How Conservatives Failed “The Culture ”
by Claes Ryn
Many supposedly intellectual conservatives seem to consider ideas and culture from afar, as it were, feeling no deep personal need for or intimate connection with them. Some are in a way attracted to the arts or even to philosophical speculation, but see no significant and immediate connection between these and the life of practice. Ideas and the arts are mainly pleasant diversions. Many others have only slight interest in philosophy and culture for their own sake. More or less consciously, they tend to assess either thought or imagination from the point of view of whether it advances or undermines the political cause that they assume to be incontestable. Does the book, lecture, play, movie, or song help or hinder the cause? Although such works may enlighten or entertain, they do not strike these individuals as having intrinsic and independent authority. Works of thought and imagination are for them not intriguing and potentially unsettling forces that might trigger painful self-examination and unpredictably reconstitute one’s own accustomed views; making sense of them is not so much a matter of soul searching as of locating them on the political spectrum.
Official professions to the contrary, many self-described American intellectual conservatives have a thinly veiled disdain for philosophy and the arts. Even among academics indifference to what lies beyond broad ideas and popular culture is common. The ruling assumption of the now dominant strains of intellectual conservatism seems to be that the crux of social well-being is politics: bad politicians ruin society; good politicians set it right. Nothing fascinates conservatives more than presidential politics. For social problems to be effectively remedied and for worthy objectives to be achieved, “our” candidate must win the next election, “our” people man the government.
One might explain these reactions as instances of the social decline now widely bemoaned. Schools, families, and other institutions have not conveyed the excitement of ideas and the higher arts, leaving the young largely “tone-deaf” and unaware of their deeper appeal and formative influence on civilization. For persons not strongly drawn to them in the first place, the element of sheer decadence in the dominant intellectual and cultural life of today has only reinforced existing prejudices.
A related explanation for truncated conservative approaches to thought and imagination is the spread of an ideological frame of mind. In this century leftist ideology has been the most influential. It has been often extreme and has caused great human suffering. But the left has no monopoly on ideology. Even the best of ideas can start to separate from the changeability and complexity of real life and harden into reflexive and reductionistic propositions.
There is a sense in which ideology–as well as party programs, slogans, etc.–is not only inevitable but legitimate: to advance practical objectives it is frequently necessary, especially in politics, to summarize and codify ideas in order to mobilize support and exhort to action. Ideology in that sense is not necessarily incompatible with humane purposes. Neither is there anything inherently objectionable about the popularization of difficult ideas. The full import of sound philosophy may be apparent only to relatively few, but those insights need to be communicated beyond the circle of learned experts. What is complex must be made simple. In the process of transmission there is a danger that thought will harden into ideology, but good popularizers will try, by means of well-chosen concrete illustrations, for example, not to turn ideas into abstract and sweeping generalizations that ignore the texture of real life.
The health of society requires that elites be continuously reminded by genuine intellectuals and artists not to mistake ideology for eternal verities. If that indispensable task is not performed or if the reminders are not heeded, undue influence will fall to the more inventive and ambitious ideologues. Their politically charged formulations may start to acquire a life of their own. In the absence of a vital intellectual and aesthetical culture that challenges and breaks up the encrustations of ideology, such persons may gather unto themselves large new responsibilities unsuited to their preparation and temperament. They may start acting the role of arbiters of goodness, truth, and beauty, perhaps establish themselves as authorities in the universities. Trying to meet the expectations that traditionally surround such roles, ideologues may acquire greater subtlety, but the affected disciplines and institutions are damaged by the association.
Ideology is now rampant in the universities. Since virtually all of it is of the left, it might seem beneficial to have it balanced in some small measure by ideology of the right. Yet for political correctness of one kind to compete with political correctness of another kind may be a marginal intellectual advantage for the longer run. Together, the weeds in the garden suffocate and crowd out the flowers.
The ideological mind-set, formed as it is at bottom by a desire to dominate rather than illuminate, is an intruder in philosophy and the arts. It is closed in upon itself and resentful of competition. Instead of cultivating the openness to new influences that marks real philosophy and art and letting itself be exposed to the possible intellectual turmoil of fresh insight, ideology shunts inconvenient thought and imagination aside. Ideologues produce propaganda, although sometimes propaganda of a sophisticated kind. When such individuals set the tone, the intellectual and artistic life suffers.
In all avenues of human action, achieving particular objectives requires that the will be asserted and available resources marshaled. It takes power. The power sought and exercised in politics is but an example of an ever-present need of human action in general. Without power, great or small, nothing gets done, be it for good or ill. Yet a drive for power that is not substantially and integrally connected with the free and independent sphere of ideas and culture-to say nothing here of the all-important imperative of morality-becomes a merely self-advancing and self-gratifying manipulation of other human beings.
Who is today the paradigmatic conservative intellectual, the kind of individual to whom educated and reading conservatives look for authoritative judgments and to whom they ultimately defer? He seems to be a cross between an intellectual and a political activist, less a thinker concerned with the fundamental and enduring questions of life than a “policy wonk,” less a learned scholar than a media pundit. Although possibly bright and articulate, this type cannot long be distracted from his absorbing interest: politics and politics-related questions and schemes. He seems untouched by philosophical depth or by any deeper aesthetical need or sensibility.
Individuals of this description can wield considerable influence over the kind of decisions that appear to them most important. But these persons are not so much independent agents as unwitting instruments of larger forces-a fate they cannot bemoan because it does not reach their consciousness. Because of a weak grasp of the dynamic of human existence, they have difficulty understanding the scope of social problems. Their limited awareness of what really shapes the long-term direction of a society or civilization–specifically, of the roles played by thought and imagination leads to inadequate analyses of the existing political and social situation and of what might bring real and lasting improvement. These persons are frequently surprised by events and are prone to defeating their own stated objectives.
Unless ideas and art have some direct and obvious relationship to politics, many intellectual conservatives regard them as having negligible practical importance and to be provinces of the left in addition. Because philosophers and artists can be expected to favor the wrong causes, it is desirable to mobilize opposition to them from within their own ranks; yet, apart from this political problem, these conservatives see no large and compelling reason to worry about professors, writers, composers, and artists. After all, society is moved not by them but by individuals who pursue more “practical” pursuits, especially persons who affect public policy and, most prominently, leading politicians. To the bearer, this view of where the real power lies represents hard-nosed realism. In actuality, it exemplifies a narrow and shortsighted understanding of what shapes the future.
The decline of academia and the general culture has assumed such blatant forms and started to have such an obvious impact on society at large that nowadays the conservative political intellectuals are paying more attention. But the seriousness of those problems is not unrelated to the mentioned assessment of what sets society’s long-term direction, an assessment that is in line with the more questionable aspects of American pragmatism. In the last two decades especially, the “realism” of conservatives who assume the centrality of politics has detracted from and undermined an earlier and rather different kind of American conservatism, which started to gain new momentum in the early 1950s. Its leaders saw ideas and imagination as being at the bottom not only of the troubles of civilization but also of any possibility of renewal. “Realism” competed with and drew attention away from efforts to bring about the kind of intellectual and cultural renaissance that eventually might have arrested or reversed ominous developments in academia and the arts and more deeply penetrated society.
Some brief comments on what really moves human beings and originates social change will help explain the seriousness of not recognizing the actual role and importance of thought and imagination. The power of even the ablest and most knowledgeable wielders of political influence is sharply circumscribed by another power. That power does not marshal and deploy resources in a utilitarian political fashion. It works in a more subtle and yet efficacious manner: it shapes the fundamental sensibilities, desires and views of a people.
Every society and individual has a vision, however inarticulate, of what life is like and might become. Deep within, we carry fears and hopes. What we ultimately live on, and live for, are our most cherished dreams about the future. Held and nurtured in the imagination, their vividness and concreteness stir us to action. We live by what we thrill to, says D.H. Lawrence. The imagination is more generally at the bottom of our sense of the whole, of how we see human existence, its opportunities, dangers, joys, and sorrows.
On the basis of that concrete feel for the texture of life, we also form ideas. They give conceptual expression to our intuitions. Some individuals undertake that intellectual articulation systematically and in depth. The result is philosophy.
Our dreams and ideas bear the distinctive imprint of our individual personalities, but every society has a dominant sense of its own identity and purpose that affects even the innermost beliefs and wishes of the person. Individuals are connected by ideas and intuitions that give them a similar outlook on life. By virtue of that commonality, certain works of thought or imagination of philosophy, history, fiction, poetry, drama, music, or movies-can give voice to the groping needs and intuitions of their audience; they capture the mind or imagination of a people or its elites. Some of these works catch on in a special way that places them among the enduring treasures of civilization. By the same token, the pioneering, eye-opening works affect how particular people view themselves and human existence.
Great power for shaping society lies with those who make us see life through their eyes. Deep within our personalities are the marks left by the imaginative and intellectual masterminds–poets, religious visionaries, painters, composers, and philosophers–the individuals whose intuitions or ideas leave others changed. Directly or indirectly, those individuals create the tenor of an age, for good or ill. They may be long dead, but their visions move the living.
Great works of art or thought may discuss or depict politics, and they always present a point of view, but their primary inspiration is never merely political passion. They transcend the concerns of particular historical situations. They throw light on the human condition, sometimes on the reality of politics, but they do not preach and exhort. Art and didacticism are incompatible, as are philosophy and propaganda. Still, as illuminating, orienting statements, the great works of art or thought always carry implications or have consequences for practical politics, however indirect and unanticipated. They are typically a reaction against life going wrong and present a vision of new possibilities. By affecting how people imagine or think about the world, these works affect political attitudes.
It is objected perhaps that most people are rarely exposed to high culture and do not even want to be. Only a small minority becomes familiar with the great works of art or thought and is substantially influenced by them. It may be said of some of these works, in fact, that in particular generations only a handful of persons, perhaps only one or two, can be said really to have absorbed them. How, then, could they have any impact on society in general?
The answer is that the elite culture–including works that are fully accessible to but a few–is transmitted to others by those who have felt its power. Individuals inspired by a great work apply and diversify its vision in their own artistic or intellectual efforts, spreading it to new audiences at different levels of refinement. The transformative power of the great work eventually affects the sensibilities, dreams, or thoughts of all, even if it does so very indirectly and in watered-down form. The perspectives of the seminal works eventually find their way into the general culture–schools, newspapers, movies, television soap operas, novels, and, not least, the imagery of advertising.
Those who enter our minds and imaginations are in a position to make particular ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and experiences seem inviting or repulsive. They can affect our notions of what to admire, what to fear, what to scorn, and what to laugh at, and they can incline us to action that corresponds to these responses.
Especially over time, the power of all the politicians in the nation’s capital is dwarfed by the power of those who influence us through teaching, writing, preaching, art, and entertainment. Even if the latter group represents a variety of viewpoints, a particular cultural and intellectual ethos tends to predominate that can be traced back to ground-breaking works of art and thought. In our own time, egalitarian pressures and mass communication have produced a perhaps more thoroughgoing like mindedness than seen before. Behind what counts as moral sensibility today, for example, who but the ignorant and dull-witted could fail to discern the deep and brilliant, if deleterious, influence of the thought and imagination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau?
Whatever the dominant fundamental mind-set that artists and intellectuals have cultivated, it has planted in us certain expectations and desires. It has prepared the ground for or built obstacles to political action of a certain type. Politicians who run afoul of the prevailing sensibilities and ideas of their time risk their political lives. In other words, they are at the mercy of a power that is not of their own making. Only marginally can they change the “rules of the game” that are determined deep within the consciousness of a people.
Many conservatives believe that intellectuals and artists are naturally and almost inevitably on the left. If this were the case, all efforts to move society in a different direction would be condemned to failure. There simply is no overcoming those who can shape our sense of what makes life worth living. 
Conservatives whose culturally and intellectually “unmusical” natures make them indifferent to philosophy and the higher arts do nevertheless have minds and imaginations. They, too, live by what they thrill to. Their fascination with Washington, D.C., and presidential politics has been nurtured by images of power and corresponding ideas in the popular culture. Imaginative and intellectual impulses subversive of general trends have also made them critical of the powers-that-be, but, to a far greater extent than they know, they live within the patterns of sensibility and thought that define the ethos of their troubled civilization.
A disparagement of thought and imagination is discernible also among intellectuals on the right who are critical of the now dominant strains of conservatism. Although sometimes perceptive in other respects, they tend to view ideas and culture “sociologically,” as the expressions of group interest. The fundamental reality of politics is for them the conflict between “us” and “them.” Ideas and art may be influential but do not rise above conflict; they are essentially instruments whereby people who seek power advance their cause (a perspective not unlike that of Karl Marx).
Writers of this persuasion consider themselves consummate realists. They see conservatives for whom literature, art, and philosophy are keys to social renewal as not quite attuned to the hard facts of life. This complaint is not wholly unjustified in that some conservatives are attracted to thought and imagination–and, for that matter, religion–more as avenues of comforting escape than as sustenance for living in the world as it is. What the “realists” do not recognize is that thought and imagination, far from being mere symptoms of power-realities, have everything to do with the very definition of “us” and “them” and that they can either mute or intensify hostilities. That thought and imagination are often vehicles for partisan interest has been here not only acknowledged but highlighted, but it is also the case that political passions and patterns of strife originate deep within the mind and the imagination. One may recognize and even underscore the element of truth in a Niccolo Machiavelli or a Thomas Hobbes and still insist that culture and philosophy–no less than morality–can transcend and therefore modify the boundaries of political conflict. Realism is highly desirable, but to be more than superficially such it must understand the scope and power of art and ideas.