Ah, the early 90s, when the Vice President would give a speech attacking a fictional TV character
Last week, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Andrew Hartman's A War For The Soul Of America, a history of the culture wars of the 1960s-1990s, with most of the focus on the 1980s forward. It's a good book, and one that got me thinking a lot about the political culture when I came of age. It's hard to put a finger on how and when and why I managed to slough off the conservatism and Republican identity I was raised with, but it just might well have been as a reaction to the wave of censorship that hit in my teen years. In 1989 I didn't care for 2 Live Crew's music (I loved rap, wasn't so big on misogyny), but thought it was absolutely ridiculous that they would actually be banned in Florida. By 1992 I had come to realize that big money ran the system, but it was when I saw Pat Buchanan's infamous "culture war" speech at the Republican convention (where the title of Hartman's book comes from) that I truly realized that I had no identity with the Republican party anymore whatsoever. In that vein, Hartman's biggest contribution is to show that the so-called "culture wars" were not a sideshow or a distraction, but one of the (if not singular) central fronts of American politics.
At the end of the book Hartman claims that the culture wars are over, but it is not a triumphant statement. Instead of arguing over school prayer, conservatives are just slashing money from schools and effectively privatizing them. Instead of pushing for canonical texts in the universities, the very existence of the humanities is being questioned. His conclusion was one of the most depressing things I've read recently. Despite gains by progressives in many areas of cultural life, the neoliberal economic model has emerged victorious in ways people in the 1960s could never have imagined. That, of course, is a different discussion for a different time.
In terms of the culture wars, as I read the book I began to think of their impact in generational terms. I think my cohort, which could best be described as "late Generation X" were the first to feel these conflicts as children in our daily lives, because our school years coincided with the high point of the power of Christian conservatives. (I'm thinking here of people born about 1973-1979.) I have friends who were part of the wave of children sent to evangelical Christian day schools, indoctrinated to be foot soldiers in the Army of God. I have cousins who were home-schooled in the 10th grade so that they would not learn about evolution in school. Had they been born ten years earlier, their lives would have been very different.
We were also a generation to be scared of, the one described in, A Nation At Risk, the infamous 1983 report on education as part of a "rising tide of mediocrity." My generation was viewed with suspicion, as a problem. (This is why those columns praising millenials -inevitably written by boomer parents of millennials- make me insane with rage.) We were the ones to pay penance for what our elders had wrought in the 60s. We were the guinea pigs for the failed policy of "abstinence-only education," which coincided with the height of the AIDS crisis. Because the generation before us had been toking weed, we were inundated with DARE in schools and my generational peers of color faced draconian policing in their neighborhoods and harsh new sentencing policies. The popular culture we liked ended up being branded as evil and threatening. Role playing games were purportedly Satanist, all the rap albums I wanted had "explicit content" stickers to bar me from buying them, and heavy metal supposedly had the potential to induce suicide. When politicians fretted about the future and the loss of traditional values, we were usually the ones in their sights. African American youth of my generation had it far worse from me, from aforementioned drug enforcement policies to racist balderdash like Murray and Herrnstein's The Bell Curve. Black youth were constantly portrayed in the media as a threat to the rest of society or a burden upon it, with talk of teenage "predators" who needed to be put behind bars in new superprisons.
It's often been said that my generation (speaking here of late Gen X) that we are cynical and not politically motivated. I think the political world of our youth, at the height of the culture wars, has a lot to do with it (however true the stereotype is.) Politicians used us as a symbol of decline or an object in need of discipline. The Democrats finally took the White House with Bill Clinton, who promptly sold out his base. The Republicans put forward the likes of George HW Bush, a patrician lacking any charisma. It was effectively a choice between "read my lips, no new taxes" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!" No wonder we are less trusting than others. (This article has statistics showing Gen Xers are far less trusting of institutions than either boomers or millennials, so it's not just a stereotype.)
Of course, generational thinking can be lazy thinking, and I don't want to indulge in it too much. I do think, however, that my particular mini-cohort was the first to experience the culture wars in a real visceral way as children, and that experience marked the political mindset of its members in ways that it didn't for others.