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The Public Square and the Heart of Culture War

Norman Lear was a central figure in American television in the 1970s. His media productions like All in the Family were deeply activist, reflecting his ideas about what kinds of dialogue and reflection were needed to preserve American society in an era of sharp divisions over social and political issues that came to be called the Culture Wars. As a voice for progressivism and liberalism, Lear articulated a powerful vision of the public square where civility was the shared root for multicultural America. In this conversation, Dr. Benji Rolsky frames the public square as the central discursive space for mid 20th century liberals, one which not only gave them great social leverage but also limited their future strategic options to respond to the emergence of the religious right as a consolidated political block starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

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The Public Square and the Heart of Culture Wars

Podcast with Benjamin Rolsky (30 March 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-public-square-and-the-heart-of-culture-wars/

David McConeghy (DM): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Benjamin Rolsky, adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University, and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. And he’s the author of a fabulous new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious left: Politics, Television and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, published by Columbia University Press – fresh off the publishing presses. Dr Rolsky, Benji, it’s so wonderful to have you speaking with me here, today, for the Religious Studies Project! Welcome.

Benjamin Rolsky (BR): Thank you very much for having me. I can’t wait to converse with you.

DMcC: I consumed your book rapidly, with reckless abandon! Because one of the things that really interested me is that you start out, right away, with your experiences watching television maybe of an era that was slightly before your own. And I have to say that that was not my experience, growing up. I did not watch All in the Family, I did not watch I Love Lucy. I did not watch The Mary Tyler Moore show. I was . . . I don’t want to call myself a latch-key kid, but I was the eldest and I came home by myself on the bus. And when I chose television, the television that I chose was DuckTales and Darkwing Duck, and classic kind-of cartoons. And then in the evenings, later on, it was Star Trek for me. So there’s this cultural disconnect that I felt where, like, as a person growing up in the same era with you, with access to the same materials as you, my experience was so different! And what struck me about that is that it was . . . we can have that kind-of disconnect now, in our cultural experiences. So can you talk about what it was like to kind-of be introduced to the work of Norman Lear, and how you came to see that work as valuable not only for your scholarship but also personally?

BR: Yes, sure. Absolutely. So a lot of this is obviously very biographical. So, to be honest, shows that I grew up on didn’t really include “All in the Family”. But it certainly included this moment of relevance. And that’s something that I get into a little bit in the book, in that Lear’s attempting to make television – in his mind, in his opinion – about more than just sort-of a flashing box with lights and all sorts of things going on. So my upbringing, and kind-of exposure to 1970s television – obviously I wasn’t alive when it was on, or anything. It was just something that my folks had on. And I think, in a lot of ways, my folks represent the kind-of mind-set that I’ve been thinking about for a long time which is that something like popular culture, and culture in general, can be put to work. It can be used in a didactic kind-of purpose. It’s not just . . . . . Because familiar things like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Rifleman, you know . . . TV was kind-of a wasteland. And it was literally referred to that, I think in the fifties or sixties, by some network executive. And so Lear looked across that space, and he thought to himself, “You know, I can make television do a little bit more.” And I argue that this is part of a moment that also produces things like MASH and Mary Tyler Moore – which are both pieces of artwork and art that are not just about Korea; or not just about someone who’s trying to find a job in Minneapolis, trying to make her way. So it was part of a larger sort-of moment of relevance. But then also having an understanding that . . . sort-of a progressive understanding that – not unlike Parks and Recreation, or not unlike a show like that where it’s not just about a show and what’s going on between the characters – it provides a vision. It provides a model for how people are to behave and interact with one another. One thing I kind-of miss from the seventies – and this is maybe really romantic and kind-of naive, but there was kind-of a moral sort-of centre, a singular kind-of friend who people could actually count on to do something for them: like Hawkeye, in MASH; Mary, in Mary Tyler Moore; Alex, in Taxi. And I’ve always been fascinated with that . . . or Harry T Stone in Night Court. The television of the time presented a different kind-of vision of society, and Lear was one of the most important sort-of contributors to that pattern that we continue to sort-of see today in the bad kind-of fan. You know, rooting for a Bunker-type, or a Soprano-type, or a serial killer who kills murderers. You know, he started a lot of that kind of television. And I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of it, when I was growing up.

DMcC: What I would say is the difference between the programmes that have been identified in the wasteland. Because when I think of Leave it to Beaver, Bonanza or Wagon Train, these kind-of classic shows, they had an agenda, right (5:00)? You can’t watch Bonanza, for instance, today without thinking about “pioneering” narratives, and “manifest destiny” and the kind-of racial configuration of indigenous people versus settlers. And I wonder whether that narrative of wasteland stuff has been oversold. But when you say Lear has been doing something new, how would you frame that newness in contrast to what the earlier shows may have been attempting to do? Is it the deliberateness with which he presented social issues?

BR: Yes, I would say so. A lot of this is in his kind-of own mind. Because, like you were saying, we can contest him very early on. Because those sorts of shows are presenting a certain notion of family as well – which is something that he challenges with his All in the Family. He takes more or less the most challenging issues of the day, and makes them the literal plot points and story lines of his television show. So, if anything changes with Lear, it’s the fact that he begins to use the genre of the situation comedy – borrowing from an English example. Because, by the way, All in the Family and Sanford and Son, two of the most well-known shows, were British adaptations – adaptations of British television shows. So that’s why there’s such a kind-of class dimension to Lear’s programming as well. That’s why Archie Bunker is a particularly white, working class person. And, to me, I think we’re still wrestling with the implications of that: making that type of character front and centre, often times the comedy coming at his expense. So I agree, as far as the shows that you’re mentioning are presenting a certain vision of the world. For Lear, very much . . . and we can begin to criticise. Because the shows did have a vision, for him he just didn’t acknowledge it. They’re sort-of worthy . . . or he thought he could present a better alternative. You know – something that was – quote- unquote –”relevant and applicable” to what was happening at the time. He got a lot of pleasure from knowing that he would do an episode on, say, hypertension in the black community. And then the next day, or two days, three days after, he’d hear about how a bunch of people went to go get checked out. You know, so that was his . . . If anything, it’s taking the sitcom and composing it in light of what’s literally happening at the time. And reading newspaper clippings, and newspapers, and journals. And thinking about what’s happening, and trying to integrate that into the television. So to me, that’s kind-of what he’s after.

DMcC: And that’s the relevance model that you were talking about: that we look at what’s happening in the world, and find a way to make our programming directly speak to our age and its issues. When we think back, as historians, on these periods, and we think about the issues that Lear raised as important, and we try to present those issues, let’s say, in a kind-of “Religion in America”, or a kind-of “History of 1950s” or “History since World War II”, what are the beats of the story that we use that we tell that narrative?

BR: Yes. So, for me, I’m still sort-of figuring that out, I guess. I’m actually . . . . It’s not easy to tell one particular story. But I’m actually working on a piece that tries to narrate the 1970s as a whole, as a decade. And I’m trying to figure out how to do that, for this particular work. I’ve always been fascinated or taken by the phrase or declaration: “The personal is the political”. I’ve always . . . . It’s just something that I continue to go back to, beginning in the 1960s onwards. And so, if I were to begin to periodise anything, I’m also fascinated by the rise of what’s called “the social issue”, when it comes to just American public life. And we can get into that. And who is the – quote-unquote – “side” who first start to push the – quote-unquote – social issue. But for me, if we were to start any kind-of story, the culture wars, you know, that debated . . . . And we have some slippage in what we mean. I think it’s important that we be very clear and precise in what we mean by “culture war” or “cultural warfare” or “the culture wars”. And that’s what I try and do in my teaching. And so, to me, Lear’s very much living in an age of culture war and cultural warfare: when the personal does become the political, and when politics themselves become less about, say, gross domestic product and more about who you’re sleeping with, or who you’re deciding to sleep with, or what you’re doing in the privacy of your own home. So if I – in this piece I’m writing about the seventies – can state it’s a real big deal to me, that transition from the sixties to the seventies – Watergate, Vietnam, Jimmy Carter – so certainly “post-‘45 history” is important here, in how we narrate that in general. But for me, in my own kind-of understanding of the story, is when these two kind-of forces tend to come together – in the sense that what we do in a certain, private sense is very important politically and we’re going to make that the stuff of politics – such that then Lear takes those up into his programming, and makes much of his television about those sorts of topics. And I’m also . . . . Yes. So anyway, go ahead.

DMcC: I wonder whether, in one sense, the technology goes really hand-in-hand with that switch (10:00)? So if you had the programming of the late forties and the fifties, and you compare it with the speed at which news could travel, and with production values that episodes could be produced and then distributed, then in the seventies, you have this rapid switch. So I’m hearing two things, right? The first is that there was a move to consider the content in a new way, to make it more relevant. But also I’m hearing a little bit, maybe, in the periodisation of the sixties and seventies, that there are other structural, social issues – not only Vietnam and Watergate, like politically and militarily, but also that, you know, the nightly news and the increasing number of sources for where one could get more news: the simple ability that there were more than four channels in the seventies. When you start thinking about how Lear has thought about the past, and when he has a nostalgia or an anti-nostalgia for the fifties and the sixties, as he’s trying to kind-of like show that contrast . . . are those the kind-of things that make it possible for that change to be even more rapid than it was previously?

BR: Yes absolutely. In technological development I might be thinking about . . . in my next project that looks at how information began to be shared through something as simple as the mail. . . . But when it comes to . . . . Yes, exactly right. So I actually talk about . . . we were talking a little bit earlier about how to measure a lot of this for the impact. You know, still in the early seventies, we only have about three or four different television channels, such that hundreds of millions of people are watching a given episode at one time. Those sorts of numbers are really unimaginable today. And that speaks to your great question earlier about the public: what does the public mean? So there’s a wonderful book, Age of Fracture. I think your question certainly speaks to the beginning of that, to the beginning of a fracturing of a public that Lear is perhaps trying to hold on to, in an overly romantic and an overly idealised way. Because, in many ways, progressive visions of the good are synonymous with visions of the public good. And visions of the public. So yes, I think your technology in this time: television – the fact that Lear also took great pleasure, like you were saying earlier, influencing water-cooler talk in the office the next day. He took great pride in something like that. But at the same time . . . so, we have hundreds of millions of people but then over the seventies that begins to fracture a little bit. By the time we get to the eighties, the fairness doctrine is struck down. We get things like cable and then we begin to see the kind-of landscape that we have today.

DMcC: So if we’re thinking about it . . . like I could push a technological periodisation on things. I could push a political . . . oftentimes there’s the kind-of “before Watergate”, “after Watergate”, there’s “before civil rights” or “before the” . . . you know, “1968”. There’s “before Martin Luther King’s assassination”, there’s “before JFK‘s assassination”. There’s “after the civil war”. For you, what is the easiest, the most accessible fault line of that for you? Is it technological, is it figural? Is it political, is it military? What is the line there that you would bring?

BR: Well, I guess I try and get at a little bit of all of it, I suppose. But then, I guess, maybe something else I come back to a lot is someone like Jimmy Carter. When we narrate this period, our field tends to rely on Carter and the kind-of introduction . . . the born again experience and all that, to do a lot of work for us. I think, looking at someone like Archie Bunker, to be honest . . . . Looking at someone like him – as he’s representative of a certain life that’s beginning to be explored, and kind-of exposed to the public – to me, I think we should really start to sort-of narrate the seventies based on . . . . I have this Time issue, I think it’s Newsweek or Time that basically discovers the – quote-unquote – “middle American”. And that’s a term that I’m trying to play around with a little bit in this seventies piece that I’m doing. But if I were to be kind-of honest, I do think we have to recalibrate a little bit as far as . . . so maybe I would say politically, I suppose. And maybe socially, and kind-of culturally, I would use those sorts of viewpoints and begin to say, we have to wrestle a little bit more with how someone like Archie was shaped or impacted at the time by the very restructuring that you were mentioning earlier. You know, people talk about this period as the “death of the working class”. I think Jefferson Cowie‘s written a book  about that, a historian, and he’s included in that story. And we don’t necessarily bring that up as often as we should. Oftentimes it’s Carter, it’s the born again. To me we should also remember that he introduces the outsider narrative, in a lot of ways, into American politics that then gets taken up by his successor, and then – to a greater extent – our current President at the moment (15:00). So I guess I would rely on those if I were to narrate anything.

DMcC: If we were to compare the way in which we’re talking about television – the limited scope of offerings that were available to the public – and then we kind-of roll the narrative for today, is the fracturing that Lear was potentially trying to prevent us from falling into . . . have we irrevocably fallen into that? Like, this morning I was on TikTok. . . . Yes, Users, I have a TikTok

BR: (Laughs).

DMcC: But I don’t publish anything, either. I have no idea what I would publish. I’m certainly not going to dance in front of the mirror in the bathroom.

BR: At least not all the time.

DMcC: Yeah. Not all the time. And at least not on video. So if that seven to fifteen seconds is the new length of the media that we have today, I wonder whether those kind-of strong narratives that you articulate for Lear – that he was concerned about having a space for dialogue, having a space for civil dialogues – that the fracturing of the media space has prevented that. Is that post-modernism, is that simply the death of metanarratives? How should we understand, when we look back and we see such a strong kind-of consensual narrative on the religious left – if we talk about it in that way for Lear – how do we then come forward and assess our current age in comparison to that?

BR: That’s a wonderful question, and I think to be honest that’s part of the fall that I kind-of talk about. I think a wonderful example to speak to that is the fact that ABC has now twice put on live shows, live performances of his shows – the Norman Lear shows. You know, I know that academics don’t really watch cable television or network television for whatever reason, but ABC in the last, say, four or five months has twice put on episodes of Norman Lear’s All in the Family and the Jeffersons. I’ve wondered why, myself. What’s the deal with the timing? To me that kind-of consensual, aspirational, civilly-grounded understanding of the public square continues to live on in shows like Parks and Recreation. I wrote a piece that connected explicitly you know All in the Family and Parks and Recreation. And you’re right about fracturing, and the fifteen seconds. All of that is going on simultaneously. But on network television there’s still this kind-of space for these sorts of shows. I don’t really necessarily think that’s the case now. I think a lot of people like The Good Place. I started watching that show when it first came on. I haven’t watched it very much since. I know people get a lot out of that, especially progressive individuals or academics. It’s philosophy and popular culture: “Yippee! We’re relevant! We matter!” or whatever. But to me, I think it still lives on in someone like (audio unclear) in the best possible sense, in the worst possible senses. I think if you look at that show, they’re saying that it’s local politics and it’s not supposed to be national, blah, blah, blah. But I think we see a lot of the limitations, and definitely some of the contributions, but to me more so the kind-of limitations of a progressive understanding of deliberation, and how things get done. So to be honest I think we’re still seeing attempts to bring together a bigger space to view these sorts of things. I think, in many ways, it would be nice if we had something like The Firing Line return in some capacity. I know the Brits have a show kind-of like this called Question Time. I think it would be nice . . . or necessary. I think it is necessary that we bring back this kind-of larger conversation space, just for the reasons you’re saying. Because things are so fractured.

DMcC: I have so many questions! I’m trying to decide which one comes next. So I’m hearing two things. First, in the context of your book, you talk about how the liberal move for creating a space for dialogue actually ended up potentially weakening the religious left in the end. And in what you just said a moment ago, I heard the suggestion that in order to create a national dialogue again, in order to create a space for that, we are replicating in some ways the moves that you identify with Lear. That All in the Family was a space where Archie Bunker could say things that were unpopular, and the characters around him responded as caricatures of the kind-of people of the day: here’s an angry person who has a racial identity(20:00); here’s an angry person which has a political affiliation. And that the creation of that show was a space for that dialogue. I’m hearing, in what you just said, that what we’ve lost in the fracturing is the ability to have that space for the dialogue. Is that the public square that we’re talking about? Is that the name for that space?

BR: It very much could be. Yes, that’s something that I could probably think a little bit more about, or think more through. I just think, with Lear, when I say things like public square, public space . . . because I’ve been so taken by . . . . There’s this book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning and the American Right. It’s a book of sociology, and she looks at something called a “deep story”. And it’s a conservative deep story that’s the primary focus of the book. And she looks at something called a “liberal deep story”. And that story is one of something called the public square. Let’s say . . . maybe not the public sphere because that has too much theoretical stuff going on. So I’ll just say, you know, this idea of the public square. So the deep story is that liberal progressives have built this thing called the public, the public square. You have libraries, you have schools, you have arts centres, you have cultural institutions, you have everything that you could possibly want. Things go smoothly. You have parks. But then at one point, as she says, marauders appear upon the proverbial gates and they look to privatise what is otherwise public and freely accessible. So, in many ways, to me the public square is part of kind-of the identity of progressive thought of politics. It’s just something that you think with, as you begin to imagine what the public looks like or what the square could kind-of look like. And so I suppose, in the early seventies, that looked one way, where you had three channels, you had hundreds of millions of people watching at one time. Maybe that public is different than the kind-of public that we have now, where, if we want to theorise a little bit, our notion of the public square . . . . But, to me, what I wanted to emphasise, it’s certainly a space – an imagined one – but it’s also sort-of a tool, or its sort-of something that progressives already kind-of think with in order to articulate a broader vision of the public good. And with someone like Lear, the public interest. Which is something that he defends in his programming very explicitly as something that’s constitutionally protected. So, to me, that’s sort-of fluid. But I wanted to emphasise that the square is this imaginative tool that progressives use to articulate visions of the broader good.

DMcC: I’m really curious about how we can think back about these moments that you’re talking about in the sixties and seventies. And, as a historian who is too young to have lived through those, I really wonder about our ability to explain to our students today, and to the public that might be younger than those eras, how the public square is different than it used to be. And we’ve mentioned already a fracture, right – the age fracture. We’ve mentioned, maybe, that there’s a technological component to it. I know that if we were economists talking we would be talking about huge inequality. If we were political theorists we might be talking about polarisation.

BR: Neoliberalism

DMcC: Neoliberalism, yes. But I’m certainly an American religious historian. And you may see yourself in that way, too. Is the culture war the thing for us, then? When we talk about the public square, in relation to what is the mechanism by which we think through the public square. So, for your book, it seemed that that was the case. Is that how you feel about it too?

BR: Yes. I mean that’s a great way of saying it. I use the metaphor of theatres. So the traditional sense is we have the European theatre, the theatre of the Pacific, you know, World War II sensibilities. But then I like to play around with the fact that that kind-of martial interaction came home with a vengeance. And that’s when we begin to talk about Kent State, that’s when we talk about disillusionment, that’s when we talk about Vietnam, that’s when we begin to talk about Watergate: a systematic falling out, when it comes to trust and belief in the fundamental institutions that theoretically ground American public life, or grounded American public life at the time. And, in many ways, the success of someone like Trump continues to take advantage of that. We destroy what we want to actually become a part of. Collateral damage doesn’t necessarily matter. So I know the word and the phrase gets used a lot. It gets used, you know, “culture war”: a lot of sociologists argue that there really is no such thing. That it’s really just kind-of all brow-beating, and it’s just pundits, and it’s all top down. And you look at the actual numbers and people are that divided, and blah, blah blah! I did an exam on this. I kind-of disagree with a lot of that (25:00). I think, if anything, it’s not really top down or bottom up – it’s simultaneous. I don’t think we have to make choices when it comes to something like that. I do think we do have to be particular and specific when it comes to this period of time – sixties and seventies to the present – when it comes to the culture war. So there are a number of wonderful books out there. Andrew Hartman has a number of wonderful books. I think someone like Stephen Prothero‘s helpful – but not necessarily in a completely helpful way. I think we can look at something like that and ask . . . we say we have something like the culture wars, we have the cultural war, and something like cultural warfare. And so, for me, what I try and do with my students, like you were saying, is . . . you know, if the public square was All in the Family at one point, maybe the public square is YouTube right now, or something like TikTok or Twitter, or something like that. So maybe that’s the public square. And so I use a lot of media in my classes, I use a lot of clips to give them a sense of a shared experience that is maybe obliterated over the past forty or fifty years. But yes, I think the nature . . . the all-consuming nature of the conflict, the exacerbation that has taken place because of social media, the “swirl” that Jason Bivens will speak soon of, in his forthcoming book on the embattled majority or embattled majorities. He’s just a wonderful thinker and scholar. That’s what I really think we need to turn to, analytically, in an inter-disciplinary way: pulling from critical theory, pulling from sociology, pulling from psycho-analysis. Because these are the times that we live in, and these are the tools that are necessary to understand our present conditions.

DMcC: I loved that in every answer here, I try to kind-of like hedge you a little bit into a box: “Would you like to get into this box here?” You’re like, “No. It’s much more complicated. There are so many more things than go in a box.” So, “Do you want to periodise things in this way?” “No, we need them all.” “Is the public square this way?” “No, it’s all of these things, too.” I love it, because I think it really speaks to the willingness to uphold all the level of complexity in the way that these things work. They simply are not reducible. They’re not . . . we cannot make the units with which we talk about the past so singular. And one of the real constructions of the culture war is that there are two sides. They all share the positions that are on one side or the other, and that there’s no-one in the middle. And that people on one end of the spectrum can’t disagree on a single issue, right? Or that they don’t count. That construction, right, is what you’re resisting in the questions. And I think it’s so useful. It’s such a useful resistance to offer for everyone. In order to create that complexity. One of the virtues, one of the values maybe that we think about – and this brings us back to Lear more explicitly – is civility: the ability to sustain, for a moment, something that is disagreeable for you, in the hopes that by having that dialogue, by being in that shared space, by having that experience that both parties will be improved in some way. And that takes a level of faith, right? That I’m going to hear something that I’m going to disagree with, but that I’m going to think seriously about it and consider it. And then on the far side of that that I’m going to come out better for it. Is that how we should think about Lear’s understanding of civility?

BR: Yes, I think it might be a little bit more complex, maybe a little more complicated,

DMcC: Nice! (Laughs).

BR: I don’t know, I only bring it up because I think it’s part of the very thing that has to be examined. Because I think in a theoretical way, yes. It’s exactly how all this is supposed to go. And you know, People for the American Way – the non-profit organisation he creates – doubles, triples and quadruples down on this notion. And it has been, really, since its origins in the early eighties. I mean, I have a little pamphlet that literally says: “How to mix religion and politics”. It’s very prescriptive. And so, to me, it’s not necessarily bad or negative that we have these ideas of civility, this or that. It’s really the prescriptive element that’s the problem. You know Lesley (audio unclear) is fine and great up until she makes you sign a friendship contract so that she’ll know you’re her friend forever. You know, that’s when it begins to turn in on itself. That’s when I begin to argue – as kind-of “the fall”, a little bit – is that, in a certain way, the progressive visions begin to come a little bit autocratic in some sense. Not all the time, certainly. But . . . go ahead, yeah.

DMcC: Is this the critique of the kind-of purity tests, right? For “You’re not a card-carrying progressive if ——–”, right? Or “You’re not a conservative if your position on abortion is x or y?” Right? Is that the sense that you’re getting at there?

BR: Yes and I would say that that’s something I’m looking at in my next project is the purity test. So, conservative individuals in the seventies called those Bible score cards (30:00). So that was one of the ways that we talked about the – quote-unquote – “rise” of the Christian right. I think that’s kind-of overblown. I think that’s something I’m going to get into in the forthcoming work. But really, if you look at something like that, the purity test, that was something that was created to begin to unseat progressive and democratic senators in the 1970s. And that’s something that Lear explicitly fights against in his somewhat well-known, People for the American Way PSA that he does, where he has the hard hat guy get out of the fork lift and basically say, “Why are we having preachers tell us how to vote? Why are we doing that? According to this preacher I’m seventy-five percent Christian, my wife is sixty percent and luckily my son is a hundred. Because he agrees with everything that they say.” So Lear explicitly was fighting against that very idea. But it has lived into our present, I contend, certainly in the sense that, yes, we use this score card to say “Ok, what do you think about abortion? Check, yes or no. What do you think about guns, yes or no?” It was a systematic judgement of a politician’s suitability to a given office, based on this section of issues going back to the social issue. These were the things that made the social issue the thing. And cultural warfare yourself, like you were saying, it seeks to polarise and it seeks to create these sides that are very much the mechanism that has produced polarisation, like you were saying. So it’s a series of wonderful questions. And I can’t remember where we started with that. But I would say that the resistance to kind-of this way, or that way, is very much the mechanism that keeps everything going. And I think certain sides take advantage of that. Something like, say . . . look what happened with Colin Kaepernick and the kneeling and how that turned from brutality to something about the military, which had nothing to do with anything. So I think those are the tactics that we have to handle a little bit better.

DMcC: I think it’s the move to make things simple and clear, right. That when, let’s say, you have a complicated issue like Colin Kaepernick, kneeling. That when he kneels he means one thing, and he may even say what he means – although he didn’t before he started kneeling. He did after he started kneeling. And then he has this moment where w the action has been received by the public in a way that was totally unintended. He tried to create a simple action for a simple cause. And everybody saw different competing simple things with him. So the whole story for us is really complex. Because we can tell it in all these different ways. But for all the agents, all the actors, who are invested in this, they were seeing it in simple ways. “You’re disrespecting the military” right? Or “This is not a space for such political actions.” So, they bring the complexity of the narrative down to these really simple moments. And that feels to me like the move of the culture wars, right? How can we condense all of America, who believes all these different things . . . ? In that moment, what can we do? We can make issues, and we can ask you, we can poll you in that, and check the box for you. And if we can do that, now we have consolidated the narrative. We have consolidated the power into these five issues, let’s say. If you had – as we come to the end of our time here – if you had to consolidate the issues for Lear, and for the story that you’re telling about the religious left that rose with him, and that also maybe fell because of how he had framed it, what would be the simple story there? Is there a way to wrap that up in a bow for us?

BR: Well that’s a wonderful question. So, sort-of maybe the singular unifying narrative? I mean I think there’s nothing . . . Let me put my thoughts together. That’s a really good question. I guess what I want to point to is that even though a lot of this takes place in the sixties and seventies, one of the benefits of doing a project like this is that I was able to talk to him. I was able to interview him a couple of times and still get a sense of what he’s fighting against, what he’s continuing to work on behalf of, you know. In the past he’s said that Donald Trump is the collective expression of America’ middle finger. The fact that he’s putting these shows on still. I think that there’s a wonderful amount of productive sort-of contribution when it comes to visions of the public life and his representations of the religious left. Because for a lot of people that’s not what they think of, off the top of their heads, when they think of the religious left. But I wanted to make that case explicitly because I saw his access to media and the networks as being a very influential place of influence (35:00). But I think, you know, with that influence and positivity in production came a certain sense of, maybe, presumptuousness; a certain assumption about, well, “If we put a bigot in front of everyone, they’ll realise what’s going on. They’ll get the satire, they’ll be in on the joke and we can all watch Archie Bunker disappear into the dustbins of history.” Which, obviously, as we know didn’t happen. If anything the very opposite has happened, which is in many ways, to an extent, how we have the kind-of presidential situation that we have today. So, if anything, I think it’s that lack of the acknowledgement of the complexity, the lack of the acknowledgement that something like All in the Family, which was an attempt to address discrimination, to address racism and bigotry in a positive way, but in many ways, oftentimes, created the very thing he was trying to fight against. And in many ways that’s kind-of the challenge that liberal progressives have to understand today, or figure out today, still. In the sense of clinging to gods and guns, and the slips of the tongue about deplorables. I think they’re still lost, to a certain extent, when it comes to talking to working class peoples. Daniel Bell speaks about a transition from class to culture. The progressives lose the sense, or the ability to speak to working class peoples over the course of the sixties and seventies. I think that Lear is sort-of the poster child of that transition. We’d rather laugh at Archie Bunker than actually understand his socio-economic conditions that produce the behaviours that we then put in front of the American people to laugh at, and to satirically present. Not unlike The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, or any of these things that have been produced since. So in many ways I guess that’s what I would say, is that a kind-of lacking of the acknowledgement or accountability of the very things that you’re trying to fight against, that you’re actually cultivating at the same time. And Lear helps us understand the process and falling off.

DMcC: Well, I’m so thankful for your time today and for the really interesting way that you think about the past, and the really interesting figures that I think you’re bringing to our attention. For those that maybe in the international audience: All in the Family – there are many, many clips that are available on YouTube for you to kind-of get a sense of it. And we’ll try to link to one or two of those when this goes live. We thank you so much for your time, Dr Rolsky. We hope we get to speak to you again.

BR: Yes I’d love that. Thank you very much, again, for having me.

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The Public Square and the Heart of Culture War

Norman Lear was a central figure in American television in the 1970s. His media productions like All in the Family were deeply activist, reflecting his ideas about what kinds of dialogue and reflection were needed to preserve American society in an era of sharp divisions over social and political issues that came to be called the Culture Wars. As a voice for progressivism and liberalism, Lear articulated a powerful vision of the public square where civility was the shared root for multicultural America. In this conversation, Dr. Benji Rolsky frames the public square as the central discursive space for mid 20th century liberals, one which not only gave them great social leverage but also limited their future strategic options to respond to the emergence of the religious right as a consolidated political block starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

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The Public Square and the Heart of Culture Wars

Podcast with Benjamin Rolsky (30 March 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-public-square-and-the-heart-of-culture-wars/

David McConeghy (DM): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Benjamin Rolsky, adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University, and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. And he’s the author of a fabulous new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious left: Politics, Television and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond, published by Columbia University Press – fresh off the publishing presses. Dr Rolsky, Benji, it’s so wonderful to have you speaking with me here, today, for the Religious Studies Project! Welcome.

Benjamin Rolsky (BR): Thank you very much for having me. I can’t wait to converse with you.

DMcC: I consumed your book rapidly, with reckless abandon! Because one of the things that really interested me is that you start out, right away, with your experiences watching television maybe of an era that was slightly before your own. And I have to say that that was not my experience, growing up. I did not watch All in the Family, I did not watch I Love Lucy. I did not watch The Mary Tyler Moore show. I was . . . I don’t want to call myself a latch-key kid, but I was the eldest and I came home by myself on the bus. And when I chose television, the television that I chose was DuckTales and Darkwing Duck, and classic kind-of cartoons. And then in the evenings, later on, it was Star Trek for me. So there’s this cultural disconnect that I felt where, like, as a person growing up in the same era with you, with access to the same materials as you, my experience was so different! And what struck me about that is that it was . . . we can have that kind-of disconnect now, in our cultural experiences. So can you talk about what it was like to kind-of be introduced to the work of Norman Lear, and how you came to see that work as valuable not only for your scholarship but also personally?

BR: Yes, sure. Absolutely. So a lot of this is obviously very biographical. So, to be honest, shows that I grew up on didn’t really include “All in the Family”. But it certainly included this moment of relevance. And that’s something that I get into a little bit in the book, in that Lear’s attempting to make television – in his mind, in his opinion – about more than just sort-of a flashing box with lights and all sorts of things going on. So my upbringing, and kind-of exposure to 1970s television – obviously I wasn’t alive when it was on, or anything. It was just something that my folks had on. And I think, in a lot of ways, my folks represent the kind-of mind-set that I’ve been thinking about for a long time which is that something like popular culture, and culture in general, can be put to work. It can be used in a didactic kind-of purpose. It’s not just . . . . . Because familiar things like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Rifleman, you know . . . TV was kind-of a wasteland. And it was literally referred to that, I think in the fifties or sixties, by some network executive. And so Lear looked across that space, and he thought to himself, “You know, I can make television do a little bit more.” And I argue that this is part of a moment that also produces things like MASH and Mary Tyler Moore – which are both pieces of artwork and art that are not just about Korea; or not just about someone who’s trying to find a job in Minneapolis, trying to make her way. So it was part of a larger sort-of moment of relevance. But then also having an understanding that . . . sort-of a progressive understanding that – not unlike Parks and Recreation, or not unlike a show like that where it’s not just about a show and what’s going on between the characters – it provides a vision. It provides a model for how people are to behave and interact with one another. One thing I kind-of miss from the seventies – and this is maybe really romantic and kind-of naive, but there was kind-of a moral sort-of centre, a singular kind-of friend who people could actually count on to do something for them: like Hawkeye, in MASH; Mary, in Mary Tyler Moore; Alex, in Taxi. And I’ve always been fascinated with that . . . or Harry T Stone in Night Court. The television of the time presented a different kind-of vision of society, and Lear was one of the most important sort-of contributors to that pattern that we continue to sort-of see today in the bad kind-of fan. You know, rooting for a Bunker-type, or a Soprano-type, or a serial killer who kills murderers. You know, he started a lot of that kind of television. And I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of it, when I was growing up.

DMcC: What I would say is the difference between the programmes that have been identified in the wasteland. Because when I think of Leave it to Beaver, Bonanza or Wagon Train, these kind-of classic shows, they had an agenda, right (5:00)? You can’t watch Bonanza, for instance, today without thinking about “pioneering” narratives, and “manifest destiny” and the kind-of racial configuration of indigenous people versus settlers. And I wonder whether that narrative of wasteland stuff has been oversold. But when you say Lear has been doing something new, how would you frame that newness in contrast to what the earlier shows may have been attempting to do? Is it the deliberateness with which he presented social issues?

BR: Yes, I would say so. A lot of this is in his kind-of own mind. Because, like you were saying, we can contest him very early on. Because those sorts of shows are presenting a certain notion of family as well – which is something that he challenges with his All in the Family. He takes more or less the most challenging issues of the day, and makes them the literal plot points and story lines of his television show. So, if anything changes with Lear, it’s the fact that he begins to use the genre of the situation comedy – borrowing from an English example. Because, by the way, All in the Family and Sanford and Son, two of the most well-known shows, were British adaptations – adaptations of British television shows. So that’s why there’s such a kind-of class dimension to Lear’s programming as well. That’s why Archie Bunker is a particularly white, working class person. And, to me, I think we’re still wrestling with the implications of that: making that type of character front and centre, often times the comedy coming at his expense. So I agree, as far as the shows that you’re mentioning are presenting a certain vision of the world. For Lear, very much . . . and we can begin to criticise. Because the shows did have a vision, for him he just didn’t acknowledge it. They’re sort-of worthy . . . or he thought he could present a better alternative. You know – something that was – quote- unquote –”relevant and applicable” to what was happening at the time. He got a lot of pleasure from knowing that he would do an episode on, say, hypertension in the black community. And then the next day, or two days, three days after, he’d hear about how a bunch of people went to go get checked out. You know, so that was his . . . If anything, it’s taking the sitcom and composing it in light of what’s literally happening at the time. And reading newspaper clippings, and newspapers, and journals. And thinking about what’s happening, and trying to integrate that into the television. So to me, that’s kind-of what he’s after.

DMcC: And that’s the relevance model that you were talking about: that we look at what’s happening in the world, and find a way to make our programming directly speak to our age and its issues. When we think back, as historians, on these periods, and we think about the issues that Lear raised as important, and we try to present those issues, let’s say, in a kind-of “Religion in America”, or a kind-of “History of 1950s” or “History since World War II”, what are the beats of the story that we use that we tell that narrative?

BR: Yes. So, for me, I’m still sort-of figuring that out, I guess. I’m actually . . . . It’s not easy to tell one particular story. But I’m actually working on a piece that tries to narrate the 1970s as a whole, as a decade. And I’m trying to figure out how to do that, for this particular work. I’ve always been fascinated or taken by the phrase or declaration: “The personal is the political”. I’ve always . . . . It’s just something that I continue to go back to, beginning in the 1960s onwards. And so, if I were to begin to periodise anything, I’m also fascinated by the rise of what’s called “the social issue”, when it comes to just American public life. And we can get into that. And who is the – quote-unquote – “side” who first start to push the – quote-unquote – social issue. But for me, if we were to start any kind-of story, the culture wars, you know, that debated . . . . And we have some slippage in what we mean. I think it’s important that we be very clear and precise in what we mean by “culture war” or “cultural warfare” or “the culture wars”. And that’s what I try and do in my teaching. And so, to me, Lear’s very much living in an age of culture war and cultural warfare: when the personal does become the political, and when politics themselves become less about, say, gross domestic product and more about who you’re sleeping with, or who you’re deciding to sleep with, or what you’re doing in the privacy of your own home. So if I – in this piece I’m writing about the seventies – can state it’s a real big deal to me, that transition from the sixties to the seventies – Watergate, Vietnam, Jimmy Carter – so certainly “post-‘45 history” is important here, in how we narrate that in general. But for me, in my own kind-of understanding of the story, is when these two kind-of forces tend to come together – in the sense that what we do in a certain, private sense is very important politically and we’re going to make that the stuff of politics – such that then Lear takes those up into his programming, and makes much of his television about those sorts of topics. And I’m also . . . . Yes. So anyway, go ahead.

DMcC: I wonder whether, in one sense, the technology goes really hand-in-hand with that switch (10:00)? So if you had the programming of the late forties and the fifties, and you compare it with the speed at which news could travel, and with production values that episodes could be produced and then distributed, then in the seventies, you have this rapid switch. So I’m hearing two things, right? The first is that there was a move to consider the content in a new way, to make it more relevant. But also I’m hearing a little bit, maybe, in the periodisation of the sixties and seventies, that there are other structural, social issues – not only Vietnam and Watergate, like politically and militarily, but also that, you know, the nightly news and the increasing number of sources for where one could get more news: the simple ability that there were more than four channels in the seventies. When you start thinking about how Lear has thought about the past, and when he has a nostalgia or an anti-nostalgia for the fifties and the sixties, as he’s trying to kind-of like show that contrast . . . are those the kind-of things that make it possible for that change to be even more rapid than it was previously?

BR: Yes absolutely. In technological development I might be thinking about . . . in my next project that looks at how information began to be shared through something as simple as the mail. . . . But when it comes to . . . . Yes, exactly right. So I actually talk about . . . we were talking a little bit earlier about how to measure a lot of this for the impact. You know, still in the early seventies, we only have about three or four different television channels, such that hundreds of millions of people are watching a given episode at one time. Those sorts of numbers are really unimaginable today. And that speaks to your great question earlier about the public: what does the public mean? So there’s a wonderful book, Age of Fracture. I think your question certainly speaks to the beginning of that, to the beginning of a fracturing of a public that Lear is perhaps trying to hold on to, in an overly romantic and an overly idealised way. Because, in many ways, progressive visions of the good are synonymous with visions of the public good. And visions of the public. So yes, I think your technology in this time: television – the fact that Lear also took great pleasure, like you were saying earlier, influencing water-cooler talk in the office the next day. He took great pride in something like that. But at the same time . . . so, we have hundreds of millions of people but then over the seventies that begins to fracture a little bit. By the time we get to the eighties, the fairness doctrine is struck down. We get things like cable and then we begin to see the kind-of landscape that we have today.

DMcC: So if we’re thinking about it . . . like I could push a technological periodisation on things. I could push a political . . . oftentimes there’s the kind-of “before Watergate”, “after Watergate”, there’s “before civil rights” or “before the” . . . you know, “1968”. There’s “before Martin Luther King’s assassination”, there’s “before JFK‘s assassination”. There’s “after the civil war”. For you, what is the easiest, the most accessible fault line of that for you? Is it technological, is it figural? Is it political, is it military? What is the line there that you would bring?

BR: Well, I guess I try and get at a little bit of all of it, I suppose. But then, I guess, maybe something else I come back to a lot is someone like Jimmy Carter. When we narrate this period, our field tends to rely on Carter and the kind-of introduction . . . the born again experience and all that, to do a lot of work for us. I think, looking at someone like Archie Bunker, to be honest . . . . Looking at someone like him – as he’s representative of a certain life that’s beginning to be explored, and kind-of exposed to the public – to me, I think we should really start to sort-of narrate the seventies based on . . . . I have this Time issue, I think it’s Newsweek or Time that basically discovers the – quote-unquote – “middle American”. And that’s a term that I’m trying to play around with a little bit in this seventies piece that I’m doing. But if I were to be kind-of honest, I do think we have to recalibrate a little bit as far as . . . so maybe I would say politically, I suppose. And maybe socially, and kind-of culturally, I would use those sorts of viewpoints and begin to say, we have to wrestle a little bit more with how someone like Archie was shaped or impacted at the time by the very restructuring that you were mentioning earlier. You know, people talk about this period as the “death of the working class”. I think Jefferson Cowie‘s written a book  about that, a historian, and he’s included in that story. And we don’t necessarily bring that up as often as we should. Oftentimes it’s Carter, it’s the born again. To me we should also remember that he introduces the outsider narrative, in a lot of ways, into American politics that then gets taken up by his successor, and then – to a greater extent – our current President at the moment (15:00). So I guess I would rely on those if I were to narrate anything.

DMcC: If we were to compare the way in which we’re talking about television – the limited scope of offerings that were available to the public – and then we kind-of roll the narrative for today, is the fracturing that Lear was potentially trying to prevent us from falling into . . . have we irrevocably fallen into that? Like, this morning I was on TikTok. . . . Yes, Users, I have a TikTok

BR: (Laughs).

DMcC: But I don’t publish anything, either. I have no idea what I would publish. I’m certainly not going to dance in front of the mirror in the bathroom.

BR: At least not all the time.

DMcC: Yeah. Not all the time. And at least not on video. So if that seven to fifteen seconds is the new length of the media that we have today, I wonder whether those kind-of strong narratives that you articulate for Lear – that he was concerned about having a space for dialogue, having a space for civil dialogues – that the fracturing of the media space has prevented that. Is that post-modernism, is that simply the death of metanarratives? How should we understand, when we look back and we see such a strong kind-of consensual narrative on the religious left – if we talk about it in that way for Lear – how do we then come forward and assess our current age in comparison to that?

BR: That’s a wonderful question, and I think to be honest that’s part of the fall that I kind-of talk about. I think a wonderful example to speak to that is the fact that ABC has now twice put on live shows, live performances of his shows – the Norman Lear shows. You know, I know that academics don’t really watch cable television or network television for whatever reason, but ABC in the last, say, four or five months has twice put on episodes of Norman Lear’s All in the Family and the Jeffersons. I’ve wondered why, myself. What’s the deal with the timing? To me that kind-of consensual, aspirational, civilly-grounded understanding of the public square continues to live on in shows like Parks and Recreation. I wrote a piece that connected explicitly you know All in the Family and Parks and Recreation. And you’re right about fracturing, and the fifteen seconds. All of that is going on simultaneously. But on network television there’s still this kind-of space for these sorts of shows. I don’t really necessarily think that’s the case now. I think a lot of people like The Good Place. I started watching that show when it first came on. I haven’t watched it very much since. I know people get a lot out of that, especially progressive individuals or academics. It’s philosophy and popular culture: “Yippee! We’re relevant! We matter!” or whatever. But to me, I think it still lives on in someone like (audio unclear) in the best possible sense, in the worst possible senses. I think if you look at that show, they’re saying that it’s local politics and it’s not supposed to be national, blah, blah, blah. But I think we see a lot of the limitations, and definitely some of the contributions, but to me more so the kind-of limitations of a progressive understanding of deliberation, and how things get done. So to be honest I think we’re still seeing attempts to bring together a bigger space to view these sorts of things. I think, in many ways, it would be nice if we had something like The Firing Line return in some capacity. I know the Brits have a show kind-of like this called Question Time. I think it would be nice . . . or necessary. I think it is necessary that we bring back this kind-of larger conversation space, just for the reasons you’re saying. Because things are so fractured.

DMcC: I have so many questions! I’m trying to decide which one comes next. So I’m hearing two things. First, in the context of your book, you talk about how the liberal move for creating a space for dialogue actually ended up potentially weakening the religious left in the end. And in what you just said a moment ago, I heard the suggestion that in order to create a national dialogue again, in order to create a space for that, we are replicating in some ways the moves that you identify with Lear. That All in the Family was a space where Archie Bunker could say things that were unpopular, and the characters around him responded as caricatures of the kind-of people of the day: here’s an angry person who has a racial identity(20:00); here’s an angry person which has a political affiliation. And that the creation of that show was a space for that dialogue. I’m hearing, in what you just said, that what we’ve lost in the fracturing is the ability to have that space for the dialogue. Is that the public square that we’re talking about? Is that the name for that space?

BR: It very much could be. Yes, that’s something that I could probably think a little bit more about, or think more through. I just think, with Lear, when I say things like public square, public space . . . because I’ve been so taken by . . . . There’s this book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning and the American Right. It’s a book of sociology, and she looks at something called a “deep story”. And it’s a conservative deep story that’s the primary focus of the book. And she looks at something called a “liberal deep story”. And that story is one of something called the public square. Let’s say . . . maybe not the public sphere because that has too much theoretical stuff going on. So I’ll just say, you know, this idea of the public square. So the deep story is that liberal progressives have built this thing called the public, the public square. You have libraries, you have schools, you have arts centres, you have cultural institutions, you have everything that you could possibly want. Things go smoothly. You have parks. But then at one point, as she says, marauders appear upon the proverbial gates and they look to privatise what is otherwise public and freely accessible. So, in many ways, to me the public square is part of kind-of the identity of progressive thought of politics. It’s just something that you think with, as you begin to imagine what the public looks like or what the square could kind-of look like. And so I suppose, in the early seventies, that looked one way, where you had three channels, you had hundreds of millions of people watching at one time. Maybe that public is different than the kind-of public that we have now, where, if we want to theorise a little bit, our notion of the public square . . . . But, to me, what I wanted to emphasise, it’s certainly a space – an imagined one – but it’s also sort-of a tool, or its sort-of something that progressives already kind-of think with in order to articulate a broader vision of the public good. And with someone like Lear, the public interest. Which is something that he defends in his programming very explicitly as something that’s constitutionally protected. So, to me, that’s sort-of fluid. But I wanted to emphasise that the square is this imaginative tool that progressives use to articulate visions of the broader good.

DMcC: I’m really curious about how we can think back about these moments that you’re talking about in the sixties and seventies. And, as a historian who is too young to have lived through those, I really wonder about our ability to explain to our students today, and to the public that might be younger than those eras, how the public square is different than it used to be. And we’ve mentioned already a fracture, right – the age fracture. We’ve mentioned, maybe, that there’s a technological component to it. I know that if we were economists talking we would be talking about huge inequality. If we were political theorists we might be talking about polarisation.

BR: Neoliberalism

DMcC: Neoliberalism, yes. But I’m certainly an American religious historian. And you may see yourself in that way, too. Is the culture war the thing for us, then? When we talk about the public square, in relation to what is the mechanism by which we think through the public square. So, for your book, it seemed that that was the case. Is that how you feel about it too?

BR: Yes. I mean that’s a great way of saying it. I use the metaphor of theatres. So the traditional sense is we have the European theatre, the theatre of the Pacific, you know, World War II sensibilities. But then I like to play around with the fact that that kind-of martial interaction came home with a vengeance. And that’s when we begin to talk about Kent State, that’s when we talk about disillusionment, that’s when we talk about Vietnam, that’s when we begin to talk about Watergate: a systematic falling out, when it comes to trust and belief in the fundamental institutions that theoretically ground American public life, or grounded American public life at the time. And, in many ways, the success of someone like Trump continues to take advantage of that. We destroy what we want to actually become a part of. Collateral damage doesn’t necessarily matter. So I know the word and the phrase gets used a lot. It gets used, you know, “culture war”: a lot of sociologists argue that there really is no such thing. That it’s really just kind-of all brow-beating, and it’s just pundits, and it’s all top down. And you look at the actual numbers and people are that divided, and blah, blah blah! I did an exam on this. I kind-of disagree with a lot of that (25:00). I think, if anything, it’s not really top down or bottom up – it’s simultaneous. I don’t think we have to make choices when it comes to something like that. I do think we do have to be particular and specific when it comes to this period of time – sixties and seventies to the present – when it comes to the culture war. So there are a number of wonderful books out there. Andrew Hartman has a number of wonderful books. I think someone like Stephen Prothero‘s helpful – but not necessarily in a completely helpful way. I think we can look at something like that and ask . . . we say we have something like the culture wars, we have the cultural war, and something like cultural warfare. And so, for me, what I try and do with my students, like you were saying, is . . . you know, if the public square was All in the Family at one point, maybe the public square is YouTube right now, or something like TikTok or Twitter, or something like that. So maybe that’s the public square. And so I use a lot of media in my classes, I use a lot of clips to give them a sense of a shared experience that is maybe obliterated over the past forty or fifty years. But yes, I think the nature . . . the all-consuming nature of the conflict, the exacerbation that has taken place because of social media, the “swirl” that Jason Bivens will speak soon of, in his forthcoming book on the embattled majority or embattled majorities. He’s just a wonderful thinker and scholar. That’s what I really think we need to turn to, analytically, in an inter-disciplinary way: pulling from critical theory, pulling from sociology, pulling from psycho-analysis. Because these are the times that we live in, and these are the tools that are necessary to understand our present conditions.

DMcC: I loved that in every answer here, I try to kind-of like hedge you a little bit into a box: “Would you like to get into this box here?” You’re like, “No. It’s much more complicated. There are so many more things than go in a box.” So, “Do you want to periodise things in this way?” “No, we need them all.” “Is the public square this way?” “No, it’s all of these things, too.” I love it, because I think it really speaks to the willingness to uphold all the level of complexity in the way that these things work. They simply are not reducible. They’re not . . . we cannot make the units with which we talk about the past so singular. And one of the real constructions of the culture war is that there are two sides. They all share the positions that are on one side or the other, and that there’s no-one in the middle. And that people on one end of the spectrum can’t disagree on a single issue, right? Or that they don’t count. That construction, right, is what you’re resisting in the questions. And I think it’s so useful. It’s such a useful resistance to offer for everyone. In order to create that complexity. One of the virtues, one of the values maybe that we think about – and this brings us back to Lear more explicitly – is civility: the ability to sustain, for a moment, something that is disagreeable for you, in the hopes that by having that dialogue, by being in that shared space, by having that experience that both parties will be improved in some way. And that takes a level of faith, right? That I’m going to hear something that I’m going to disagree with, but that I’m going to think seriously about it and consider it. And then on the far side of that that I’m going to come out better for it. Is that how we should think about Lear’s understanding of civility?

BR: Yes, I think it might be a little bit more complex, maybe a little more complicated,

DMcC: Nice! (Laughs).

BR: I don’t know, I only bring it up because I think it’s part of the very thing that has to be examined. Because I think in a theoretical way, yes. It’s exactly how all this is supposed to go. And you know, People for the American Way – the non-profit organisation he creates – doubles, triples and quadruples down on this notion. And it has been, really, since its origins in the early eighties. I mean, I have a little pamphlet that literally says: “How to mix religion and politics”. It’s very prescriptive. And so, to me, it’s not necessarily bad or negative that we have these ideas of civility, this or that. It’s really the prescriptive element that’s the problem. You know Lesley (audio unclear) is fine and great up until she makes you sign a friendship contract so that she’ll know you’re her friend forever. You know, that’s when it begins to turn in on itself. That’s when I begin to argue – as kind-of “the fall”, a little bit – is that, in a certain way, the progressive visions begin to come a little bit autocratic in some sense. Not all the time, certainly. But . . . go ahead, yeah.

DMcC: Is this the critique of the kind-of purity tests, right? For “You’re not a card-carrying progressive if ——–”, right? Or “You’re not a conservative if your position on abortion is x or y?” Right? Is that the sense that you’re getting at there?

BR: Yes and I would say that that’s something I’m looking at in my next project is the purity test. So, conservative individuals in the seventies called those Bible score cards (30:00). So that was one of the ways that we talked about the – quote-unquote – “rise” of the Christian right. I think that’s kind-of overblown. I think that’s something I’m going to get into in the forthcoming work. But really, if you look at something like that, the purity test, that was something that was created to begin to unseat progressive and democratic senators in the 1970s. And that’s something that Lear explicitly fights against in his somewhat well-known, People for the American Way PSA that he does, where he has the hard hat guy get out of the fork lift and basically say, “Why are we having preachers tell us how to vote? Why are we doing that? According to this preacher I’m seventy-five percent Christian, my wife is sixty percent and luckily my son is a hundred. Because he agrees with everything that they say.” So Lear explicitly was fighting against that very idea. But it has lived into our present, I contend, certainly in the sense that, yes, we use this score card to say “Ok, what do you think about abortion? Check, yes or no. What do you think about guns, yes or no?” It was a systematic judgement of a politician’s suitability to a given office, based on this section of issues going back to the social issue. These were the things that made the social issue the thing. And cultural warfare yourself, like you were saying, it seeks to polarise and it seeks to create these sides that are very much the mechanism that has produced polarisation, like you were saying. So it’s a series of wonderful questions. And I can’t remember where we started with that. But I would say that the resistance to kind-of this way, or that way, is very much the mechanism that keeps everything going. And I think certain sides take advantage of that. Something like, say . . . look what happened with Colin Kaepernick and the kneeling and how that turned from brutality to something about the military, which had nothing to do with anything. So I think those are the tactics that we have to handle a little bit better.

DMcC: I think it’s the move to make things simple and clear, right. That when, let’s say, you have a complicated issue like Colin Kaepernick, kneeling. That when he kneels he means one thing, and he may even say what he means – although he didn’t before he started kneeling. He did after he started kneeling. And then he has this moment where w the action has been received by the public in a way that was totally unintended. He tried to create a simple action for a simple cause. And everybody saw different competing simple things with him. So the whole story for us is really complex. Because we can tell it in all these different ways. But for all the agents, all the actors, who are invested in this, they were seeing it in simple ways. “You’re disrespecting the military” right? Or “This is not a space for such political actions.” So, they bring the complexity of the narrative down to these really simple moments. And that feels to me like the move of the culture wars, right? How can we condense all of America, who believes all these different things . . . ? In that moment, what can we do? We can make issues, and we can ask you, we can poll you in that, and check the box for you. And if we can do that, now we have consolidated the narrative. We have consolidated the power into these five issues, let’s say. If you had – as we come to the end of our time here – if you had to consolidate the issues for Lear, and for the story that you’re telling about the religious left that rose with him, and that also maybe fell because of how he had framed it, what would be the simple story there? Is there a way to wrap that up in a bow for us?

BR: Well that’s a wonderful question. So, sort-of maybe the singular unifying narrative? I mean I think there’s nothing . . . Let me put my thoughts together. That’s a really good question. I guess what I want to point to is that even though a lot of this takes place in the sixties and seventies, one of the benefits of doing a project like this is that I was able to talk to him. I was able to interview him a couple of times and still get a sense of what he’s fighting against, what he’s continuing to work on behalf of, you know. In the past he’s said that Donald Trump is the collective expression of America’ middle finger. The fact that he’s putting these shows on still. I think that there’s a wonderful amount of productive sort-of contribution when it comes to visions of the public life and his representations of the religious left. Because for a lot of people that’s not what they think of, off the top of their heads, when they think of the religious left. But I wanted to make that case explicitly because I saw his access to media and the networks as being a very influential place of influence (35:00). But I think, you know, with that influence and positivity in production came a certain sense of, maybe, presumptuousness; a certain assumption about, well, “If we put a bigot in front of everyone, they’ll realise what’s going on. They’ll get the satire, they’ll be in on the joke and we can all watch Archie Bunker disappear into the dustbins of history.” Which, obviously, as we know didn’t happen. If anything the very opposite has happened, which is in many ways, to an extent, how we have the kind-of presidential situation that we have today. So, if anything, I think it’s that lack of the acknowledgement of the complexity, the lack of the acknowledgement that something like All in the Family, which was an attempt to address discrimination, to address racism and bigotry in a positive way, but in many ways, oftentimes, created the very thing he was trying to fight against. And in many ways that’s kind-of the challenge that liberal progressives have to understand today, or figure out today, still. In the sense of clinging to gods and guns, and the slips of the tongue about deplorables. I think they’re still lost, to a certain extent, when it comes to talking to working class peoples. Daniel Bell speaks about a transition from class to culture. The progressives lose the sense, or the ability to speak to working class peoples over the course of the sixties and seventies. I think that Lear is sort-of the poster child of that transition. We’d rather laugh at Archie Bunker than actually understand his socio-economic conditions that produce the behaviours that we then put in front of the American people to laugh at, and to satirically present. Not unlike The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, or any of these things that have been produced since. So in many ways I guess that’s what I would say, is that a kind-of lacking of the acknowledgement or accountability of the very things that you’re trying to fight against, that you’re actually cultivating at the same time. And Lear helps us understand the process and falling off.

DMcC: Well, I’m so thankful for your time today and for the really interesting way that you think about the past, and the really interesting figures that I think you’re bringing to our attention. For those that maybe in the international audience: All in the Family – there are many, many clips that are available on YouTube for you to kind-of get a sense of it. And we’ll try to link to one or two of those when this goes live. We thank you so much for your time, Dr Rolsky. We hope we get to speak to you again.

BR: Yes I’d love that. Thank you very much, again, for having me.

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