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