The Power of Culture

Carl Freedman, The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power

Zero Books, 286pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781846949432

reviewed by Phil Jourdan

We might be forgiven for assuming that the title of Carl Freedman's new book sounds rather ambitious for a work of just over 280 pages. However, The Age of Nixon is by no means a political biography in the normal sense. In part, this is an examination of Nixon the man, certainly, but it is also a study of the man as a player in American culture: how, for instance, he used cultural prejudices to his advantage at various points in his career. More broadly, The Age of Nixon explores the idea of ‘cultural power’ in itself: and it happens that Nixon, a complicated president and a most fascinating figure, provides a wonderful point from which to begin that exploration.

The content of any given ‘culture’ is hardly reducible to a few descriptive chapters in a book of political or cultural criticism, and Freedman's choice of Nixon as a point of focus is wise. It enables him to begin, however modestly, to conceptualise ‘cultural power’ in relation to a precise and well-documented, heavily-researched background. It also lets him extrapolate from his observations on Nixon's career a series of more general features of ‘cultural power’. These are not exactly controversial; in fact, they are presented so digestibly that their usefulness at first seems limited. As the argument progresses, however, Freedman’s initially vague definitions become more focussed, and commensurately more convincing and helpful.

After a biographical introduction to Nixon's career and a more theoretical chapter on the idea of ‘cultural power’ — as Freedman concedes, it's ‘not a familiar phrase’  — The Age of Nixon consists mainly of short analyses of a few of the ways in which American cultural quirks helped or hindered Nixon's political life. Freedman uses the Nietzschean idea of ressentiment to make new sense of Nixon's ‘Checkers’ speech of 1952. The Marxian elaboration of the role played by the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ and the Freudian concept of the anal-erotic character also come into play. An entire chapter deals with Nixon's difficult relation to the Jews and other Others. And so forth.

These interpretations are never final, and neither are they even the ‘point’ of the book in themselves. The point, finally, seems to be to bring readers to an understanding of how culture does hold power, static as it can first appear. ‘Cultural power’ is of course related to, but distinct from, ideology: Freedman uses the example of flag-burning to bring to attention the nature of this kind of power: ‘Burning a copy of the American flag that you yourself own is, for example, very obviously an act protected by the free-speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution … But the act is so culturally repugnant to so many Americans that the Constitutional point usually counts for little in the public controversies on the matter that flare up from time to time.’ This is cultural power: these deep-rooted and ‘obvious’ no-nos and of-courses that, for instance, make political change slower than many of us would like it to be.

Freedman's writing is exemplary in its directness. The Age of Nixon is not intended only for academics, and I would suggest that its impact will be felt more deeply in non-specialised audiences. Freedman's touch is so light that even those who are unfamiliar with - or wary of - Marx, Freud, Nietzsche are likely to be swayed by the way their work is appropriated here, with a friendly, non-condescending pedagogical clarity. Freedman’s arguments might not amaze those who already take for granted the pervasiveness of ‘banal’ ideological factors in the determination of politics; but the book succeeds precisely because it reminds us that culture is not neutral, and that Nixon was not just a fluke but a once-important player in a big game - a game far bigger than politics, and more complicated than pop psychology suggests. This is a work worth reading for the insight it gives into Nixon as a cultural icon, as a politician, and as a man of his time.