targets the 1960s' generation as the culprits: "The intellectual nonsense propagated since 1965 - in the media (and) on university campuses now threatens to cripple our ability to teach the next generation to be Americans."

Talk about "nonsense"! Trying hard to give as much weight as he can to the current crisis, Gingrich asserts that "from the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965, there was one continuous civilisation built around a set of commonly-accepted legal and cultural principles . . . Since 1965, however, there has been a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit this civilisation and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility that is incompatible with American freedoms as we have known them" (my italics). One can only wonder what happened to slavery, racism and segregation and the hard-fought struggles from below waged against them? I could go on to ask about experiences of class and gender.

Gingrich accuses us of having "hijacked" higher education and of "brainwashing a generation with a distorted version of reality". He does not actually lay out his preferred curriculum, but he does give us a sense of what it would be like in the lines quoted, later adding that "America is a series of folk tales that just happen to be true".

Obviously, and tragically, the culture wars - and the class wars with which they are bound up - are far from over. For now, I can do no better than close with a few more of Gingrich's own words: "All this would be laughable, if it weren't destructive of America's future . . . ideas do have consequences."

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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