April 4, 2011
WHEN THINGS BEGAN TO FALL APART IN AMERICA
Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London, England, 2011) (I thought of placing this book on my 'suggested summer reading list for law students,' but decided against doing so. A suggestion that law students should read social history would fall on the deaf ears of students who, both before and during law school, have had drummed into their heads that the only value of a schooling is to get a job. Knowledge of social history is not tested on bar exams, asked about on interviews by hiring partners at law firms, or deemed relevant by paying clients. Still, Rodgers's Age of Fracture should be read by all those law students who want an education, and who understand that history, ideas and politics matter. From the bookjacket: "Cutting across the social and political arenas of late-twentieeth-century life and thought, from economic theory and the culture wars to disputes over poverty, color-blindness, and sisterhood, Rodgers reveals how our categories of social reality have been fractured and destabilized. As we survey the intellectual wreckage of this war of ideas, we better understand and emergence of our present age of uncertainty." In reading The Age of Fracture, thoughtful students (even law students) will come to appreciate that they (and their teachers) are part of the aforementioned "intellectual wreckage" . . . and why. "The culture war, the war 'for the soul of America,' as the conservative television commentator pat Buchanan was to call it at the Republican National Convention in 1992, was a contest across a broad range of issues. It was a battle over schools and school prayer, over the reach of federal regulation into local affairs, over 'secular humanism' and presentiments of cosmic war, over the effects of immigration and the recuperation of a religious language of patriotism. It was a struggle over literary theory: over the stability of language, the determinacy of principles, and the relationship between signs and things. It was a contest over schoolbooks and word lists, over canons and university course requirements. It was, James Davison Hunter argued, a battle over the very foundations of morality: between those who thought ethics as adaptive, progressive, and socially constructed and those who thought of morals as fixed, timeless, and non-negotiable." "But above all, in ways that historians of these culture clashes have only begun to realize, it was a battle over women's acts and women's and men's natures. Of all the certainties whose cracking seemed to culturally conservative Americans most threatening, the destabilization of gender roles and gender certainties set off the sharpest tremors." Id. at 145. "Of the era's attempts to rethink the nature of obligations, the most celebrated in academic circles was the work of John Rawls. For thirty years after its publication in 1971, Rawls's book A Theory of Justice cast its mark over social and political theory in a way that few books ever dominated a scholarly field. It generated hundreds of articles and thousands of citations. Alexander Nehamas wrote in 1997 that across the discipline of philosophy, A Theory of Justice was 'the closest thing to a book that people are ashamed to admit that they have not read." Id. at 182. "And yet by the end of the 1980s the most important philosophy book of its time was already marooned in public discourse, However thin Rawls's collective notion of the 'we' might have been, the social imagination on which it was premised was broader and more inclusive than those that were increasingly to replace it. The imaginative act by which Rawls had asked Americans to hold open the possibility that, when the veils of ignorance were lifted, the homeless persons camped in the cities' doorways might be they themselves, became increasingly strained. Ideals of equality fled from the arena of political debate. From both left and right critics of Rawls's great social contract, forged in a sense of mutual obligation of each to all, came smaller, more intimate, but also more partial understandings of society. Rawls's vision of justice as a contract in each other's welfare that was a broad as the nation itself came to seem, in this context, more and more unreal." "Neither liberals nor conservatives abandoned the notion of a common, mutually bonded culture. For many conservatives, in particular, dreams of cultural consensus remained intensely alive. But the pressure of their own imagination ran toward disaggregation, toward a more gated image of the social, with its multiple neighborhoods of cultures and identities, its nonintersecting lines of parallel experiences, punctuated by fierce skirmishes over values. The debate over equality, redistribution, and justice into which Rawls had entered in 1971 had within a generation been almost completely reframed." Id. at 185. "The curricular battles between the forces of pro- and antimulticulturalism were simultaneously contests of peoples and politics . . . " "As in all such battles, nuggets of misinformation raced through the system, sharpening the polemics on every side. An English professor's casual guess that Alice Walker's book The Color Purple might be more often assigned in English classes than Shakespeare, as Gerald Graff later observed, was picked up within days in a Wall Street Journal piece; from there it moved into William Bennett's speeches, the National Endowment for the Humanities report, and Dinesh D'Souza widely read attack on the left-wing culture of the campuses, Illiberal Education, without anyone stopping to note that it was patently wrong. The core curriculum that conservatives lamented had, in fact, vanished from most universities fifty years early as a much more democratically recruited student body fled the humanities for the practical and professional educational tracks where there was rarely a Great Book of any sort to be read." Id. at 211. Read this book!).