REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

GOALS OF THE COURSE

 

To examine how particular eras acquire the historical stereotypes they do.

 

To understand the making of historical memory, as it is created and cultivated through scholarship, popular media, journalism, and cultural work. The past is legacy; what we think about it is history.

 

To show how the political assumptions and prejudices of academic historians lead them to create and sustain myths and stereotypes about historical eras and themes. As part of this, to see how historians over- or under-state particular eras by the decision to study them, or not. Arguably, historians tend to over-study eras of revolutionary or radical change, and underplay the equally significant periods of reaction or retrenchment.

 

To show even in a fairly recent historical period, common scholarly and popular assumptions and stereotypes can be very far from any kind of objective accuracy

 

To show how easily commonly accepted stereotypes about American history break down when set in an international or comparative context

 

To suggest that looking at the aftermath of "the sixties" severely tests the standard myths and stereotypes of that era, notably in terms of how many people actually favored or accepted the emerging liberal or radical ideas

 

To understand and appreciate a fundamental but little noticed rhetorical shift in modern America, namely the shift from moral relativism to absolute moralism, and the emphasis on moral absolutes – in short, the return of evil to political discourse.

 

To point out the flaws and limitations involved in discussing American history in terms of presidential and national politics, eg "the Carter era", "the Reagan Revolution". The problems of personalizing.

 

To assert the importance of the 1980s as a turning point in the making of modern America; to suggest that the critical themes and trends of this era have been enormously important in the making of our own realities today

 

To explore the role of social, cultural, technological and demographic factors in explaining what are often seen as purely political developments

 

To stress the essential integration of domestic and foreign policy themes that are commonly treated as wholly separate

 

To explore the importance of changing gender roles in the making of mainstream political life

 

To understand the changing role of religion in American life and politics, a story that is far more complex than the familiar stereotype of the "Christian Right":

 

To explore how popular culture can be used to illuminate themes in social and political history; and at the same time, to understand the interrelationship between popular culture and mainstream politics, and the complex influences that link the two - influences that run both ways.

 

To use our understanding of political and social realities to illuminate the study of culture, high and low, from film and fiction to the visual arts

 

To show how so much of what we take for granted has not always existed, and in fact emerges out of a particular set of debates and controversies in a specific historical setting. As examples, to explore the origin of themes, problems and assumptions that originated in this era, eg concepts of child abuse, the "war on terror" and the drug war. Far from being timeless or inevitable, all these were historically contingent and originated in a particular set of historical circumstances

  

To understand the origins of current party political structures and ideologies. We will observe the critical transition in American politics from the historic emphasis on class and economics to the politics of morality and gender: in short, the end of New Deal alignments. In the process, we will ask whether the old politics were in fact as class-oriented as they are commonly represented; and at the same time, how far class underlies modern alignments.

 

To challenge the popular view that politics based on issues of morality and gender represent a diversion from "real" politics of economics and class; to suggest that issues of morality have their own independent validity.

 

To understand the origins of modern gender attitudes and assumptions.

 

To understand the continuing power of conspiracy and paranoia in American political culture

 

To allow members of the seminar to explore these themes in detail with specific reference to issues, problems or debates relevant to their own interests

 

To help members of the seminar identify and explore understudied research topics

 

UNOFFICIAL GOAL: to tell some good stories about what is presently a vastly understudied era in American life.