Conseratives and Culture

Mark Helprin has an excellent essay in the 50th anniversary issue of the National Review. Unfortunately, the full article is not available online, but you can read an excerpt here.

In the article, Helprin contrasts the way conservatives approach politics with the way they approach culture to explain why they are successful in one area, but not the other. He argues that when it comes to politics, conservatives succeeded because they (and specifically William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan) offered fresh ideas when liberalism went stale. By concentrating on “?assertion rather than defense” and making a positive case for conservative ideas, Reagan triumphed and left opponents in “?a reactive hissy fit.” But while conservatives recognize that initiative is more powerful than reaction when it comes to politics, when it comes to culture, the roles are reversed. In art, music, literature, film and education, liberals seize the initiative while conservatives are reduced to being mere critics. It doesn’t matter if their cultural criticisms are valid, because “?for here as well as almost everywhere the initiative rules.” Helprin writes that, “?any gains in politics, no matter how indelible they seem, can easily be washed away–in a generation, in a decade, year, month or minute–by culture”¦ Even though frequently mistaken as something for which you can buy a ticket, culture is the cradle and crucible not only of all politics but of those things that politics serve and for which they exist in the first place.”

Helprin’s point is a very important one that I’d like to expand upon. I have always been partial to the self-selection hypothesis when it comes to complaints that liberals dominate academia and the arts. Any person considering a career in such fields must weigh their creative desires against practical concerns such as earning a decent living. The practicality impulse tends to be stronger in conservatives than liberals. Many conservatives view artists as lazy or flaky and are more reticent about joining their ranks.

So, to take over academia and the arts, there has to be a conscious movement to encourage younger conservatives to go into those fields. For decades, conservatives have poured money into magazines, think tanks, internships, fellowship programs, etc., and all of these things have been instrumental in furthering conservative ideas. There’s no reason why conservatives couldn’t create more endowments to groom young conservative artists, musicians or literary writers. As Helprin writes, “?Cultural abominations thrive not because they are insufficiently criticized but for lack of adequately supported competition.”

The success of Fox News Channel demonstrates that a large portion of the population was underserved by the media. Along the same lines, perhaps conservatives could start an independent film studio to produce movies that promote traditional values. At the end of the day, Hollywood is more interested in money than politics, and studios are especially desperate these days given that box office receipts are in the toilet. There is no doubt a demand for movies that promote values in line with a majority of the country.

I’m not saying that it will be easy for conservatives to conquer culture–it’s a process that could take decades. But in every other area, conservatives have faith in the power of initiative to overcome any obstacle. When liberals defend social programs by arguing that poor people need the government’s help because they are trapped as a result of racism, insufficient education, etc., conservatives argue that the government should step back to allow people to dig themselves out of poverty through their own initiative. Liberals whine about the oppressive power of corporations. Do conservatives really want to reduce themselves to whining about leftists in Hollywood?

2 thoughts on “Conseratives and Culture”

  1. Good points, Phil. Yes, a conservative independent film studio, or a patron of conservative artists — recalling the Renaissance — would certainly help bring about more conservative contributors to our national culture. Ben Stein, “Mallard Fillmore” and Ted Nugent are currently lonely warriors on the culture front.

  2. Shhhh, don’t tell the liberals, but there are more rumblings than you think.

    I think the intellectual front is essential won (or at least major operations are over). Culture is the next front, from what I’m seeing even out here (in San Francisco) post modernism is on its last legs. There is a new generation of educated, artistically broad-minded people coming up.

    I hate to say it, but in some ways, Rand’s Romantic Manifesto – i.e. that great art should glorify man – isn’t completely off base. At the least, great art should tap into something universal and inspire, and that’s an area in which much of the creative masturbation of the last 40 years – even when clever or amusing – has failed.

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